Hunting Bill

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Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): Is the hon. and learned Gentleman telling the Committee that 10 years ago, when people refused to pay the poll tax because they believed it to be illegitimate, the law was passed by Parliament because the Executive believed that there was a wider consent?

Mr. Garnier: The hon. Gentleman—he and I share many interests, but I shall not dwell on them—makes my point for me and I am grateful for his perceptive intervention. The poll tax was a classic modern example of a law that did not have the consent of the public. It was pushed through by a Government with a large majority. We now have a Labour Government with a large majority. Such Governments tend to make Back Benchers thoughtless and Executives greedy.

I was not a Member of Parliament when the poll tax legislation was enacted by Parliament, nor was the hon. Gentleman, although several other hon. Member were—I see them nodding with hideous reminiscences of the time that they spent dealing with that Bill. The Conservative Government was brought up short. The leader changed and it was clear that the poll tax legislation did not have sufficient public consent to make it workable.

Mr. Prentice: Unlike this Bill.

Mr. Garnier: The hon. Gentleman advances the argument that the Bill has public consent. I agree that it has majority parliamentary consent—[Hon. Members: ``No.''] If it does not, what are we doing here? I do not deny that it has a substantial amount of public support.

Mr. Prentice: On that point—this is directly relevant to what the hon. Gentleman said—I have some information sheets, dated 13 December 2000, which I believe Bob Worcester of MORI has circulated to all members of the Committee—[Hon. Members: ``No.''] I shall arrange for Mr. Worcester to arrange for copies to be made available. The question was about people's views on hunting with dogs. It asked:

    Are you personally in favour or opposed to people hunting with dogs?

Nationally, 78 per cent. opposed hunting and only 8 per cent. supported the proposition. Among rural voters, 63 per cent. are opposed to hunting with dogs, although 21 per cent. support it. The remarks of the hon. and learned Gentleman are pure assertion; the facts are contained in the MORI documentation.

Mr. Garnier: That was a fine Adjournment speech. However, I am not moved from my argument by the hon. Gentleman. He may have any number of polls—

Mr. Öpik: Is the hon. and learned Gentleman aware that in December, the Channel 4 ``Powerhouse'' programme conducted an independent NOP poll, which indicated that 48 per cent. of the public supported a ban, and that 52 per cent. supported either regulation or supervision. In other words, a minority did not support a ban. We must debate the issue on the merits of the case, rather than attempting to beat each other over the head with opinion polls that we could quote ad infinitum.

Mr. Garnier: I agree with the hon. Gentleman's remarks. In my contribution to this evening's proceedings, it was not my intention to swap anecdotes about this poll or that. One can pick from any number of figures and the Government frequently do, to support a policy. I do not care about opinion polls—[Hon. Members: ``Oh?''] I do not care about those specific polls, but I am concerned about the concept of consent. There will be a majority view, but I do not worry about the figures one way or another. The point is that there is insufficient public consent.

Mr. Cawsey: I understand why the hon. and learned Gentleman wants to ignore polls and I recognise his point about consent, which is his view but not mine. However, if that is his view, and he speaks as a Front Bencher, if the Bill reached the statute book would a future Conservative Government repeal it?

Mr. Garnier: Let me correct the hon. Gentleman's misapprehensions. First, I am a Front Bencher, as I have the honour to be shadow Attorney General. Indeed, I was recently described on BBC Radio 5 as the ``eternal general''. However, I do not speak in this Committee as anything other than the holder of a free vote, so the things that I say today are no more binding on my party than the things that the hon. Gentleman says are on his. I speak as an individual Member of Parliament—[Interruption.] I do not know whether he wants to know the answers to the questions that he posed. Perhaps he does not, so I shall move on.

Mr. Cawsey: For all I know, the Conservative party has no ambitions to repeal the Bill if it reaches the statute book. All I was after was a straightforward yes or no.

Mr. Garnier: I have no idea if—

Mr. Cawsey: Answer the question!

