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Archive for August, 2012

There is a very simple tactic often used in debates concerning controversial issues; reduce the various standpoints and views down to the most basic level and portray the two sides in these stark terms. Sometimes this is the fault of the media, but more often it’s employed by groups or individuals who judge that most people would be unlikely to fall into the opposing camp, so supporters are gained by default.

Consider how many people concerned about immigration, for example, have been written off as xenophobic. Anyone concerned about jobs or housing going to foreigners can only be racist. People who oppose certain rulings under the Human Rights Act must be part of the “hang’em and flog’em” brigade. The tactic works, because instead of furthering debate, it closes it down …and that suits some groups perfectly.

It is precisely this tactic that has been used in the hunting debate. No matter how one might feel about animals, if you’re pro-hunting or pro-shooting you must be a bloodthirsty sadist. Of course it is the case that some people are indeed sadists, just as there are xenophobes and racists, but the vast majority?

In my time at the League Against Cruel Sports, I was always willing, indeed eager, to talk to members of the hunting world (mainly because at the time I thought I was right and could prove my opponents wrong). However, when some LACS officials heard about this, these discussions were suddenly portrayed as “secret meetings” and one thing you don’t do at LACS is talk to the other side.  I remember mentioning to a committee member the possibility of slackening the policy on opposition to the use of all hunting dogs, due to the possibility of worse methods filling the vacuum. “Better keep those thoughts to yourself”, I was told. Later, when another committee member dared to raise the question about what might happen to the fox after a ban on hunting, he was shouted down, accused of being some sort of heretic.

When the All Party Parliamentary Middle Way Group was formed, the anti hunting bodies did their level best to exclude any debate involving a representative… and for a while it worked. A journey to London was aborted mid-journey following a phone call to say that the anti-hunt spokesperson lined up for a TV debate would pull out if the Middle Way Group took part.

Interestingly, it was the formation of the group and a subsequent opinion poll including a ‘middle way’ option that showed a truer reflection of how the public felt about a hunting ban. In this NOP poll, those that wanted hunting to continue, either by self or statutory regulation, were in the majority (59%) – the one and only time this has happened, most polls having since reverted back to the simplistic ‘for or against’ format. One can see why anything other than a ‘black or white’ situation is awkward for those opposed to hunting.

If talking to the opposition is difficult, being involved with an independent inquiry is even more worrying. “Fudge, delay and bias” was how the LACS initially described the Inquiry into Hunting with Dogs in England and Wales (the Burns Report). “The Burns inquiry has been plagued with allegations of pro-hunt bias, its findings are unlikely to be conclusive, and the whole process has been seen as a way of delaying a ban until after the election.”, claimed the LACS, but that was before they started ‘cherry picking’ out the bits that suited their argument.

Following the 2001 general election, a vote of intention was held in Parliament and while the House of Commons voted for a ban, the House of Lords voted overwhelmingly for regulated hunting. This prompted Alun Michael, the minister in charge of the issue, to set up the Portcullis House Hearings – a process intended to examine the scientific evidence available on hunting with dogs. Once again, getting the anti-hunting organisations to take part proved exceedingly difficult. Initially, the three main anti-hunting organisations – the RSPCA, IFAW and LACS – said that the whole process was unnecessary.

In preliminary meetings to discuss how the hearings might proceed, Alun Michael allowed these groups to dictate the ‘rules of engagement’. Witnesses would be chosen by the participating groups to make written submissions and be questioned, but when it came to the Middle Way Group’s choice of Professor Stuart Harrop (a wildlife law expert previously employed by the RSPCA and someone who had doubts about a hunting ban) the anti-hunting groups threatened to boycott the whole process and pull out. Apparently they could choose whoever they wished, but were allowed to veto opposing witnesses. The minister, fearing a collapse of the hearings, pleaded with Middle Way Group not to insist upon calling Professor Harrop and offered instead to meet him privately. However, no meeting took place. Showing further bias, the minister allowed an anti-hunting theologian to give “evidence” in what was intended to be a scientific review process.

Perhaps all this isn’t surprising, after all the RSPCA, when challenged, could not supply the “large body of scientific and technical evidence” on which it claimed its anti-hunting policy is based. The same goes for the now ex-MP for Hendon, anti- hunting Andrew Dismore, who, fearing it might make the forthcoming anti-hunting bill redundant, appeared to delight in his criticism of a genuine wild mammal welfare bill when introduced to the House of Commons in February 2004. “I have enough material to talk it out many times over.” he claimed on the day the bill, which relied on evidence rather than assumptions, was talked out. Yet again, when subsequently challenged on numerous occasions to produce that evidence, Dismore could not do so. Odd, because if Dismore and his ilk believed in the soundness of their argument, they should have welcomed such a law.

And so it continues. Meetings either in Parliament or at political conferences that are arranged to supposedly discuss relevant issues surrounding hunting, the ban and wildlife protection are sometimes barred to those who wish to put a different point of view. Twice in recent conferences the Q&A sessions in anti-hunt meetings have been quickly curtailed when ‘awkward’ points were raised.

Anti-hunting politicians are often just as reluctant to engage in detailed debate. For them, it is far easier to argue that enough time has been already spent on hunting and that there is no need to waste any more, conveniently ignoring the 700 hours of Parliamentary time it took to put the flawed Hunting Act on the statute book in the first place. The reality is they don’t want to talk because they don’t understand hunting; their minds are closed and an in-depth discussion would reveal that.

