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Lord Livsey of Talgarth: Yes, my Lords, I accept what the noble Lord has said, but I have also made it clear that, in parliamentary terms, we have an independent view. That occurs in the House of Commons as well as in this House.
The noble Lord, Lord Bragg, made a very forceful speech, as did my noble friends Lord Phillips, Lord Mackie and Lady Thomas, the noble Lords, Lord Moran and Lord Stoddart of Swindon, and the noble Lord, Lord Grabiner. The noble Lord, Lord Desai, made a particularly interesting speech, as did many others.
I respect those who oppose hunting on principle, if it is on principle and not out of prejudice. I include in that category my noble friends Lady Walmsley and Lord McNally, the noble Lords, Lord Faulkner and Lord Hoyle himself, in spite of his intervention, and others. I do not know whether he lives in his former constituency, but I still see quite a lot of it and I am sure that there are precious few livestock there.
Attempting to sum up the debate is very difficult. None the less, we have before us a Bill which introduces a ban on hunting. It replaces a Government Bill that allowed hunting to proceed through licensing and regulation. The truth is that Ministers in another place caved in to the extreme pressure of amendments to ban hunting. Editorials in the Guardian and the Independent put a reasoned case as to why such an outcome was fundamentally flawed. They concluded that the Bill is now unjust, oppressive and profoundly illiberal, which is a point with which I particularly agree. I can express my own view as my party grants me the freedom of speech to do so.
Unfortunately, the Bill underlines the divide between urban and country dwellers. It alienates country people from the democratic process through the misuse of parliamentary democracy to criminalise the legitimate protection of farm livestock and wildlife from the predation of the fox. The rearing of livestock is a labour of love, although little about that has been said today. I assure noble Lords that one month of lambing of any reasonable size of ewe flock will result in physical and mental exhaustion. Lambing often takes place at 2 a.m. or 4 a.m.a little later than this House is sitting tonightand the ewes represent years of detailed breeding and selection. The output of lambs can be ruined in seconds by the predations of the fox and, indeed, five, 10 or 20 headless lambs in a field can bear witness to that. In my own case, with a 250-ewe flock, in my worst year 39 lambs were lost. That works out at approximately 5 per cent of the lamb output, worth more than £1,000.
We all know that foxes kill. My former constituency of Brecon and Radnorshire, which I represented for 11 years in Parliament, was hunted by nine hunts. Those hunts accounted for approximately 2,000 foxes per annum, and that has been the case consistently for the past 30 years. From a utility point of view, I believe that those hunts have kept foxes under control and, indeed, in balance. Foxes are pests to livestock farmers and the fox population is stable.
As my noble friend Lord Hooson and the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, pointed out earlier, one of the main problems has been the impact of blanket conifer forestry planted since World War II. That has imposed an unnatural environment and created a reservoir for the fox population in the uplands. I submit that in those areas only the activities of the foot gun packs have successfully controlled foxes over the years. If we have the opportunity to amend the Bill, I, as an individual, would certainly support the types of amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, and referred to by my noble friend Lord Hooson.
The middle way has been referred to in this debate, together with the proposal to license hunting. Those mirror very much proposals in the previous Bill, which was lost in the House of Commons. We must remember that the principles incorporated in the middle way include: first, an independent hunting authority which licenses hunting; secondly, a legally binding code of practice; thirdly, penalties to underwrite that practice; fourthly, a proposal to cover all methods of fox control and not only hunting; and, finally, independent inspectorsI ask noble Lords to note that those are not the policeto enforce the licence conditions. Those principles are supported, for example, by four directors of the League Against Cruel Sports and by two out of three vets in the countryside. The proposals are practical and fair and, indeed, are supported by many people. Many of the principles were incorporated in the original Bill.
There is no doubt that with the loss of lambs, in particular, the Bill poses a vexed question in the countryside. Some speeches made reference to the communities where hunting occurs and, in particular, to the upland areas, where there are no other real means of controlling foxes. There is no doubt that in those places it will be a devastating blow if hunting is banned because the only way to get foxes out of blanket forestry, for example, is by using packs of dogs. I am afraid that that is a fact and those foxes must be controlled. The economic loss there has been considerable.
