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Mr. Prentice: No, I will not. As my amendment was not called for debate this evening, I hope that I will be allowed to raise this issue—and, if necessary, to vote on it—at the meeting of the parliamentary Labour party at 11.30 am this Wednesday, before my right hon. Friend the Minister explains to the House the Government's definitive position. It would be eccentric if Labour MPs were not allowed to express their views on whether the Hunting Bill should be brought back and the matter resolved once and for all in the current Session.

6.59 pm

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald): Future generations will look back on some things in disbelief, just as we look back in disbelief at cock fighting, bear baiting and, more recently, badger digging. One of the things on which they will look back in disbelief is that at the beginning of the third millennium we were still debating in this Chamber whether it was right and proper to allow people to chase an animal to exhaustion, with its killers closing in on it, causing it the most unspeakable fear before its death, and all in the name of tradition.

I have found some of the arguments mounted on the other side of the debate today incredible. Instead of making the case for keeping hunting, those in favour have sought to question the motives of those of us who believe that it should be abolished. The hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) painted a wonderful picture of life under Labour. Apparently, one cannot walk down the street without having one's phone nicked and nobody can get an operation under the NHS. She said that those issues were more important. I agree, so let us get this issue out of the way and then we can concentrate on those more important issues.

The hon. Lady also claimed that those who opposed hunting were anti-toff. Even my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), for whom I have tremendous respect—he is my wonderful and fantastic right hon. Friend—ended up by saying that opposition to hunting was a product of prejudice and not liking the sort of people who hunt. Anti-toff? Moi? I am one of the few people in this Chamber who upheld the rights of hereditary peers to carry on in the House of Lords. I actually believed in that. I was one of those—and my right hon. Friend knows it—who argued for the repeal of the iniquitous Act that stopped them. To suggest that somehow I am prejudiced against what have been called toffs—it is a stupid expression—is a nonsense.

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Apparently, I do not like people who go hunting. My parents hunted. I like my parents very much indeed.

Mr. Bellingham: I congratulate my right hon. Friend on her recent appearance in the programme "When Louis Met Ann Widdecombe". Am I right in thinking that when her drawing room was filmed I saw some very nice hunting prints?

Miss Widdecombe: Yes, indeed. They are wonderful, colourful scenes of olde England, and in olde England they firmly belong.

It is true that the Burns report said that hunting compromises the welfare of the fox. The only thing that surprises me about that is that it should take all those learned men all that time to decide that.

Mr. Barker: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Miss Widdecombe: No. I have given way once and I do not intend to give up too much of my time.

One hon. Member told us to beware, because if we gave in on hunting, fishing would be next, but my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) said that fishing would not be abolished. Pro-hunt Members must make up their minds about which side of that argument they are on.

We also heard the usual old nonsense that banning hunting would affect employment. Yes, it will affect employment, but as I said in a previous debate, if we abolished crime we would put all the police out of work. If we abolished ill-health we would put all the nurses and doctors out of work. Will anybody argue that we should preserve crime and ill-health in order to keep people in jobs?

Hunting is either right or wrong. My right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal said that we must respect certain things because people sincerely believe in them religiously. I am not sure who believes in hunting religiously, but he argued that people's religions must be respected and that they should be allowed to do anything in the name of liberty that their religion dictates. Fine. I look forward to my right hon. Friend's private Member's Bill to legalise polygamy.

Even from my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks, who should know better, we heard all the arguments about how it is natural to hunt and to be a predator, and that that is practised widely throughout the animal kingdom. Yes, but should Members of Parliament take their standards from the animal kingdom? Do we seriously think that we should determine whether something is right or wrong by whether the animals do it? That seemed to be the proposition made by some of those who support hunting.

We are also told that the issue is one of liberty, and nothing else. It is about the liberty to do anything one wants to do. However, it has always been the purpose of the law to curtail liberty to do something that is believed by the democratically elected body of this House to be wrong. We eliminated cock fighting, bear baiting and badger digging. I do not say that those activities equate

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with hunting. Hunting is much less wrong than those activities, but my argument is that we curtail liberty when we believe that something is wrong.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): Does my right hon. Friend think that fishing is wrong? If she is taking a stand on the issue of cruelty, her speech is illogically nonsensical if she would not also argue for banning fishing.

