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Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury): I made my position clear during the debate on Second Reading. My intention is to vote in favour of the first option--the self-regulation option. If that is defeated, I shall vote for the option of licensed hunting as second best. I intend to vote against the third option, which proposes a complete ban on hunting with hounds. Conservative Members, like Labour
Those of us who are against a ban have to make up our minds between clauses 1 and 2. My support for the first option partly derives from my instinctive preference--unless there is very persuasive evidence to the contrary--for self-regulation rather than state regulation. I fear, too, that the licensing system that is proposed in schedule 2 would be both cumbersome and bureaucratic.
Before I go into further detail on my criticisms of that option, it is fair that I should pay tribute to the hard work that has been done by the authors of that option in the Middle Way Group and, in particular, by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) and the hon. Members for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) and for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik). They have made an honest and determined effort to find middle ground that would enable both sides of this passionate argument to come together on an agreed solution. However, I am not persuaded that the option which they are offering and which would be brought into effect by clause 2 is the most desirable of the options available to the Committee.
State regulation almost inevitably brings with it a detailed Whitehall-written rule book. It introduces inflexibility in the adaptation of rules to the diversity of individual cases. In this particular case, we would be introducing, under schedule 2, a national system for licensing all hunting with dogs. That would not simply be a licensing system applying to organised hunts and organised hare coursing as they now exist, since licences would have to be sought and obtained by numerous individual men and women--for example, the people who own and use terriers in connection with the hunting of mammals.
The schedule would also introduce a national system for the inspection of premises. I am unclear from part II of schedule 2 whether the inspection regime would include the inspection of the homes of people who held a licence, but it certainly would appear to apply to hunt kennels, stables and farm buildings. That clearly would be a considerable task for a hunting authority to undertake. It would require an extensive body of detailed regulation and a fair number of employees or agents who would be prepared to act on behalf of the proposed hunting authority in implementing such a system of licensing and inspection.
Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): I shall go into this point in more detail should I catch your eye, Sir Alan, but I recognise that it would be an extensive project to inspect all those premises in the way our schedule would require. Nevertheless, we think that that is a price worth paying to make sure that hunting is conducted in a transparent manner. I appreciate that I may differ from the hon. Gentleman on that point.
Mr. Lidington: The hon. Gentleman has a long track record of seeking a complete ban on hunting and he is being true to his history. It is for the members of the Middle Way Group to speak for themselves if they get the opportunity and to justify the stand that they have taken and will take today. As the hon. Gentleman said, and as I implied in my introductory remarks, the choice between the first and second options at the end of today's proceedings is really a choice for those who believe, as I do and as the Home Secretary does, that hunting should be allowed to continue.
Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex): While I endorse my hon. Friend's views about the work and authorship of the Middle Way Group and their good intention, I am sure that it would not be his intention to suggest that the Masters of Foxhounds Association does not vigorously and robustly police the rules of hunting.
My greatest doubt about schedule 2--the so-called middle way option--concerns its supporters' optimism that it will be a solution that the opponents of hunting will accept. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid- Worcestershire is a man who knows his Bible. I consider that the vision in chapter 11 of the Book of Isaiah--the vision of the wolf dwelling with the lamb--is more likely to be achieved than those who have been opposed to hunting as a matter of principle for many years agreeing on the middle way option.
We are dealing not only with people who have put forward in this place the case for a statutory ban on hunting with hounds, but with people outside the House who have shown that they are prepared to use intimidation, threats of violence and actual violence to achieve their ends. We are talking about people who within the past few weeks have used nail bombs against ordinary British citizens who have some link, direct or indirect, with hunting, which remains a perfectly lawful pursuit.
We need as many people as possible to show the hunters what real scum they are. Perhaps we could also smash their tents they've been sleeping in over the past couple of days.
Ms Claire Ward (Watford): While no one would justify such activities, will the hon. Gentleman tell me whether he justifies the attack on my constituency office by pro-hunt supporters in the middle of last night? The attack damaged my office, making it impossible for my assistants to gain entry for a good few hours and preventing them from doing the work necessary to help my constituents. Will the hon. Gentleman condemn those who took part in that outrageous activity?
Mr. Lidington: I believe that all parties to the debate should stay strictly within the law; that any allegation that the law has been broken--whether in the case that the hon. Lady describes, in those that I have mentioned, or in those to which other hon. Members have referred during other debates--should be properly investigated by the police; and that, if the evidence to do so exists, a prosecution should be brought before the courts in the usual way.
I do not believe that the agreement sought by the Middle Way Group is likely to be reached, which in turn means that there will be continuing controversy about some of the elements of the group's proposal. If it were enacted, there would be a risk of continuing controversy about the proposed selection by the Secretary of State of the members of the hunting authority. There would be arguments about whether the members of the authority represented the balance of interests envisaged in the schedule. There is also a question in my mind about whether the proposed authority would be likely ever to reach a decision by consensus, or whether there would instead be a series of bitter arguments about codes of practice and individual licensing decisions--arguments which would presumably be settled by a vote among the members of the authority, without the consensus sought by the authors of the proposal.
Mr. Öpik: In the context of the concerns voiced by the hon. Gentleman and others, the Middle Way Group recognises that it is creating a framework within which such issues will have to be resolved. Throughout, we have tried to create a balance: for example, we have specified that the majority of members of the hunting authority must have no vested interest in either side of the hunting debate. We are sympathetic to the concerns that have been expressed, but we believe that they are capable of being resolved during the set-up period that the Minister described.
Mr. Lidington: If the hon. Gentleman's proposal were made law, my hope would be that his optimism would be justified by the way in which events unfolded. I have expressed my doubts about whether that is likely.
Faced with the choice, I should greatly prefer clause 2 and schedule 2, whatever the imperfections, to the complete ban provided for in clause 3 and schedule 3. I believe that a ban is objectionable in principle. It would impose severe restrictions on the freedom of tens of thousands of our fellow citizens and would do so with no gain in terms of animal welfare. I have yet to hear from those who advocate a ban on hunting any persuasive account of how the much greater use of shooting and
A detailed examination of schedule 3 gives cause for real disquiet about its practical implications. The offences are not tightly defined, there is no definition of hunting and the schedule makes no reference to cruelty--all matters that should be explored further in Standing Committee.