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7.45 pm

I want to touch on the effect of the proposals on point-to-points, in which I have a strong constituency interest. I have two point-to-point courses in my constituency, at Horseheath and Cottenham. There is no doubt that that common, countryside weekend activity would be severely damaged by a ban on hunting. The British Horseracing Board gave evidence to the Burns inquiry, in which it stated:

There is no doubt in my mind that that is correct.

To conclude, I believe that this is a matter of liberty. I do not believe that the Burns report has proven an overwhelming case of cruelty that would justify the House

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in restricting people's liberty, as is proposed. I believe that the argument returns to the issue of a moral judgment over what people should or should not do, and what they should or should not enjoy. I do not believe that that is a decision for the House; it is a decision for the individual.

Mrs. Golding: I want to raise two issues. Most people have been talking about foxhunting, but the Bill is not solely about foxhunting: it is about hunting with dogs. The only hunting with dogs that would be permitted under the Bill would be hunting for rats, and you could only hunt for rats if they were on your own property. If they were in your garden, you could set the dogs on them to hunt for them, but the moment they went out of your front gate, you would have to say to the dog, "Don't go out there. That's not my property." The only way of allowing the dog to go out would be to obtain permission from the owner of the land on the other side of your garden fence. That would be nonsense, and it is inconceivable that it should be allowed. We have many rats in this country, and they should be exterminated. If we could not do it with dogs, I cannot imagine anyone doing much good with a gun.

Mr. Tom Levitt (High Peak): Warfarin.

Mrs. Golding: Yes, you could use rat poison, but to stop dogs hunting for rats seems to be a crazy idea.

The other issue is one that I have often raised before. I have received a leaflet from the Staffordshire Wildlife Trust, of which I have been a member for many years, and which I strongly support. The leaflet states:

One option in the Bill seeks to ban hunting for mink. No other creature, except man, can exterminate mink. If we go for the third option, we shall prevent that happening. I cannot understand how people who say that they are going to defend the countryside and that they are interested in the environment can say that one should not hunt for mink. Nothing else will destroy them.

Mr. Simon Thomas: I shall concentrate my remarks on the amendments that I have tabled with the support of my right hon. and hon. Friends regarding the commencement of the option on which the Committee will decide tonight. I want to put that briefly in context. Several hon. Members rightly described how they have consulted their constituents and worked with interests in their constituencies. On the whole, that has led them to believe that a ban is the right option in these circumstances. I have gone through a similar process.

Almost a year ago today, I stood in a by-election in Ceredigion to be elected to the House. My new-Labour opponent made my views on hunting an issue. Unfortunately for my opponent, we won with the largest ever percentage of the vote for Plaid Cymru. Even more unfortunately for new Labour, its candidate came fourth, with the worst ever result for the Labour party in Ceredigion. It was clear what I stood for as regards hunting in Ceredigion and west Wales and the upland and sheep farming areas of Wales in particular. During the

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campaign, I said that, should I be elected to the House, I would table the relevant amendments to ensure that the National Assembly for Wales had a say on hunting in Wales. That is the purpose of tabling our amendments and seeking the Committee's support for them.

I want to say a few words about the effect that our amendments may have on hunting in Wales. My views are not the only reason for our tabling them. After the publication of the Burns report, the National Assembly debated the report and gave its response to it. On a Conservative motion, the National Assembly voted, albeit narrowly, to ask for the powers to decide on hunting in Wales to be devolved. I am sure that Labour Members will not complain if there is a narrow vote for a ban tonight. Our amendments represent the view of the majority of Members of the National Assembly, though not, of course, the view of the present Lib-Lab coalition in the National Assembly.

Before the summer, when I first raised the matter with the Home Secretary, a couple of things were said to me, which the Minister has repeated. I want to quash the nasty rumours about what the amendments may mean to Wales or to the devolution settlement--which I would not describe as settled, but be that as it may. I hope that our amendments are selected. They would amend the commencement orders and the way in which those are drawn up, so that the National Assembly could make decisions in Wales. For example, were option 2 agreed to--perhaps not tonight, but further down the line when the Bill returns from the other place--the National Assembly would decide the details of the hunting authority in Wales and matters such as what hunting would or would not be licensed. Let me give a personal example: I see no reason at all for hare coursing, and many of my remarks will address the need for foxhunting as pest control.

