Hunting Debate: Passions run high in vote over life and death

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The Commons was packed for the debate on the Bill to ban hunting with hounds which cut across the party lines. Colin Brown, Chief Political Correspondent, saw both sides of the argument in full cry.

Farmers who killed 36 stags in the Quantock Hills to protest at a ban on stag hunting committed an "obscene act of vengeance", Michael Foster, the Labour MP for Worcester, told MPs at the start of the five-hour Commons debate on his Private Member's Bill to ban hunting with dogs of stags, hares and foxes.

Four former Tory Cabinet ministers - Michael Heseltine, Peter Brook, Tom King and John Gummer - spoke against the Bill on its second reading. But the passionate debate crossed party lines, with Ann Widdecombe being cheered and clapped for a tub-thumping attack on fox hunting.

Only two members of Tony Blair's Cabinet - Ron Davies, the Welsh Secretary, and Ann Taylor, the Leader of the House - were on the front bench to support Mr Foster.

The prevention of cruelty was the "centrepiece" of the legislation, he said. "The aim of this Bill is to protect wild animals from cruelty and unnecessary pain and suffering carried out in the name of so-called sport," he said.

Mr Foster, the Labour MP for Worcester, was repeatedly interrupted by Tory MPs as he claimed the support of the majority of the public for his Bill. Answering claims that hunting stags was the best way of controlling the herds, Mr Foster said: "Dying is a natural activity. Stag hunting is an artificial activity for the pleasure of the huntsmen."

He was also challenged by three Labour backbenchers opposed to the ban when he gave a graphic description of a vixen being torn to pieces by a pack of hounds in a garden in front of a horrified pensioner.

Intervening, Kate Hoey, the Labour MP for Vauxhall, asked him how he would respond to the child in her constituency whose two guinea pigs had been eaten by a fox two nights ago. Announcing that she would vote against the Bill, Ms Hoey said: "If this Bill is passed, we are going to make criminals of many law-abiding citizens. This is bad legislation. It is an intolerant Bill. It will do nothing to stop cruelty and it will ruin the countryside."

Ms Widdecombe, the former Home Office minister, dismissed claims that banning fox hunting would destroy jobs. "If you abolish crime, you will put all the police out of work," she said. "I am not against culling deer. What I am against is the chase."

As an angler, Mr Foster was challenged by Tory MPs about his support for coarse fishing. But he insisted there was no comparison between fishing and killing foxes with dogs.

"It is time for this House to stand up for the majority. This is a quiet majority. They may not demonstrate, they may not mount picket lines, but their voice should still be heard.

"Britain needs to be a better place. How can we pass judgement on Pakistan where they set dogs onto bears or Spanish bullfighting when we in this country allow dogs to be set upon deer?"

Julia Drown, the Labour MP for Swindon South, said there were parallels between foxhunting and cock fighting, bear bating, and dog fighting, which had been outlawed.

Michael Heseltine, the former deputy prime minister, said that the Bill was part of an agenda which would move relentlessly to ban fishing and shooting, which he did in his spare time. But the most powerful speech against the legislation came from Tory MP Alan Clark, a committed animal rights campaigner, who said that the Bill was illiberal and carried "grossly excessive" penalties.

"I don't know how you can support a Bill which allows constables to stop and search. It confers Draconian powers and discretions on the police," he told Labour MPs. "What worries me about this Bill is that it will take attention away from the real atrocities on animals in the pursuit of profit. Conditions in stockyards across the country are such that he would never take a party of school children to see what actually happens."