They didn’t want this discussion to start; but it has. We need to make it continue.
It was an intimate environment. More intimate than I anticipated. MPs sat in a elongated circle, behind desks. Some were clearly sitting together, others were on their own. Isolated and sitting at a special-looking desk with a small lectern, was Therese Coffey – Minister for DEFRA. Four large digital clocks counted the seconds, one on each wall. At the end of the room, on a long table sat the chairman – Mr Rosindell. A handful of people sat at the other end; we were the audience, separated from the MPs by a green rope.
Having been warned not to clap, shout, throw eggs (not that we would, as we’re vegan, though tomatoes would probably do) or engage in any way at all, we waited politely for the debate to begin.
At 2.30 exactly, Chris Matheson stood up and spoke. He spoke so fast that I wondered if he was nervous; but he was doing it for a reason. He had to get his speech done in a specific number of minutes – and my goodness he crammed a lot in. He began by referring to hen harriers and hare coursing, but he moved very swiftly on to fox hunting, confirming that this was the real focus of the debate. He reminded us that, “The Prime Minister has openly declared her support for foxhunting” before the last general election. [When I saw my own Conservative MP about this a couple of months later, he said that all Conservative candidates instantly knew what a mistake this was. The hunting lobby clearly want to act in secret and she let the fox out of the bag with ill-thought through toadying].Mr Matheson went on to point out that “There is a sense of a lack of political will from Government Ministers, which means the issue is constantly swept under the carpet”. Saying “lack of political will” is polite. I would say this: the hunting lobby is a group of bullies backed by significant finance. They have more power in the Conservative Party than they should and hence more power in the country. Like 85% of people, Mr Matheson“fails to understand how someone can get pleasure from killing animals, and can conclude only that such people are in some way disturbed”. Whole-hearted agreement with you there, Mr M. However, a few feet away was Simon Hart, who does get pleasure from killing animals. Is he disturbed? We think so.
Several other MPs also spoke, including David Amess (Conservative MP for Southend) who said that there were at least 60 Conservative MPs who opposed foxhunting. He also said that “it beggars belief that anyone would set dogs on foxes and think that it is acceptable to have them physically torn apart. I think that most civilised people, and I would hope most Members of Parliament, would find that repugnant.”
Simon Hart (MP and chairman of the Countryside Alliance) who stood up to speak not long afterwards, did not seem in any way ashamed of himself, even though we all know that he does indeed think that tearing foxes apart is acceptable. He trotted out the usual falsehood, saying, “Trail hunting takes place on more than 25,000 occasions a year. The evidence, which might be good evidence, suggesting that there is a widespread problem exaggerates the problem.” He didn’t mention that the “evidence” is abundant. He also didn’t mention that the Countryside Alliance campaigns to bring back hunting. He did say that the Hunting Act was written the way it was for a reason; he said that it was because “a blanket ban on the killing and control of foxes was unfeasible”.We all know now that it was written in that way to allow hunting to continue.His argument – if it was an argument – was so weak that even if I didn’t oppose foxhunting myself, I would not be convinced. It just didn’t work. I could take his argument apart and destroy it in seconds, if I needed. And I shall do, at some point, but not here.
Other MPs spoke. Justin Madders was particularly eloquent. He drew attention to the anti-social crimes committed by members of a hunt and the fact that most of it goes unpunished. He said, “that the authorities are not being even-handed in their approach”. Good point, Mr Madders. Hunters are the authorities; we don’t have a chance as it is.
Sue Hayman, Laura Smith and Mike Amesbury also spoke. Sue Hayman confirmed Labour’s promise to do something about the Hunting Act, when they come to power, saying “we will strengthen the Hunting Act by closing the loopholes through a number of key measures”. She also pointed out that “trail hunting (was) being used as a cover for the illegal hunting of wild animals”.
All this while, Therese Coffey sat, slumped in her seat. She spent much of her time scrolling, some of it staring (apparently) into her own cleavage, and the rest of it just looking lackadaisical. When the debate was over, everyone focused their attention on her, waiting to see if she was going to take on board what had been said.
But no, she wasn’t. Her answer was already prepared. She already knew what she was going to say. The whole debate thing was just a performance. “Trail hunting is a huge improvement on live fox hunting” she said and, crucially, “The Government have no plans to amend the Hunting Act.” She did say she would look at sentencing – but as we all know, a conviction is needed before sentencing and we rarely ever seem to get that far anyway.
As she spoke, I looked at Simon Hart. He was barely listening; he knows he and his hunting friends are safe.
We filed out and I saw Chris Matheson in the corridor. I leaned in and handed him an AAF leaflet, thanking him for doing this. (Pretty certain that if I had run into Simon Hart in the corridor, I’d have given him something different to remember me by). I said I was a bit disappointed. He asked why. Nothing is going to change, I said. We need to keep on going, he said. It won’t change over night.
He is right, I know. Just securing a debate on the subject is an astonishing achievement. It has opened a locked door – and for an hour and a half yesterday, it stood open. Even though Ms Coffey has shut it firmly, I don’t think she can lock it again.
AAF must continue to spread the word, so that everybody can recognise that Simon Hart’s statement: “Trail hunting takes place on more than 25,000 occasions a year” as a lie. We need to keep on going till the next election when all politicians, including Simon Hart (probably), will become candidates again and they will need our votes.
Don’t be disappointed. We have been unheard for so long; Mr Matheson and the other ministers made the points for us in Parliament and these words have been recorded in Hansard forever. The hunting lobby will hate that, but they are powerless to change it. The boot is on the other foot now; it’s just a question of time before the hunters have to hang up their silly “toy soldier” clothes and start reminiscing instead of killing. History will judge them harshly. We and many many others look at foxhunting with revulsion and horror. It is without doubt that this cruel and pitiless pastime will be soon be sent where it belongs – into the past.
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