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Volume 604: debated on Wednesday 14 July 1999

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2.58 p.m.

Which Ministers and officials have been in contact with the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) or the Political Animal Lobby to discuss policy on foxhunting and whether they will publish the memorandum of 21st May 1999 from the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Home Office, Mr George Howarth, reporting a telephone conversation with the director of IFAW.

My Lords, as is appropriate and as part of their work. Ministers and officials have met—and will continue to meet—interested parties from all sides of the debate. As has already been made public, officials at 10 Downing Street held a meeting last Tuesday with representatives of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the League Against Cruel Sports and the International Fund for Animal Welfare. That followed previous meetings with the Countryside Alliance and other interested parties. Foxhunting was among a number of animal welfare issues which were discussed. As the noble Lord will recall, internal working papers on policy matters are not routinely published.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for going some way towards removing the veil of secrecy on what has been happening within government. Does he agree that the antagonistic policies of the Government towards those in the countryside would be more easily understood if they were rationally driven rather than financially driven?

My Lords, They are not financially driven at all. If we want to go into financially driven policies of the previous government I am happy to spend a few hours doing that. One of the contributions given was by the Political Animal Lobby. That was published in our 1997 accounts. The recent donation has also been made public. That was £100,000. This morning I looked at a copy of the Daily Telegraph dated November 1997 and saw that the same lobby had given the Conservative Party almost £170,000.

My Lords, as regards foxhunting, can the Minister clear up a little confusion concerning the statement made by the Prime Minister last week on "Question Time"? He said that the Private Member's Bill had been blocked partly by the House of Lords. Surely we all recollect that that Bill never got to the House of Lords. Why did the Prime Minister mislead his audience? Was it ignorance?

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, is right in his recollection, which coincides with mine.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that it has been commonplace for the animal lobby, in particular the IFAW, to donate moneys to all political parties; that the Labour Party has never been shy about publicising donations that have been made to it, unlike the party opposite; and that it is only by virtue of pressure that this information has become known about the Conservative Party? Does he also agree that the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, seems to have a penchant for the sinister even when things are not sinister?

My Lords, that has never been my experience of the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit. He and I are always on the best possible personal terms. I always regard his interventions as designed to be personally helpful to me.

Of course, pressure groups donate money. The important thing is that it is done openly. I remind your Lordships that over a period of 11 months the Home Secretary wrote six letters to various dignitaries in the Conservative Party asking about the donation from Mr Ma, otherwise known as Mr "white powder" Ma, presently residing in Taiwan.

My Lords, would the Government hear in mind that foxes are very destructive of poultry and game and that therefore their numbers must be controlled? Killing foxes by trapping or poisoning is illegal and, incidentally, very cruel because they do not die at once. Shooting foxes and wounding them if they are missed causes gangrene, which is a horrible death. By contrast they are killed at once when hunted and hounds close in on them. Hunting is, therefore, the most certain and least cruel way of killing foxes.

My Lords, I have heard that view expressed in the past. I know that there are contrary views. Some, for instance, think that chasing an animal to exhaustion and tearing it to pieces is morally unacceptable and, indeed, reprehensible. That is a quotation from a helpful article put in the Observer last Sunday by Miss Ann Widdecombe.

My Lords, moving away from the more gory and controversial elements of this issue, and given the obvious and very serious pressures on the Government's legislative programme, when and why did foxhunting become the major priority?

My Lords, it is not properly described as the major priority of the Government. The noble Lord will well recall that in our manifesto we stated that there would be a free vote on this issue, and we have fulfilled that. As the Prime Minister stated quite clearly, the present position is that the Government are actively considering how to take the issue forward and hope to make an announcement on specific proposals soon.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that if this matter comes before this House, and for that matter, another place, there will be a free vote for all Members of our party, both Front Bench and Back Bench? Will it be the same for the Labour Party? Speaking for myself, I regard a ban on hunting as an unacceptable infringement of personal freedom. As my noble friend indicated, it will lead to greater suffering for foxes and other animals, plus a serious loss of jobs and amenities.

My Lords, I would expect there to be a free vote in the Labour Party. Indeed, I hope that the shadow Home Secretary will have freedom of expression to express her views; but I understand that at the moment she has been banned.

My Lords, can the Minister advise the House of the extent to which the organisations which are campaigning against what they call cruel sports are now directing their attention towards the shooting of birds and the catching of fish? More importantly, what attention have the Government given to such activities?

My Lords, this is part of a continuing dialogue and debate. In a free society people are entitled to have views even if I, personally, or indeed the rest of the Government, disagree with them.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the cause of animal welfare would be better served by the Freedom of Information Act being able to give out information freely on what happens in animal laboratories?

My Lords, there is an extremely rigorous regime regarding animal experimentation. The Animal Procedures Committee, which is a statutory body, is an excellent committee. The statute forbids the disclosure of certain information. I can tell your Lordships that the number of experiments carried out under licence in this country is lower than it has been since the early 1950s.

My Lords, further to the supplementary question by the noble Lord, Lord, Tebbit, is my noble friend aware that the Fireworks Bill, which is a Private Member's Bill with the aim of improving the safety of fireworks for the prevention of accidents to children, was amended in this House with the sole aim of preventing the anti-foxhunting Bill introduced by Mike Foster from making progress in the other place?

My Lords, I have heard that suggestion, but I do not think that it derogates from the underlying point made by the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit.

My Lords, does the Minister appreciate that I am pleased to hear that I can carry on fishing? Can he guarantee that Scottish Members of the other place, who will not be able to legislate on this matter in Scotland, will not be voting to ban, or indeed not to ban, foxhunting in England?

My Lords, I am pleased to hear that the noble Lord will be able to carry on fishing. Since the last election he has had more time, of course.

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House whether the apparent change in stated government policy, as given by the Prime Minister on "Question Time", was first cleared through the Cabinet?

My Lords, it would riot need to be cleared because there has not been a change.