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Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe): Does my hon. Friend agree that the statesmanlike remarks of the Minister on this subject about the power of democracy to achieve change will only finally convince people out in the country if, at the end, a final decision is made rather than leaving the issue dangling for years to come?

Mr. Banks: I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. Although I have given up my ambition to be a world statesperson--

Mr. Soames: You are.

Mr. Banks: That is very decent of you, old chap. I am afraid that that view is not necessarily shared by all of us.

This is the place where we decide. There has been a majority in this House and in the country on this issue for some years. There is not a division between rural and urban people. There has always been a majority--and there is a clear majority for this legislation in rural areas as there is in urban areas. That should never be forgotten. Those who say that the Labour party does not understand the countryside or the rural vote should wait and see--as they did at the previous election--what happens at the next election. We are quite happy to sit back and rest on our record in that respect.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer) and the Minister said, this is where we decide issues of animal welfare. We have always decided issues of animal welfare in this place. Looking back over the decades, one thinks of bull baiting, cock fighting, dog fighting, otter hunting--the list goes on, and we have decided on it. Many of the arguments used when such legislation was going through the House are precisely the same as those used against the Hunting Bill. We will look back in years to come on the legislation that we have passed and wonder what all the fuss was about from those who opposed it.

I am delighted, therefore, that we have reached this far, although I accept that there is some way to go. Like others, I should like to offer a few thanks. I should like first to thank the Minister. With my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, he has had to put up with a great deal, but he has always been cool, reasonable and honest with the House, which we can all respect. Like him, I pay tribute to the Campaign for the Protection of Hunted Animals, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the League Against Cruel Sports, the International Fund for Animal Welfare and all their professional workers and helpers for their compassion in conducting the campaign. They deserve a great deal of thanks from us and all animal lovers in this country and around the world. I am delighted with this Bill, and I am looking forward to voting in favour of its Third Reading.

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11.14 pm

Mr. Öpik: It is funny to recognise that all three organisations claim that the Burns report proves that they are right. The Middle Way Group is of course the one that really is right about the Burns report, and we hope to make that case in another place.

I thank the Minister--and the Parliamentary Secretary--for his very kind words about the Middle Way Group and my colleagues. Although the debate has sometimes been heated, everyone involved genuinely believes in doing the right thing and finding the best outcome. There is a shared belief that animal welfare is important, but the difference between us is on the degree to which animal welfare should be balanced with civil liberties, and on the best practical way of balancing those two considerations.

From the beginning, the Middle Way Group has tried to put a rational and well-argued case for balancing animal welfare with civil liberties. My hon. Friends the Members for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) and for Newcastle- under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) and I have formed a gang of three--the three musketeers of justice--to bring reason and sense to the debate. Given our enormous secretariat, consisting of Jim Barrington, who is both our chief executive and our typist, I am surprised by and delighted with the amount of support that we have been given. I should like to thank right hon. and hon. Members who have listened to our arguments. Some of them have been persuaded, including the Home Secretary and three other Cabinet Ministers. Others may not have been persuaded to vote for the Middle Way Group's proposals, but I am satisfied that these are now treated with respect. People understand that we are genuinely trying to provide a third option between an outright ban and self-regulation.

Dr. Palmer: What has always puzzled me about the position of members of the Middle Way Group is that they seem to oppose their own legislation. On Second Reading, they voted against a Bill that would, in principle, have given them the chance to implement their proposals. Tonight they have consistently voted against the Bill, and I would be surprised if they voted in favour of it on Third Reading.

Mr. Öpik: Hansard will answer the hon. Gentleman's questions. We have tried to make consistent judgments as best we can. He may differ with us, but that is a matter for him. I like to think that most hon. Members do not question our motives.

Mr. Jon Owen Jones (Cardiff, Central): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Öpik: I shall not give way, because time is short.

It is interesting to note that a Deadline 2000 advertisement in a national newspaper cost twice the entire budget of the Middle Way Group for three years. People should judge us on the resonance of our idea, rather than question our motives. We have battled against incredible odds, given the huge resources that other organisations have had. I am glad to say that the Middle Way Group has been on to something important, and has had a new way of looking at the issue. If it had been in existence five or 10 years ago, perhaps regulation would have been introduced, and we would not have ended up where we are now.

