Labour and the Hunting Act

The ban on hunting with dogs has done nothing for animal welfare and should be repealed.

James Barrington
29 May 2015

With the Labour Party now taking time to reflect on the reasons it lost so disastrously at the general election, it might be a good time for the party to also re-examine its support for the Hunting Act.

For decades, the abolition of hunting has been part of the Left’s campaign and yet few have paused to really question the wisdom of this stance. I did. As a former executive director of the League Against Cruel Sports I am just one of a number of people who worked for that organisation who have changed their minds on the validity of the anti-hunt case.

Shortly after the end of the Second World War, some Labour politicians sought to outlaw hunting with dogs. The votes were lost, despite Labour having a massive majority. Instead of a ban, Atlee’s government commissioned an inquiry into activities involving wild animals, resulting in the definitive Report of the Committee on Cruelty to Wild Animals. Rightly, the committee did not examine hunting in isolation and recommended the banning of the gin trap, which was eventually outlawed in 1958 in England and Wales. But importantly the report found that organised hunting made an important contribution to the control of wild animals and did not recommend a ban on hunting with dogs, which was seen as causing no more suffering than that which wild animals may face in nature. Another reason was that it could not be shown that the alternative methods of control were more humane.

Nothing has changed since that time apart from the claims of anti-hunting groups, who are always keen to tell us all what they dislike, but rarely what they support. During the run-up to the Hunting Act, shooting was reluctantly put forward as the ‘humane alternative’. Yet when it comes to the badger cull, shooting was seen as cruel by Labour’s shadow DEFRA team. It cannot be the case that badgers feel pain but foxes don’t and it doesn’t take much thought to see through such duplicity.

The real political push to ban hunting started in the 1970s when payments were made to the Labour Party by the League Against Cruel Sports and other groups, having decided that this was the only party in a position to form a government that was likely to adopt an anti-hunting policy. It was a policy that fitted well with existing views within the party, as can be seen by this comment made to me by Dennis Skinner at the Labour Party conference in 2004, “This has nothing to do with animal welfare – this is for the miners.” His comment ignores the fact that many miners supported their local hunt!

Financial support was an important factor during the 1980s, which was a difficult period for the Labour Party, and the anti-hunting groups proved to be welcomed and generous friends. Lord Donoughue, a Labour Peer, has highlighted how a commitment to vote for a hunting ban became one of the conditions for acceptance as a candidate at constituency Labour Party level. A toxic mix of emotion, ignorance, prejudice and financial support was proving to bear fruit.

Money was no object in getting the Hunting Act onto the statute book. Examination of annual accounts produced by the three main anti-hunting groups indicates that some £30 million pounds was spent to achieve this and this astounding figure does not include amounts incurred subsequently through failed prosecutions, many of which had costs paid from public funds. If animal welfare had indeed been improved this might have been worth it, but it hasn’t. Not a penny has been spent by any anti-hunting group on assessing the welfare effects of this law, while at the same time a process that is selective, testing and non-wounding has been curbed to the detriment of farmers now operating under a law that creates technical offences rather than animal welfare based ones.
The Hunting Act was passed in 2004 in a flurry of exaggerated claims from animal rights groups that this was a new dawn for society and a watershed for animal welfare. Since then, RSPCA figures have shown a steady rise in animal cruelty cases, proving that prophesy to be utterly false. While hundreds of successful prosecutions have indeed occurred under the Hunting Act, the vast majority have been for poaching – something that was already illegal.  

One argument - sometimes the only argument - consistently used in defence of the Hunting Act is the supposed support of a majority of the public, as indicated in opinion polls. Leave aside for a moment the fact that virtually all political polling during the general election was spectacularly wrong, any poll that implies that repeal of the Hunting Act would also legalise badger baiting and dog fighting, as a number of polls did, is bound to result in a high level of opposition to hunting. A recent YouGov poll asking a straight question showed only about 50% of those asked disagreed with repeal. Ask another question about what issues concern the public and hunting hardly registers on the radar.

At the annual conference in 2008, a short film on Labour’s achievements in government was shown. In amongst the various topics of health, education and employment, the “ban on foxhunting” section of the film was the only one to receive a cheer from the audience – something that could be heard by those of us outside in the exhibition hall. It’s one thing to be unswerving in support of a policy, but to do so even when you admit that you know nothing about an issue places your attitude somewhere between blind faith and bigotry. Yet that is precisely what I heard during this general election.

This is a major part of the problem. Relying on loaded questions in opinion polls and cosying up to celebrities, who probably know nothing of the issues but have millions of Twitter followers, inevitably leads to a false sense of security in any campaign. Proof, if it were needed, that such a tactic doesn’t work is plainly there in the election of the Conservative Party, which had a well-publicised commitment to a vote on repealing the Hunting Act in its manifesto, as well as the numerous high-profile pro-hunting candidates who were elected on 7th May. For other losing candidates (of all parties) being anti-hunting was certainly no lifeline.

Not all Labour supporters are in favour of a hunting ban and the more discerning realise the damage the policy has had on the party’s prospects in rural areas – a point that is often raised at conferences. What is just as frustrating is the fact that a workable solution to the hunting question has been proposed by a Labour supporter- Lord Donoughue, a former agriculture minister in the first Blair government – with a law that would protect all wild mammals from all genuine cruelty in all circumstances, with offences being based on evidence, not opinion. But this would make the Hunting Act redundant, so by rejecting such a measure anti hunt supporters are revealing two things: they cannot prove hunting to be cruel and they confirm their motivation is more about banning those who hunt than improving animal welfare.

A ban on hunting was always portrayed as being easy, popular, inexpensive and good for animal welfare. In reality, it has turned out to be the exact opposite. Take a step back and anyone can see it is ridiculous to exclude scenting dogs from wildlife management, just as it is to label the whole process as “killing for fun”. When people are made aware that it took 700 hours of parliamentary time to pass the Hunting Act – ten times longer than the debates on the invasion of Iraq – they are astonished.  

No wonder the public, when properly informed, can see through this nonsense; it’s a pity those at the top of the Labour Party can’t.

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