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2.17 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Mike O'Brien): I welcome the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) back to the Front Bench. It has been some time since he has been there. We noticed the absence from the debate of the somewhat sidelined and semi-detached right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), who has been replaced by her former colleague at the Home Office. I suspect that we would have had different fireworks at that Dispatch Box if she had braved the pack behind her. None the less, we welcome the right hon. Gentleman to his role.

My position on hunting is a matter of record, but there are concerns about civil liberties in banning anything. Sometimes it is justified, but I do think--it is a personal view--that the onus is on those who seek to legislate to justify it. That is the way in which I approach the issue. However, I am here as a Minister to set out the view of the Government. This is the third or fourth occasion on which we have had a full debate on hunting since 1997. I have looked at some of the arguments in the previous debates. It is clear that strong emotions were expressed, but that there was a lack of consensus on the basic facts and consequences of a ban. It could be said, to some extent, that there was heat but not much light.

On most questions before the House, there is the ability to debate around known facts using independently corroborated analysis. That enables the debate to be more focused and sharp. Fox hunting was an exception. Each side had it own version of "the facts." The purpose of the Burns report was to better inform the debate. Judging by the standard of today's debate, I think that it has achieved that objective. Whether hon. Members are banners, regulators, civil libertarians or undecided, they are better informed as a result of the report. Each side can better marshal its facts and arguments. It is a tribute to the Burns inquiry that the main parties who gave evidence to it have expressed broad satisfaction with the outcome. I believe that hon. Members will want to add themselves to the list of those who salute the Burns report and the members of the inquiry team.

Before I deal with the points that have been raised, I should like to say a few words about the report and the Bill. Hunting is a contentious issue and passions run high. Because of that, Lord Burns could have chosen to conduct the inquiry in a closed manner. On the contrary, he sought to conduct the inquiry very openly. He made the evidence available on an inquiry website. The oral evidence sessions were conducted in public and transcripts were posted on the website. Research papers commissioned by the committee were made available in draft and discussed at seminars, and were made available to the public.

As has been shown today, some might disagree with some conclusions in the report. That is inevitable, but the report and the evidence put to the inquiry have contributed enormously to improving our debate. That open approach has been echoed in the discussions that I have held with the umbrella groups to which my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary referred in his speech. Of course, some parts of the issue are incapable of being resolved to everyone's satisfaction. That is why we aim to facilitate a constructive debate and resolution of these issues.

Let me briefly tell the House the results of the meetings that I have had with the Countryside Alliance, Deadline 2000 and the Middle Way group. I do not propose to hold

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meetings with a large variety of other organisations, but, as some have said that they wish to speak to me, I make it clear that I am happy to consider written representations. I met the umbrella groups separately last week, and all the meetings were constructive. I told them that the Government were neutral on the issue of a ban on hunting.

The Home Office aims to develop an approach as open even-handed as possible to the options in the Bill, in order to give Parliament a manageable choice. I asked the umbrella groups for proposals on the options by mid-July, with a view to a having couple of weeks of discussion between officials and the groups on how we can put the detail of their proposals into a Bill and an overall package that we can present to the House.

The umbrella groups were given the same offer of reasonable access to the Home Office Bill team and meetings with me if there was a particular issue to resolve over the next few weeks. Each group was told that we hoped to submit proposals to parliamentary counsel by September. I could not guarantee that we would hold consultation on all the clauses, but I hope that that will be possible. I said that the Government fully retain the right to frame our Bill, but we shall seek to do so fairly and are interested in the views of the various umbrella groups on how that can be done.

The Bill needs to be manageable and the options as straightforward as possible. I am grateful to each of the organisations for the constructive way in which they approached those meetings. I am happy to receive representations from right hon. and hon. Members, either through the usual channels or in other ways.

I shall now deal with some of the points made in an extremely good debate. Many excellent speeches were made in favour of banning fox hunting. My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Mr. Cawsey) set out his view, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice), who argued his case passionately.

My hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer) displayed his passion not only on fox hunting, but on a ban on shooting and fishing. I have to make it clear that the Government will not ban shooting and fishing. We have no intention of doing so. There is no possibility that that will be done by this Government.

My hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Mr. Darvill) said that he had attended a hunt, but still favoured a ban.

Sir Nicholas Lyell: Would the Minister explain on what basis of principle the Government will support a ban on hunting?

Mr. O'Brien: I have just said that the Government are neutral on the issue of a ban on fox hunting. We seek to facilitate a full and proper debate on the matter so that those who favour hunting and those who favour a ban may be able to put their views. The Bill will set out various options, including those proposed by the supporters of regulation or of bans on particular types of hunting. We shall try to ensure that everyone can have their say. In due course, Parliament will no doubt decide.

Sir Nicholas Lyell: Do the Government have a principled basis on which they are prepared to defend the rights of minorities?

Mr. O'Brien: The Government are extremely concerned to ensure that all minorities have the right to

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pursue activities that are proper, legitimate and justified. From time to time, on a decision of the House, minorities have been unable for various--often good--reasons to undertake an activity that they want to pursue. The fact that a group of people are a minority does not guarantee them the right to do what they want. It is a matter of whether there is a legitimate and proper justification for the action. That is what the House will have to consider.

We heard good contributions not only from the hon. Members for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik) and for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) but also, in an intervention, from my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding)--all of whom are members of the Middle Way group. The hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) made a good contribution in defence of hunting, as did the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King), the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames), the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard)--if there is time, I hope to return to his comments--and the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown).

The hon. Member for Aylesbury pointed out that we would need to consider carefully the Human Rights Act 1998 in relation to this issue. That is correct. The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) joined him in suggesting that the Government would have to deal with great care with section 19 certificates. That is true.

Clearly, there are differing views as to compatibility with the convention; the Government will consider the points that have been raised before coming to a conclusion as to how to proceed. In any event, hon. Members will be aware that one of the leading experts on the convention, Mr. David Pannick QC, believes that a measure would comply with the convention. Obviously, such matters need to be examined.

The hon. Member for Aylesbury suggested that we needed to consider compensation. In his opening speech, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said that the Government were considering compensation and would express a view in due course. We paid some compensation when handguns were banned. Serious issues arise as to the extent of any necessary compensation. I welcome the continued support of the Opposition for the Human Rights Act, whose provisions were made law with all-party support.

I hoped to be able to deal with such matters as fallen stock and employment, but as time is short I must move on to other points. The hon. Member for Mid-Sussex wanted me to assess the relative pain--on a scale of one to 10--in a series of painful-sounding incidents. He asked me to reply by letter. He is quite entitled to commission the research himself, but I do not propose to ask officials to do so. He made a specific request and that is my response.

The hon. Gentleman also suggested that the Government were being deceitful by proposing provisions similar to those under the Sunday Trading Act 1994, before the report came out. However, everyone already knew that the matter was complex. It was clear from the evidence to Burns that options were needed and that they should be more than merely "Ban" or "No Ban". That is why we felt that provisions similar to those of the shops Act were appropriate. We did not need the Burns report to know that--although the report is, of course, enormously valuable.

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The way in which the case has been put has benefited from the report. Our manifesto commitment is for a free vote. That has been delivered, but there are many issues on which both sides still do not agree. We decided that an independent inquiry would inform the debate. We are helping, with a Government Bill, to ensure that the debate is conducted in a way that enables the House to arrive at a full and proper conclusion, so as to resolve the matter once and for all.

It being half-past Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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