Hunting Bill

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The Chairman: Order. If the hon. Gentleman checks the record, he will find that he first used the word ``dilate''.

Mr. Bercow: I am happy to accept that I was the original user, although I certainly was not the author of the word. However, we have both enjoyed using it from time to time. I think that you used the noun ``dilation'', Mr. O'Hara, if memory serves me correctly.

There are two points. The first is that the Parliamentary Secretary has said that she cannot respond to the specifics this afternoon as, in a number of respects, she needs further and better particulars. We hoped that they might be forthcoming from the intellectual highbrows and bluestockings who advise us so conscientiously, but it appears that the material will not be available today. The position may be improving, however.

Jane Kennedy: It may be helpful if I clarify the position. I do not believe that it was the intention of the House, in passing schedule 3, to outlaw deer stalking. If that is its effect, I undertake to look at the schedule again and to reconsider it.

3.45 pm

Mr. Bercow: The situation becomes curiouser and curiouser, but one should be magnanimous. I am grateful for that, because we are making progress. I specially appreciate what the Parliamentary Secretary has just said. It is a good job I stood up again. If I had not done so, we might not have managed to wangle that proffered concession from her.

However, my second concern remains, and it needs to be put on the record. It may have been an infelicitous turn of phrase from the Parliamentary Secretary—if it was, it can be excused, and we shall allow her to concede and move on—but a few moments ago, in response, I think, to an intervention from the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed, she said that if the exception were to extend to mink in the way that a number of us have suggested, that would fall foul of the wishes of Deadline 2000, whose option was now the main purport of the passage of the Bill. I found that worrying, and I hope that a number of my hon. Friends found it disturbing, because we must not let such organisations become out of balance in this debate. Deadline 2000 is a reputable organisation—it is clearly wrong-headed, but it is entitled to its point of view—but it is just a lobby group that is arguing for a certain option.

We know that this matter has been dealt with differently from other legislation. We know that the House was given three options and chose one, which forms the basis of our deliberations in the Committee. However, there is a difference between the basis of our deliberations and their final form. Just because Deadline 2000 has a certain view about mink, that is not the be-all and end-all of the matter. With the greatest respect to the Parliamentary Secretary, and I have considerable respect for her, it is not good enough to dismiss amendments from either side of the Committee simply by saying ``Ah, that wouldn't be acceptable to Deadline 2000''.

I shall be frank about it. I am starting to get into my stride and to say what I really think. I could not give a tinker's cuss what Deadline 2000 thinks. I am not remotely bothered whether passing the amendments would satisfy Deadline 2000. We as a Standing Committee have a right to look at the option and to see whether, consistent with its retention, amendments can usefully be made to the Bill to remove anomalies, prevent injustice and ensure its practicality, not necessarily its desirability.

Mr. Maples: My hon. Friend's point is a good one. We all understand where the schedule came from, but the Bill is now a Government Bill. When Opposition Members raise technical points on the Bill, such as why the word ``animal'' is in it rather than the term ``wild mammal'', the Parliamentary Secretary says that it has nothing to do with her; it is all to do with Deadline 2000. I do not find that acceptable and I am surprised that she does.

Does my hon. Friend think that we should to try to find a way to examine Deadline 2000 on this question? I do not know whether it is possible to reconvene the Committee as a Special Standing Committee. If this is Deadline 2000's Bill, perhaps it should answer the questions rather than the Parliamentary Secretary. We need an opportunity to find out exactly where the Bill comes from, as those concerned are an umbrella group that paid the Labour party a substantial sum of money.

The Chairman: Order. That point has been made on a number of occasions. If the House had determined otherwise, the Committee might be referring to the wishes of the Countryside Alliance.

Mr. Leigh: Yes, but it is right--[Laughter.]

Mr. Bercow: I agree. I was about to prove how fair-minded I am, but the Parliamentary Secretary is itching and champing at the bit and I cannot resist her.

Jane Kennedy: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to rebut the statement of the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon. Deadline 2000 does not support any political party and is a non-party political organisation. I invited Committee members to make up their own minds in the way that we have traditionally dealt with the subject as to whether they agree with the schedule as drafted.

Mr. Bercow: We are grateful for that, I am sure, Mr. O'Hara. I simply wanted to make the point that whatever preferred option is in the lead, whether that of Deadline 2000 or the Countryside Alliance, we are in no way absolved of responsibility for maximising the benefits of the Bill and minimising its disbenefits. That would apply whatever option was chosen. Further to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon, the thrust of the argument is simply stated. The Government cannot subcontract responsibility for what is now a Government Bill. It simply will not do for the Government to use Government time and to deploy their own Ministers, their own Whips, their own Back-Bench supporters--

Mr. Maples: And officials.