Mr. Garnier: I am not in a position to turn a free vote into a party political issue that would need to be whipped. The hon. Gentleman has his views about the good sense of the Bill and I have mine. My views are not secret: he heard me speak today, and he heard my views, both on the Floor of the House and in the Standing Committee that considered the Wild Mammals (Hunting with Dogs) Bill promoted by the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster). My views and votes are there for the world to see. At all stages of all debates on this and similar Bills, I have made it clear where I lie, and I have told my constituents that. I am not in the business of writing my view on a free-vote issue into the Conservative party manifest and I would not expect him to bind the Government on abortion, capital punishment or any other free-vote issue.

Before I was intervened on—to greater or lesser effect—I was about to deal with a matter that my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal drew to the attention of the Committee. He went to a funeral this morning and was in church with some of his constituents who live in a village. They live and work in the country and—I hope I am not misrepresenting his remarks—they are bewildered by the prospect of the Bill.

Mr. Gummer: I would not dream of importing their thoughts. I merely said that looking round those people, I could see a significant number who, although wholly honourable and upright, would be turned into potential criminals by the Bill. That is what saddens me.

Mr. Garnier: Many of those people must be bewildered by the debates about the Bill that are taking place in Committee and in the Chamber. They may reasonably ask themselves what they have done wrong that they should be made criminals. They may say, ``Yes, it is true that we are not a majority''—as the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) said a moment ago—``but we are a large and bewildered minority. We are a law-abiding minority—a group of country dwellers who, by and large, support the police and are content to be policed in accordance with the laws of the land.''

Those people need to have an explanation as to why this draconian Bill is necessary and why they should be singled out for criminalisation. How will the Bill improve animal welfare? Are its criminal penalties proportionate to the activities that will be criminalised? The rural economy is incredibly fragile at the moment—[Interruption.]

The Chairman: Order. There is a hubbub of conversation and I cannot hear the hon. Gentleman. Every member of the Committee has a right to be heard, so can we have a bit of hush?

Mr. Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth): Please ask the hon. and learned Gentleman to speak clearly, Mrs. Roe.

Mr. Garnier: If the right hon. Gentleman requires me to speak more slowly so that he can understand what I am saying—[Interruption.] I have been accused of many things in this House, but mumbling is not one of them.

Mr. Soames: My hon. and learned Friend is pursuing a most important argument. Will he elaborate on it by agreeing that opinion in the countryside is extremely inflamed as a result of the ignorance and prejudice that has led to the position that we now face, that the Bill will not diminish that anger and hostility, but inflame it further, and that this is a genuinely serious matter that cannot simply be dismissed out of hand?

Mr. Garnier: It most certainly cannot be so dismissed. Regrettably, many people who support the Bill are not prepared to explain their reasons for doing so. They simply say that it is a given: fox hunting must be banned, end of story. The people to whom my hon. Friend and I must address our weekend surgery remarks are entitled to receive that explanation.

The frustration to which my hon. Friend alluded and the bewilderment that I mentioned will result in the largest peaceful demonstration in the capital city that has been seen in our lifetimes—perhaps ever. On 18 March, people from England, Wales, Scotland—and no doubt from Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, the United States of America and many other countries where hunting—[Interruption.] Even from Manchester. People will come to London—

Mr. Soames: In great numbers.

Mr. Garnier: Yes, they will come in great numbers. I should not be surprised if in excess of 500,000 people—perhaps many more—were in London on 18 March.

Those people represent the confusion, bewilderment, disappointment, concern and sense of unfairness felt as a direct consequence of the Bill. Will the Minister explain, so that her remarks can be passed on to those who need to hear them, why this unfair, unsatisfactory and unjust Bill should become law? Otherwise, those who come to demonstrate peaceably on 18 March will leave London without a satisfactory explanation.

6.15 pm

I accept that the Government take an entirely neutral stance on the Bill and the issue that we are debating, but they are responsible for the carriage of the Bill and the drafting and legal expertise behind it and it is incumbent on them to explain, clarify and settle worries. The Government can justly ignore the emotion, ruderies and insults that have from time to time passed from side to side on this argument, both in Parliament and outside. However, they must pause and explain so that my constituents and those of a great many Members of Parliament can understand why they should be turned into criminals.

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Prepared 23 January 2001