The public can always tell an election is near when the photo opportunities start to increase. Just such an occasion occurred on the 10th anniversary of the Hunting Act in November, when the Parliamentary Labour Party office invited MPs to have a photograph taken, ‘with a large fox holding up a sign saying “Back the ban”.’ Needless to say, I did not attend.
In his book Last Man Standing, Jack Straw says with regard to hunting:
‘To me, banning it was a nonsense issue for a serious party making a determined bid for government after 18 years in opposition. It was best left alone.’
Ten years after the Hunting Act was passed, Jack has been proven to be right. Right, not because it is fine to be cruel to animals, but because a simplistic measure like banning hunting with dogs could never properly address the wider issues surrounding wildlife, its management, its welfare and its uses and abuses by humans.
Now we see a campaign to strengthen the Hunting Act, and the groans of those who spent 700 parliamentary hours the first time around are almost audible. What should not be forgotten is that there was a large majority of anti-hunting MPs in the House of Commons at that time, taking advice from anti-hunting organisations. There was also a majority of anti-hunting MPs during the committee stage too, so the final result is entirely the work of anti-hunt campaigners.
Unlike many police officers, veterinarians, legal experts, senior civil servants and politicians (including Tony Blair), all of whom have criticised this legislation, those who were instrumental in drafting the Hunting Act now blame everyone else for its failings and seek more parliamentary time to fix the unfixable.
The Hunting Act has failed in its supposed purpose of improving animal welfare because it originates from the wrong starting point. It makes its assumption of cruelty on nothing more than opinion and perhaps a distaste for the people involved. No scientific research supports the banning of the use of scenting hounds, and those who obsess about the Hunting Act ignore wider problems with which wild animals have to deal, as if hunting with dogs is the worst thing a wild creature might face.
For those who are genuinely concerned about cruelty to wild animals, as I am, the proposal from my Labour colleague Bernard Donoughue deserves serious consideration. It is a law that would make all deliberate unnecessary suffering to any wild mammal an offence and is based on principle and evidence. It mirrors the legislation that protects domestic animals while accepting the need for proper management, and allows for accusations of cruelty to be tested in court. Importantly, it resolves the hunting debate and allows us to move on to other issues that often involve more animals and far greater suffering.
My final point relates to the Labour Party itself. Despite claims from anti-hunting groups that this issue is a major factor when it comes to voting, we know that hunting, and indeed most animal welfare matters, hardly register at all in a general election. The economy, education, employment, the NHS and taxes will always be the deciding factors. While it may feel good to score a few political points on the issue, has Labour really improved its standing in rural constituencies as a result of the Hunting Act? Does anyone seriously think that this obsession with an issue that affects so few is really doing us any good?
The real irony here is that we have a principled solution – and a Labour one at that – in our grasp, if we only choose to step back from this activity and take a realistic look at it.