James Barrington is a former Executive Director of the League Against Cruel Sports. He is now an animal welfare consultant to Countryside Alliance, Council of Hunting Associations and the All Party Parliamentary Middle Way Group.
“I regret to say that I do not think there will be Government agreement to go forward” – the words of the Prime Minister a week ago ago today, when he signalled at Prime Minister’s Questions that signalled the proposed amendment to the Hunting Act will not take place.
No doubt his statement brought cheer to those who oppose the activity, while it was probably be seen by most as just the latest spat in the ongoing debate over hunting. In fact, the failure to make this modest change to what is clearly a flawed law has left behind an uncomfortable situation for some of the parties involved.
The suggested change referred to an exemption in the Hunting Act, which allows a wild mammal to be flushed out of cover to be shot, but using only two dogs. The Federation of Welsh Farmers Packs (FWFP) argued that this limitation on the number of dogs makes the exemption unworkable for farmers living near large areas of forestry and called for no limit to be set on the number of dogs, as is the case with the Scottish legislation banning hunting.
All the anti-hunting groups accepted such a necessity at the time the law was passed, saying: “The Hunting Act specifically includes exemptions under which legitimate pest control is allowed.” A scientific study was commissioned by the FWFP that proved raising the number of dogs shortened the flushing period and was more efficient overall. The amendment could be made by way of a Statutory Instrument, a process used to make minor alterations to a law when an aspect of it requires improvement, and thereby avoid introducing a new act.
Reasonable? One might have thought so, but the ‘H’ word does all sorts of strange things to some politicians and pressure groups, one of which is to send reason straight out of the window. Consequently, the debate started to become more about hunting generally, instead of what was intended, which was making a specific exemption in the Hunting Act work as intended.
As much as anti-hunting groups, such as the RSPCA, IFAW and the League Against Cruel Sports, tried to push the argument into a wider context, they showed themselves to be duplicitous in their reaction to the proposal. For example, last month the League praised the Scottish anti-hunt legislation, referring to it as, “a hugely important piece of legislation, as it seeks to protect foxes and other mammals from the sickeningly cruel blood sport of hunting.”
Yet of the attempt to bring the English and Welsh law into line with Scotland as the amendment would do, the League says: “This is not some minor amendment, but would effectively legalise hunting again and would have driven a coach and horses through the current legislation, rendering it effectively useless and unenforceable.” So now the view of the Scottish law has changed and is regarded by the League as “unenforceable”.
The Scottish law has either banned hunting and is good legislation or it has not banned hunting and is flawed legislation – it cannot be both.
Then we have the politicians who were willing to swallow this nonsense. This is what Maria Eagle, the Shadow Environment Secretary, said in response to the suggested amendment: “The hunting of wild animals belongs in the dustbin of history and any attempt by this Government to repeal or amend the Hunting Act by the back door will be vigorously opposed by the Labour Party. With Britain facing a cost of living crisis, David Cameron’s obsession to hold another vote in Parliament on fox hunting shows how out of touch he is with people’s day to day lives.”
In fact, Labour politicians have raised questions about hunting a total of 134 times since 1997 and Ms Eagle conveniently forgets that 700 hours of Parliamentary time – ten times longer than the debates on invading Iraq – were consumed to finally pass the Hunting Act.
Perhaps more importantly, Ms Eagle and her fellow anti-hunting MPs showed their ignorance of the Statutory Instrument process, which can only be used to make minor adjustments to a law and cannot overturn its central purpose. More likely though, this was a deliberate attempt by the Opposition to exploit the public’s ignorance of such a process. Never mind that the amendment was supported by a group of senior MPs and Peers from all parties; this was the Opposition playing cheap party politics with the livelihoods of farmers under the guise of animal welfare.
So who are the victors and casualties in this messy business?
The anti-hunt groups will no doubt claim victory, but they have shown an inability to properly address the concerns and problems thrown up by the flawed legislation they campaigned to place on the statute book. They have certainly lost credibility with regard to their changeable views on the original flushing exemption and their previous support for the Scottish ban – a law which they originally claimed had, “no gaping loopholes or flaws”.
The leadership of the Labour Party has shown itself to be easily influenced by such groups and appears willing to deceive the public for no other reason than to score a few political points. They still haven’t learned that the issue of hunting, while it might get a few back-benchers excited, hardly registers on the radar as something affecting – and thereby influencing – most people when it comes to voting.
The proposal to amend the Hunting Act remains a live issue, with the Government saying that the suggestion will be subject to a consultation. At the very least, this would provide an opportunity for the merits of the FWFP’s case to be properly scrutinised and, just as importantly, the validity of the arguments against such a move.
The Hunting Act remains, but the coalition Government has stated that the agreement to hold a vote on repeal of the Hunting Act still stands. What effect this affair will have on the various political parties is anyone’s guess, but one can only hope that when the time comes to address the hunting issue once more – and that time will come – science and common sense will override prejudice and political point scoring.
If there is anything good that can be salvaged from this sorry episode, it is that despite all the pressures, some MPs and Peers from all parties were prepared to put aside their political differences and tried to do the right thing for farming and animal welfare.