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There are problems with the Bill. The way in which it has been constructed has produced enormous logical contradictions. Members of the public could be criminalised if their dogs persistently chased mammals in the prohibited list even if the owners meant no harm in their actions, but were merely not 100 per cent. in control of their animals. The Minister reassured us that, through an act of faith, we should trust that a solution will come to replace the important role played by kennels in dealing with fallen stock. The public do not share his optimism. Such an act of faith does not sit comfortably on the shoulders of a nervous rural population, who have felt hard done by for a long time as a result of Government policy.

No regard has been paid to compensation. For me at least, the Minister did not effectively explain any logical difference between a ban on fur farming, which attracted compensation from the Government, and a ban on hunting with dogs, which in his judgment does not warrant compensation from the Government. That will be an important consideration for the public.

There are other examples of moral randomness. Why is falconry all right? Why is angling okay? Why is hunting fox with dogs not acceptable? The hon. Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks) again said that he was opposed to hunting any animal for fun, yet not once has he said that he wants a ban on angling, but perhaps he will intervene to correct that. It is very clear that those contradictions undermine the Bill's philosophical consistency.

Mr. Jon Owen Jones rose--

Mr. Öpik: For the sake of clarity, I ask the House to accept that I shall not give way. I think that I have a fairly good record of giving way under normal circumstances, but time is short.

What is the difference between a rodent and a mink? Mink are one of the most persistent and pernicious pests in our countryside. They are environment destroyers and they are not a natural part of our countryside and yet, for some reason that I just do not understand, the House chose not to allow the hunting of mink with dogs.

Mrs. Golding rose--

Mr. Öpik: I give way to my hon. Friend, for obvious reasons.

Mrs. Golding: So my hon. Friend should, and I thank him for it. Can he see the logic in producing publicity about protecting the water vole, whose main predator is the mink, while passing a Bill prohibiting the extermination of the mink?

Mr. Öpik: I cannot add to what my hon. Friend says. She has been assiduous and consistent in her position. Hon. Members who voted to ban mink hunting may choose to think hard about the consequences of what they have done.

Mr. Jon Owen Jones rose--

Mr. Öpik: I shall not give way, and I cannot make that any clearer. [Interruption.] It is perfectly obvious why I gave way to my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle- under-Lyme and I do not need to explain why I did so.

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My conclusion on the dynamic is that there is some emotional attachment to the fox, which may have been caused by television images. Perhaps we grew up loving foxes just as future generations will love other animals. Sometimes, cynically perhaps, I ask myself whether Roland Rat will have the same impact on a future generation of parliamentarians as Basil Brush appears to have had on the present one. If we allow emotion to determine legislation, the result will be bad legislation.

There is another contradiction about which we should be clear: the debate is about not banning the killing of foxes, but banning one method of killing foxes. The Bill will not save the life of a single fox and might serve to increase suffering through the process of fox control.

Deadline 2000, even at this late hour, can think again. It can win, but win in a fairer way. The Middle Way Group's proposals are still available. We think that they are good, and they are free. We offer them to Deadline 2000.

Again and again, the Middle Way Group's tenets have come to the fore and our claims have been reaffirmed. We still believe that stopping cruelty would be best achieved by inspection, regulation, fines and licensing and that all that could be paid for by a licensing fee. Do hon. Members who support the Deadline 2000 proposals realise that 13 of the 23 paragraphs of their Bill are in ours and that 70 of the 102 sub-paragraphs of the Middle Way Group's proposals are the same as theirs?

I did not enter the debate to beat Deadline 2000 and I did not participate to win. The Middle Way Group is not seeking victory. We are looking for solutions, so here is the deal. The Middle Way Group is still promoting its ideas and will do so until the game is completely up. We shall carry on trying to balance animal welfare considerations with civil liberties. We shall debate the issue and take feedback, as I have done tonight on the group's behalf on compensation.

If Deadline 2000 came round and began to think that perhaps regulation would achieve its goals, that would be a victory not for the Middle Way Group, but for Deadline 2000 and for the hon. Members for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) and for Worcester (Mr. Foster), who put the issue on the agenda. If we achieved such a result, that would be a triumph not for any individual, but for the House because it would show that, once in a while, and even on extremely emotive issues of conscience, hon. Members have the courage, maturity and humility to think again when they consider a proposal that would improve on the position from which we started.

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