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

7.48 pm

Mr. Bill Etherington (Sunderland, North): When I spoke on this subject approximately 14 months ago, I had high hopes that we would make some progress. Since I came into the House in 1992, we have had numerous debates and free votes on this issue and we are no further on. I issue a friendly warning to my right hon. Friend the Minister. The credibility of the Labour party is on the line over this issue—it is as simple as that. I want to spend more time talking about that than the issue of cruelty, anti-hunting, and what is right and what is wrong.

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In a democracy, when a majority of the population want something, it is the duty of the Government to ensure that they get it. If the Government do not do that, and the situation goes on for 10 years, the whole political process becomes denuded. Like many other Members of Parliament, I have had numerous letters along those lines. Some people think that there is an unholy alliance between the Labour party hierarchy and the Countryside Alliance. I should like to think that that is not true. I do not think that it is true, but I well understand that there are people who feel that way.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) rose

Mr. Etherington: I am not giving way; I do not have time. The hon. Gentleman will have his chance.

When people say that they see no progress being made, and ask, "What is the use of the political process?", they have a point. If the Labour party does not get things right, and if my right hon. Friend the Minister for Rural Affairs does not make the right sort of statement after the vote against hunting, is it will affect us badly at the next general election. I do not doubt that for one minute. I hope that people will take note of that.

I shall say a word or two about the merits or demerits of the case. We have not three, but two options tonight. We can abolish hunting with dogs, which the majority of people want, or we can use one of the other two systems that keep it going. There is no difference between an unregulated system and a licensed system. The licensed system simply appears to give a little more credibility to what is barbaric and unacceptable.

We are not talking about people being against the culling of foxes. That is as old as mankind. We no longer have wolves and bears in this country, because they were a threat to man's food supply, and they were eliminated. I have no doubt that foxes will be kept down, whatever method is used.

People wax lyrical about what a wonderful thing the hunt is, but I cannot think of a worse way of destroying an animal. Only two other methods come to mind, and they are similar. One is to boil the fox alive, and the other is to burn it alive. Those are just about the only alternatives that are worse than hunting.

A small vociferous minority have been able to hold sway for far too long. The vast majority do not want hunting to go on; they want something done about it. It is all right talking about tolerance. Like everyone else, I accept that it is wrong for minorities to be persecuted, but we are not speaking of persecuting minorities. The minority will not be affected in any way, other than losing a certain type of enjoyment.

My hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Mr. Steinberg) made it clear that there was a simple alternative. If people want to go on enjoying the pageantry, the uniforms and all the rest of the rigmarole, they can use a drag hunt. It is quite satisfactory. That is the real compromise, not licensing.

The same arguments in favour of hunting have probably been used for the past 500 years. No doubt the same arguments were put forward when eminent people were trying to abolish the slave trade—"Oh, you can't interfere with people's rights. People have a right to buy and sell slaves." When we stopped children cleaning chimneys, the

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opponents no doubt said, "Oh, we can't interfere with someone's personal freedom." Those arguments are ludicrous. They have no credibility whatever—none at all.

A small, extremely influential minority seem to have the Government frightened. That is my impression, and the impression of many members of the public. If, after the vote against hunting tonight, the Government do not do something about it, and if my right hon. Friend the Minister's statement is not to the effect that we will use the Parliament Act if the House of Lords once again proves obstructive, we will lose a tremendous amount of credibility.

I shall not say much more, as I said all I had to say 14 months ago. Hunting is a barbaric practice which we in the House should be ashamed to say still goes on in this country. Unless we are prepared to do something about it, the rest of the country will hold us in the contempt that we will thoroughly deserve.

7.54 pm

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire): I begin with two words of thanks. First, a word of thanks to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, after my earlier challenge to the Chair about the right to speak of the hon. Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks), my fellow Chelsea supporter. His speech was entertaining but, I am afraid, not particularly convincing.