The options contained within hunting are: hunting with hounds; dogs with gun packs; lamping with dogs; driving foxes from a thicket or woods to shoot them; the foot packs associated with gun packs; and combining fox shoots on foot with gun dogs and terriers to flush out the foxes. As I see it, none of those can be practically achieved in the Bill as it stands before us tonight because the proposed legislation refers to the use of only two dogs at a time. The practicalities of that do not bear close examination.
Other matters, for example, deer hunting, have been mentioned. I do not claim to be an expert on that but I listen to those people on Exmoor who know more than I do about it and I am prepared to listen very carefully indeed to those arguments to see whether they can be sustained. From the speeches made here tonight it is quite clear that there are very passionate views in favour of the management of the deer population on Exmoor. The fact that that is supported by the national park needs to be listened to very carefully.
The question of mink hunting, mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Golding, is particularly important. Mink are not native to this country and, indeed, cause terrible damage. There is no doubt that they are responsible for the water vole practically disappearing from our countryside. Certainly, the moorhen has practically disappeared also as a result of the predation of mink. There is no doubt that mink should be eliminated because of all the damage they do, not least attacking the fish population and depriving otters, for example, of natural food. Many issues of that kind need to be considered.
There is a fundamental difference between the Bill before us tonight and the Bill that was here previously. The previous Bill was permissive through licensing and regulation. This Bill criminalises those who propose to hunt and, indeed, bans hunting. That is a fundamental situation which confronts the House tonight, and more so the other place. As has been said by the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, and others, that criminalisation means that the police will be unable to enforce such legislation. That must be bad legislation. Not only that, it divides country people from the police where co-operation has been very close indeed. I refer to the police authority with which I am most familiar, the Dyfed Powys police authority, which has the best detection rate in the whole of the United Kingdomnearly 60 per cent. That has been achieved by the consent of the local population, which has assisted the police by close co-operation. That precious co-operation can be destroyed by legislation of this kind by dividing country people from their police force.
There is no doubt that the libertarian principles espoused here tonight by many speakersI was interested to hear the noble Lord, Lord Donoghue, speak of his Bill, which will shortly be debated; I believe there is a lot of mileage in thatare clearly those of the right to protect farm livestock and the right to a leisure activity which keeps wild species in balance. The introduction of indefensible sanctions will criminalise country dwellers and result in their imprisonment.
Viscount Astor: My Lords, it is over 18 months since this House last had a substantive debate on hunting. The issues before us have changed very little. We are once again debating animal welfare, conservation in the countryside, civil liberties and the meaning of tolerance in a free society.
However, the Government's attitude towards them has changed dramatically. Last year they preached tolerance, proposed compromise and promised to listen; today, they support an outright ban on hunting. The listening began last September with three days of evidence taken at Portcullis House. The result was a government Bill to establish a regulatory framework for hunting; a sensible compromise supported by many on all sides, and certainly by a majority in this House.
Ministers then defended their proposals in Committee, which lasted 75 hours over 27 sittings. Indeed, they carried on defending them right through to the very end of the Report stage in another place. Yet, faced with an ambush sprung five minutes before the end of that debate, the Minister, Alun Michael, dramatically withdrew his proposals, leaving the Floor clear for a Back-Bench amendment to ban hunting. Promises of compromise, consultation and tolerance turned to dust in minutes as the Government traded votes for their National Health Service reforms with a ban on hunting.
As explained by the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, and by my noble friends Lord King of Bridgwater and Lord Mancroft, the move was a humiliating defeat for the Minister. As he had told the Deputy Prime Minister on 14th May,
Let me turn to some of the issues raised in today's debate and start with animal welfare. The Burns report, so ably chaired by the noble Lord, did not state, as the Minister suggested, that hunting is cruel. This extensive inquiry neither condemned hunting as cruel nor recommended a total ban. Instead, it pointed out that a ban would not save a single fox, as other methods would be used to keep the fox population under control. All methods of fox control have welfare implications, as anyone who has tried to shoot a fox or seen an animal caught in a snare will know.
It is worth repeating that as a result of the Burns report and further debate in this House, a consensus was reached that a licensing system would address animal welfare issues. It received overwhelming support in this House when we last debated and voted on the issue in March last year.
