Gerry Steinberg MPHunting debate

Commons Hansard
30 Jun 2003

Hunting Debate

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Is the shadow Leader of the House aware that we have spent 120 hours debating the issue over the past few years and that the vast majority of us have discussed it until we are blue in the face? All we want to do now is vote.

Mr. Forth: I do not know why the hon. Gentleman thinks that 120 hours is, in itself, sufficient. It may not be. The very fact that his right hon. and hon. Friends legitimately take a different view suggests that the issue cannot just be voted on. There are matters properly to be discussed.

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Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Now that we can see how circumstances have turned out, does the right hon. Lady agree that the Minister should now withdraw his new clause?

Miss Widdecombe: I have no hesitation in supporting the call for the Minister to withdraw his new clause, but I equally have no hesitation in predicting that he will not do so, so I need not spend time attempting to persuade him.

Whichever of the new clauses is passed tonight, if the Bill comes to fruition, we shall be living in a more civilised and kinder society than the one in which we live now. I would be the first to accept that it is necessary to kill foxes, and the first to accept that an argument of necessity can be made for killing other species. However, at the beginning of the 21st century, the fact that people should want to make a sport and gain pleasure out of it absolutely beggars belief.

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Mr. Steinberg : I support new clause 11 and will vote against Government new clause 13 with pleasure. Let me make it clear from the start that new clause 11 will not in any way wreck the Bill, as was reported in the newspapers over the weekend. In fact, as far as I am concerned, it will make the Bill acceptable, and it will keep the promise that I have made to my constituents since I became a Member of Parliament in 1987.

I am bitterly disappointed with the Government's attitude towards hunting with dogs. If my memory serves me correctly, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) substantiated this, it has been a manifesto commitment since about 1987. The manipulation that we have witnessed today, whether it has come from the Whips Office or the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, has been a disgraceful attempt to stop us pressing new clause 11 to a Division. From the stories that I have heard, it seems that the Committee, too, was conned. This entire debate should have taken place in Committee and we should not be voting this evening on a clause to ban fox hunting. That should have been done in Committee.

My disappointment began in 1997, when an overwhelming majority of the House voted for fox hunting to be banned - 411 voted for and 151 voted against a ban. What did the Labour Government do? With a long history of commitment to the issue and a magnificent majority to carry it out, they did nothing. The party leadership let the Bill fall.

Dr. Palmer: Although I sympathise up to a point, does not my hon. Friend feel that he is being a little harsh? Tonight, for the first time, we have the opportunity and the realistic prospect of banning hunting for good. We have the Labour Government to thank for that. They have taken too long over it, but we have got there.

Mr. Steinberg: That is one way of looking at it. No, I do not think I am being too harsh. We have had an opportunity since 1997. We have had a majority of more than 100 in the House for the past six years, we made a commitment, and we have not carried it out. I am delighted with the situation tonight but no, I do not think I have been too harsh. I have raised the matter many a time with my hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment. In fact, I have stopped buying him drinks because of his attitude towards it.

Dr. Stoate: Given the overwhelming majority of hon. Members who have expressed a clear opinion on what they want - a total ban on such a cruel and barbaric sport - would it not have been better if the Bill had been constructed in Committee to allow that to happen with the minimum fuss and bother, so that we could all have got what we wanted with far less trouble than we have had this evening?

Mr. Steinberg: Absolutely right. That is the point that I was trying to make. If the Committee had done its job properly - I do not mean that disrespectfully towards the Committee - if it had not been brainwashed and bullied, we would not be in the situation that we are in tonight. The debate could have been over quickly and we could all have been home now.

There have been several approaches since 1997, which have frustrated my constituents, me and the general public because of the lack of commitment by the Government to the promise that they made many years ago. The issue may be of low priority, but its political significance is very great. However, being an optimistic chap, I was delighted when I heard that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Rural Affairs and Local Environmental Quality, the newly promoted DEFRA Minister, was to introduce yet another hunting Bill. I was delighted and very confident, because he had served on the previous hunting Bill and had made a good defence of the abolition of hunting, so I was certain that he would find a way forward and resolve the issue cleanly and clearly.

However, I was to be bitterly disappointed. In December 2002, DEFRA introduced a Bill that turned around the objectives of previous Bills on hunting with dogs and offered a ban on hunting, with provision for licensed and humane pest control. No one wanted to take away the rights of farmers to protect their stock.

The Bill introduced for the first time proposals to license fox hunting. I was bemused. If I recollect correctly, the House clearly rejected a licensing system in 2001 when the then Home Secretary, now the Foreign Secretary, proposed his options Bill, which was defeated heavily in the House.

