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Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): I think that the hon. Gentleman's argument is flawed. It seems to me, and to many of my hon. Friends, that what is more important is the composition of the authority and its practices. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) for her assent to that proposition.

Does the hon. Gentleman, on the strength of the logic that he has employed, object profoundly to the Advertising Standards Authority, which operates on precisely the same basis?

Mr. Foster: We are dealing with a completely different matter.

Mr. Bercow: Answer the question.

Mr. Foster: Let me address it. Advertising as an industry is keen to promote itself, and therefore will pay towards an independent authority. In the case of hunting, what we are apparently trying to say is that we will regulate the practice and punish those who fail. We are dealing here with an animal welfare matter, not with whether a particular advertisement should be shown on television. We are dealing with a practice that is inhumane and cruel to wild mammals.

Mr. Hogg rose--

Mr. Öpik rose--

Mr. Quentin Davies rose--

Mr. Foster: I will make a bit more progress now, but I will give way later.

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The Middle Way Group wants to know whether a principled stance is being taken. Again I find myself in agreement with the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe. We would not be in a position to make a judgment on whether someone who is hunting is carrying a licence at the point at which the police came to investigate the activity.

Mr. Hogg: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Foster: I should like to make a little more progress.

If the Middle Way Group is not careful, this is what will happen. A couple of lads in an inner-city area--let us say Perry Barr in Birmingham, for want of a better example--might well be out chasing a fox with their dogs. What is wrong is the activity itself; whether those lads had a licence in their back pockets is irrelevant.

Mr. Hogg: The hon. Gentleman suggested that the hunting authority would not be able to act impartially, because it is funded by hunts. I am no particular supporter of the authority--I favour self-regulation--but, on any view, the authority's membership will comprise persons nominated by the Secretary of State. It will therefore not be beholden to the hunts, although the hunts may finance them.

Mr. Foster: I accept that the members will be the Secretary of State's appointees, but the right hon. and learned Gentleman will accept that it will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to get people who are neutral on the issue, which raises passions on both sides of the argument.

Mr. Öpik: As the hon. Gentleman knows, although we differ I respect his position. On his point about funding, does he not accept that it is simple? If an individual or organisation does not get a licence, it simply will not hunt. It will not be allowed to hunt; it will be illegal. As such, it would be difficult for them, for example, to blackmail the authority in the way that he described.

Mr. Foster: I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising the point about the illegality of not having a licence. The Middle Way Group would make so-called criminals of people who engaged in hunting that was not licensed. One of the arguments against the Bill is that it will make criminals of so-called law-abiding citizens, but the Middle Way Group must acknowledge that it will do exactly that. The difference is that those people may not belong to the right club, or may not have the right licence. I do not care whether they wear a red jacket, a pink jacket or a donkey jacket. It is the activity that I am concerned about and that I oppose.

Mr. Hancock: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that two points are missing from the argument on the middle way? First, anyone who breaks the law does so of their own choice, but that is not being recognised. Parliament is not forcing anyone to commit a criminal act. Secondly, it is not about the licensing authority, but about how we would actually police the whole hunt from start to finish--from

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letting the dogs go until the kill. That could take four or five hours and spread over seven miles. I have not yet heard a coherent argument that that can be achieved.

Mr. Foster: The hon. Gentleman makes his point coherently. It needs no further comment from me.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Foster: No. I want to be brief.

Option 3, which involves a complete ban, is the most consistent and principled of the three options that we must consider. Hon. Members will have weighed up the evidence presented by Burns. I have looked at the issue since my election to the House and have not yet come across evidence to lead me to any conclusion but that hunting with dogs is cruel and unnecessary. The distress that is caused to animals leads people to make a moral judgment--I accept that--that it is time that the practice was stopped.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): My hon. Friend talks about evidence. I am sure that he has received a video recently from my noble Friend Lord Bragg of Wigton. I enjoyed the title because it was called "Eric's Tale", but the rest was a bit of a fallacy. Is he aware of a video called "Cumbrian Tales", which was shot by the BBC and shown on television? It showed the village of Ireby, where Lord Bragg has a house. When the local shepherd, who had a problem with a rogue fox and who was pro-hunting, decided that something had to be done, he did not call for the Cumberland Farmers foxhounds--he got a number of friends together, and they flushed the fox out of the woods and shot it. Is that the right way forward?