Miss Widdecombe: I shall come to that point in a minute. Some people argue for the retention of hunting on the basis that it is the normal method of fox control and that if we get rid of it something vastly more cruel will be put in its place. The Burns report says that hunting is responsible for only 6 per cent. of all fox destruction—[Interruption.]

Mr. Barker rose

Mr. Simon Thomas rose

Miss Widdecombe: The other 94 per cent.—[Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. The right hon. Lady is on her feet and is entitled to be heard.

Miss Widdecombe: Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for your protection against my various colleagues who wish to take issue with me.

Hunting is responsible for only 6 per cent. of fox destruction. The idea, therefore, that we wish to abolish the only means of fox control is wrong. What that figure proves beyond doubt is that hunting is not even an efficient pesticide, which is just about the one argument that could be made for keeping it.

If hunting is not an efficient pesticide, it has no purpose. There is some purpose in fishing—and I come to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack). I agree that not all fishing has a purpose, but one can fish and then eat the result. [Hon. Members: "Not all the time."] I did not say that that applied to all fishing. Either my hon. Friends were not listening or they did not want to listen.

The last argument that is often mounted is that those who hunt want to be left alone and that they cause no problem to other people. Those who make that argument should read a letter from a rural resident who has lived for 20 years in a foxhunting area of Hampshire. Her animals have been attacked, and she has to keep them in whenever the hunt is in the area. She talks about the immense damage that hunt supporters do to verges and other parts of the countryside and she says that although the hunt claim to care for their own animals, the state of the horses and hounds at the end of the day calls that claim into question.

It is right that this House should consider whether to ban hunting. When everything is added up, the argument is decidedly in favour of a ban. However, we are all entitled to our views and neither side should imagine that the views of the other are the product of prejudice or ignorance.

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7.9 pm

Mr. Tony Banks (West Ham): I am grateful for having been called—

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I understand that it is now the convention of the House that only Members who were present for the opening speeches are called during a debate. The hon. Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks) came into the Chamber at five minutes to 6.

Madam Deputy Speaker: May I inform the hon. Gentleman that he is correct, save that the hon. Member for West Ham was attending a meeting of the House of Commons Commission? I call Mr. Banks.

Mr. Banks rose

Sir Patrick Cormack: Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. As I attended that meeting, may I be called too?

Madam Deputy Speaker: The hon. Gentleman may well succeed in catching my eye.

Mr. Banks: I was about to make that point. I had no choice but to attend on Mr. Speaker at the Commission, and it was a privilege to do so. I found the experience a damn sight more intellectually stimulating than certain aspects of this debate.

May I say to, on this occasion, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), that it is a privilege to follow her? She made a brave speech. Frankly, nothing more needs to be said and we could all go into the Lobby, but I have brought my speech and I intend to make it. If the Conservative party chose her as its leader, the Labour Government would find themselves in considerable difficulties. Fortunately, I know that such good sense does not prevail on the Opposition Benches.

I say to the right hon. and pious Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), who unfortunately has gone—[Hon. Members: "He is back."] I say to his holiness that it is interesting that he mentioned ritual slaughter, about which I have said a number of things in the House before. He says that we should respect those religious conventions. What about Sharia law and stoning to death for adultery? Would he suggest that we must also respect that? If we did, there would be an awful lot of stone dodging in this Chamber.

The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), for whom I have a great deal of respect, says that we should get on to other matters and asks why we are obsessed. I have heard him make two speeches since he stood down as Conservative leader, both on this subject. A large number of Members are in the Chamber, so clearly we are interested, and the idea that the debate is forcing other issues out is nonsense.

People may say, "Why aren't you dealing with the problems in law and order, education and transport?" Well, we are, but the fact is that this is not an administrative Chamber. We do not run the education service or the transport system or the hospitals. We pass laws. That is what we are here to do. Some say that we are obsessed, even though we have made our decision in

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favour of a ban so clear on so many occasions, and that those at the other end of the Palace are not obsessed, even though they keep obstructing it. We have our priorities right; Opposition Members and Members of the other place have their priorities wrong.

We spent more than 100 hours debating the last two Bills on the issue and there is no doubt about what will happen tonight, but I must pick up a couple of points. The first is the idea that foxes are vermin. If they are vermin, why is there a close season? I do not understand that; it makes no sense whatever.

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