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Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk): What would happen to fallen stock on farms if hunting were banned?

Norman Baker: If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, I will come on to farming issues in a moment.

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If hunting is essentially cruel, as I believe it is, the question is whether there are any other factors in the calculation that outweigh that so that hunting can be allowed to continue. I make that calculation carefully because no Liberal wants automatically to jump towards a ban. Indeed, we are often accused of wanting to legalise things rather than to ban them. Is the damage done by not banning something greater than the loss of freedom caused by such a ban? In this case, the answer to that question is yes.

Mr. Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Norman Baker: No, I want to conclude my remarks before long.

For me, the freedom to hunt is the freedom to inflict unacceptable stress and pain on an animal, and the human freedom to hunt cannot outweigh that consideration. There is nothing new in that argument. We had bear baiting and cock fighting, and we still have hare coursing.

Mrs. Ann Winterton: It is generous of the hon. Gentleman to give way. Is he aware of what veterinary surgeons say? More than 300 have written to Members of Parliament to support hunting. They do not agree that stress is placed on the animal. They say that the process is perfectly natural and that death is very quick. Their arguments run counter to the hon. Gentleman's.

Norman Baker: I accept that there are experts on both sides of the argument who will produce conflicting evidence. That is inevitable. However, the Burns inquiry, to which the hon. Lady referred in her speech, concluded that hunting seriously compromises the welfare of the fox. I am convinced that it is cruel.

In outlawing bear baiting, cock fighting and other such so-called sports, which were once mainstream, we have already accepted that human freedom can be curtailed. I believe that hunting falls into the same category.

Are there any other offsetting factors? The Burns report referred to 700 people who are directly employed by hunts and between 6,000 and 8,000 who are indirectly employed. If Parliament bans hunting, as I hope it will, I hope it will accept its responsibility towards anyone who loses their job as a consequence, as it did when the legislation to ban fur farming was passed.

The hon. Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton) referred to the social structure. That can carry on. There is nothing to stop people dressing up and riding a horse across fields chasing a trail. That is drag hunting, and I would be happy to present the stirrup cup to my local hunt if that was what it was doing. I do not believe that that is a real objection.

The third factor is the effect on the fox population.

Mrs. Browning: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Norman Baker: No, I will not.

We have had a period of foot and mouth disease in this country, and I would be interested to see some Government figures showing the impact of foot and mouth on the fox population. I have had no

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representations from my local farmers about the fox population being out of control because hunting was not allowed during that period.

I have been to see my local hunt; I visited the Southdown and Eridge hunt kennels in Ringmer. I asked how many foxes the hunt caught each year, and the answer was about 50. I do not believe that hunting on that scale has an overall impact on the fox population: it is insignificant.

Sometimes hunts argue that by catching foxes they are eliminating the weaker strains—which would mean that the fox population was being perpetuated by the hunt. At other times they say that they are solving a problem for farmers by killing a pest. Those two arguments seem slightly contradictory, and they are wheeled out on different occasions, depending on what argument the hunts are facing.

Does hunting increase or diminish the fox population? That question has not been answered, although I have noticed reports of hunts constructing artificial earths—apparently in order to breed foxes. That seems to be at variance with the need to control the fox population.

Finally, let me say something about the middle way. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) will violently disagree with me in a moment, but I have to say that in my view the middle way is the worst option of the three. It is a legitimate position to say that hunting should be banned. It is also legitimate to say that hunting has long been the tradition of this country, and should be continued; I do not happen to share that position, but I respect its integrity.

However, it does not make sense to say that the Government should interfere and set up a massive bureaucracy. Not only would that involve lots of red tape—which we are all supposed to be against—but it would appear to give Government approval to what I regard as a cruel sport. The middle way is not a middle way; it is hunting by other means, hunting with knobs on—or perhaps the nobs are on the horses.

I hope that the House will be able to reach a clear conclusion tonight. I would like a ban, but if the House decides to allow hunting to carry on, that is fine. We do not want the middle way, but we do want a resolution of this matter before long.

