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34. Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): If he will make a statement on recent trends in the number of vocations. [123704]

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Mr. Stuart Bell (Second Church Estates Commissioner, representing the Church Commissioners): The trends in the number of vocations over the last four years have been rising in all categories--that is, among stipendiary ministry and also non-stipendiary and ordained local ministry. There are approximately 25 per cent. more ordinands in training than there were four years ago.

Mr. Swayne: Is the hon. Gentleman confident that the Church Commissioners will be able to meet the expenses that that increase anticipates, particularly in respect of the long-term future regarding pensions?

Mr. Bell: The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the burden on the commissioners of meeting pension commitments entered into and to the need to provide a proper stipend and proper conditions for those within the Church. We are on target for that, but we are in the hands of actuaries, who often investigate these matters and give us their views.

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Hunting With Dogs

3.30 pm

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw): With permission, I shall make a statement on the report of the committee of inquiry into hunting with dogs in England and Wales, which I am publishing today. Copies of the report are available in the Vote Office.

The House will recall that, last November, I announced that there would be an inquiry into hunting and that Lord Burns had accepted my invitation to be the chairman. The other members of the inquiry were appointed for their expertise in agricultural and rural economics, and in veterinary science. I am most grateful to Lord Burns, and to the members of his committee, for their hard work and for the fact that the report has come in on time.

The committee was not asked to recommend whether hunting should be banned, for that is a matter for Parliament to decide. Nor was it asked to consider moral or ethical issues. The Burns report instead covers four key areas in relation to hunting. First, it considers the contribution that hunting makes to employment and the rural economy as well as to social and cultural aspects of life in rural areas. Secondly, it deals with animal welfare issues and matters of population management. Thirdly, it considers whether drag hunting is a viable alternative to hunting with hounds. The final area covered by the report is an assessment of the consequences of any ban on hunting, and how a ban might be implemented. The report also assesses how some people's concerns in regard to particular aspects of hunting might be addressed should hunting not be banned.

The committee visited different parts of England and Wales to witness at first hand a number of hunting activities. Academics were commissioned to undertake research. The inquiry organised a number of seminars, which were attended by all sides of the debate. It also held public meetings and ensured that working papers were publicly available on its website. This inquiry into hunting was the first official one since the Scott- Henderson inquiry reported to the House in June 1951.

I have had the opportunity to read the Burns report over the weekend. I thoroughly commend it to all right hon. and hon. Members. I hope that when they have had the same chance as I have had to study the report, they will share my view that it is a profoundly impressive study, cogent and well argued, dispassionate and careful in its conclusions.

The report needs to be read and considered as a whole, and it is hard to do justice to its views in a few paragraphs. None the less, the House would, I think, wish me to summarise some of its key observations.

On employment, the report states that

It states that most of the employment effects of a ban could be offset in the long term, which it describes as between seven and 10 years. However,

as they would be for a number of local communities.

The report contains details of research commissioned in four specific rural communities where hunting is actively pursued, and says that this research suggests higher levels of support for hunting in such areas than previous surveys have indicated.

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In chapter 6, the committee considers animal welfare aspects of hunting and the relative effects on the welfare of foxes and other species of different methods that are currently used to control their population. It concludes--I quote paragraph 6.49--

The report says that a ban on hunting with dogs would have no significant impact on the population of foxes in lowland areas, but could lead to an increase in the number in upland areas.

Several recommendations are made about the regulation and licensing of hunting if a ban were not imposed, and the committee also concludes that, generally, any ban should apply nationwide, without different legislative provisions in different regions of the country.

The purpose of the inquiry was to get to the facts, in order better to inform the debate. I am sure that when right hon. and hon. Members have read the report they will see that it has achieved that objective.

Let me now turn to the arrangements that I propose to the House for it to consider the report and reach conclusions on it. Right hon. and hon. Members will first want the chance to study the report. Then, subject to the agreement of business managers, I would like the House to have an opportunity, before the recess if at all possible, to debate the report itself, on a motion for the Adjournment.

I want now to say what I propose should follow that debate. In our manifesto, we said that there would be a free vote on hunting with hounds. The Government are, and remain, neutral on the merits of whether hunting with hounds should be banned, but, in the light of that commitment, we have an obligation to ensure that the decisions of the House can have effect.

That is why, when I announced the establishment of the Burns inquiry last November, I said that the Government would provide Government time and assistance to allow the House to come to a proper legislative conclusion on a free vote. Our original plan was to do that by means of a private Member's Bill, drafted with Government assistance, and in Government time, but I now believe that it would be better for the convenience of the House to have a Government Bill, in Government time, containing a series of legislative options on the merits on which there can be free votes. Such a Bill would, I believe, provide for a more structured debate and better allow for consideration of a wider range of alternatives in the light of the report. The House will recall that such an arrangement worked satisfactorily for the Sunday Trading Bill six years ago, in 1994.

In the meantime, arrangements are being made for the main interest groups, and for the police and other relevant public authorities, to be consulted so that the options in the Bill reflect the alternative legal regimes that could properly be put into force. The consultation will take place as soon as possible, and I anticipate that a Bill will be introduced early in the next Session.

I well recognise--all too well--the strength of feeling on this matter. It is only right that all sides of the debate should be given the opportunity to have their point of view considered fairly and that Parliament should then have the chance to come to a proper conclusion. I hope

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that the House will agree that a procedure of the kind that I have outlined provides that opportunity. Meanwhile, I repeat my thanks to Lord Burns and his committee, and I commend his report to the House.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury): First, I thank the Home Secretary for his customary courtesy in--[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order. The Home Secretary was heard in silence and Mr. Lidington must be, too.

Mr. Lidington: I thank the Home Secretary for his customary courtesy in giving me early sight of both the Burns report and his statement.

On behalf of the Opposition, regardless of our individual opinions, I express our appreciation for the work that Lord Burns and his team have done. In the short time that I have had to acquaint myself with the findings of the report, it has become clear to me that it is a thorough and painstaking piece of work and that all Members of Parliament, on all sides of the argument, would do well to study it in detail.

The fact remains that the Government's introduction of a Bill on hunting is a distraction from the issues that really matter to the people whom we represent. The Government appointed Lord Burns and his committee six months ago. They waited for half a year while that committee examined in meticulous detail the evidence on the subject and consulted individuals and organisations representing all sides of the argument. Astonishingly, however, they could not be bothered even to wait for the report to be delivered to the Home Secretary's desk before they started to brief selected journalists that, regardless of the report's conclusions, they would press forward with their own Bill, in Government time.

The Home Secretary reminded the House that decisions on the options that he proposes will take place on a free vote. However, he will be responsible for introducing a Bill that may create new criminal offences. I have three questions about his responsibilities, and those of his Department, as that Bill is prepared.

First, Lord Burns states that a ban on hunting would be open to challenge under the European convention on human rights. Will the Home Secretary confirm that, over the next few months, he will carry out and make publicly available an analysis by his Department and the Law Officers of the convention's potential impact on the Bill?

Secondly, the Home Secretary's plans involve the creation of new criminal offences. Does the right hon. Gentleman intend to include in the Bill a detailed description of the new offences, so that people know exactly where they stand, or does he propose to frame the Bill in more general terms? He will know that Lord Burns drew attention to the importance of that decision.

Thirdly, will the right hon. Gentleman make a detailed assessment of the demands on the police service of enforcing the law if a ban is eventually enacted? Has he consulted the Association of Chief Police Officers on the matter? Does he really regard enforcing laws such as

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would be involved in a ban on hunting as a priority for our police service, which is especially hard-pressed in rural areas? [Interruption.]

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