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Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman's time is up.

7.38 pm

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed): The speech of the hon. Member for City of Durham (Mr. Steinberg) reflected an earlier observation by the hon. Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks), who said that there could be no compromise over cruelty. The hon. Member for City of Durham delivered a similar message at greater length—but this whole area is riddled with compromises, as it has to be.

Even the legislation preferred by those who want a total ban is full of compromises. It is a compromise that it does not include fishing; it is a compromise that it does not include stalking. Actually it does include stalking, but the last time we considered the Bill the Government tabled an amendment—after I had pressed them on the point—to exempt it from the effects of the Bill.

These are not simple black and white issues. We are discussing how species are controlled, and what methods can be used to control them. Some people feel strongly that hunting is a particularly cruel method. As I shall explain, I do not agree. At the end of the day there are compromises. My hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) and others who have worked with him on the middle way proposal seem genuinely to seek a compromise to allay public anxieties about activities that some think should be banned or restricted, while not banning the sport altogether.

My view has been that we do not need to go that far, and that the kind of supervision that would be put on a statutory basis if one of the options that we are considering tonight were accepted is sufficient. I understand why people want to go further. All these issues involve compromises.

It is difficult to bring something new to the debate at this stage of the evening, especially given that many of those hon. Members who are here are determined to speak later to express their own strongly held views, whatever side they are on. I want to contribute something from the standpoint of someone who represents an area in which hunting is pretty significant. It is part of the way of life, as are shooting and fishing, although many people hold contrary views; there are plenty of opponents of hunting in my constituency as well as people who take part in it. As someone who is philosophically a liberal, I have to look at it from that philosophical standpoint.

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I first have to look at what we are doing. We are not discussing whether we disapprove of hunting, as some hon. Members do. We are discussing whether it should be a criminal offence—whether it should be banned by law. We should therefore look first at what consequences may follow if it were made a criminal offence. It would undoubtedly—I do not think that the proponents can disagree with this—deprive a lot of people of the freedom to carry out an activity that they have carried out for many years in the genuine belief that it is a reasonable contribution to the life of the countryside and does not involve unreasonable cruelty.

A ban would clearly restrict freedom. It would affect jobs. A number of people in my constituency depend wholly on hunting for their employment and indeed their home. It has a wider effect on the rural economy. A great many businesses in areas such as mine would be very adversely affected by a ban on hunting. Saddlers, for example, derive most of their income from hunt-related horse activity, which would reduce sharply if hunting were banned. In an area such as mine, there are landscape benefits when people who support hunting, landowners and farmers, preserve parts of the land in a way that is not the most economically attractive or viable because it is beneficial for hunting or shooting. We all gain benefit from that.

Those arguments would in themselves still not be sufficient if we could demonstrate that hunting were sufficiently cruel to justify our making it a criminal offence and sending people to prison for it, but that is the argument. There are some arguments that are irrelevant, such as, "We do not like the people who do it," which I have heard quite often outside the Chamber and occasionally inside it, or the argument that people who do it enjoy killing. I have often heard that in this Chamber. It is misleading because most of the people who take part in hunting do so for the excitement of the ride and the chase, not for the kill.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Beith: I must try to deploy my arguments. I will see if I have any time at the end to allow interventions.

It is also the case that if the argument had any force, it could be applied to all the methods of controlling vermin, or indeed any species. If a person gets job satisfaction from his work as a mole-catcher, do we ban the control of moles as a species? If a person enjoys rough shooting, do we ban it simply on the ground that he enjoys it? We cannot do that.

Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore): What we should be very concerned about is the excesses and the abuses. Where we see hunts where the fox is torn away out of the hole and thrown to the hounds, we have to be very concerned. Where we have hunts where foxes are bred for the sport of it, that is not pest control. That is pure bloody sport. However—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. Interventions must be brief. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman could come to the point.

