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Westminster's voice - Interview with Tony Banks
Posted 1 June 2005
Until his retirement from the House of Commons at the General Election, Labour MP Tony Banks had been seen as the unofficial backbench spokesperson on animal welfare in the House of Commons, taking up many causes during his 22 years in parliament. Mark Gold spoke to him.
What prompted your concern for animals?
"I've been interested since I was a kid and it grew out of keeping companion animals. Before I was elected to parliament in 1983, I was a member of the Greater London Council and involved with banning circuses from council land and those sorts of campaigns."
In the 20 years or so since you became an MP, what have been the great achievements for animal welfare?
"There has been a whole range of changes on the welfare of animals - a ban on elephant ivory, ban on hunting with dogs, protection of badgers. More than one particular issue, however, it's the change in climate that is important. Animal welfare is much higher up the political agenda than it was 20 years ago. It is treated much more seriously.
"The work of animal welfare groups has been instrumental in political progress, both directly and in raising public awareness. Political progress reflects public opinion, so by raising public understanding, pressure groups affect the political process.
"I would have preferred the Hunting Act to have been tighter than it was, but it's very hard to stop barbarous people being cruel. Legislative progress is only one part of the whole process of a move towards a civilised society. It will be part of what I call 'the withering on the vine process'. Hunting will gradually disappear and it will be helped by legislation and enforcement, but it will remain hard to stop the efforts of loathsome barbarous individuals."
People often say that backbenchers have no power or influence. Would you agree?
"Well, of course it wasn't just backbenchers who supported the Hunting Bill. You have to remember that many members of the Cabinet and even some within the Tory party went through the lobby. Life can be frustrating as a backbencher, but you shouldn't be there if you're going to moan about the futile nature of the task. Backbenchers can and do have an influence where they operate together."
Are there any issues where lack of progress has particularly disappointed you?
"The failure to ban the export of live animals is the biggest disappointment. Despite progress there are so many issues out there that still need vigorous campaigning."
What's your message to animal rights supporters who get frustrated by what they see as very slow progress In parliament?
"Never allow yourself to be broken. Animals need you. It's a battle to win hearts and minds and you won't do it with violence. Attacking individuals and destroying property will undermine public sympathy. It gives both the public and MPs an excuse to ignore you."