Angela Smith (Basildon): I present a petition on behalf of more than 600 residents of Basildon and Laindon and users of the Laindon shopping centre, who are concerned about security and the decoration of the centre. They ask for
The petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons consider placing a duty on private owners of such centres to provide for adequate cleaning, maintenance and security.
And the petitioners remain.
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw): First, may I briefly inform the House about a separate matter? The draft Bill on football hooliganism should be available in the Vote Office by 10.30 this morning.
The second preliminary point that I should like to make is to present my apologies to the House for the fact that I shall have to leave the Chamber at about 10.45. I know that the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) is in a similar position. I hope that the House will take into account the fact that this is the ninth occasion on which I have been on my feet in the House in the past 15 days.
Mr. Straw: None of the debates has actually been on legislation, although some have had a legislative purpose. We have had many fewer Bills than in similar Sessions that I recall, certainly in the 1980s.
Let me turn to the subject of the debate, which is the Report of the Committee of Inquiry into Hunting with Dogs in England and Wales, Command Paper 4763. The issue of hunting has aroused great controversy over much of the past 20 years. Sixteen Bills have been presented to the House in that period. The strong feelings about it in the House are reflected in public sentiment, both for and against.
All parties have long accepted that the issue of whether to ban hunting should be determined by free votes of right hon. and hon. Members. That remains the Government's position. At the general election, we said in our manifesto that we would advocate a free vote on the issue. Although it was not explicit, the implication was that such a vote, or set of votes, could have a legislative effect.
The House usually deals with such issues by way of private Members' Bills, but that procedure can prove inadequate to bring hotly contentious matters to a conclusion. That was true for the vexed issue of Sunday trading, on which, after 20 private Members' Bills and one failed Government Bill, the previous Administration wisely decided to bring the issue to a conclusion by providing a Government Bill that offered a range of alternatives, on which there were then free votes. We have decided to adopt a similar approach with hunting.
The resolution of the central question--to ban or not to ban--should not be delegated to an outside committee, however expert or eminent. It is plainly a matter for Parliament. However, we decided that a committee could prove invaluable in informing and illuminating the debate.
As the House knows, Lord Burns accepted my invitation to chair such a committee. Its four other members were Dr. Victoria Edwards, principal lecturer in land management at the university of Portsmouth, and a non-executive board member of the Countryside Agency and the Forestry Commission; Professor Sir John Marsh, emeritus professor of agricultural economics at Reading university; Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior, emeritus
Lord Burns conducted the inquiry in an extremely open manner. He and his colleagues made great efforts to reach different communities and to speak both to those involved in hunting and to those opposed to it. They witnessed a variety of forms of hunting, commissioned research from academics and held public meetings in various parts of the country. I am deeply grateful to Lord Burns and the other committee members for the way they went about their work and completed this very thorough report.
Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): I am grateful to the Home Secretary for giving way so early in his speech. He said that the free vote is the means by which the debate will be brought to a conclusion. Let us suppose that the Houses of Parliament, in their wisdom, were to decide that there should be no ban on fox hunting--no change in the status quo. Would he accept that that had brought the issue to a conclusion?
Mr. Straw: Yes, of course. If Parliament had decided that it was in favour of no change to the Sunday trading laws--or, as I and a number of others wanted, more limited change--that would have been the end of the matter. That must be the case with this issue.
In my statement on 12 June I expressed the hope that hon. Members would read the committee of inquiry's report, and I hope that those Members who are present today have had the time since then carefully to study its contents. I am pleased to be able to tell the House that the report has been welcomed by those most closely involved in the issue. The two organisations that led on giving evidence to the inquiry, Deadline 2000, the umbrella group for those seeking a ban on hunting, and the Countryside Alliance, which favours hunting, have both been positive in their response to the report. I understand that Deadline 2000 regards the report as thorough and cogent, and that the chairman of the Countryside Alliance has said that he has nothing but admiration for it. There has been a recognition that the inquiry tried to appreciate the complexities of the issue.
It may help today's debate for us first to recall the report's conclusions about the extent of hunting with dogs, who takes part in it, and why. I asked the inquiry to examine the hunting with dogs of foxes, deer, hares and mink. We are all familiar with the best known and most visible type of hunting: the traditional fox hunt of mounted followers and a pack of hounds. Such an image is ubiquitous--indeed, the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) admitted in an earlier debate, when she was a partisan against hunting, that such scenes adorn her dining room curtains. I am told by those who know about these things that given her personal opposition to hunting, such behaviour is regarded in some quarters as post-modernist irony.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) not only has hunting scenes on her dining room curtains, but I can tell the House that she also has hunting maps on the walls of her dining room. She clearly takes a great interest in hunting and its practices.
May I make an introductory point that the Home Secretary may be able to deal with at this stage? The cost of the report to the public is £32.50. That is quite a lot of money for many people. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree with me that the readership of this good report would be far wider if the price of the document were much lower? Is it not an irony that we get the report free, yet I suspect that an awful lot of Members have not even read it?
Mr. Straw: We have to work on the assumption that, as hon. Members get the document free, those taking part in the debate have read it--although it may become apparent whether individuals have read it during the debate. The price is too high, but the hon. and learned Gentleman should bear in mind the fact that it is available free on the internet and in every public library, so that makes a big difference.
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): I do not want to let the Home Secretary's modern point about the internet pass without saying that I hope that he does not assume that everyone in the country possesses a ghastly computer, knows how to use it or is plugged into the even more ghastly internet.
The serious point is--I hope that the Home Secretary will take it seriously, given the point that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) made--that the Government must not assume that everyone in the country has access to the internet and use that as an excuse, or an alternative to making available such important information. I am sure that the Home Secretary understands that point, and I hope that he will acknowledge it.