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Tony Banks – Animal lover with conviction

TONY BANKS, the former Labour Sports Minister and ‘animal’s champion’, died last Sunday, three days after suffering a massive stroke while on holiday in the United States. He was 62.

The outspoken former MP, who served as member for West Ham for 22 years, stood down at the 2005 General Election and became Lord Stratford when he accepted a peerage.

Prime Minister Tony Blair led the tributes to the peer, describing him as "one of the most charismatic politicians in Britain" and "a true man of the people".

Tony Banks was one of those rare breeds of politician – a man of conviction. A lifelong Labour Party member, he 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, quickly becoming known for his left-wing views and acerbic wit, with resulted in many great put-downs for fellow MPs. Over the years, he held many posts and was deemed ‘safe’ enough to become Labour’s Sports Minister from 1997 to 1999. He stood down from the post to campaign for England to win the right to host the World Cup. He was best known, however, for his outspoken views on animal welfare and was a passionate campaigner for the abolition of hunting with hounds.

In 2004 it was my pleasure to interview Tony Banks, when he revealed his deeply-help moral convictions on animal welfare and why he thought that a ban on hunting - which was achieved that year - was the only morally right thing for a civilised society to do. Although I didn’t agree with all of his views, I respected his beliefs and genuinely came to understand where he was coming from. When I told him this he was quite gratified, saying that all he ever asked was for people to try to look at the bigger picture and beyond party politics, as animal welfare was an issue that could not be compromised by party loyalty.

He was a firm advocate of people respecting and caring for animals properly:

"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, which is why the Animal Welfare Bill is a good move."

Mr Banks had deeply held views against Breed Specific Legislation and was one of the very few MPs who opposed the Dangerous Dogs Act, introduced by Conservative Home Secretary Kenneth Baker in 1991.

On the then-to-be-enacted Hunting Bill, Mr Banks said that he was "quite relaxed" with the Government’s plans to phase a hunting ban in over two years (although ultimately it was introduced within three months), and was quite happy to pay hunts compensation for going out of business.

One thing Tony Banks was adamant about, however, was that there could be no compromise when it came to animal welfare: "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 not going to able to persuade anyone else."

He was a lifelong dog lover, his first dog as a boy being a Bulldog, a "lovely, magnificent animal" and the last he’d kept being a Golden Retriever.

"Unfortunately, I’ve not been able to keep a dog as a companion animal subsequently, because my lifestyle is not conducive to keeping them….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 do exactly the same thing myself."

Sadly, his plans for acquiring a new dog were not to be. People may not have agreed with all of his views, but nobody could deny that Tony Banks truly cared about animals and had the courage of his convictions- something that is very rare nowadays amongst the body politic. Animals have lost a passionate advocate with the passing of Tony Banks.