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Alun Michael: No. I have seen suggestions that it is likely to be towards the end of this week, but that is a matter for the business managers and they have not confirmed the time to me. My right hon. Friend will appreciate that there is a fairly narrow window of opportunity between now and next Monday, let us say, and it will be within that time frame.
Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): I am grateful to the Minister for the balanced and sensible nature of his introduction so far and look forward to the balanced and sensible nature of the statement that will be made later this week. However, given that he has committed himself to an outright ban on fox hunting, does he agree that it is impossible for him to be dispassionate in his consideration of what is said?
Alun Michael: Were that the case, it would be most disappointing because it would have to apply to everyone taking part in the debate. It would mean that nobody who had voted one way in the past could possibly be open to serious points made by people with other views. That is not the position as far as I am concerned. Tonight's vote will allow Members on both sides to indicate the strength of view on each of the three broad options. My responsibility, in addition to being able to exercise my vote freely, like everyone else, is to enable the House to reach a conclusion on the issue. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I will do that as logically and dispassionately as I can.
In the past, this matter has been left to Back Benchers, through the drafting of private Members' Bills, and three groups were allowed to draft on the last occasion. The Government took office with a manifesto commitment made at the last election to enable Parliament to come to a conclusion on the issue. That is the responsibility that I have as a Minister, which is what has changed. The matter is not being left to Back-Bench initiatives; I have a job to help the House and Parliament as a whole to reach a conclusion on the issue.
Mr. John McFall (Dumbarton): My right hon. Friend will remember the private Member's Bill that I was responsible for in 1994, which received the massive endorsement of the Houseyet, like other such Bills, it was defeated. The will of this House to ban hunting has been shown time and again. Therefore, if there is any jiggery-pokery at a future date, will the Minister consider invoking the Parliament Act?
Alun Michael: I take it that my hon. Friend is suggesting that there might be obstruction in another place. I hope that in their debate tomorrow, Members of the House of Lords will make a constructive contribution and that we will be able to move forward. My hon. Friend knows that I am an optimist. I encourage Members speaking and voting in another place to approach the matter in the same constructive way that I expect of Members of this House.
Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion): I am pleased to hear that more of a Government line is being taken and that the issue will be resolved one way or another. The Government have been reluctant to use the Parliament Act. Will the Minister consider using a Joint Committee of both Houses to come up with a Bill that Parliament as a whole can agree so that this issue is settled by the will of Parliament?
Alun Michael: I hear what the hon Gentleman says. He is effectively starting to make a contribution to the debate. He can, I am sure, make his point if he is fortunate enough to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have undertaken to consider all the points made in the debate.
David Winnick (Walsall, North): Further to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall), is not it obvious that there is no way in which the other place will agree to a total ban, no matter what majority there is tonight for that option, as we expect? The question of whether the Government will have the courage to use the Parliament Act is crucial. I hope that there will be an overwhelming vote for a total
Alun Michael: I certainly do not rule out that approach. I hope that my hon. Friend's comments will be borne in mind when Members of the other place debate and vote on the issue. I have already said that I intend to carry on being an optimist, and to encourage intelligent debate from all sides of the argument.
Mr. Mike O'Brien (North Warwickshire): Will my right hon. Friend assure us that he will listen carefully to the debate in this House, and that if there is a vote for a ban he will make clear in his statement in a few days' time the Government's position on the use of the Parliament Act to bring this matter to a conclusion, as the Government have promised they will do for some time?
Alun Michael: I understand precisely my hon. Friend's point, and the importance placed on it by the many Members who signed amendment (b) to the motion for a ban, although it is not being considered. I shall take that point on board, and I shall respond to it when I make a statement in the next few days.
Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North): My right hon. Friend has been most generous in giving way. He will have noticed that Members from all parts in the other place, when discussing its future reform, repeatedly said that even in a reformed state it should be subservient to this House. That should also have an important influence on how we judge the decisions made here against those made there.
Alun Michael: My hon. Friend makes an important constitutional point. I want to encourage rather than threaten Members of the other place, as I encourage Members of this House, to approach this debate constructively and positively. I know that there is a temptation to say that we have debated this issue before, so why are we debating it again? We are debating the three motions, and they will be debated tomorrow in the other place. On the back of those two debates and the votes cast, I shall make a statement to the House. It would not be fair to go beyond that. I am hoping for a constructive debate, with more light than heat in both Houses.
Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley): Has my right hon. Friend received any indication that Members of this House who have previously voted for a total ban and who I expect to do so again tonight would be influenced to change their mind if the other place voted tomorrow for the middle way?
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Before the right hon. Gentleman answers that question, may I say that he has been very generous in taking interventions, but they do not directly relate to the subject matter before the House? An enormous number of Members want to catch my eye, and unless we get going, more and more of them will be disappointed.
Alun Michael: I can tell my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber) that I have received no such indications. I have seen in the press many reports of deals being done and negotiations going on, but that speculation is inspired by nothing. I have listened to a variety of views. That is a sensible approach for any Minister with responsibility for an issue to take. I shall now listen to the debates in this House and in the other place.
The purpose of the motions is to give all right hon. and hon. Members the opportunity to consider the matter and to vote. Hunting is an emotive issue. It remains to be seen what debate we will have here and in another place, but in the past both Houses have risen to the occasion when there has been a debate on a free vote. I shall listen with interest to what is said in the hope that it will illuminate the way forward. I have always been an optimist, and I hope that contributions will generate light, not just heat, and inform the debate.