I also express my gratitude to the Minister for the evenhanded way in which he has approached the matter so far. I have every confidence in his evenhandedness, despite his earlier record and voting on the issue. I am grateful to him for the great courtesy that he showed to the Middle Way Group at the meeting that we had with him.

Scylla, as hon. Members will remember, was a horrible six-headed monster who lived on a rock on one side of a narrow strait, and Charybdis was a whirlpool on the other side. When ships passed close to Scylla's rock in order to avoid Charybdis, she—the monster—would seize and devour the sailors. Aeneas, Jason and Odysseus all had to pass through the narrow strait, and when they passed, they were not engaging in some soggy compromise or refusing to take some braver, nobler path; they were taking the only safe path, a middle way, and one that demanded great courage and skill.

So it is that I am proud to stand shoulder to shoulder with the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), who spoke earlier, the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) and an increasing band of adventurers in the House, including the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) and, I believe, the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca–Davies). I am proud to count myself among their number as we steer the middle way between the hunt banners of Scylla and the countryside campaigners of Charybdis.

I shall not rehearse all the arguments in favour of hunting—that has already been done spectacularly well, particularly by my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague)—nor will I rehearse all the arguments against, although others have done that less persuasively.

I shall simply try to demolish eight of the arguments most frequently deployed against our proposition—a twofold proposition, remember, that hunting should be

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licensed and a new offence created of causing unnecessary suffering to a wild mammal. Hunting without a licence issued by the new authority would be a criminal act attracting a fine of up to £5,000. The authority could revoke a licence as a punishment for breach of a tough code of conduct.

Let us consider the eight arguments—first, that to license hunting is to license cruelty. Nonsense. That is just wrong. To ban hunting is to increase the suffering of the fox population, as speech after speech from Opposition Members has made clear. Alternative control methods would be used more frequently. To ban hunting—I look at the hon. Member for West Ham as I say this, because he is fond of the line about licensing cruelty—is to increase unregulated and uncontrolled killing of mammals. That is the simple truth, which the hon. Gentleman must accept.

That is a paradox, I know. The Burns report used the word "paradox" extensively. To ban hunting is to increase animal suffering. I am sorry that my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), for whom I usually have such respect, and whom I am glad to see in her place, cannot see that.

The second argument is that hunting is perfectly all right as it is. It is not. Monitors have filmed activities by hunts that are unacceptable and that should not be occurring under the current Independent Supervisory Authority's rules. In my constituency, hunts have frequently shown insufficient respect for the rights and freedoms of others by trespass, selfish parking and reckless behaviour. Those can be dealt with by licensing, not by a ban.

The third argument, which was deployed by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton) in her opening speech, is that self-regulation is good enough. It is not. Even if all the codes of practice of the Independent Supervisory Authority on Hunting are perfect—I think that some of them are pretty good—self-regulation lacks credibility and effectiveness. It lacks credibility because it is a creature of the hunting world. The wider general public will not accept its independence. It lacks effectiveness because it polices only those who want to be policed by it. It excludes several hunts—not all hunts subscribe to ISAH—and it excludes all individual dog owners, the lurcher owners. ISAH does not regulate hunting effectively or comprehensively. It is not a sufficient answer. Only statutory regulation of the kind that we suggest can do that.

The fourth argument is that hunting must be banned because most people want it banned. We have heard that argument repeatedly, most recently from the hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Etherington) and the hon. Member for West Ham. The claim is not true. There is no longer a majority for a ban among the British general public.

Opinion poll after opinion poll, and some straw polls such as that conducted by The Sun, show 74 per cent. opposition. Some scientific polls conducted by National Opinion Polls and others show a majority in favour of keeping hunting, either on its current basis or on a regulated basis. There is no longer a majority of the public backing a ban. That fact cannot be disputed. It is

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demonstrably true. Even those who want a ban could not care less about the issue; they think that there are much more important things that we should be worrying about.

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