9.15 p.m.

I pay tribute to colleagues who served on the Committee, who attempted to reverse the objectives back to a focus on pest control. They succeeded to a degree, but we are left with a Bill that allows the licensing of the chasing of foxes and of mink. Many constituents cannot and will not understand how the House of Commons can justify introducing different welfare standards for different wild animals, especially as we have spent more than 120 hours debating the issue each time with the same result. Hunting serves no useful purpose, is cruel and should be banned.

As we can see this evening, the Bill has come out of Committee pleasing no one. It is a typical liberal fudge, hoping to appease the fox hunters and those who support abolition. In essence, the Bill will do the opposite of what it intends. As we see this evening, it has alienated everyone in all parties. One cannot please everyone and be sincere, unless of course one is a Liberal when attempting to do that. I should not be nasty; some of them will be supporting us tonight.

There is no middle way of licensing. A document posted to me recently from a Reverend Professor Linzey from Oxford university - I had never heard of him - contained an interesting quote. He said:

"Licensing does not resolve the issue. It devolves it from Parliament (where the decision should be taken) to a three-member tribunal who will decide on a case-by-case basis. Moreover, licensing by definition authorises what was not authorised before. It therefore legitimises hunting, gives it authority and legal standing. Licensing is a step backwards - not a step forwards."

Lembit Ípik: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Steinberg: I will not. The hon. Gentleman has had a good say today. I want to get on because others want to get in.

Licensing has done nothing to abolish fox hunting, which clearly the Bill set out to do. The Bill has banned hare coursing and hunting and deer hunting, but not fox hunting, which was the prime aim in the first place. Fox hunting was the core issue and it has been ignored. If it is wrong to hunt hare and deer, I cannot for the life of me understand why it is not wrong to hunt foxes and mink. It is not logical to me.

A while ago I watched the Prime Minister promise on television to ban fox hunting. It is now all a matter of trust and those who put their trust in the Government to ban fox hunting must not be let down. Not to deliver would be a further nail in the coffin of this Government. The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) used the word "ratted". That will be an apt word if the Bill does not go through this evening with a total ban.

The Government and the Prime Minister promised that the decision made by this House would be respected and accepted and that, if necessary, the Parliament Act would be used if the Bill failed to pass through the House of Lords. If this promise is not kept, we on this side of the House will suffer the consequences at the ballot box, and rightly so. The Government must not try to wriggle out of the commitment that they have given to pacify a loud but tiny minority.

Many questions need to be asked. Why did the Bill not provide the fox with the same protection as deer and hare? Why could not the Bill have been drafted so as to give protection to these wild mammals while providing pest control measures? What evidence do we have that a ban with sensible measures would not be passed or supported by the Government? Why do we read or hear that any move to tighten the Bill might result in the Parliament Act not being used? I am delighted to say that my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) has wheedled out of the Government this evening that, regardless of how the Bill leaves the House this evening, it will qualify for the Parliament Act. That is a step forward.

The Committee significantly strengthened the Bill, but it still allows the registrar to issue a licence for hunters to chase and kill mink and foxes. How can I go back to my constituents and party workers and state that hunting is banned, when we know that very soon - if the Bill stays as the Committee left it - we will see television footage of the first successful applicant hunt going out in its normal way?

That will not help build the trust that the Government are so keen to restore. If I were standing at the next election, I would be very anxious about the number of votes that I would lose on this issue. I, and many of my colleagues, have signed countless pledges and early-day motions, not to mention voting for a ban on at least three other occasions. No doubt many colleagues have also written letter after letter expressing support for and commitment to an outright ban on hunting with dogs.

Indeed, I remind the House - [Interruption.] I am coming to an end now. I have sat here for five hours, and now I am going to have my say. I remind the House of the Minister's speech in the Commons, before his return to the Government, in which he stated:

"It is entirely wrong to think that a licensing system, giving rise to all sorts of bureaucracy and complications, would resolve the problems relating to animal welfare and caused by animal cruelty." - [Official Report, 27 February 2001; Vol. 363, c. 836.]
That is why I support new clause 11, which was tabled by the majority of the Committee on the Hunting Bill and supported by more than 140 of my colleagues. I support both the Minister's statement then and the new clause now, and call on the Government to give Back Benchers of all parties, party workers and the general public what they want: a complete ban on hunting with dogs, to resolve this issue once and for all. Then we can start to build good relations with the general public once again.

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