Jack Straw has reopened the bitter dispute over Labour’s manifesto pledge to ban fox hunting by appointing potential sympathisers of blood sports to the independent inquiry into the rural pursuit.
MPs still smarting over the home secretary’s mishandling of the plan to curb jury trials, his about-face on Augusto Pinochet and his poor showing on freedom of information, last night accused him of “total stupidity” in appointing people with strong connections to the hunting world to such a delicate investigation.
Confidential information obtained by the Guardian shows that all four inquiry members, chosen in consultation with the chairman, Lord Burns, a former treasury permanent secretary, are linked to institutions that publicly support hunting or have supported the practice, while five other people – put forward by anti-hunting bodies – were ruled out by Mr Straw.
The inquiry, which is due to report in late spring, is to examine the impact on the rural economy of a ban on hunting and how a ban might be implemented. The government is awaiting its conclusions before deciding whether to proceed with legislation.
The most controversial appointment is that of Lord Soulsby of Swaffham, a vet specialising in parasites in pets, who became involved in a hunting controversy by demolishing the scientific findings on deer hunting made by Patrick Bateson, provost of King’s College, Cambridge. Lord Soulsby’s report, commissioned by the British Field Sports Society, was used to discredit the National Trust’s move to ban deer hunting. This led to a row between him and five other academics.
Two of the other three chosen for the inquiry have strong connections with the Royal Agriculture College in Cirencester, Gloucestershire, which has its own beagle hunt – which would be banned under the legislation. One is Michael Winter, the college’s former director of rural studies and author of a report about deer hunting on Exmoor being a rural institution. The other is Victoria Edwards, on the advisory college board and a Forestry Commission member.
The remaining appointment is Sir John Marsh, former director of the centre for agricultural strategy at Reading university – which is a member of the standing conference on country sports, a think-tank that meets twice a year and, according to its own literature, has as its sole objective the task of “maintaining countryside sports as an integral part of the national way of life”.
According to a home office memo, the five people rejected by Mr Straw are AJF Webster, a vet at a research institute, working in the division of animal husbandry at Bristol; Piran White, a lecturer in environmental studies at York university; Donald Broom, a professor in animal welfare at St Catharine’s College, Cambridge; Stephen Harris, a professor of environmental science based at Bristol university; and Baroness Young, chairwoman of English Nature.
Last night officials at the hunting inquiry strongly defended all the appointments. An official who did not wish to be named told the Guardian that he accepted the facts that had been presented to him. But he added: “Their personal views are irrelevant. They will decide on the merits of the case put forward by pro- and anti-hunting groups after hearing all the evidence.”
Ian Gibson, the Labour MP for Norwich North, who has tabled five questions concerning the inquiry appointments, said yesterday: “This is total stupidity. You would have thought that the home office would have had the sense to protect its own integrity and credibility and would have at least appointed a balanced team or neutral people to look at this. What they have done appears to put on the inquiry people from institutions who support hunting. What with the home secretary already failing to follow through other matters – if he is not careful this will finish him.”
Mike Foster, the Labour MP for Worcester who is promoting a bill against fox hunting, said: “I have already expressed disquiet to ministers about the appointment of Lord Soulsby. I shall now be demanding to know who made all of the appointments.”
Mike Baker, UK director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, said: “We have very real concerns over the make-up of the inquiry team. This has become a matter of trust between the government and the public, and we do not expect that trust to be betrayed.”
John Cooper, chairman of the League Against Cruel Sports, said: “Our supporters, including many backbench MPs, will see this as an attempt to stitch up the animal welfare movement. The vast majority of Britons want to see a hunt ban. Mr Straw should treat them with more respect. He should reiterate his commitment to give an anti-hunt bill government time.”
The home office initially said Lord Burns made the appointments, but after a denial by Lord Burns’s office, a statement said the home secretary made the appointments in consultation with Lord Burns.
By David Hencke, Westminster Correspondent