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9.48 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Mike O'Brien): The hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) talked about tolerance of minorities, but what about tolerance of minorities in the Conservative party? Why was the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) blocked from speaking for her party at the Dispatch Box on an issue on which we have a free vote? That is some tolerance--it is more like Tory repression. I never thought that I would describe the right hon. Lady as repressed, but there we have it.

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The hon. Member for Buckingham called people who favour a ban hypocrites. Well, no doubt he will talk to his boss later.

Mr. Garnier: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. O'Brien: In a moment.

The debate has been good and sometimes passionate. None of us was in any doubt about how strongly people felt about hunting with dogs, and there can be no question about that now. However, the Burns report has made the debate more rational and less emotional than it would have been before its publication. Lord Burns and his colleagues deserve the thanks of the House for that report. I thank the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff), who said that the report was the bible of this debate and thanked officials at the Home Office for their hard work in ensuring that we had before us a Bill that fairly reflects the different views.

We have heard some impassioned defences of Huntingdon--of hunting. [Laughter.] We even heard an impassioned defence of hunting from the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), as well as from the right hon. Members for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) and for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) and the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell).

On the other side of the argument, we heard strong speeches from my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster), the hon. Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) and my hon. Friends the Members for City of Durham (Mr. Steinberg), for Reading, West (Mr. Salter), for The Wrekin (Mr. Bradley), for Waveney (Mr. Blizzard) and for North-West Leicestershire (Mr. Taylor).

I particularly welcome the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire (Mr. Pickthall), who has too long been silenced in this House. We welcome his well-argued and persuasive contribution to the debate.

I draw attention to the contribution of the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier), who rightly said that he and we are here not to speak for interest groups in our constituency but to speak our mind on behalf of all our constituents. He put that subtle but important distinction well during a strong contribution to the debate.

I welcome the speech of the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Sir R. Body), who was able to give us a very useful insight into issues relating to drag hunting.

We heard strong speeches from members of the Middle Way Group. Like my hon. Friend the Member for West Lancashire, I sometimes feel the temptation to call them the third way group, which I am sure would greatly offend the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire. He, my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) and the hon. Members for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik) made strong contributions to the debate.

All that suggests that a Bill such as this is the best way to give Parliament the opportunity to debate such a controversial and difficult issue. The multi-option procedure that we have decided to use has allowed a Bill with three different approaches to be put before the House. As all hon. Members know, they have the

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opportunity to reflect on the benefits and drawbacks of those three approaches in the light of the Burns Report and then to decide, in a free vote, which they favour.

It is also clear that the vexed and contentious issue of hunting could never have been satisfactorily resolved using the route of a private Member's Bill. Time and again, Bills on this subject fell not because they could not command a majority in Parliament but because of a lack of parliamentary time. That is why I believe that the Government are right to have introduced a Government Bill while leaving its content to interest groups and the key decision to Parliament.

Questions have been raised about each of the options. It is for the proponents of the options rather than me to attempt to deal with arguments for or against a particular schedule, but I intend to touch on a few points.

Sir Teddy Taylor: Just to clarify the situation, what would the Government do if the House of Commons voted for a total ban and the House of Lords amended the Bill by going for the middle way? Would the Government press on with the help of the Parliament Act or go for the middle way?

Mr. O'Brien: That is a matter for Parliament to decide. We will consider it if and when the situation arises. That is the time to consider it.

I shall deal with some of the points made by the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington), who suggested that the subject was, in a sense, too trivial for a Bill. Hunting has been the subject of debate for years. It has been on the front page of our national newspapers for years. To many, the subject is far from trivial. I would be the first to admit that it is not of the same importance as crime, education or health, but the Bill is not in place of legislation on those important subjects. Hon. Members who have studied the Gracious Speech will know that it contains measures dealing with health, education and, from my own Department, crime. Earlier this week, the House gave a Second Reading to the Vehicles (Crime) Bill, while the other place has done likewise for a Bill to regulate the private security industry.

Let me deal with another canard that has been wheeled out--namely, that the Bill is the only one in the Government's programme that deals with rural affairs, and that we are neglecting the interests of the countryside. Quite apart from the absurdity of the notion that measures on health, education and crime are of no benefit to the rural population, I remind our detractors that my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister recently published the rural White Paper, which contained a host of proposals to help the countryside. Already, we have invested an additional £170 million over three years from 1998 to help rural transport, including support for rural bus services. We boosted provision of social housing in rural areas by allowing the release of £800 million from council house sales to be reinvested in homes for local people. We have introduced a mandatory 50 per cent. relief for the sole shop and post office in designated communities of fewer than 3,000 people, and we have introduced a presumption against the closure of rural schools.

The right hon. Member for Huntingdon took a cynical view of the Bill. He will recall that when his Government introduced the Sunday Trading Act 1994, there were those who believed that it was divisive, unnecessary and even

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an attack on Christianity. The issue was a controversial and difficult one, but, in retrospect, we can see that the right hon. Gentleman was right to introduce a multi- choice Bill, just as the current Government are right in respect of this Bill. The Bill appears at the start of the Session because it is ready at the start of the Session: we have had the Burns report, we have prepared the Bill and it is ready to be considered by the House. We promised a free vote in our manifesto and we are delivering on that manifesto promise.

Mr. Gerald Howarth: I am not aware that there are any Scottish Members currently on the Government Benches, save for the Foreign Secretary, who has just arrived. Is it the Government's intention that their Scottish Members should abstain from voting on a matter that relates only to England and Wales?

Mr. O'Brien: My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary dealt with that point earlier and I shall not detain the House by repeating his reply, for which the hon. Gentleman should have been present.

The question of police resources has been raised during the debate. My officials have had discussions with the Association of Chief Police Officers, which has said that the police already have to commit resources to hunts, in particular to dealing with anti-hunt saboteurs. There are implications in banning, regulation and self-regulation, but ACPO has indicated that there is likely to be little practical difference in the resources required by each of the options.

The hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) mentioned devolution issues. We believe that the 40 Welsh Members of the Westminster Parliament are as capable of representing Wales in this respect as the 60 Assembly Members.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under- Lyme raised matters relating to fishing and shooting. Let me make it clear that, in an article that appeared in The Daily Telegraph on 20 September 1999, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister gave a public guarantee that the Government will not allow a ban on shooting or fishing.

At the start of the debate, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary set out his position and it is right that I should do the same. I voted for the Bills introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester and the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone), both of which would have had the effect of banning hunting with dogs. I have now studied the Burns report carefully. Having done so, I see absolutely no reason to change my views, so I shall vote in favour of schedule 3 when the time comes.

As the House is by now aware, the three options in the Bill were suggested by the main interest groups in the field. Supporting the Bill's Second Reading is a sensible approach. It should command the support of all the various groups in the House, whether they want a ban, regulation or self-regulation. The Bill will enable a proper debate to take place in the light of the Burns report, and I commend it to the House.

Question put, That the Bill be now read a Second time:--

The House divided: Ayes 373, Noes 158.

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