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The Hunting debate:
What they actually said: MPs’ comments during
the debate on the Hunting With Dogs Bill

IT WAS day of passion all round. The Government’s much-vaunted Hunting Bill, now amended to seek an outright ban on hunting with hounds by November 2006 was before the House of Commons for a one-day debate. Everyone knew that it would be passed by a large majority, and the Government were resigned to allowing the Bill to be further amended by anti-hunting MPs to bring the ban forward to July 2006, thus ensuring that the only one hunting season will remain before abolition.

Whilst MPs debated the Bill inside the chamber, pro-hunting protesters demonstrated en masse in Parliament Square, where a minority got into a bloody battle with police. A small group of protesters, led by Otis Ferry, the 22 year-old son of singer Bryan ferry managed to gain access to the Parliamentary Chamber by means of a forged letter of introduction and by posing as workmen. While MPs blustered and fumed about this invasion of their sanctity and the ineffectiveness of the Serjeant-At-Arms and his team of ‘security officer’s – sneeringly dubbed ‘the men in tights’ by some MPs to whom parliamentary tradition is a – any British tradition – is a dirty word – one can only marvel that terrorists hadn’t thought of this ruse before. There was better security in Guy Fawkes’ time.

And what of the debate itself? This most important of democratic issues was, of course, subject to heavy voting, but as for actual debate, the chamber wasn’t exactly brimming over with MPs when the protesters gained access. In fact, it was less than 25% full, the debate being conducted between Secretary of State Alun Michael and the handful of MPs on both sides of the hunting issue who could be bothered to be there.

"Never mind the ramifications for the rural economy if a ban goes ahead; never mind people’s livelihoods being destroyed. I don’t understand, I don’t care and I can’t be arsed to attend the debate," was the clear message that came over from those who were conspicuous by their absence except in the voting lobby.

So what did those who could be bothered to take part in the debate say? Here are some extracts from the pages of Hansard, the Parliamentary record of proceedings on September 15th, 2004:

Hugo Swire (Con, East Devon) set the ball rolling with a barbed comment about the Labour Party financially benefiting form an organisation with a clear interest in the abolition of hunting: "In order that there can be no perceived, or real, abuse of the House during this afternoon's deliberations, does the Minister agree that it is incumbent on those who have benefited from support, financial or otherwise, from campaigning organisations such as the International Fund for Animal Welfare, and those who have indirectly benefited from its £1 million bung to the Labour party, should say so at the outset of proceedings?"

Rural Affairs Minister Alun Michael responded in yaa-boo style: "We could have an interesting discussion about the sources of Conservative party financial support. Any financial support given to the Labour party because Labour Members believe in, support and work for animal welfare would be provided only in a proper, declared manner. There should be no perception of abuse of the processes of the House. The hon. Gentleman does neither himself nor the House any credit by making such a suggestion."

Tony Banks (Lab, West Ham) weighed in: "The hon. Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) is about to leave the Chamber, which is unfortunate. Although the International Fund for Animal Welfare gave £1 million to the Labour party, it also gave considerable amounts to the Conservative party and the Liberal Democrat party."

Mr. Swire hit back: "On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wish to set the record straight. The hon. Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks) suggested that I was leaving the Chamber but I was not. I was merely moving to take my place as the Whip on duty, from which I shall be allowed to witness two and a half hours of hypocrisy, cant and prejudice."

He was duly rebuked by the Speaker who told him he should withdraw the word "hypocrisy", which Mr Swire, duly chastened, did, unreservedly.

Later in the debate, the infamous ‘Beast of Bolsover’ Mr. Dennis Skinner (Lab, Bolsover) snarled in defence of Mr Michael, showing his working class colours and his belief in democracy: "In the course of the past few minutes, my right hon. Friend has been subject to a barrage from Members whingeing and whining and wanting to rerun the principle. The truth is that for 18 years, when I was in opposition, I lost, because that was democracy.

We were in the minority, and we had to take it on the chin. There are people now in this House not capable of understanding that the numbers are against them. I hope that my right hon. Friend is able to complete what he has to say, get on with the job, and tell the House of Lords to go to hell and that we will carry this Bill."

Keen not to upset the Lords, Alun Michael tried to pour oil on troubled waters, mildly rebuking Mr Skinner: "Instead of being impolite to those in another place, I invite them to debate the Bill that we send to them. Apart from that, my hon. Friend makes many good points. Those who suggest that there is any justification for violence or protest as a result of the Bill's going through should certainly listen to his comments. As democrats we have to respect the majority."

