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9.35 pm

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): This has been an excellent debate to which, so far, no fewer than 25 right hon. and hon. Members have contributed. Sadly, I shall not have the opportunity to respond to them all, but none spoke more cogently than my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington), who stressed at the outset that there was no compelling case for the Bill on animal welfare grounds, but that it poses a serious threat to individual freedom.

The cudgels were then taken up in a truly brilliant fashion by my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) in a penetrating and witty speech. [Interruption.] Labour Members might not like this, but they will hear it. My right hon. Friend exposed the Bill for what it is--divisive, unnecessary and proof of the sheer cynicism of the new Labour Government. He was ably followed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine), who rightly characterised the Bill as being based on crude populism and as a vulgar and misguided attempt to reignite a bogus class war which we should long have left behind.

Perhaps the most significant point in the debate was the exchange that took place in different speeches between the hon. Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks) on the one

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hand and my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) on the other, for my right hon. Friend hit the nail on the head in exposing the hon. Gentleman, who was becoming a bit hot-headed and excited, for what he is in his motivation--arbitrary, capricious and ultimately sentimental in choosing the dividing line that he wants, saying that he would not ban fishing or shooting. He happens aesthetically to disapprove of hunting and thinks that is the basis for law, but I disagree.

Powerful speeches were made on both sides of the House. I compliment the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster). I respect his knowledge, integrity and sincerity. I am sorry to say that I profoundly disagree with all that he said, but many hon. Members made good contributions--25 in total. The reality is that, in arguing the case on grounds of cruelty, the simple fact is that, as Burns acknowledged, all the methods of pest control are problematic; none of them is immune from criticism. The truth is that there is no compelling evidence that cruelty in foxhunting is any greater than in snaring, trapping, gassing, poisoning or shooting. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for High Peak (Mr. Levitt) might not want to know it, but the reality is that the Burns report, which I quote for his delectation, said:

I presume that that is what the Home Secretary had in mind when he wisely described the Burns report as

Fishing results in 100 times as much suffering a day as hunting. It can be argued that shooting results in 200 times as much suffering a day as hunting. On the attitude of many Labour Members, I am bound to conclude that the words "hypocrisy" and "double standards" readily spring to mind. The cloak of moral superiority, which the hon. Member for West Ham showed us at the outset, was quickly stripped away.

Mr. McNamara: Will the hon. Gentleman now reply to the question that I asked the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington)? If the Bill is passed and at some point the Tories return to office, will they seek to reverse it even on a free vote?

Mr. Bercow: I shall deal with that point fair and square. The hon. Gentleman wants to create the impression that opponents of the Bill will inevitably be defeated. I accept no such scenario. We will fight this Bill again, again and again at every stage. We intend to defeat it; it will not reach the statute book before the general election. My right hon. and hon. Friends, under the leadership of my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), will ensure that we win the election and this sad, miserable Bill will die the death that it deserves. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me the opportunity to make that point abundantly clear.

In common with so many of my right hon. and hon. Friends, I have never hunted, I do not hunt and I have not the slightest desire whatever to hunt. However, for as long as I have breath in my lungs, I will defend the right of other people to hunt if they so choose. The curse of our times is the instant progression of too many people from the statement, "I do not like" to the statement, "It should be banned."

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I shall risk embarrassing my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal whom I cannot readily see--[Hon. Members: "He is behind you."] There he is. I remind the House of the excellent speech that he made on 28 November 1997. His words on that occasion are firmly imprinted on my mind. He talked about the importance of tolerance and emphasised that tolerance is not about putting up with things one does not care about greatly. That, he emphasised, would be apathy, acceptance and neutrality. The test of tolerance is putting up with, and allowing to continue, activities of which one personally strongly disapproves. The reaction of Labour Members suggests that that concept is entirely alien to most of them.

The Home Secretary has said something in the past about liberty and democracy. It is only a pity that he does not relate these remarks to the terms of the Bill. On 15 December 1999, he said:

The overwhelming majority of Labour Members and a few Opposition Members disagree with hunting, but those who hunt pose no threat to public order, to their fellow citizens or to the national interest. They should not in any way be criminalised by the House of Commons.

Mr. David Taylor rose--

Mr. Bercow: The hon. Gentleman has had enough opportunity to make a fool of himself. I do not see why I should give him another chance to compound his personal embarrassment.

The truth--we know it from many sources--is that hunting confers many significant benefits on our rural habitat and makes a real and valuable contribution to the biodiversity of our environment. We know, too, as a matter of fact that

They are not my words or even those of my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon; they are the words of the Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. How right she was then; how wrong most Labour Members are now.

Dr. Palmer: Will the hon. Gentleman clarify why he opposes not only a ban on hunting but even the regulation of hunting as proposed by the Countryside Alliance? As I understand it, he will also oppose Second Reading. That seems most mysterious.

Mr. Bercow: I oppose Second Reading, but it is a free vote. I believe that that which it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change; if it ain't broke, don't fix it. Meddlesome, silly, burdensome, expensive, interfering, nanny-state regulation is beloved of Labour Members. I want nothing to do with it, and I think that goes for most Conservative Members.

Let us be absolutely clear on this matter. Right hon. and hon. Members can push through the measure if they wish--no doubt they will do their worst--but they will not stop free Britons hunting if they want to. I make the point, which should be blindingly obvious even to Labour Members, that if hunting is banned it will hit not the rich

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but the poor. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Henley knows, the rich will go to France, Spain, Sweden, Italy, Germany and Austria.

Ms Drown rose--

Mr. Bercow: There is not enough time to give way. The hon. Lady had an opportunity to speak earlier. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker: Order. I would prefer it if hon. Members did not shout at the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow). He is in full flow and we must hear him.

Mr. Bercow: I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker.

The truth is that as far as most--although I concede not all--Labour Members are concerned, the measure has nothing to do with animal welfare and everything to do with class warfare. We learned that the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson)--[Interruption.] They do not like to hear it; they do not want me to embarrass them by revealing the full ugliness of their colleagues' remarks, but the hon. Member for Norwich, North said:

I emphasise to Labour Members that, in the minds of right-thinking, decent people the length and breadth of the country, that is profoundly unpersuasive as a motive for legislating.

Labour Members say that drag hunting is a substitute for hunting live quarry. That argument was demolished by my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Sir R. Body) and the deputy chairman of the Masters of Draghounds and Bloodhounds Association, who said that drag hunting

Labour Members should note that comment and accept that their priorities are wrong.

Bills on licensing, consumer issues, referendums and vaccines have been ditched. Even the reform of the Mental Health Act 1983 has been excluded from the programme. Class sizes are rising, hospital waiting times are increasing and the fight against crime is weaker. It is totally wrong for the Government to prioritise and pursue a ban on hunting. This country is the home of Magna Carta and the birthplace of liberty. The rights of free-born citizens to continue to pursue their occupations should be upheld, as it will be by the great majority of my right hon. and hon. Friends.

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