Secondly, there is the moral debate that surrounds hunting. In the past five years we have heard from no fewer than seven right reverend Prelates from the Bishops' Benches. All have spoken in support of huntingnone against. Today we have heard three powerful and compelling speeches from the Bishops' Benchesfrom the right reverend Prelates the Bishop of Hereford, the Bishop of Peterborough and the Bishop of Guildfordall against a ban.
The right reverend Prelates have consistently and convincingly argued that anthropomorphic attitudes towards the psychology of animals misleadingly suggests that they experience life exactly as we doan argument that rejects the diversity of creation. Nor should we forget those faiths that are less well represented in this House. There is little support for a ban from them. Indeed, Jews and Muslims are now under pressure, as explained by the noble Lord, Lord Bragg, to ban ritual slaughter, from the very same pressure groups that would outlaw hunting. Yet ritual slaughter is central to their religious beliefs and is a process that has not been found to be cruel by Defra. As the noble Lord, Lord Grabiner, said, there is no general consensus that hunting is morally unacceptable.
The third aspect of the debate centres around conservation. The Government accept that shooting and fishing play a valuable role in conserving the countryside, but they now appear to totally reject the conservation role played by hunting. Those involved in field sports more than most spend precious time, and their own money, conserving our rural heritage. We all benefit from the richness and diversity of our countryside. That is man-made, tended by those who live in and care for it. To quote from the Burns report,
This House is a revising Chamber and I hope that your Lordships will do just that. I should like to see the Bill amended so that the principles of licensed hunting as originally proposed by the Government are returned to the Bill. That would present the Government with an opportunity to take back control of their own Bill.
I accept that another place might not agree. In such a situation, should the Government reintroduce a banning Bill and attempt to invoke the Parliament Act? The Parliament Act was designed to enable Governments to push through their legislation. But a banning Bill is not the Government's legislation. It is the work of Back-Bench MPs with no commitment to tolerance or compromise.
The Parliament Act is for driving through government Bills, but this is not a government Bill, no matter what the Minister says. There are strong legal and moral reasons why the Government should not use the Act to bulldoze this legislation through. Parliament should uphold the rights of minorities, not ride roughshod over them. Democracies become elective dictatorships when they ride roughshod over the rights of minorities. Democracy requires respect for the rights, beliefs and traditions of the minority.
Nor should we ignore the consequences of a ban. First, there would be protracted legal battles about whether a ban breached common law, the Human Rights Act 1998 or both. Laws passed by Parliament, as recent Home Secretaries from both parties have discovered, are often thrown out by the judiciary. A case is currently waiting to be heard in Scotland on this very issue.
Secondly, there is a real risk of civil disobedience and social unrest in the countryside. Many would see a ban as an unjust law. Professor Ronald Dworkin's standard moral position on civil disobedience in a recent article gives us a clear perspective:
The noble Lord, Lord Carlile, summed up those issues in his speech. Civil disobedience would be a major challenge for the police. As my noble friend Lord Hurd said, they would face a no-win situation. It is worth repeating the words of Alastair McWhirter,
When we last debated hunting, I made a plea to the Government that they had an opportunity to take the conflict out of the countrysideto do away with attitudes such as those of the Deputy Prime Minister, who once said:
As the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, said, the Labour Party promised that Parliament would have the opportunity to settle the matter once and for all; it did not promise a banning Bill. The Minister promised that he would achieve that goal in a fair, balanced and scientific way that would stand the test of time. He tried, but failed, defeated by a cabal of his own Back-Benchers, whom one might call the "class war vegetarians".
If we returned the Bill, with a workableI stress the word "workable"licensing system, to another place, the Government might still have an opportunity to reclaim their Bill. We know that the Minister is against hunting; so are his ministerial colleagues in another place. It is sad that they all seem to despise our rural and farming communities, and that they appear so unwilling to listen. But now they have a chance for a change to do something right, to disprove their critics and to promote a Bill that can balance civil liberty and individual freedom with sensible and reasonable legislation. If the Minister does not do that, we will.
Those are the words of the noble Lord's Prime Minister, Tony Blair, to Congress this summer. I am sorry that he does not agree with them, but I hope that the rest of your Lordships' House will remember those words as the Bill proceeds through this House.