Shadow environment secretary tells Labour conference government plan to allow free vote on revoking hunting ban will be fiercely resisted.
Hilary Benn today vowed to fight plans to revoke the hunting ban Hilary Benn today vowed to fight plans to revoke the hunting ban.
The shadow environment secretary, Hilary Benn, today vowed to oppose coalition plans to bring back fox hunting “every step of the way” as he hailed Labour’s achievements in office.
Speaking at the party’s Manchester conference two days after Ed Miliband told activists to be humble about Labour’s mistakes in office, Benn focused his speech on what the party had achieved for the countryside when it was in power and “had the chance”.
“Yes, there’s more to do – but let’s celebrate how our politics changed people’s lives for the better,” he told delegates.
Benn rounded on the government’s plans for rural affairs, warning that the package of cuts would harm the environment and “affect the lives of our children and grandchildren”.
He said the plan to allow a free vote on revoking the hunting ban introduced under Labour would be fiercely resisted by the opposition.
The ban has been criticised as unenforceable. Tony Blair, the former prime minister who pushed through the legislation, confessed in his recent memoirs that he deliberately sabotaged the Hunting Act to make sure that there were enough loopholes to allow the sport to continue.
Blair wrote: “The passions aroused by the issue were primeval. If I’d proposed solving the pension problem by compulsory euthanasia of every fifth pensioner I’d have got less trouble … By the end of it, I felt like the damn fox. I had a complete lapse.
“I didn’t ‘feel it’ either way. I didn’t feel how, for fox hunters, this was part of their way of life. I didn’t feel how, for those wanting a ban, this was fundamentally about cruelty. Result? Disaster.”
But Benn, who is standing in the shadow cabinet elections, made clear he would fiercely oppose any move to rescind the existing legislation – a move he said was at odds with the coalition’s claim to be “compassionate”.
“It wants to bring back the barbarous spectacle of fox and stag hunting, and hare coursing to our countryside,” he said.
“This isn’t compassion. It’s animal cruelty, and we will oppose it every step of the way.”
Benn told the party to look forward with optimism – the key message outlined by Ed Miliband earlier this week – as he attacked the coalition’s wider plans for the environment and rural affairs.
He said the self-proclaimed “greenest ever” government was undermining confidence in feed-in tariffs, dithering on the renewable heat incentive, saying it was OK to go on throwing waste into landfill when it could and should be recycled, reducing funding for national parks, abolishing the Sustainable Development Commission and was about to unveil cuts that would hit farming.
The government’s proposal to abolish the Agricultural Wages Board was a “shabby little plan”, Benn said, pointing out that “even Margaret Thatcher” had not attempted to scrap the board, which sets minimum pay levels for farm workers.
Benn said: “David Cameron tells us we are all in this together. Really? If that’s so, then why are you determined to abolish the Agricultural Wages Board?
“For 70 years, it has ensured a fair deal and fair pay, overtime rates, standby allowances, bereavement leave for farm workers. Even Mrs Thatcher did not dare do this. All in this together, Mr Cameron? No. This is a shabby little plan, and we will oppose it every step of the way.”
On the environment, Benn said politicians had to “lose the view that we must choose between the economy and the environment”, adding: “In the future, a strong economy will be built on a strong environment.”
He looked forward to a future “not of hairshirts and backward glances” but “a future of possibilities, where by using technology, design, imagination, passion, commitment – and all the skills of all the people – we can build a new Jerusalem of green and pleasant lands”.