Mr. Simon Thomas (PC, Ceredigion) pointed out to Mr Michael the Bill’s failings in terms of science in favour of dogma, referring to the previous Bill which the Minister had effectively disowned after MPs amended it: "The Minister may recall that I supported his last Bill because I thought that it at least took science and ecology as its founding principles and had a method of dealing with those areas, particularly upland areas, where I am convinced that a decent argument has been made that hunting with hounds has ecological and environmental, as well as animal welfare considerations. This is the first time that the House has debated the Bill as a Government Bill from start to finish, and to do so in this truncated way pays great disservice, whatever the decision at the end of the day, to the House and to Members who have spent their time and effort in consultation with their constituents."

Former Sports Minister Kate Hoey, (Lab. Vauxhall), one of the few Labour MPs to oppose the Bill made capital of the actual number of MPs debating and voting, pointing out flaws in the ‘majority’ arithmetic: "…May I remind… the House that in the two votes in the Commons and the Lords last year, 406 parliamentarians supported a licensing system, compared with 366 backing a ban? On Third Reading, let us not forget, only 317 of the 659 Members of Parliament voted for a ban. That is not an absolute majority."

Lembit Öpik (Lib Dem, Montgomeryshire), who supports the ‘Middle Way’ option of licensing hunts spoke passionately about the abuse of democracy in steamrollering the Bill through and the real animal welfare ramifications of a ban on hunting: "We are where we are as a result of decisions made by the Prime Minister and others, so we need to be cautious about criticising the upper House as wholly unacceptable. If it is, it is the result of decisions made by the Government.

"When a Lords Member said that these circumstances were an affront to democracy, I suspect that, because they felt so strongly about the issue, they felt frustrated that the Commons were not listening and were unwilling to compromise—[Interruption.] Other Members may disagree, but I shall not pursue the matter.

"My third and last point is that we have a choice: whether to have the courage to find the right answer or simply to force through the answer before us today. I am sure that my views do not have the support of everybody in the House, but we must all agree that the measure involves a restriction of civil liberties. No one can deny that.

"There are also questions about animal suffering. I believe that if the Bill is passed, there will be an increase in animal suffering rather than a reduction. There are problems such as how a dog will differentiate hares and rabbits when it is chasing them and a host of other things that we need to discuss on Second Reading. The difficulty is that I can see no stage in the process when, in fairness to Members on both sides, we can look at the arguments in the same detail as we do in Committee. If we do not look at them, we shall end up with a defective Bill, which does not even achieve what those in favour of a ban on hunting with dogs want. Let us bear in mind that the Bill does not ban hunting with dogs; it bans the hunting of foxes and stags with dogs, but not the hunting of rabbits or rats.

"I really hope that, with the benefit of reflection on this discussion and hindsight on what has gone before this debate, it does take changing one's point of view on the substantive question of banning hunting with dogs to recognise that the procedure motion is defective and that it will not achieve the outcome that any hon. Member wants, simply because we do not have the space to do so. I shall not go through the middle way group's proposal—I hope that we can do that, at least briefly, on Second Reading—but I conclude with this comment: this is not a debate about animal welfare unless we give ourselves the space to consider the implications on animal welfare of a ban."

Mr Öpik continued, this time referring to the ‘class prejudice’ and ‘revenge’ issues inherent in the Bill: "A Labour Member said to me just as I was coming into the Chamber, "This is about the miners." Well, it is a great shame if people are getting mixed up. This is not about the miners; it is about the civil liberties of many people who particularly choose this pastime and, in many cases, use it as a fox-control technique, as they do in my area, and it is a consideration about animal welfare.

"If fox hunting is to be banned in this way, let us bear in mind that, because of the precedent set by the House, future Governments of this or another persuasion can use it as a precedent. That precedent could come back and bite those very people who may be on the winning side this time.

"The stalemate between the upper and lower Houses indicates that there is something seriously wrong with the Bill. To force it through without consensus is a victory of prejudice, in my judgment, and a failure of intellectual integrity. Those in the pro-ban lobby can win the vote today, but they cannot pretend that, by stifling the debate and ignoring the existence of alternative views, they have won the argument. British citizens are fair-minded and they do not like injustice, but the procedure motion leads us towards a Bill that is not fair and can be unjust.

"In my judgment, therefore, the procedure motion and the Bill are illiberal. They do not take account of the change in the country's mood, given that most people do not support a ban on hunting with dogs, and certainly do not support its criminalisation. I can no more support the procedures proposed today than I can support the Bill in its current form."