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Mr. Challen: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Sheerman: No, because I have only 10 minutes.

One of my other worries is that many of the zealots on this issue—I am not referring to most of my colleagues—will not be content with banning hunting. They will go on to fishing and to the shooting of rabbits, pigeons, pheasants or whatever. They will not be satisfied until, as my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks) says, every sentient animal is protected. That is a dangerous position to take.

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I know that some of my colleagues will not like me saying this, but we cannot separate this debate from other issues. For example, scientific and medical research must use animals in its experiments to push forward the frontiers of science and to help people who have certain diseases. We will be able to control those diseases because, in the long term, research will find the cures. However, the zealots involved on this issue—we cannot divide them up—have caused misery to those pursuing a scientific line of inquiry and carrying out their professional job. What happened to Huntingdon Life Sciences was a blemish on our national life. We must be careful to take a balanced view. These issues go together.

The hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) discounted the third way, but I make an appeal to the House to take it seriously. We should be able to say that the argument is not all on one side. When the hon. Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton) spoke, I thought, "My Goodness, I have got to follow that and agree with some of the things that she said." [Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Mr. Salter) is giving the speech a good roasting.

One thing that many of us share is that we do not like the people who go hunting. I do not like many of them, but many of the people who hunt in the Colne valley and in Yorkshire do not have horses and they do not wear red coats. They hunt to reduce the numbers of what they regard as a pest, and do so in a fairly innocuous way.

My neighbour is an organic farmer, whom I very much admire. He cares about the environment and does not use chemicals. However, his livelihood is threatened by the fact that rabbits plague his land. The rabbit population is the most difficult thing to control, so my neighbour wants a group of well trained people with dogs and with the right equipment to reduce the rabbit population. However, what does he have to resort to? He has to resort to the use of gas. I do not know whether Members have seen a warren where the rabbits have been gassed, but it is not very pleasant.

There is something else that human beings have done to rabbits—our cuddly friends. We introduced the disease of myxomatosis and it returned five years ago. I never understood how it returned, but the effects of that man-delivered plague on the rabbit population are not very pleasant at all.

The more I have considered the subject, the more I have been concerned to learn whether the alternatives are any better. I am not convinced that they are. The turning point for me came when I read the Burns report, and I value highly the work that Terry Burns carried out. He got the balance absolutely right. The report did not conclude that hunting was the cruellest thing that one can do to animals or that it was much crueller than any other method of controlling their numbers. It concluded that there was not much to choose between the various options of killing them. It is not nice to kill an animal, and choices have to be made. I do not believe that the alternatives to hunting are much better.

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

Mr. Sheerman: No.

Mr. Prentice: I want to quote from the Burns report.

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Mr. Sheerman: My hon. Friend will have his turn to speak and I shall listen to him when the time comes.

I merely wish to address the issue, and I knew that that would not be popular with some on this side of the House. I have genuinely listened to the arguments, I have thought about them and I have changed my mind. After 30 years of holding one opinion, I have every right to change my mind, to tell the House that I have changed my mind and to give the reasons. All my reasons may not please my hon. Friends and I know that they will probably think that I am something of a deserter. However, the fact is that they must recognise that some people have concerns.

I note that there are very few people on these Benches compared with the 1997 debate in which I also spoke. I suspect that colleagues and the public outside are getting a little bored with the House's antics on this matter. Most people with common sense will say, "Why don't they reach a deal? Why don't they come to some sort of compromise such as a middle way?"

I believe that the Government will be remembered for certain things. I do not want them to be remembered for an obsession with foxhunting and for the hours that we have spent on the issue in this House and in Committee. However, people might remember us for that. I disagree with every word of some previous speakers in that I believe that the Government are delivering better health, better education and better law and order on our streets. I do not want all those achievements to be forgotten or for someone to write in 10 or 20 years' time that this Government were obsessed with hunting with dogs.

There is a way ahead, and it is called the middle way. It is a compromise under which we can cluster. We can reach a compromise with the other House, and that is the way forward. I urge my colleagues to think seriously about the issue and not to remain in the trenches of prejudice where they have been for too long.

6.39 pm

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal): Perhaps the earliest political discussion that I remember is one that took place when I was at university and we discussed the conclusions of the Wolfenden report and made the distinction between sin and crime. It was an important distinction to make. Many things that we do not approve of should not necessarily be made criminal. The first point that this debate should take into account is that it is not sensible to make criminals of all those of whom we disapprove or make criminal those activities that we do not wish to take part in ourselves and that we would perhaps prefer others not to enjoy.

A tolerant society is one in which we criminalise an activity only as a last resort. Toleration is not just about allowing people to do things of which we approve, but about allowing them to do things of which we do not approve. Sadly, sometimes people who want to ban hunting forget that; they also forget that many of the things that they do are not approved of by other people. As minorities—in one way or another we are all minorities—they rely on the majority respecting, whenever humanly possible, their right to act as they want; they do not want that right interfered with because they are a minority.

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That is even more important in a multicultural and multiracial society. As a Minister, I had to face up to the issue of ritual slaughter, which I dislike very strongly. Religiously and philosophically, I believe that it is wrong; it is based on an unacceptable historical argument. However, for some people, it is a religious belief; Jews and Muslims have a right to live in our society and be respected. So, although I hated the concept of ritual slaughter, I agreed to its continuance because I believe in toleration; one should tolerate those with whom one disagrees. Above all, one does not put one's own views on such matters above the serious beliefs of others.

Andy King (Rugby and Kenilworth): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Gummer: No, the hon. Gentleman has already expressed his views clearly in a sedentary intervention. If he thinks that ritual slaughter, in which Jews and Muslims believe, is equivalent to bear baiting or bull fighting, he demonstrates the triviality of his thinking.

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Gummer: No.

One must ask whether hunting is so immoral that it cannot be accepted. Some people believe that the House can enforce a secular morality; I dread to think what kind of things it might do, or might have done, if it acted on that. Nobody with religious views in Judaeo-Christian history—whether Anglican, Roman Catholic or Orthodox—believes that hunting is immoral, which begs the question of how those who claim the right to forbid others to do something on moral grounds manage to maintain their position. People whom we do not expect to take a clear moral position make it plain that they have taken such a position. It is hard to claim to be more moral than the Pope or the Archbishop of Canterbury, particularly when one is an elected Member of Parliament.

Mr. Savidge: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Gummer: No, I have not got a lot of time and want to address the question of reality—[Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order.

Mr. Gummer: I find it hard to accept the arguments of people who want a ban when they do not appear to understand how the natural world works. My right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) gave a graphic description of the basic predatory characteristic of the natural order. We are part of the predatory chain, but our job includes keeping the balance in nature. The difference is that we have the right and ability to choose. The problem is not that we choose between killing foxes and not killing them; we have to choose the mechanism and the method by which we kill them.

The Burns report is only the latest in a series of investigations, all of which concluded that if hunting is not the least cruel option, it is certainly no crueller than the alternatives. It is all very well for people to go on voicing

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their opinions, but anyone who has looked seriously at the issue has come to that conclusion. If we deal with the reality of the situation, and if we decide to be as lacking in cruelty as possible, we must take the view that hunting is the best way of undertaking a necessary action.

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