Mr. Beith: I think that the hon. Gentleman is on the same tack. He is looking for ways of ensuring that hunting

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is carried out properly. That can be done by the supervisory system in the first option. My hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) and others suggest a method that may give more public confidence but that is not the same thing as saying that the proper and well-regulated conduct of hunting should be a criminal offence.

I was dealing with some arguments that one cannot apply and that are irrelevant. Then there are arguments that are insufficient, such as the fact that one personally does not approve of hunting. Many hon. Members feel very strongly that hunting should not happen, or for that matter that many of their constituents do not approve of it. Again, there is an important distinction between what we do not like and do not approve of, and what we pass laws against.

Philosophically, as a liberal, I have to address that question time and again. Sometimes I have to revise my opinions on what I am entitled to ban. I am faced with the question: why am I entitled to prevent someone else from doing something that they feel strongly they should be allowed to do? I have to have an overwhelming argument and the overwhelming argument in this case has to be the cruelty argument.

Any serious examination of the evidence cannot draw a wide distinction between the amounts of cruelty or suffering involved to the fox in the different methods of control and killing. If there are distinctions, they are quite small and marginal. If anything, they may err in favour of hunting. They may not. They may go the other way, but on any analysis, the distinction cannot be said to be of the scale that makes the difference between sending someone to prison and accepting that their activity can be legally carried out even if one does not like it. That is where the argument for a ban falls.

Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Beith: I must try to ensure that I have deployed all my arguments before I give way again.

My fear, and it has been expressed by others, is that the only consequence of a ban would be that, in those areas where hunting takes place, much more use would be made of other methods. The Burns report points out that, in some of those areas, it is difficult to do that. In particular, the report refers to upland areas. Paragraph 61 comes just after the bit that was quoted by the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice), who came to an unexpected stop in the middle of a sentence. The following sentence says:


Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Beith: I was talking about the hon. Member for Pendle, who did not go on to read that sentence—[Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order.

Mr. Beith: Any serious look at the evidence fails to provide that broad distinction, which could properly be the basis of saying that hunting should be illegal, whereas the other methods of controlling foxes can remain legal.

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Hardly anyone is trying to say that we should not kill foxes. It is generally recognised that there is a need to kill at least some foxes and to control the population. People are not arguing for the elimination of foxes, either. Hunting does not eliminate foxes. It is in the interests of hunts that there should remain some foxes. It is an argument about keeping a level of population that is tolerable in relation to the farming activities upon which the foxes are predators. It is a question of balance.

One of the things that fascinates me is that the legislation has never been defined in those terms. The legislation has never been defined as an attempt to ban the killing of foxes except in certain circumstances. The legislation has never been defined in terms of attempts to ban cruelty. The word "cruelty" does not really appear in the Hunting Bill. The legislation concentrates on the use of dogs. When we start to look at it in detail, we discover that many of the other methods of control that would have to be used if we did not have fox hunting also rely on the use of dogs.

The Minister for Rural Affairs will remember vividly the discussions in Committee. We came to the point where it became clear that the Bill as drafted banned stalking with dogs, and it had not been the intention of the promoters or of the Government that it should. That is the problem. Bills have never been drafted in terms of what are supposedly the objectives of those who want them passed into law: they have never been drafted in terms of killing or in terms of cruelty. It comes down to drafting a Bill in terms of the use of dogs. Then the practical difficulties begin.

In Committee in the previous Session, we found when we looked at the Bill in detail how difficult it was to get the Bill into the sort of order that would not preclude all sorts of other activities, including other forms of pest control involving other mammals—for example, rats—so there is a whole area of difficulty about drafting the legislation correctly.

Technical difficulties cannot be the only reason for taking a view that the legislation should not go forward, because one assumes that a solution can be found to take it forward. What they point to is the inability to define the purpose of the legislation in terms of bringing an end to cruelty or to killing. That is not what it is about. If those who promote this legislation go to their constituency and to the country in general and say, "We are going to get a Bill through that will mean that foxes will never be killed or suffer any more," that would be seriously misleading. The question they then have to face is why they are prepared to send people to prison for hunting—


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