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Nick Mays talks to Tony Banks

TONY BANKS, the Labour MP for West Ham, London, is one of those rare breeds of politician – a man of conviction. A lifelong Labour Party member, Mr Banks, 59 entered politics as a member of Lambeth Borough Council from 1971 to 1974, as well as a member of the greater London Council from 1970 until its abolition in 1986.

He entered Parliament in 1983 and has held many posts, including Sports Minister from 1997 to 1999. He is best known, however, for his outspoken views on animal welfare and he is a passionate campaigner for the abolition of hunting with hounds.

Here, in an exclusive interview with OUR DOGS’ Chief Reporter, Nick Mays, Tony Banks reveals his deeply-help moral convictions on animal welfare and why he thinks that a ban on hunting is the only morally right thing for a civilised society to do.

Nick Mays: Tony, you’re very well known for your outspoken views on banning hunting – have you always been concerned with animal welfare issues during your political career?
Tony Banks: Yes, I’m involved in a wide range of animal welfare issues and I have to say, of these, hunting is not the most important, there’s hardly an issue with that – campaigners are attempting to get it banned. Other issues that concern me greatly and in which I’m actively involved in fighting are plans by Japan and Norway to lift the ban on whaling and allow the commercial whaling to recommence. There are many such issues close to my heart; hunting is just one of them.

NM: And does your feeling for animals and their welfare go way back in your life?
TB: Oh yes, my father always taught me to have respect for animals and to care for them. When I see how ignorant people are and the way they supposedly care for their so-called pets, I do get very upset. We had this period a while back when people were buying pets almost as fashion accessories, walking about with big dogs, with Pit Bulls, without the foggiest idea of how to look after them whatsoever. You’d see the dogs being paraded around in studded collars, with the owner, very often a young man, swaggering along wearing a studded collar himself. I don’t believe that anyone should take on an animal unless they know how to care for it properly.

NM: So you obviously have strong feelings on pet ownership and an owner’s responsibility towards the animal?
TB: Absolutely. You should never take on a pet, a companion animal of any sort without making a careful study of its needs and providing those needs. In fact, I’m rather hard on the point that people shouldn’t be allowed to keep animals unless they can demonstrate an understanding of them and an ability to care for them.

NM: So do you think the Animal Welfare Bill is a step in the right direction?
TB: I do, although it’s been ridiculed by certain sections of the media, saying that the Government are interfering with your rights by stopping you winning a goldfish as a prize at a fair…

NM: I thought that was a bloody good idea myself.
TB: There is no animal so humble that doesn’t deserve our attention and respect, and that’s important. I feel that the RSPCA should be given the right of entry where there’s an assumption of animal cruelty going on, all of these things are important. In many ways it’s the mark of a civilised society how we treat our animals, as Ghandi said.

NM: Were you annoyed that some of the newspapers sent it up or used it as a means to attack the Government politically?
TB: Well, this happens all the time. At the end of the day, we’ve got the votes, they haven’t.

NM: Although the AWB has many laudable aims, there are certain sections causing great concern. For example, the licensing of all animal rescue centres. This may well affect smaller charities that care for those animals that the larger charities, such as the RSPCA don’t take on. They’ve have been doing a perfectly good job for many years and they may not meet the exacting conditions for licensing. This would see them closed down and cause animal welfare problems...
TB: Well, let me just stop you there, because it isn’t a bill yet. These are proposals at the moment; there’s been a long consultation period. These are issues that will need to be discussed as part of the democratic process, in Committee stage, when we see those proposals in any form that the Government puts before the House [of Commons].

NM: But the draft Animal Welfare Bill has been published hasn’t it? Those proposals are there in the draft.
TB: Yes it has, but we haven’t got the legislation as it were on the statute books yet. But we will take all the relevant points into account when discussing the Bill, in an attempt to get it right. I’m involved with any number of rescue centres, wildlife centres and so on and they do a marvellous job, they’re run by caring people who devote much of their own resources and energy into the activities. But you have to be careful that a rescue centre isn’t being used as a front by someone wanting to bring back puppy farming through the back door or something like that.

NM: Indeed, but the issue would be carefully debated?
TB: Oh absolutely, but the thing about the process is that we have to take all points of view into account and there’s a lot of those to consider. Animal welfare generates the highest volume of phone calls and letters to MPs than any other issue. The Animal Welfare Bill is going to replace a lot of old animal protection legislation and we want it to last and to be effective, so it’s important to do our best to get it right.

