Country gentlemen in praise of `noble' death: Inside Parliament

Minister says fox-hunting is good training for Army But personal cooks for 114 officers are not so essential
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Nicholas Soames, Minister of State for the Armed Forces, yesterday assumed the dash of his former life as a lieutenant in the 11th Hussars (Prince Albert's Own) as he defended service involvement in the "perfectly honourable recreation" of fox hun ting.

"The demanding standards of horsemanship required in the hunting field helps servicemen of all ranks with mounted ceremonial roles to maintain their high standard of equitation skills," Mr Soames declared to Tory cheers in a lively opening to Defence questions.

He was replying to John Hutton, the Labour MP for Barrow and Furness, who added fuel to the campaign by animal welfare groups to end the Ministry of Defence's de facto support for hunting.

"Given the widespread public opposition to the hunting of wild animals, what possible justification can there be for allowing members of the armed forces to fox hunt during duty hours?"

"When is the taxpayer going to stop subsidising this appalling and barbaric trend?" Mr Hutton demanded.

Mr Soames thought it showed a "fantastic" order of priorities that at a time when 50,000 British troops were deployed overseas - 7,500 of them supporting the United Nations - the only question Labour could come up with was about fox hunting.

He assured MPs: "There are no public funds used to subsidise hunting. Salaries and the upkeep of horses would have to be met regardless of participation. All other costs are met privately.

"The activity itself is entirely at the discretion of the commanding officer," Mr Soames maintained.

Alan Duncan, the Tory MP for Rutland and Melton, sprang to the aid of Mr Soames and the hunting soldiery. "Mob rule and class war should not be allowed to stop the Army doing something that is perfectly legal in the rest of the country," he said.

"Hunting is good exercise for horses. There is something inherently noble and nothing cruel in the great and glorious death of the fox in the field."

Mr Duncan (recreations: shooting, stalking and fishing) is still trying to shed the cloud of his enriching Westminster council house deal. But he had won the approval of the Old Etonian minister (recreations more coyly listed as "country pursuits"), who noted that Mr Duncan represented "the Elysian fields of fox hunting".

Booming over shouts of "Sick! Sick!" from the Opposition benches, Mr Soames said he wholly endorsed Mr Duncan's points.

"Hunting is a clearly legal and perfectly honourable recreation and there is absolutely no reason why members of all ranks of the armed forces if they have the time and the inclination to do it should not do so," he said.

A flavour of class war also crept into exchanges on armed forces' entertaining. Stephen Byers, Labour MP for Wallsend, asked Mr Soames for confirmation that 114 serving officers had their own personal cooks at a cost of £2.5m and that the 77 official service residences cost £5m a year to operate.

"Is the minister content that at a time of defence cuts we have a regiment of batmen whose duties are to iron and lay out uniforms, to make beds, to clean shoes and to serve drinks?" Mr Byers asked. "Is this really putting the `front line first'?"

Mr Soames told MPs that Sir Peter Cazelet, who is conducting a review of service entertainment, was due to submit his report next month and it was expected to be published as soon as possible thereafter.

"We acknowledge there is a problem," Mr Soames said, though he scorned Labour's criticisms and said senior officers had cooks to enable them to carry out extensive duties which "add to the dignity of the United Kingdom and its armed forces".

Prime Minister's Question Time, by comparison, raised little passion, though John Major got into sufficient a tangle in his defence of rail privatisation that he accused Tony Blair of spreading "scare services".

The Labour leader's point, however, was that under the minimum requirements being set elsewhere by the franchise director, Roger Salmon, private operators would have the right to makes cuts in existing services.

"Under privatisation so far some services have been cut, some are to be removed altogether, through-ticketing will be reduced and, today, Mr Major cannot even guarantee the existing level of service," Mr Blair said. "Is it any wonder that the public would prefer to keep BR as a public service and not break it up and sell it off to satisfy some faction in the Tory party?"

But ministers are convinced that Mr Blair is opposing rail privatisation to satisfy the Defend Clause IV faction in the Labour Party. The Prime Minister insisted rail operators would be providing additional services.

"If Mr Blair was serious about improving services, he wouldn't be standing in the way of these reforms for his own ideological reasons.

"He would be joining us in modernising a railway that can and will provide a better service for people in the future," Mr Major said.

Virginia Bottomley, Secretary of State for Health, later claimed Tony Blair was behind a Labour commitment to "turn the clock back" on NHS changes. "He's made a cynical deal with the unions. They give him Clause IV. He gives them the health service."

She was replying to a debate opened by her Labour shadow, Margaret Beckett, who said the NHS was being privatised by stealth. "In a privatised service money talks, and where money is absent ... the sick, the poor, the frail and the dying wait on trolleysin corridors, in long queues or in the frightening isolation of their homes."

Setting the acrimonious tone, Mrs Bottomley tried to wrong- foot her opponent with an intervention on waiting lists, accepting somewhat patronisingly that Mrs Beckett was new to her job.

But Mrs Beckett scratched back: "If I had been in my post as long as the Secretary of State has been in hers, I would be ashamed of myself."