Mr. Hayes: The hon. Gentleman refers to hare coursing, and a lot of misapprehensions about it are apparent in the Chamber. Is he aware that illegal hare coursing, which takes place without the permission of landowners, usually for the kill and for big money, is widespread in the east of England and partly responsible for the destruction of the brown hare population, which the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) mentioned? If it cannot be policed now, what difference would passing a Bill banning hunting with dogs make? Illegal hare coursing has a lot to answer for, but such a Bill would do nothing to address the problem.

Mr. Thomas: If it is illegal, it should be stopped. It is as simple as that.

Mr. Hayes: It is not that simple.

Mr. Thomas: Well, it is. It is the Government's responsibility to provide the right resources to enable that to happen. I shall address the two main needs arising from the Bill: keeping upland sheep farming alive in Wales and maintaining an active, vital and biodiverse countryside. For me, hare coursing has no part in that. However, foxhunting, under a system of regulation, has.

My final point about the devolution aspects of our amendments concerns the idea that to introduce different criminal sanctions in Wales and in England would

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somehow be to undermine and rip up the United Kingdom constitution--not that it exists to rip up, of course. There have been differences in the past. Sunday pub opening was different in England and in Wales: it was a crime to have a pint in Wales, but perfectly legal to do so in England, which reflected the different social and, at the time, non-conformist, make-up of Wales. In advocating our amendments, we are suggesting that there are circumstances in Wales sufficient to allow for more flexibility to be devolved to the National Assembly through the Bill.

Mr. Nick Ainger (West Carmarthen and South Pembrokeshire): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Sunday licensing laws were poor law and that many football and rugby clubs opened on Sundays, making nonsense of the system? He suggests that there should be a difference between England and Wales, but, in fact, just as the licensing laws made poor law, his proposal would make extremely poor law.

Mr. Thomas: I do not accept that as a criticism of the principle. However, were I to pursue that argument, I would be well out of order, so I shall not do so. I say this to the hon. Gentleman, however. Last night, we discussed the Children's Commissioner for Wales Bill. There was full consultation on the Bill with the National Assembly for Wales and it is progressing on a fast-track procedure, with the support of my party and other opposition parties, because we know that the devolution settlement has worked in relation to that example. I ask the Minister to say whether there has been any serious discussion of this Bill with the National Assembly.

Mr. Livsey: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that upland farming in Wales is totally different from that anywhere else in Great Britain? There are 16 sheep to every person in my constituency. The only other place where that ratio occurs is in New Zealand. Lambs must be protected. They are vital to the rural economy, so we need effective control measures for foxes.

Mr. Thomas: Yes, and that was recognised in the Burns report, which said that those special circumstances, which also occur in Cumbria, could not affect the general move forward that the House might want to make. However, we could do something different in Wales because we have the National Assembly. Other areas in England may have the same problems, and I regret that our amendments cannot assist them--whereas, as I shall argue, they may be of help to Wales and the Assembly.

The Children's Commissioner for Wales Bill underwent long consultation, which is why I ask the Minister whether the National Assembly has been consulted on this Bill. Last night we learned that the protocol between the National Assembly and the Wales Office--which is supposed to enable discussion and, where possible, agreement on legislation before it comes to the House--has not yet been agreed and put in place. In the absence of that protocol, have we in Wales had the opportunity fully to appreciate what is in the Bill? Be that as it may, we have been able to table amendments.

I want to make another point clear. The Government will seek to amend their own Bill, and what my party wants to achieve--devolving a decision on hunting in

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Wales wholly to the National Assembly, which may represent a departure from the present devolution arrangement--is not possible under tonight's voting procedure. However, it will be possible to decide here in the primary legislative Chamber the preferred option of Members. If Members wish it, we could accept the amendment which says that, in Wales, the details of the chosen option should be worked out by the National Assembly and should commence and be implemented by agreement with it. That would not fly in the face of any principles.

I shall say a few words about the different options, but would first point out that, when canvassed, National Assembly Members said that they would support a ban. I offer that information to the Committee. The extent to which our countryside, which we admire and feel strongly about, is managed by its prime custodians--the farming community and, in my area, those who run family farms--has not been sufficiently emphasised.

My constituency must be one of the most rural in Wales. Only one of all the post offices--there are about 40--is not classed as rural in the Government's guidelines. In such constituencies, the whole wild animal population is controlled in one way or another--in other words, killed in one way or another. Foxes, badgers, deer, mink and rats have already been mentioned; they are controlled--hunted or trapped--and killed.

In these islands, we are the species that cares for the environment, but we are also at the top of the pyramid of predators. In the countryside, what we do determines whether a species lives or dies. We may introduce the beaver or even reintroduce the wolf to certain areas; the human species is in control of our countryside.

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