This is no way to improve animal welfare – indeed a genuine animal welfare law is being blocked by such closed and bigoted minds. With the political conference season approaching, there should be opportunities to properly debate the Hunting Act and many other issues, but those who advocate simplifying and stunting discussion will no doubt do their utmost to utilise the ‘black and white’ tactic, even though we all know the world is really various shades of grey.

 

 

 

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The RSPCA has now dropped its private prosecution of Julian Barnfield, huntsman with the Heythrop Hunt, while legal action continues against the hunt masters, staff and the hunt as a whole for alleged breaches of the Hunting Act. The case, now to be heard in December, is estimated to cost in the region of ₤1 million.

This is happening at a time when the society is appealing for extra funds because of the current economic situation, giving rise to more abandoned and unwanted animals. Staff redundancies are apparently on the cards. Yet somehow there is enough money available to fight such a case. A reasonable question might be what is driving the RSPCA to such action?  To answer this requires a step back to the 1970s.

In the minds of many people there is no difference between ‘animal rights’ and ‘animal welfare’ – the two often being confused in the media. In fact, animal welfare is fundamentally different to the concept of animal rights; the former seeking an on-going improvement in the way we treat animals, while the latter extends ‘rights’ to animals, meaning that they cannot be ‘used’ by humans. Supporters of animal rights saw the RSPCA, with its status and extensive funds, as the prime target to control and by the late 1970s the society had even adopted an ‘animal rights charter’.

The RSPCA policy published in 1979

There was serious doubt as to whether a charity with the aim of improving animal welfare could indeed adopt an animal rights agenda and the charter was quietly dropped, but the new ‘rightist’ attitude of the RSPCA’s ruling council remained the same.

For many years, the RSPCA’s policy on hunting had been one of moral opposition, but falling short of seeking prohibition. This was due to the fact that the ruling council at the time correctly understood that shooting would take over… and with more shooting there would inevitably be more wounding. However, by 1976 in that new ‘animal rights’ atmosphere the policy had become one of prohibition by law, even though nothing had changed in reality. The RSPCA was happy to ignore the wounding issue and join the growing campaign to end hunting with hounds, now stating that shooting was the humane alternative and arguing, strangely, that “There is no need for foxes, horses and hounds to be subjected to increased suffering as a result”.

Later, criteria were set down as to who could join the RSPCA.  Olympic gold medalist Richard Meade OBE, who had previously served on the council and had received awards for his welfare work, was barred from membership. His ‘crime’? Simply wanting to put an alternative view on fox hunting.

The late John Hobhouse, a RSPCA member for 50 years and a man credited as being the “first great reforming chairman” of the society, was brushed aside by the organisation he had done so much to support when he argued in that the Hunting Act was a mistake and should be replaced by a genuine welfare law.

There is no better example of the determination and desperation to see a hunting ban than the comment of Jackie Ballard, the erstwhile Director General of the RSPCA, who said in response to research that revealed the true level of wounding rates, “There is not absolute proof that wounded foxes suffer…”.  

The RSPCA performs a vitally important role. Society and its animals would be much the worse if it did not exist. Of course it sometimes makes mistakes, as all organisations do, but often these were forgiven due to the position the RSPCA holds in the hearts and minds of many people. But in certain cases serious questions have been raised about the decision to prosecute. Perhaps the fault lies in the way the RSPCA is constituted in that it has three distinct elements – a campaigning side, an investigating side and a prosecuting side.  Can these three sectors operate in a way that one does not influence another?  The Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SSPCA) obviously has doubts, as they rightly campaign and investigate incidents, but then hand over their evidence to the independent prosecuting authority, the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS), to assess the merits of the case. Neither the police nor the Crown Prosecution Service was involved in the Heythrop Hunt case; had they been, one has to wonder whether the prosecution would be going ahead.

But that is not the only point arising from this matter.

Firstly, the cost of Julian Barnfield’s defence, reported to be in five figures, will be paid out of public funds. Natural justice would surely dictate that if a person brings a prosecution against another and that prosecution is subsequently dropped for a lack of sufficient evidence, the prosecutor should pick up the costs. Sir Barney White-Spunner, Executive Chairman of the Countryside Alliance, summed it up perfectly when he said, There is something very unseemly about the RSPCA using the court system to pursue its political agenda. Worse than that, the costs of these legal adventures are being borne by you and me.”

Secondly, those who head the RSPCA seem to have forgotten the words of one of the founders of the organisation, foxhunter – yes, foxhunter– Richard Martin who said, It would be ill judged for it to become known as a prosecuting society and the prime aim should be to alter the moral feelings of the country.”

Finally, just put this whole sorry episode into context. The Heythrop case is not about catching a gang of brutal dog fighters, it is not about cruelly-treated or abandoned pets, nor is it about preventing the suffering of millions of intensively farmed animals. It is about adhering to the purely technical and illogical offences created by the Hunting Act – a law that saves not a single animal’s life and has certainly not improved the welfare of wild mammals.

One of the most frustrating comments comes from RSPCA staff members. I’ve heard it time and time again over the years in arguing against a hunting ban and instead for a sensible, genuine animal welfare law. It’s the phrase “Yes, I know you’re right, but it’s the council…”.  The RSPCA does so much excellent work, but in taking a stand against the use of scenting hounds in the management of wildlife the organisation made a dreadful error and this can only be put down to the ruling council blindly adhering to an animal rights agenda.

The Heythrop case simply compounds that mistake. It will be extremely expensive for all the parties involved, including the public, and do absolutely nothing for animal welfare.

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