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6.19 pm

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks): I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in this debate. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) and to congratulate her not only on the wisdom of her remarks but on having the courage to speak out against the orthodoxy of her party. I congratulate her heartily on doing so.

It would be good if the Government could find time to debate a wide range of rural matters—this is one—in the House. They could have found the time to debate the aftermath of the foot and mouth disaster and to learn its lessons, which are not being learned by the public inquiry that ought to be taking place. They could have found the time to debate the need to make sure that meat imports into this country meet the standards of food produced at home. They could have found the time to debate the need to help rural tourism to recover from last year. However, they have not done so, and they have shown how grossly out of touch they are with the feeling of the countryside in the bizarrely inappropriate choice of hunting as the debate for today.

Some interesting points have been made. The hon. Member for Rochdale (Mrs. Fitzsimons) said that her constituents were more concerned about education, health and transport. That is precisely our point.

Mr. Savidge rose

Mr. Hague: The hon. Member for Blyth Valley (Mr. Campbell)—I mention him only because of his sedentary interventions—warned about the other place and said that it was a place of privilege. Of course, it has largely become a place of the privilege of knowing the

18 Mar 2002 : Column 70

Prime Minister. That is why a large proportion of Members of the other place are sitting there. What is more, we know that the real reason for this debate, which was announced three weeks ago, was not to prevent the pursuit of a single fox by a pack of hounds, but to prevent the pursuit of a particular Secretary of State by the media and by my colleagues in the House.

Nevertheless, the Government said in their manifesto that they would have a vote on this issue, and, at some stage, they are entitled to do so. As we have discovered, feelings run high on this matter. My constituents, from everything that I have seen over many years, are very much in favour of being allowed to continue to hunt. I represent a very rural constituency. For some, hunting is a practical matter. For example, Hawes and High Abbotside parish council in Upper Wensleydale wrote to me on Friday—[Interruption.] I think that the hon. Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks) knows about as much about upper Wensleydale as he does about Timbuctoo, if I may respectfully say so. The letter stated:

That is simple and practical, and is one of the reasons why the council is in favour of hunting being allowed to continue.

For others, hunting is a matter of employment. There is no doubt that scores of people in my constituency would lose their jobs if hunting were to be banned. Every Member of Parliament can sympathise with constituents who are worried about losing their jobs. For some, hunting is part of their rural way of life and of maintaining a balance in the countryside between the farmed animal and the wild predator, and of doing so as they have done for a very long time. The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) referred to 200 years ago—I know that he has now left the Chamber—and said that he would spend the remaining half of his parliamentary career campaigning against certain traditions. I will spend the remaining four fifths of mine campaigning for certain traditions, because there is value in them, and people should be free—this is a large part of the case—to pursue their customs, traditions and habits if they do not cause injury or gross inconvenience to others.

Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe): I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. [Hon. Members: "Right honourable".] I am sorry. I am grateful to the right honourable Gentleman. If he believed—I accept that we may dispute this—that suffering was caused to animals by foxhunting would he still feel that the freedom of the individual came first?

Mr. Hague: I would have to consider the alternatives. Anyone with an understanding of a rural area such as my constituency is in no doubt that some way of controlling the fox population is necessary. There is a choice between the methods of doing so. We live surrounded by predators, and not only when I am here in the House of Commons. If one lives where I live, one hears at night the screech of the owl descending on the mouse, one sees the stoat jumping on to the rabbit, and one captures in one's car headlights the fox going about its business, seeking the new-born lamb or the chicken coop door that has been

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left open. Predators do not consider the moral rights and wrongs as we do as human beings. They are predators, and will go on being predators in larger numbers. We have created an agricultural society with large numbers of sheep and chickens to support a huge predatory population of human beings numbering 56 million. Of course, that agricultural society can also support a huge fox population—if left to their own devices—that would wipe out many other species altogether.

One can read about the ludicrous contortions into which the so-called animal rights movement gets itself. It was reported that, last month, the Essex Wildlife Trust banned foxhunting and then became the target of furious protests by animal rights activists for ordering a cull of a booming fox population. The article stated:

The trust's development manager said about the animal rights protesters:

That is what we are up against. The protesters think that if the hunting of foxes is banned, the foxes will be deeply grateful and rush round to help the farmer at lambing time. That is the kind of ludicrous misconception that they have.

We must control foxes somehow. The alternative proposed by the animal rights movement is shooting, because it is clean, easy and so on. No one who has handled a gun could possibly come up with such a naive suggestion. One person wrote to a Sunday newspaper yesterday with an account of having seen a fox shot. The first shot broke the fox's leg, the second hit it from another direction, the third shot knocked it off its remaining feet, the fourth shot failed to kill it, and, in the end, its neck was broken because it was not killed by the four shots. Foxes do not obediently line up to be shot by firing squad. We do not have laser-guided shotguns to home in on them in the night. If shooting is the alternative, it will lead to much greater animal cruelty and inconvenience.

Mr. Kaufman: It sounds to me as though the man using the gun had drunk 14 pints before shooting.

Mr. Hague: It sounds to me like the right hon. Gentleman's serious contribution to the debate was made much earlier.

In my remaining two minutes, let me make the other part of the case. What of animal cruelty? There will be far greater cruelty to animals if foxes are to be controlled in some other way. There will be cruelty to the hounds that will have to be put down—I have not noticed anyone volunteering to take hounds into their homes.

Phil Sawford (Kettering) rose

Mr. Hague: The hon. Gentleman is volunteering. That is very interesting. We shall put down his name to take hounds into his home. I have only two minutes remaining, and I am not going to give way again.

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There will be greater cruelty to the foxes that will be killed in larger numbers by other means. There is also the question of respecting the rights of a minority. We often hear from many hon. Members about the need to respect minorities, and about the need to respect a culture of diversity. Why, therefore, is this particular minority being picked on? Why are people who fish not picked on? One can argue that fishing is an equivalent act of cruelty. The reason is that fishermen are large in number so hon. Members who wish to ban hunting do not pick on them. Why is ritual slaughter under certain religions, in which there is no stunning of the animals, not picked on? Many people would regard it as a great act of cruelty. It is not picked on because we respect particular different traditions and cultures. Why is the tradition and culture of foxhunting not respected when there is no compelling case to do away with it? It is because it can be picked on.

That is the hallmark of the bully throughout the ages and the signal of the abuse of majority power. If a majority in the House abuse their power in that way, it will be a deeply unattractive spectacle based on prejudice, ignorance and naivety that will do the cause of Parliament no good at all.

6.29 pm

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield): I have been consistently in favour of banning hunting from before I came into Parliament and throughout my time in the House. However, I must confess to the House—I know that this will disappoint some of my hon. Friends—that I have changed my mind. I shall explain my reasons, because this should be a thoughtful debate. It is an important subject.

I have been in the House for a long time and suffered a Prime Minister who believed in confrontation. She took on the miners and other minorities and made life hard and unpleasant for those who confronted her. I do not like that style of politics or the way in which some of my hon. Friends and colleagues use our position in power to drive through proposals about which I have certain concerns.

I approach this issue from a different angle and I wish to share my worries with the House. I have always cared about cruelty to animals. I have always hated it and wanted to minimise it, and I believe that my views have been consistent. However, I have also cared very much about the rural environment and the countryside that we must leave to our children and their children. I worry about both those issues, and most of those who have spoken in the debate agree on that. They want to minimise cruelty to animals and have a decent rural environment. We can have both and I positively believe that there is room for compromise.

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