NM: Taking up your earlier point about animals – dogs specifically – being used as fashion accessories …
TB: Ah well, I was warning at the time about dog legislation.

NM: Yes, I was coming to the Dangerous Dogs Act.
TB: I was warning at the time – and it’s all on the record – that there is no such thing as a bad dog, but a bad owner, and that if we passed the Act in haste, we would regret it at our leisure further down the line. That legislation was done very much on the run because the Government of the day – and I’m not having a go at them because they were a Conservative Government, I’d say the same if it was a Labour Government – gave in to the calls of "What are the Government going to do about it?" when there a series of dog attacks. The Government shouldn’t do something, or even attempt to do something, because we’re taking too much personal responsibility away from the individual. Individuals cause problems; it isn’t necessary for the Government to target everyone to ‘do something’.

NM: As the anti-BSL slogan says, ‘Punish the Deed, Not The Breed.
TB: Absolutely. I know you can’t put down the owner, but it did seem to be wrong to me to put down the animal, because in the end, the reason the animal behaved the way it did could, in most cases, be traced back to the owner. This could be a lack of knowledge on the part of the owner, a lack of attempts to train the animal. In the end, it’s the animal that suffers because the judge can’t order for the owner to be put down, though I’m a great believer in saying that if anyone find themselves convicted of any sort of animal offence should be banned from keeping them for a period up to and including life. It’s a very serious matter. The point I’m making is that any legislation has to be considered legislation and not reactive legislation.

NM: Well, I always thought that the DDA was a big piece of political opportunism to gain public support.
TB: I think that maybe saying ‘political opportunism’ is a bit harsh I think it was more like this thing we seem to have in this country where we seem to be giving up personally responsibility in all things completely, and this is true under all Governments, that you get this enormous pressure from the press – and I’ve had it exerted on me – of ‘What are you going to do about it?". It’s an enormous and intimidating pressure, so the Government ask themselves "What ARE we going to do?’, so they go off and draft the legislation quickly and it’s a bit of a mess. And when it ends up in court you find it’s either unenforceable or its inefficient in the way it deals with the perceived problem.

NM: In the case of the DDA, it caused far more problems that it ever solved. It saw hundreds of innocent dogs, crossbreeds, seized as Pit Bulls and many of them destroyed just for the way they looked.
TB: All you have to do is think a bit further down the line, think outside of the box and try and anticipate what are the likely problems. If you rush to deal with the immediate problem you end up with more problems further down the line.

NM: You obviously like dogs, Tony. What sort of dogs did you keep as a boy?
TB: The first dog we ever had was a Bulldog, lovely, magnificent animal. The last one we had was a Golden Labrador. Unfortunately, I’ve not been able to keep a dog as a companion animal subsequently, because my lifestyle is not conducive to keeping them. My Mum has got a Jack Russell which is regrettably very elderly and getting towards the end of his time, and I’m worried about her reaction when he goes – she’s going to be distressed. It happens to all animals, you know it does, but it doesn’t lessen the blow when that time actually arrives.

NM: Do you think that one day, maybe when you retire as an MP, you’ll have a dog again?
TB: Oh, I can assure you, once I’ve given up this job, I’m going back to having a dog, or better still two dogs. But I live by my own rules on this one, I can’t go around criticising other people for not looking after animals properly if I’m then going to exactly the same thing myself, and I’m afraid my lifestyle simply doesn’t allow me to keep a dog at the moment.

NM: That’s very commendable indeed and nice to hear it said from someone in your position, Tony.
TB: It’s what I believe.

NM: Turning to the Hunting Bill – it’s back again. This time, I see it’s due to be dealt with in one day.
TB: It has to be dealt with in one day, because we’re now into reasonably arcane procedural devices inside the House of Commons. The Government made it quite clear that this issue would be dealt with in this Parliament. It’s an issue that can only be resolved by the will of the elected House prevailing, in the end, of the will of the un-elected House, because we’re not going to find agreement on this. The only way the will of the elected House can prevail is by the use of the Parliament Act. The Parliament Act… exists to ensure that if the House of Lords turns down a Bill that has been passed in the House of Commons in two successive sessions of the House and certain other issues prevail – i.e. twelve months elapsing between the two Bills – then the House of Lords will have 30 days to consider whatever action they wish to take. At the end of those 30 days the Bill automatically goes for Royal Assent. In other words, it cuts out the House of Lords. Usually both Houses come to some sort of agreement over a Bill, but on something like this [hunting], there is no way that the in-built majority for hunting ban in the House of Commons and the in-built majority not to ban hunting in the House of Lords will ever agree. The will of the elected House must prevail.