6.12 pm

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall): Five years ago, when the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster) was being discussed, I opposed a ban and said that a way forward suggested by a former chief executive of the League Against Cruel Sports, Jim Barrington, might be the answer. That was a radically different approach that could have provided guarantees on the animal welfare aspects that concern people about hunting, while still respecting the rights of minorities.

I am pleased that the work carried out by my colleague Llin Golding—now Baroness Golding—and by the hon. Members for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) and for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) and others, is now being seriously considered as a way forward. I thank the Minister for the way in which he has worked with all the groups and listened to them.

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My reasons for opposing a ban, after looking into what happens, were related to what I discovered about the killing of foxes. I felt strongly that if we were serious about animal welfare, opposition to a ban should be our conclusion. Foxes may be furrier and sexier than rats, but they are still vermin, and need to be controlled and killed. When I consider all the different methods of killing foxes, my view, backed up by Lord Burns, is that hunting with hounds is the most natural way to kill them.

It is important to read what Lord Burns said, and remind ourselves that he did not find hunting with hounds cruel.

Mr. Gordon Prentice: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Kate Hoey: No, I am not giving way because I have only a few minutes.

In the House of Lords, Lord Burns was asked whether his report said that hunting was cruel, and he answered no. There is no doubt that the Burns report did not find that hunting was cruel. In fact, it said that if we stopped culling foxes in that way, many of them would die in much more horrible and painful ways, such as by gassing, poisoning or shooting—and foxes that are shot may not be killed immediately.

All that makes it clear that people's reasons for opposing foxhunting are not to do with animal welfare. There is no cruelty involved in foxhunting, any more than there is in shooting, gassing or poisoning foxes. The only people who can genuinely oppose foxhunting are those who do not eat meat, or kill anything, or wear leather. The reality is that we need to kill foxes, and we have to find a way that is as humane as possible.

We have to be honest about the fact that what really upsets some of my hon. Friends—and, perhaps, some Opposition Members too—is the idea that only toffs go hunting. If only hunters did not wear red coats, things might be different—[Interruption.] Hon. Members will have the chance to speak later.

I have spent some time with hunts now, which I had not done last time I spoke on this subject. When I visited the Thurlow hunt recently, and met many of the people involved, I found a more socially inclusive group of people out with the hunt than are to be found on our Back Benches—[Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order.

Kate Hoey: I shall now quote someone with whom I sometimes do not agree—but on this issue I do. In a recent article in The Sun, Richard Littlejohn wrote:

In my constituency, just down the road in Vauxhall, there are people who want to ban hunting, but there are very few who want to make criminals out of people who hunt. People in my constituency are much more concerned about the fact that their streets are rife with criminals, that their cars are being broken into every day, that they are being mugged and having their mobile phones taken from them willy nilly, and that our streets are increasingly in the hands of real criminals.

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I have to question the priorities of Parliament again. When the lives of our constituents are being made intolerable, what people are really asking for is a ban on being mugged, a ban on having to wait to get into hospital, and a ban on being homeless, or overcrowded and unable to be rehoused. Those are the issues that we as parliamentarians should be concerned about, rather than taking an attitude based on the feeling, "We don't like those people, so we'll ban them."

It is interesting that some people say that perhaps they will still allow fell hunting—presumably because the hunters are not on horses. The idea is that if people are on horses they are different from people on foot—or that if people, either on horses or walking, are working hard to kill foxes, so long as they are not getting any enjoyment out of it, that is all right. There is muddle and confusion among the people who want to ban hunting, and that is not in the interests of the countryside or of the people of this country.

I shall end by quoting the Prime Minister. A couple of years ago he talked about

and a respect for minorities and said:

I cannot believe that we have to take away the livelihood of country people and bulldoze their rights and freedoms, all for the sake of trying to pretend that killing a fox by hunting is any more cruel than killing a fox by any other means. I hope that the House has more sense.

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