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10.54 pm

Mr. Lidington: I thank the Minister for his kind words, but I for one will not be tempted to set up house in the Government's big tent. The courtesy and humour that characterised the debate in Committee and most of the exchanges at all stages of our proceedings have been welcome. That proved possible, despite strong feelings being expressed by hon. Members on both sides of the argument. To some extent, that atmosphere has been helped by the fact that there are honourably held differences of opinion within the three main political parties. In addition, some of the heat went out of the debate when it became apparent that the Government were engaged in a charade. Trying to ram the Bill through the Commons when a spring or early summer election was more than likely meant that it stood no chance of becoming law in this Parliament.

I welcome the limited concessions made by the Government as a result of the Standing Committee's discussions. However, they do not make a fundamentally bad and misguided Bill acceptable. The Bill creates serious new criminal offences that will apply to the activities of a large number of our fellow citizens and to activities that are lawful now, and that have been for many generations past.

The Minister and other champions of the Bill have always argued that restrictions on individual liberty are justified in order to end cruelty to animals and improve animal welfare. I have gained growing confidence as our debates have proceeded and we have argued our case, examined the detail of the Bill and explored the principles behind it. It has become clear that the weight of the argument has been with those of us who opposed the Bill in principle from the start. There is welcome evidence that our arguments are being increasingly understood in the country as a whole.

Mr. Soames: Does my hon. Friend accept that what has been so shaming about the Government's behaviour is their complete ignorance, as revealed today, of the consequences of a ban on foxhunting? For example,

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on the removal of fallen stock, the Minister was all at sea. The Government clearly have not thought through the consequences of the Bill, which therefore stands at risk.

Mr. Lidington: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. My concern about the practical consequences of the Bill is one of three reasons why the House should deny it a Third Reading.

First, intellectual confusion lies at the heart of the Bill. Its supporters have consistently made their case on the grounds of animal welfare and seeking to end cruelty. Those are laudable aspirations, but the Bill says that hunting rodents, and, after this evening, rabbits, with dogs, is somehow okay. One need not be an expert zoologist to think that a rat must surely feel fear, exhaustion and pain every bit as much as a fox.

If one presses that point, the ground shifts. We are told that exceptions should be made for rodents or rabbits because they are vermin and because of the damage that they do. The moral argument has been abandoned wholesale, and the very same utilitarian argument about vermin control can, and should, be applied to mink and foxes as much as to rats or rabbits. There is no consistent moral argument from the proponents of the Bill, and they can make no logical difference on the grounds of cruelty or animal welfare between the different species that the Bill treats entirely differently.

My second objection concerns the impact of the Bill and relates to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames). Earlier today we debated the economic impact, the impact on the disposal of fallen stock and the fact that the Bill would render jobless and homeless significant numbers of decent, law-abiding people in some of our most remote rural areas. We know, too, from the debates that we have had on the detail of the Bill that there is still a great deal of uncertainty and ambiguity about what the measure would mean in practice.

We know that the Bill is intended to lead to the demise of organised hunting with packs of hounds, but exploration of its detail makes it clear that it would have a serious impact on the work of people such as gamekeepers and farmers in their task of controlling vermin. To cite just one example, the National Gamekeepers Organisation has pleaded with hon. Members to allow its members to continue to use dogs to flush out and sometimes to catch stoats. The organisation's argument is that the control of mustelids through the use of dogs is an essential part of practical, everyday gamekeeping work, which has been ignored by the authors of the Bill.

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale): Will not another major practical effect of the Bill be to ban hunting with dogs in the national parks, whereas the Burns report made it clear that that could not be done without the use of dogs? How can the Minister ask us to accept a Bill on the basis that the Government have won the argument, when they have ignored the conclusion of their own Burns report?

Mr. Lidington: The evidence of the Burns report and the arguments about the Bill have started to highlight exactly the sort of practical problem described by my hon. Friend. Many people who might previously have said that

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they favoured ending animal cruelty and that that probably meant banning hunting will pause and reconsider whether that point of view is right, and whether a ban on hunting might have serious consequences for people trying to control pests, especially in areas of the country where the alternative methods of control investigated by Lord Burns and his team are clearly impractical.

My third objection relates to the way in which it is proposed to enforce the criminal offences provided for in the Bill. As we have not had time to consider the relevant part of the Bill in Committee or on Report, I hope that it will be debated in particular detail when the Bill passes to the other House.