NM: I understand that. But this issue has been going on, backwards and forwards for years now. The thing is though, the Government did present a Bill last time for a ‘middle way’, to allow hunting to continue under license, which is what the Lords were happy with.
TB: Yes indeed, they did, but the House of Commons didn’t find it acceptable and changed it to a total ban. The Government can always propose – and do – but it’s only the House that can DISPOSE, and on a Free Vote we overturned that by a huge majority. In the end, democracy is democracy, and these MPs are elected. I might add that we have more Labour MPs from rural constituencies on our side than the Tories have got from rural constituencies, we also have Tory MPs from marginal rural constituencies who oppose hunting, so it’s not a party thing. Nor is it a class issue. I have to tell you that I get thousands of letters on both sides of the argument. If I was to give you the profile, if you like, of an anti-hunter, it would be a white, middle class woman who lives in the Home Counties or a county town or village, who reads the Daily Mail. The thing is, it isn’t a big issue to most people. They either don’t care about hunting or they’ll vote to stop it, but it isn’t a big issue in my constituency. But in Middle England it IS a big issue on both sides of the argument. But it isn’t Town vs. Country or even Working Class versus Upper Class.

NM: Taking the last point Tony, you yourself said in one of the hunting debates in Parliament, that you couldn’t see why the Government were afraid of banning hunting because nearly all the hunting community were Tories.
TB: Well yes, I did, meaning Tory voting. If you are really seized up with this issue and are pro-hunting, then you invariably are. I think about 85% of people in the Countryside Alliance are Tories. There’s nothing wrong with that, that’s how it is. The Tory Party in Opposition have made it very clear that if a ban goes through, then they seek to overturn the ban if they win the election. They’ll have to do it through primary legislation, but that’s democracy and there’s no way you can gainsay that. But that doesn’t make it a class issue. There are Tories who are bitterly opposed to hunting, I get letters from Tory voters who make it clear they would never vote Labour, but support me in calling for a ban… It’s a natural instinct maybe to be for hunting if your Tory or UKIP, but generally not Labour. I’m not doing this for a class or political issue. I hope you also read in Hansard that I said I wouldn’t care if every single person that went out hunting was a paid up member of the Transport & General Workers Union and a signed-up member of the Labour Party, because I would be just as determined to stop the hunting as I am now. So for me it doesn’t matter who does it. When I first started getting involved in this issue in Parliament I was warned by people ‘Oh, you’re going to upset all those mining hunts’, because there were hunts based in mining villages. But that didn’t impress me, why should it? So this idea that this is a party political issue in a narrow sense is something propagated by those people who just can’t see that this is a moral issue for people like me. I wouldn’t care if the Prime Minister was pro-hunting and went hunting himself, I would still oppose it.

NM: Well, the Prime Minister has missed every vote on hunting…
TB: Yes, and he’s got us into this mess, because this is one of those issues that now exceeds its animal welfare considerations. I said at the beginning of this interview that I didn’t consider this to be the most important animal welfare issue by a long way, but hunting – fox hunting, deer hunting, hare coursing, mink hunting – is not an issue that will win or lose an election. Trust, however, CAN win or lose an election and many of the letters I get say ‘…the Government says that Parliament would be allowed to have a Free Vote to resolve this, but I don’t trust the Government.’ And I have to tell you, this comes from Labour voters, Conservative voters, non-voters and so on. So the Government, by taking such a long time to allow us to resolve this issue has turned what is an emotive, but relatively straightforward issue into something that begins to challenge the Government’s trust rating and credibility. It should never have got like this.

NM: Am I correct in thinking that if this Bill is passed, as there is every indication that it will be, that a ban won’t come into effect for two years anyway?
TB: That’s what the Government is proposing and, I may tell you, there’s a lot of discussion going on around that. I’m relatively relaxed about that. Having waited this long to end hunting, then, quite honestly I can live with that. I’ve made it quite clear that I think we should have a shorter period, but I want to be reasonable too. The hunts have had plenty of warning that this is coming along for God’s sake, but I ant them to find ways to deal with the issues of the hounds and the horses and we want to give them time to do that. Although knowing some of these people, I doubt they’ll take that opportunity.