Mr. Bercow: Yes, and those whom we are not supposed to name but whose intellectual reputation is established--

The Chairman: Order. The understanding of the Chairman is that Back Benchers on both sides of the argument are present as free agents. The Government are providing a service to the Committee.

Mr. Bercow: I am sorry, Mr. O'Hara, because I erred. I am happy to concede that I erred and, again, to accept your admonition. I keep making the mistake--I hope that my hon. Friends and the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed will forgive me--that Government Back Benchers are in Committee to do the Government's bidding. I keep making that mistake and you are right to remind me that they have every right to say exactly what they wish. The only difficulty, and the reason why I keep forgetting that central constitutional fact, is that thus far--I am not saying that I have not made a mistake, but I am making my plea by way of mitigation--the only Government. Member who has been authentic and independent is the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme. I made the mistake because Government Back Benchers have been subservient to date--[Interruption.]

The Chairman: Order. We are now far from the subject of amendment No. 52, to which I invite the hon. Member for Buckingham to return.

Mr. Bercow: I shall return to it, but if the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth wants to intervene, I shall give way.

Mr. Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth): I shall be brief. I invite the hon. Gentleman to point to hon. Members on the Opposition Benches who voted for schedule 3 on the Floor of the House. They have been excluded from the Committee, which is not the case on the Government Benches.

Mr. Bercow: The answer is simple and the right hon. Gentleman is wrong. It is fair to answer and I can do so in one sentence. None of them expressed a desire to serve on the Standing Committee. The right hon. Gentleman may doubt that, but I know, beyond doubt, that it is true. With respect and at the risk of being trite, that has well and truly shot the right hon. Gentleman's fox.

The Government cannot subcontract responsibility for their own Bill. We have a responsibility to try to improve it. The point to which I wanted to refer, but was prevented from doing so by the flurry of interventions by Labour Members, was that made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon. Not for the first time—and not, I suspect, for the last—my hon. Friend and I were thinking about the same point at the same time. I wanted to say that there is a certain absurdity about the Government insisting on confirmation of the position in the Bill as unamended when we still have much to learn. There are all sorts of unanswered questions, but the Parliamentary Secretary is essentially saying to us, notwithstanding that, ``Wouldn't it be a good idea to withdraw the amendments and for the clauses to stand unamended?'' I do not agree.

Mr. Beith: I thought that I heard the word ``withdraw'', which prompts me to ask the hon. Gentleman not to withdraw the lead amendment before giving one or two of us the opportunity briefly to refer to what the Parliamentary Secretary has said.

Mr. Bercow: Absolutely. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that I intended to do precisely that. Because it will give me a convenient end point for my remarks, I take this opportunity to assure him that, in the light of the unsatisfactory response that we have had so far, and the obvious lacunae in the Bill that the debate has demonstrated, my hon. Friends and I have no intention of withdrawing the amendment. It will almost certainly therefore be necessary for the amendments to be pressed to votes.

Mr. Beith: First, I pay tribute to the Parliamentary Secretary. Having taken advice, she gave the Committee a clear response—of the kind that I have sought on a number of issues—that, in her view, when the House voted to ban hunting with dogs, it did not intend to ban deer stalking as traditionally practised. Her view up to now has been that the Bill does not have that effect, but she has said that she is prepared to look at that possibility again. That was very clear and welcome. I have become more convinced during our proceedings, and in looking at the amendments as a way out, that the Bill does have such an effect. Obviously we must all take advice on that.

We are up against a deadline—fortunately we have an extra day for debate on Tuesday—but it would be helpful if we knew in time to table amendments if necessary. The amendments would have to be starred and we would depend on your discretion, Mr. O'Hara, as to whether they could be selected for debate on Tuesday. They could be Government amendments, tabled to meet any difficulty, or those tabled by hon. Members who want to make their own suggestions or who feel that the Government's proposals either do not make the case or go too far. The Committee could have a lot to deal with on Tuesday on this serious issue. Many hon. Members on the other side of the argument would not carry with them all those who agree with them on the main issues determined in the Committee of the Whole House if they had to go back to them to say that, to their surprise, the Bill abolishes a completely different sport, to which other considerations apply.

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Prepared 8 February 2001