Not only does the Bill create new criminal offences carrying a penalty of a fine of up to £5,000, but it provides for a specific power to arrest someone who has committed or is believed to have committed an offence. It therefore brings hunting with hounds into the category of arrestable offences that, under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, is generally restricted to extremely serious criminal offences. Even those who argue for a ban on hunting cannot reasonably classify hunting with dogs in that category.

The Bill gives a constable the power to arrest not only someone whom he reasonably suspects may have committed an offence, but someone whom he reasonably suspects may be about to commit an offence. On 25 January I received a letter from the Minister's colleague, the Minister of State, Home Office, the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), who stated in answer to a question of mine that he had investigated what other offences were arrestable. He had found that there were a number of powers of arrest without warrant, such as those contained in the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, which stand outside the definition in PACE. However, he continued:

For the purpose of trying to stop hunting with hounds, we are giving the police draconian powers, including a power of arrest that appears to be unique and unprecedented in existing criminal legislation.

I could describe many similar examples if I had time to do so. The Bill grants power to seize a dog, but contains no provision on what is to happen during the weeks or months between the seizure and the outcome of any court proceedings. On that point, the Kennel Club told me in a letter that the Bill follows arrangements previously provided for in the Dangerous Dogs Act 1989. I would hardly regard that as an encouraging precedent. There are also powers to impose a life ban on owning a dog, which is a wholly disproportionate penalty for the offences that are being created.

I am conscious that many hon. Members on both sides of the House want to contribute. I believe that the Bill is hostile to individual freedom and that it will produce no gain in terms of animal welfare. It will damage the livelihoods of thousands of our fellow citizens and harm the liberty of many thousands more. I believe that it is a thoroughly bad Bill and that the House should reject it. If the majority of hon. Members insist on carrying it forward, those of us who have opposed it from its inception will carry on the struggle with growing confidence in our arguments, both in another place and in the country.

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11.7 pm

Mr. Banks: For many years I have been involved in various campaigns in this place to ban hare coursing, deer hunting, foxhunting and mink hunting. In fact, a ban was one of the first things that I tried to achieve when I was elected in 1983. The House will therefore understand that I am delighted with the progress that has been made on the Bill.

I suppose that I can understand the strong feelings that have been generated on all sides of the argument. I am glad to say that friendships have remained intact despite all that, even though there have been some strong disagreements, which have occurred not only across the arguments, but within the different parties. This not a single-party issue. Splendid support has been given by a number of Conservative Members, although it has clearly not been easy for them to give so much support to the cause of banning the hunting of wild animals with dogs.

I said that I understood the deep feelings about the issue, but I must say that after all these years of listening to the views that have been expressed--I have studied as much as anyone the various arguments--I cannot understand how anyone can take pleasure in killing animals. That is non-negotiable for me. I cannot understand or comprehend how anyone can take pleasure from that activity.

I say to the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) that there are some loose ends in the Bill, which is untidy in certain respects. Concessions have been made, and he was right to point them out. Some of them may have been made because of the strength of the argument. Of course, one does not want to make the law unenforceable. The fact is, however, that one cannot be absolute in any legislation. I have been unhappy even about some of the concessions, but I understand why we had to make them. We have to be political about the matter, as other dimensions must be taken into account--not least what happens to the Bill when it goes into another place. I do not think that we should be berated or criticised for not being absolute in our approach. If I had my way, I would say that no one should be able to kill anything other than the odd flea, wasp or insect that gives us problems. I know that I can be categorised as an extremist in that respect, but I know how we must make this place work and I am more than happy to ensure that it does so. Even if the legislation is not all that I would want, it has certainly gone much of the way to making me feel that we have achieved something significant.

The hon. Member for Aylesbury hinted, as no doubt others will, that the argument is by no means finished. I know that the opponents of this legislation will not give up in this place, although they might have to for the moment, and that they will certainly not give up in another place. We expect much opposition in the House of Lords.

I am fully aware of the fact that the Bill will fall before the election: it will not reach the statute book. That is a perfectly reasonable statement on which we could all agree. I say to my colleagues on the Front Bench, however, that I hope that re-introducing the Bill will be a manifesto commitment--[Interruption.] This issue will never go away in this House.

I am wise enough to know that although we might be winning tonight, there are many more battles to come. I am merely saying to my hon. Friends on the Front Bench

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that they cannot walk away from the issue. I do not want anyone in government to feel that they have discharged their responsibilities and that they can forget about the matter. It cannot be ignored, it must not be forgotten, and if it is defeated in another place, it must be brought back. There will be people like me in this place who will make sure of that until we succeed.

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