NM: There are knock-on effects of a ban, such as you mention, the welfare of the hounds and horses. In the last Lords Debate, Lord Whitty for the Government pretty much said yes, there are 20,000 hounds that will be made redundant and will be destroyed, but that’s the way it is, that’s just unfortunate.
TB: Well, I don’t accept that. You will know that something like nearly 3,000 hounds each year are put down [by hunts]. They’re either too old to hunt, or they haven’t got an instinct to hunt, they’re not fast enough. I’m not going to have my heartstrings pulled by people in hunts saying ‘We love our animals and you’re putting us in this position.’ They put them down on many occasions for reasons I find morally indefensible, such as not having an instinct to kill, or being too old. Once again, I believe that if we WANT to find a way through this, we WILL find a way through this. If there’s goodwill on both sides – and maybe that’s a fanciful idea – then we maybe we can find a way through this. Yes, it is going to be difficult to deal with an animal that has been taught to behave like this –and in the normal way they don’t behave like this – and so, in a way, were dealing in a way with the manipulation of animals by human beings for their own pleasure. That is something that always worries me. I get pleasure from the company of animals, but I don’t get pleasure from manipulating them to do things that are alien to their nature. So that’s why I don’t buy this argument that they’ll have to put down their hounds or horses – I say only if you want to. If you’re really concerned, you’ll move heaven and earth to save them, and if any animals have to be destroyed, it will only be in the most extreme circumstances.

NM: So this all comes back to personal responsibility again?
TB: Exactly, ‘it’s all the Government’s fault’. This is one of the things the Government’s terrified of, of course. That certain people will invite the television cameras round and just shoot the dogs in front of them and say that it’s the Government’s fault. I think that anyone who does that is irresponsible and evil in the extreme, but I can tell you there are some people who will do almost anything in order to try and preserve an activity that I think is immoral. As I’ve said before, anyone who kills animals for pleasure, I cannot begin to understand. I don’t just pigeonhole people, I do speak to people on both sides of the hunting debate. I don’t just talk to people who agree with me. I mean, I speak to Arsenal supporters for God’s sake…

NM: [Laughs]. That must be difficult for you!
TB: It is, but I do it. But wit hunting, I find it impossible to compromise on it. It’s not because I’m an inflexible extremist, because I’m not that at all, because anyone who really knows me will tell you that I’m a hope-clubbable sort of person, quite frankly, I’m reasonable. But I cannot find any moral case for slaughtering animals for pleasure. For food yes, I can see that, although I’m a vegetarian. I don’t eat meat, I don’t eat fish – I won’t eat anything that’s got a face or a relative. You do that because that’s something that we do, but to kill animals for pleasure is just something I cannot see any justification for.

NM: Very well put, Tony. Finally, with regard to the other knock-on effects of a hunting ban. Obviously, a ban will affect people’s livelihoods, affect the rural economy. Is there a case for compensation? After all, if fur farmers could get compensation when their industry was banned, why not hunt workers?
TB: I don’t have any objection to compensation and I’ve argued in the House for it. I don’t see a problem with it, depending on what the size of the cheque is, but when you think of the billions of pounds we paid out in compensation for the slaughter of healthy animals during Foot and Mouth and the BSE crisis, it doesn’t even begin to compare. I bitterly opposed the slaughter of so many millions of healthy animals. Why did they contract BSE and Foot and mouth? Because of the irresponsibility of breeders, farmers and traders. Feeding ruminants animal protein, for goodness’ sake…. If you interfere with nature you will pay a price. Unfortunately, like the irresponsible dog owners, it isn’t the breeders who pay the price, it’s the animals who get slaughtered in their millions. Now, we paid, what, £4 billion in compensation for that. So when you’re talking about a few thousand jobs around the countryside, even the most creaking economy could support compensation for that and we’re far from a creaking economy nowadays, we’re a very prosperous and active economy. I certainly wouldn’t dismiss the impact of someone losing their job, by if they’re prepared to accept alternatives to fox hunting such as drag hunting, then you could have even more people employed than before.

NM: Well, thank you for all of that Tony. Although I may not agree with everything you’ve said, for what it’s worth, I do understand you a lot better now. You are obviously deeply committed to your beliefs in animal welfare. In closing, would you say you are a conviction politician in this sense rather than a good Party man?
TB: On certain issues. On animal issues, without any doubt at all, my vote cannot be bought, it cannot be usurped by the Government, and it cannot be dictated by the Government. I’m a Party loyalist, have been a Party member for 40 years I’ve been in parliament for 21 years, most of those in Opposition. But if there is an issue I cannot live with myself about – such as animal welfare – then I won’t compromise on it. I have to ask myself the question, and if I can’t persuade myself of something, then I’m going to able to persuade anyone else.

NM: On that note, Tony Banks, many thanks.
TB: Thank you.