Tim Bonner is Chief Executive of the Countryside Alliance.
When the Hunting Act came into force in February 2005, it is a fair bet to say that the vast majority of politicians breathed a sigh of relief and hoped never to hear the word hunting again.
Whichever side of the debate you were on, the 700 hours of parliamentary time spent on an issue of such vanishingly little relevance to 99 per cent of the population was almost a definition of ‘bad politics’.
Sensible Labour MPs, from the Prime Minister down, knew that the obsessive pursuit of fox hunters made their party look mean and spiteful. Conservatives fought stubbornly against the ban, but understandably thought there were better things to spend their time on as the party sought to return to Government.
Eleven years later new Government figures record that 423 people have been convicted of hunting offences. The problem is that almost none of those people had anything to do with the ‘hunts’ that the whole pointless political debate was about. No-one connected to any of the over 300 registered hunts in England and Wales has been convicted of a hunting offence for over two years.
Of those 423 people who have been convicted 94 per cent were involved in casual hunting or poaching which would anyway have been covered by offences which pre-existed the Hunting Act.
For those Conservative MPs who were relieved to see the back of the Hunting Act in 2005, and the many who have been elected since, the temptation might be to suggest that these figures represent some sort of compromise, that the status quo is acceptable, and that the issue of hunting can be left in the pile marked ‘too difficult’. This, however, is a very dangerous position for two main reasons.
The first is that despite the very small number of prosecutions involving hunts animal rights groups are still spending hundreds of thousands of pounds (often of charitable donations) carrying out ‘investigations’ of hunts, sometimes involving lengthy covert surveillance operations, which inevitably lead to pointless allegations being made to the police.
You may want your local police officers spend their time investigating real crimes, but they have a legal obligation to investigate allegations, however vindictive and however much police resources could be better used elsewhere.
The last case against a hunt to reach court, in Devon, was an attempt by an anti-hunting group to bring a private prosecution. It took two years to get to trial, but ended in two days when the prosecutions expert witness was found to have hidden his close relationship to other witnesses.
The dwindling number of animal rights activists who remain obsessed with hunts are angry that hunts have maintained their infrastructure, their kennels, and their hounds, whilst support in the rural community has if anything grown as Boxing Day will show. The law that was supposed to have got rid of hunts is now being used as little more than a vehicle to harass them and the taxpayer is picking up the bill.
The second reason Conservatives should remain firm in the desire to scrap the Act is that it sits as a dreadful precedent, not just in relation to legislation on wildlife, but the worst possible example of a law that was passed as an attack on a minority in society.
The reality is that the primary purpose that the Act’s supporters wanted it to achieve was to get rid of hunts. As one anti-hunting Labour MP famously admitted as soon as the law was passed ‘Now that hunting has been banned, we ought at last to own up to it: the struggle over the Bill was not just about animal welfare and personal freedom, it was class war’.
No true Conservative should lie happy in bed whilst a law so blatantly prejudice remains on the statute book.
This issue is not, therefore, going to go away because it is about much more than just foxes and packs of hounds. It has become less a debate about animal welfare, and more about the ability of one group of people in society to impose its will on another.
In the end the Hunting Act is a deeply prejudiced judgement on people who hunt, rather than a reasoned assessment of the impact of hunting on animal welfare and wildlife management. That is why people will not stop hunting, and why the Hunting Act will remain on the political agenda in this Parliament, the next Parliament, and the one after that, until the debate is settled on the basis of principle and evidence, rather than bigotry and lies.