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10.6 am

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury): I should first like to express to the House my apologies--which I have already communicated to Ministers and to the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes)--for the fact that, like the Home Secretary, I shall have to leave before the conclusion of the debate. However, I shall, of course, study the Hansard reports of the speeches that I shall be unable to hear in person.

Also like the Home Secretary, I pay tribute to the work done by Lord Burns and his team. They were clearly given a difficult, complicated and controversial task and a tight time scale within which to complete it. It is a tribute to the thoroughness and impartiality with which they set about that task that, by and large, their bona fides have been accepted by partisans on both sides of the debate.

At one stage, Lord Burns and one of his colleagues visited my constituency, to visit the hunt kennels of the Old Berkeley Beagles. From talking to constituents who met him, his team and the observers from the campaigning organisations on each side of the argument, I know that my constituents were impressed by the courtesy and thoroughness of the questioning and by the serious approach that Lord Burns and his colleagues brought to their inquiry.

The report discussed numerous issues, such as the relationship between hunting and conservation, the economic impact that a ban would have, particularly on upland rural areas, and hunting's social and cultural importance in some of the country's most remote rural districts. I should like to deal first, however, with what I regard as the central issue of the debate: the conflict between two principles, each of which is admirable and important--individual liberty, and the improvement of animal welfare and the prevention of cruelty.

Ultimately, the judgment that each hon. Member will have to make in a free vote will depend mainly on how we deal with the tension between those two principles. My view, having studied the Burns report, remains that the principle of civil liberty and individual choice should be overturned by legislative actions only if there is an overwhelming case in favour of such Government intervention. I believe that the evidence presented by the committee of inquiry, far from providing evidence that such an overwhelming case exists, leads one to conclude that there are very good reasons why, in this debate, we should indeed prefer the cause of individual liberty.

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Even those who argue for a ban generally concede that, by its very nature, a ban generally amounts to a serious intrusion by government and legislative action into individual freedom. One thing that comes through in the report is that many of our fellow citizens--even though they are in a minority--enjoy hunting, as participants or spectators. The statistics are printed in appendix 7 of the Burns report on page 203. About 27,500 people are subscribers to hunts and 38,500 are members of hunt supporters' clubs. Elsewhere in the report, the inquiry team draws attention to the fact that far greater numbers of people attend hunt functions, point-to-point events and other social and sporting activities related to hunting, even if they do not participate in hunting in person.

Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe): The hon. Gentleman initially argued that the question was a balance between animal welfare and liberty. He now appears to be arguing that the number of people involved is crucial. The logic of that, to take a classic example, would be that bear baiting would be all right if it were popular, but that we could ban it if it were not.

Mr. Lidington: An important point of principle would still be at stake if Parliament outlawed a lawful recreation enjoyed by 65 people, let alone more than 65,000. The fact that hunting is a minority activity is not in itself a reason to introduce a statutory ban. Many of those involved in hunting or who support it feel strongly and passionately about their case. Whenever I talk to some of my constituents, such as the Baroness Mallalieu, I realise how passionate is their commitment to hunting, which they regard as having an economic and cultural importance to rural areas, quite apart from the principle of individual freedom which I have discussed.

Sir Nicholas Lyell (North-East Bedfordshire): On the widespread support in the country, it is not only a question of numbers and passionate feelings. Is it not the case that every acre in the United Kingdom over which the 150 or so hunts pass is hunted over with the active permission of the farmers who own and farm that land and who strongly support the continuance of hunting?

Mr. Lidington: My right hon. and learned Friend makes a powerful point, which I shall develop shortly.

I have never taken part in hunting or felt that I wanted to do so. I do not share the strong and passionate feelings of those who participate in hunting. However, I feel strongly that, in the absence of an overwhelming case for legislative intervention, it is wrong for the state and the law to intervene to stop people participating in activities which at the moment are lawful. The Burns committee draws attention to the issue of civil liberty and individual freedom when it discusses the possible grounds for challenging a statutory ban on the basis of the European convention on human rights which, of course, the Government have incorporated into domestic law. The committee singles out two possible legal grounds on which such action could take place.

Paragraph 10.9 of the report refers to article 8 of the ECHR, which deals with

Article 8 states:

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The committee concludes that there is a debate about the application of article 8 to a possible ban on hunting and states that, at the very least, it is arguable that hunting is a private, not a public, activity as it takes place because individuals choose privately to get together and engage in hunting on privately owned land with the permission of its owners. The committee goes on to argue that a challenge under article 8 would presumably have to be resisted by the supporters of a ban on the grounds that a ban was necessary for the protection of morals. That is quite a problematic argument, and I counsel those who argue strongly for a ban to consider whether their support for that would be compatible with their support for the incorporation of the ECHR.

Mr. Beith: Does that not present the Home Secretary with a problem? When the Home Secretary certifies that the Bill is compliant, will he not have to specify the effect of the different options? I hope that the Home Secretary will consider that. Would the hon. Gentleman like to encourage the Home Secretary to reflect on the procedure involved, as the Bill would require a conditional certificate?

Mr. Lidington: The right hon. Gentleman makes a very good point indeed, and I endorse his request to the Home Secretary to make such provision on each of the options that the Government are currently drafting.

Mr. Ivor Caplin (Hove): Is the hon. Gentleman aware that Deadline 2000 presented evidence about the ECHR from an eminent QC?

Mr. Lidington: Yes, indeed. The Burns report refers to the different legal opinions that Deadline 2000 and the Countryside Alliance presented to the committee of inquiry. I am struck by the committee's conclusion on page 160 of the report. As always, it uses cautious language, and states:

which I want to discuss in a moment--

Article 1 of the first protocol deals with the right to

It states:

It goes on to state that those provisions

Two points arise from that aspect of the law. First, could restrictions on the use of property such as land and animals--in this case, horses and hounds--be justified as

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a point of principle under the ECHR? Secondly, if a ban could be justified, could it be enforced in compliance with the ECHR in the absence of compensation for the owners of property for the deprivation of the right to which they were entitled under the convention and the Human Rights Act 1998?

Clearly, the question whether there could be an effective challenge brings us either to an argument of principle or to a legal argument relating to the Human Rights Act and whether a ban could be demonstrated to be justifiable on the grounds that it was necessary to prevent cruelty to animals. Burns addressed that point directly. In the context of human rights legislation, he asked whether legislators could point to unnecessary suffering or some other reference point beyond mere disapproval to reflect the general interest.

The central argument of those who support a ban is that hunting inevitably involves cruelty, and that the need to end that cruelty outweighs the restriction on individual freedom. The Burns committee chose its words carefully when it concluded that hunting with hounds

By extension, therefore, the implication is that it would seriously compromise the welfare of any hunted animal.

However, the committee added that the question of hunting with hounds should not be considered in isolation. I have never heard it argued in any debate that foxes or any of the other quarry species should be protected by law. The assumption, even among ardent supporters of a ban, is that some methods of control, culling or wildlife management would still be needed. People do not argue that foxes should enjoy the legal protection granted to badgers, for example.

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