Gerry Steinberg MPHunting Bill

Commons Hansard
16 Dec 2002

Hunting Bill

8.38 pm

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): I have opposed foxhunting on cruelty grounds for the last 20 years, and I have not changed my mind. It was cruel 20 years ago, and it is cruel today. I will vote for Second Reading, but only because the Bill can be amended in Committee.

I despair when I consider the situation in which the Government have landed us because they did not have the guts to ban hunting when we were elected five years ago, and now have not the guts to introduce a Bill to ban hunting with dogs outright. I am very disappointed with the Bill, and with the way in which the Government have handled things since 1997. During the last five years they have lost a huge amount of reputation and trust over this issue - especially among members of the Labour party, and particularly among people who voted Labour on two occasions because banning hunting was a manifesto commitment - which has been very damaging.

Dr. Palmer: Does my hon. Friend agree that we should not look a gift fox in the mouth? If we succeed in banning hunting through the Bill, hon. Members who have been disappointed will forgive us.

Mr. Steinberg: I am not sure whether we shall be forgiven, but my hon. Friend is right that the Bill is the only way in which we can ban foxhunting. I shall therefore vote for it tonight.

There has been an inexcusable delay in resolving the issue, and more than 100 hours of parliamentary time have been spent in wasted, repetitive debate, when the arguments were clearly won by hon. Members who wanted to ban hunting. More important, thousands of animals have continued to suffer and die unnecessarily in the past six years. That includes the hounds and other dogs that are used in fox, deer, hare and mink hunting.

The Burns inquiry and the public hearing have demonstrated that hunting with hounds causes immense suffering to wild animals. They are chased to exhaustion, brutally savaged by the pack of hounds or forced to fight underground with terriers. However, what about the tools of all that cruelty, the hounds and the terriers?

The foxhound has a short and harsh life. Puppies that do not show aptitude for hunting or fail to meet the requirements are normally shot by the kennel man. Those that are fortunate enough to make the grade are trained to chase and kill foxes during the cub-hunting season. That unpleasant side of hunting involves chasing and killing fox cubs to teach young hounds how to kill. One does not often hear hunters discussing the merits of cub hunting; they prefer to keep quiet about it.

Hounds will follow wherever the scent of their quarry takes them. That makes the route for hunting live quarry unpredictable and much more exciting for the mounted field. The price of that "fun" is that many hounds are run over on roads or even hit by speeding trains after straying on to railway lines. Others become injured on barbed wire fencing or get lost from the pack for days.

There are numerous reports of hounds being electrocuted and killed. In one case, the New Forest Foxhounds trespassed on a railway line, resulting in the death of six hounds. [Interruption.] Conservative Members do not like to hear such information because they enjoy seeing the killing and the cruelty to animals. They will vote for that this evening. Passengers on a train from London to Bournemouth witnessed the train running over the bodies of the hounds.

If the hounds survive all that, we would expect them, like most working dogs, to be retired to live a comfortable life in the country. Sadly, we would be wrong. When the hounds reach the age of approximately six or seven - half their normal life expectancy - they are simply shot. They are taken around the back of the kennels, where a bullet is put in the back of their heads. That makes a mockery of the hunts' claims that, in the event of a ban on hunting with dogs, they will have no alternative but to shoot their hounds; they shoot them anyway. It is estimated that hunts around the country kill between 3,000 and 5,000 hounds every year.

I support the RSPCA's view that a mass slaughter of hounds in the event of a ban would be irresponsible and unnecessary. I am pleased that the RSPCA has pledged to do all it can to prevent such needless destruction at the hands of the hunts. The Burns inquiry into hunting with dogs found that "any need to put down hounds or horses, in the event of a ban, could be minimised if there was a suitable lead-in time before it was implemented".

The previous Government hunting measure, which fell in March 2001, contained such a lead-in period. The RSPCA believes that responsible hunts should start to wind down their breeding programmes immediately to reduce the number left in the case of a ban. I call on responsible hunts to start to wind down their breeding programmes now.

I am sure that the Bill will be amended to reflect the will of the public and Parliament. I hope that there is no pressure on the payroll vote, although it is normally applied in the case of a Government Bill. If, through such pressure, the measure is passed in its current form, hunts will be left with uncertainty that may cause further suffering to hounds. It may take years for some licence applications to be resolved. In the meantime, hunts would be left with packs of redundant hounds, with no subscriptions to cover the cost of their care.

If foxhunting, hare coursing and deer hunting were banned outright through the Bill, at least hunts would have time to consider three options properly. First, they could disband and give their hounds a different home. Secondly, they could disband the hunt but keep the hounds. Thirdly, they could convert to drag hunting. I believe that a switch to drag hunting would be the preferable option, as it would allow members of the hunt to continue to enjoy the sport, the pageantry that they like, and the social side of hunting, while allowing the hounds to continue to be kept in packs.

The cruelty that these so-called sports inflict on dogs and wildlife is totally unjustifiable. The only way to prevent it is to introduce a ban on these barbaric and bloodthirsty forms of hunting with dogs. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) has called the Bill a fudge, and I absolutely agree with him. As we have seen this evening, it causes confusion and uncertainty, and creates the possibility that the cruelty of foxhunting could continue. I must ask the Minister why it stops short of a complete ban. In reality, he has chosen a Bill that appeases absolutely no one. It does not appease the Countryside Alliance, the Campaign for the Protection of Hunted Animals, or the public, and it certainly has not appeased Members of Parliament. I can only imagine that it has been devised in an attempt to appease both sides in this long-running debate. Perhaps the Government were frightened by the pro-hunting lobby's ability to get large numbers of people to take to the streets by wrapping the issue up in a number of genuine rural concerns.

Alun Michael: While I accept my hon. Friend's views on the Bill, I would ask him to accept that the way in which the process has been undertaken and the way in which the Bill has been drafted have been based entirely on trying to get the right principles into place and to deal with the issue so as to enable Parliament to reach a conclusion on it. I ask him at least to accept the integrity with which I have attempted to bring the Bill before Parliament.

Mr. Steinberg: I certainly accept that; I am not questioning the Minister's integrity at all. I think that he has been misguided in bringing us a Bill that appeases nobody, but I would certainly not accuse him of doing anything that was not proper.

Having said that, however, I would say to the Minister that, if the Bill was introduced to appease the Countryside Alliance, whose actions we have seen outside the House today, let us consider the reasons that its members took to the streets for a so-called liberty and livelihood march. In my view, that march had nothing to do with foxhunting at all. Only 47 per cent. of the marchers lived in the middle of the countryside. A quarter of them lived in towns, and 52 per cent. were affluent people from social categories A and B. Eighty-two per cent. of the marchers voted Conservative. The Countryside Alliance march was a political rally. It was an anti-Government march, not a pro-countryside march. Recent military-style action and the threat of civil disobedience and law breaking are indicative of a growing desperation among the pro-hunt lobby that simply goes to show that its members have lost the arguments on hunting. Attempts by a small minority to block the wishes of the majority of people in this country and cause significant disruption to commuters, businesses and families travelling away for the weekend show scant regard for the democratic process.

I would have liked to go on speaking. I acknowledge the effort that the Minister has put into the Bill, but he could have saved himself a lot of time and a great deal of hard work by producing a Bill that reflected the will of the House. I suggest that he removes part 2 and allows the democratic process to stop this cruelty once and for all. It is time that the democratic will of Parliament and of the majority of people in this country was listened to, and time that hunting with hounds was finally abolished.

8.48 pm

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