Mr. Foster: Option 3 recognises that in upland areas the flushing out of a fox to be shot by a gun is more humane. It is recognised in the Bill as a way in which upland areas can deal with that issue, but it is beyond me how people can believe that dogs, when they sniff out the scent of a fox in the pursuit, can distinguish between the rogue fox that is causing the problem and a fox that happens to be in the neighbourhood--dogs are not that clever.

A private Member's Bill was introduced in 1997; then we had the Burns report, an independent inquiry; and we now have a free vote, as we did on Second Reading of that Bill, and a range of options from which to choose. I should hope that the creation of those three mechanisms will help those in another place to accept that whichever judgment the House reaches today, that judgment should prevail. They should accept that hon. Members have taken a considered and serious view of the matter.

I hope that progress will not be further frustrated. Consideration needs to be given to whether some of the threats that have been made and outlined in The Guardian today and in The Observer on Sunday are in contempt of the Committee. The threats are certainly contemptuous of hon. Members.

Four years ago, I was placed in a unique position with my private Member's Bill. I was, and still am, opposed to hunting.

Mr. Luff: The hon. Gentleman should listen to his constituents.

Mr. Foster: That is exactly what I did. My constituents asked me, in the local newspaper, to take up the issue.

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I stood on an election platform declaring that I was opposed to hunting with dogs, and I had the unique opportunity of coming first in the ballot. I could have chosen another issue for my Bill. If I did so, however, how would I be able to look people in the eye and say, "I am opposed to it, but when I was given the chance I did nothing about it"? I did not do that and I would not do that. I am pleased that I took up the challenge, and I am pleased that the Government are bringing the matter to a conclusion.

Mr. John Maples (Stratford-on-Avon): I do not think that it will come as a surprise to the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster) if I say that I do not agree with him. I should like to put the alternative case, for allowing hunting to continue.

I have twice had an experience, which I imagine is shared by other hon. Members, of coming to the House to vote in one way but, after perhaps mistakenly listening to the debate, changing my mind. It happened to me on whether the European convention on human rights should be incorporated in United Kingdom law, and more recently on whether we should have an elected House of Lords. In both cases, as I said, I made the mistake of listening to the debate and changing my mind. I speak today in the hope--which I hope is not entirely forlorn--that I might persuade just one person who thinks that hunting should be banned to think again.

I do not hunt. I occasionally went beagling when I was a teenager. I have hunted, shot and fished very unsuccessfully, but I do not expect that I shall do any of them again. However, a great many of my constituents participate in them. I represent half of Warwickshire, a rural area in which hunting has been going on for a very long time, and a significant minority regard hunting as a right, a freedom and, indeed, a passion. The opponents of hunting do not realise how passionate those who hunt are about it. It is not only a hobby, a pastime or something that they do on Saturday afternoons. I think that their freedom to hunt is important.

As the hon. Member for Worcester said, we have a perceived conflict between animal welfare and personal liberty. I believe that personal freedom is a fundamental aspect of our citizenship. It is a fundamental part of the House's job to protect the freedoms of minorities. It is easy to protect the freedoms of majorities; they have no problem at all. However, unpopular or small minorities deserve to have their freedoms protected as well. They should not be judged by opinion polls or by what the majority of people think. If we were to legislate by opinion poll, we would have capital punishment back in a flash. I expect that the majority of Labour Members would not want to see that, and neither would I.

We cannot ban things simply because we do not like them. The only conceivable reason for banning foxhunting and removing people's fundamental freedom to hunt is that a ban is necessary on overwhelming animal welfare grounds. I do not believe that those grounds exist. I do not believe that the Burns report discloses them, and I believe that the alternatives are very probably worse.

There is a rather misplaced and cuddly notion about foxes--that they are curly things that sit on the end of one's bed and keep one warm at night--but they are

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killers. If hon. Members are really worried about cruelty to animals, they should be more keen to ban foxes than to ban hunting. Every year, an enormous number of animals such as lambs, piglets, chickens and ducks are gratuitously killed by foxes. Foxes do not kill only the animal that they want to eat; they kill hundreds and thousands of them. For that reason, they are judged to be vermin. They might be rather better looking vermin than rats, but they are vermin and they have to be controlled.

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