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Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton): Earlier this afternoon I was rather too keen to get on with the debate in order to share my own experience with the House. I have never spoken in a debate on hunting before, and I thought it important to set out my stall.
It was when I was a 17-year-old at grammar school, which will be another red rag to the bulls opposite, that I was first invited to become joint master of the South Staffordshire hunt, and I served for five seasons as field master. During that time I learned many of the skills that are needed for politics, not least the ability to lead from the front and to develop a thick skin to withstand the slings and arrows that are sometimes aimed at us. At the time, I was the youngest master of foxhounds in the country, but I am not sure whether that record still stands. I continued to hunt with my family, on and off, until the early 1980s, and now occasionally go out with the Forest and District beagles in Cheshire. I especially enjoy being up in the hills, where life is pretty hard but the people are the most genuine.
In all that time I have never considered hunting cruelif I had, I would not have taken part. It always seemed to me to be the greatest privilege of all to be able to follow hounds and to watch them work in the company of others who respected and loved the traditions of the countryside as much as I did. When I was a joint master I worked to a voluntary code drawn up by the Masters of Foxhounds Association; I therefore know from personal experience that the system of self-regulation works. That arrangement has more recently been superseded by the Independent Supervisory Authority on Hunting, which operates at no cost to the taxpayer but ensures that all recognised hunting with dogs is accountable. I support that organisation wholeheartedly and believe that the best way forward is to back it and self-regulation.
The breathtaking arrogance and insensitivity of this Government have to be seen to be believed. At a time when the countryside is still reeling from the shock of a devastating outbreak of foot and mouth disease, and on top of the deepest farming recession since the 1930s, the Government seek to kick the countryside in the teeth once again by introducing this debate on hunting. In the current climate of rural crisis, it is an unacceptable distraction from the real issues that face the countryside, let alone the nation.
Mr. Colin Challen (Morley and Rothwell): Given how well the hon. Lady knows the countryside people she has mixed with through hunting, will she denounce those in the hunting lobby who have said that if the House passes a law outlawing their activity, they will break the law?
Mrs. Winterton: The hon. Gentleman refers to the people whom I have met through hunting. In fact, I come from a farming background and have lived in the countryside all my life, so not all the people I know hunt, although most of them support field and country sports. Like him, I do not believe that any group should break the law of this land. I believe in the rule of law.
To most rational people, it seems extraordinary that the Government have dropped what we were told were important pieces of legislation owing to a shortage of parliamentary time, yetsurprise, surprisehave miraculously found time to buy off the hounds on the Labour Back Benches who are giving glorious tongue to their dissatisfaction with their party and its obvious failures. The deal to save the skin of the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regionsfor the time beinghas not gone unnoticed by the people of this country, especially by those whose lives will be adversely affected by a possible ban and those who may lose both their livelihood and their homes.
While the nation's priorities on the domestic agenda, such as health, rising crime, transport and education, are being sidelined, this matter is being driven by single-issue Back Benchers and campaigning groups who do not have the best interests of the countryside at heart, know little of its ways and care even less about its people. If they succeed in banning hunting, they will be personally responsible for a worsening of animal welfare.
Mrs. Lorna Fitzsimons (Rochdale): As someone who was brought up in a village at the base of the Pennines and who knows how hard it is to be a hill farmer, may I ask the hon. Lady to accept from me how little foxhunting has to do with many in the rural community? What does
Bob Spink (Castle Point): May I take my hon. Friend back to the point that she was making about the welfare of the fox? Is she aware that four senior executives of the League Against Cruel Sports have withdrawn their call for a ban on hunting precisely because it has been shown that such a ban would have adverse consequences for the welfare of the fox?
Farmers have a statutory obligation to control pests such as foxes. That control should include both dispersal and culling, but never the extermination of an indigenous species. Following the voluntary suspension of hunting owing to foot and mouth last springthis will answer the question put by the hon. Member for Rochdale (Mrs. Fitzsimons)including suspension of the lambing call service, farmers started to report to hunts that acute fox predation was occurring, resulting in severe lamb losses.
The need to control the fox population cannot be challenged, but the debate, more often than not, focuses on cruelty or perceived cruelty. I commend the former Home Secretary for setting up an independent committee of inquiry into hunting with dogs in England and Wales, commonly known as the Burns committee after its distinguished chairman. I only wish that the Government had been as forthcoming in seeking after the truth about the cause and handling of the foot and mouth epidemicbut we all know why they were not.
Mrs. Winterton: In fact I did not go hare coursing in my pony club days, but I did go hare coursing once with a local veterinary surgeon. Funnily enough, it is the only field and country sport in which people do not seek to kill the quarry, and I do not personally believe it to be cruel, but the hon. Gentleman obviously does.
In addition, Burns concluded that none of the legal methods of fox control is without difficulty from an animal welfare perspective. There are welfare implications for all legal methods of managing the fox population and, on welfare grounds, no clear case has been made to separate hunting from other forms of control as a method that should be banned.
The question that has to be answered by those who seek to ban hunting is: what alternative method would cause less suffering, would be more naturalafter all, foxes themselves live by huntingand would provide such benefits to conservation and biodiversity? Farmers sympathetic to hunting have enhanced the British landscape by ensuring that hedgerows, thickets and woodland are well managed, providing an appropriate habitat for a variety of species. Research has shown that areas managed for hunting are significantly more biologically diverse than unmanaged areas.
People are important too, however, and what a terrible impact a total ban on hunting would have on the rural economy, which is still reeling from the after-effects of foot and mouth disease. With average net farm income having fallen to £5,200 per farm in England and £4,100 in Wales, it seems an act of spiteful vandalism to destroy literally thousands of jobs in deeply rural areas, when it is simply not necessary to do so and where no meaningful alternative employment exists.