Hunting Bill

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Mr. Norman Baker (Lewes): I welcome you to the chair, Mr. O'Hara, and I also extend my sympathy, and that of my colleagues, to the shadow Home Office spokesman, the hon. Member for Aylesbury. I hope that the situation soon resolves itself to his satisfaction.

The Liberal Democrat presence on the Committee is designed to represent all three strands of the Bill. Two Liberal Democrats are retentionists, so we are not all in agreement.

I want to support the programme resolution and the suggested way of proceeding. We intend to operate in a constructive way to try to improve the Bill where necessary and to support those parts of it that make sense. I look forward to moving on to the real issues of the Bill as soon as possible.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough): It was kind of the Minister to introduce the programme resolution—the new way of proceeding—but the advantage of the old sittings motion was that it was decided in Committee, with everybody present. It is regrettable that we do not know what happened at this morning's Sub-Committee, at which we were not present and of which no minutes were taken.

At first sight, the programme resolution may look perfectly sensible, but it is a pity that, staggeringly, only 15 minutes will be allowed for schedules 1 and 2. The Government's obvious defence will be that they have already been debated on the Floor of the House. [Hon. Members: ``Yes.''] I admit that, but the schedules are the heart of the Bill. Only one day was allowed on the Floor of the House and hon. Members were still trying to speak at the end of the debate.

2.15 pm

The advantage of the old way of doing things, when there were not such rigid programme resolutions, was that ways could be found in Committee for debating some issues in detail. There was no harm in that. The time that we can devote to matters on the Floor of the House is limited, those who serve on a Committee tend to be committed to the subject and there are many issues that a Committee could usefully discuss.

Some issues were discussed yesterday, but we could have gone into so much more detail. For example, we could have examined the economic, social and ecological effects on the countryside of the ban; found out how many hounds might have to be put down; debated the effect of criminalising an activity that has been legal and popular for several hundred years; and considered the erosion of the values of freedom. Under the old system, people could have a reasoned debate, table amendments and discuss such huge issues.

Mr. Michael: It is nice of the hon. Gentleman to give notice of the subjects on which he would like to filibuster, if given the opportunity, but his points should relate to schedule 3 rather than schedule 1 or 2. Will he explain what the problem is? The programme resolution is too generous to schedules 1 and 2; they have been dealt with on the Floor of the House. He might recall that, when his party were in government, and Bills such as the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill were going through the House, some issues were dealt with on the Floor and not in Committee because the same decision was made. I cannot understand why he thinks that the resolution is ungenerous.

Mr. Leigh: The resolution is ungenerous because we have only until Thursday 8 February to discuss matters that many in the countryside think are of enormous importance. As I understand it, the thinking behind the programme resolution was the myth that all Standing Committees were a complete farce. The Opposition used to spend 100 hours discussing clause 1—

Mr. Michael indicated assent.

Mr. Leigh: The right hon. Gentleman is nodding.

Mr. Michael: Under the previous Government.

Mr. Leigh: I agree. When we were in power, the Labour Opposition, understandably from their point of view, often wanted to force the Government to introduce a guillotine. However, things have been done by agreement in Standing Committees on which I have served under this Government, including those led by the right hon. Gentleman when he was a Home Office Minister. That was under the old system, by consensus, and we had full discussion. I am sure that he accepts that we went through those Bills from beginning to end, that everybody had their say and that we came out with a Bill at the end of it.

I recognise that the House has spoken and that there is a majority for the Bill on the Floor of the House. Whether or not it is a Government Bill, the majority has the right to get its Bill. We are not arguing with that, we are simply saying that we want to return to our supporters in the countryside and convince them that we put their arguments fully. That may not be possible in a curtailed debate on the Floor of the House. Many hon. Members cannot get in to speak and, if they do, they are under pressure to sit down after 12 or 15 minutes because others are waiting. It would have been an option to continue the debate here.

