'There is a compelling case to get the hunting ban off the statute book' by Nick Herbert, Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
This week, the National Audit Office slated the Government's handling of the farm payment scheme, describing "a serious lack of attention to the protection of taxpayers' interests". This incompetence has cost the British public £75 million in fines to the EU and caused farmers real difficulty, yet no Minister has accepted responsibility.
Labour's contempt for the countryside is so brazen that rural communities have become almost inured to it. The Government's assault on rural England has been relentless. Thousands of rural post offices and hundreds of village schools have been closed. District hospital services have been downgraded and rural police stations lost. Funding is siphoned away from shire councils while regional quangos usurp local decision-making.
People have marched and protested. They have travelled up to Westminster to lobby Parliament. But Ministers are deaf to the countryside. Rural communities have been denied a voice, and power has been taken away from local people.
Of course the most symbolic act of Labour's arrogant disregard for rural communities was the abolition of hunting. One of only seven laws to be driven through under the Parliament Act, for the late Tony Banks MP, the abolition of hunting was "totemic". It was excused as an animal welfare measure, yet Lord Burns, who chaired the Government's inquiry into Hunting with Dogs, "struggle[d] to see how the ... Act ... passes the Minister's test that the legislation should be soundly based on evidence and principle". Indeed, the same Minister's Parliamentary Private Secretary later admitted to this newspaper that "... the struggle over the Bill was not just about animal welfare and personal freedom, it was class war."
At the time lawyers predicted that the legislation, widely regarded as a dog's breakfast, would be unworkable. And so it has proved. The law which makes it an offence for your dog to chase a hare, but not a rabbit, has seen only nine prosecutions of registered hunts in four years, just three of which have been successful. The Crown Prosecution Service has all but given up pursuing the cases and the Association of Chief Police Officers say that enforcement is "definitely not a policing priority." Hunt membership has actually increased.
Everyone knows that this law is an ass. It has not saved the life of a single fox. Paradoxically, only the League Against Cruel Sports clings to the belief that the Act is working and should remain in force, occasionally launching a vexatious private prosecution to prove the point.
Some argue that the Hunting Act is so ineffective that it might as well be left on the Statute Book. But this is bad law, and bad laws should be repealed. While prosecutions have so far mainly failed, it is the professional hunt staff, whose livelihoods depend on their employment, who have found themselves in the dock and who still fear arrest, with all the worry and opprobrium that very public and drawn out prosecutions entail.
Above all, the Act sits with ID cards, the attempt to introduce 42 day detention and the removal of trial by jury for fraud cases as an affront to civil liberties. It is but one of Labour's laws that have overridden individual rights and asserted the power of the State.
For all these reasons, there is a compelling case to sweep this law off the Statute Book. That is why David Cameron has said that, if we are elected, we will give Parliament the opportunity to repeal the Hunting Act on a free vote, with a government bill in government time. There will be no watering down or retreat from this pledge, which will be repeated in our election manifesto.
Tony Blair used up 700 hours of Parliamentary time on hunting, far more than was devoted to the invasion of Iraq, and he prevaricated over the issue. We have no intention of making the same mistake. There is so much that we will need to do for the countryside, let alone the country: restoring respect for rural people; returning power to rural communities; recognising the social value in important local services; reviving the rural economy; rebuilding British farming; tackling regulation and paring down the rural quangos.
There is an important agenda, too, to promote conservation of wildlife and habitats against a background of biodiversity decline and growing pressures from development and climate change. We must continue to enhance animal welfare and - as I argued this week - do far more to protect endangered species.
Leaving this legislation on the statute book might salve the consciences of those who believe that passing a law is bound to achieve a good outcome, but in reality it will do nothing to further a serious agenda for animal welfare or wildlife conservation.
The defence of liberty should never be a low priority. Allowing the new Parliament an early opportunity to revisit a discredited law will not be a distraction from our wider agenda: it will simply be the right thing to do.
Labour's attack on hunting was an act of spite. It attempted to create two nations, dividing town and country. It treated the rural minority with contempt, bordering on hatred.
I will certainly vote for repeal, and so I hope will a majority of the new Commons. And with no more ado we can then move on, forging a positive agenda for conservation and the countryside, and putting the politics of prejudice and division behind us.