As soon as one moves from consensus to a rule-based system, it becomes difficult to achieve all that is necessary because the Opposition will always find ways of getting around rules. I am sure that that is not going to happen in this Committee, but were the Opposition ruthless, the programme resolution would achieve nothing. It would be possible for someone to speak at inordinate length on the first group of amendments that my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury has tabled—Nos. 6 to 11, 16 to 23 and 26 to 29—and take up the entire time until 5.50 pm on 8 February. That would achieve nothing. If we wanted to play it that way, we might say that it proved that too little time was allocated to the Bill and that we managed to get through only one set of amendments, and ask what the Government achieved with the programme resolution. That will not happen because, as on other occasions, we want to debate properly and get through business. However, the questions remain: why the rush? Why 8 February?

I am sure that the Government are convinced, perhaps rightly, that, given the strength of opinion on the issue, the Committee could last for a very long time if there were no programming motion. I agree that that could happen, but that argument could be used for any Bill. All Bills that I have debated in Parliament have reached a satisfactory conclusion. If the Opposition were silly enough to spend 100 hours on the first group of amendments, or 30 hours on the sittings motion, and the Government were convinced that there was ludicrous time wasting, they could order a guillotine. What is magic about 8 February?

Why are we not given greater detail about the programme by the Minister? He introduces the issue in a semi-jocular manner, makes some polite comments and is jolly nice. However, people care passionately about the Bill. They would like to know what was said this morning, why the discussion is being curtailed and why issues that are vital to the countryside will not be discussed. It is a shame that they will not know. Today's debate is allowed only 30 minutes. After 15 minutes, the axe falls on schedules 1 and 2, and on 8 February the axe falls on the rest. We all then go home, apparently having done our duty, but people outside the House will feel that Parliament has not done so.

Mr. Mike O'Brien: I begin by offering my best wishes to the daughter of the hon. Member for Aylesbury; I hope that she recovers quickly.

There is ample time to debate the schedule. I understand from the usual channels that the Conservatives wanted 16 sittings. We will have 13 sittings in Committee, and we have had a day on the Floor of the House. The Government have therefore been receptive to the requests from the Conservative party. We have very nearly given the time requested. The hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) says that the Sub-Committee this morning was informal so no detailed record was taken by Hansard; however, he can also see that no amendments were on the record, so the Conservatives were not opposing the motion. Although I know that there are free votes on the issue and that the hon. Gentleman's hon. Friends may have differing views, he knows that his party was represented this morning and could have expressed its views.

Mr. Michael: Conservative Members are making great play of the idea that the new procedures are not democratic. As they are new, none of us knows all their ramifications. Do I understand from my hon. Friend that a number of sittings, very close to that for which the Conservative party asked, has been conceded? Conservatives participated in the Programming Sub-Committee and had the chance to raise objections then, rather than take up time in Standing Committee. They have already had two bites of the cherry and enjoyed the good humour and grace of my hon. Friend in seeking to meet their requirements. Is not what we have heard from them therefore massive hype, as they failed to object to the proposed programme resolution?

Mr. O'Brien: My right hon. Friend is right; we have heard a bit of bluster. People in the countryside want Opposition members of the Committee to set out their case. The way to do that is through discussion of the schedule, rather than blustering on the programme resolution, to which they did not object when they had the opportunity to do so. [Interruption.]

The Chairman: Order. Some members of the Committee are blessed with deep, booming voices that sometimes cause more noise off the record than the gently spoken Minister can on the record.

Mr. O'Brien: Thank you, Mr. O'Hara. I give way to the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer).

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal): I apologise to the Minister for not being here earlier. I have listened to every word of his response to the debate. I wish to point out one simple matter, which is different from that mentioned by the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael). Everything that the Committee receives is by permission and pleasure of the Government. All that the Minister gives us, by his grace, is crumbs from his table. That is our problem. Historically, those who disagree with the Government have held at least some power in their hands, but the new system means that we have no powers at all. The Opposition no longer have the power of time.

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