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Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order.

Alun Michael: I ask Conservative Members to listen carefully to what is being said. The Government would prefer the Bill to proceed by debate and through a search for common ground wherever possible, with conflict tempered by tolerance.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): Where is the tolerance?

Alun Michael: The hon. Gentleman obviously does not understand the word "tolerance". I suggest that he listen.

If that process is frustrated and the Bill rejected, we would reintroduce the Bill as quickly as possible to this House. It would then be for this House and its procedures and for Mr. Speaker to determine whether the Parliament Act should apply. However, the reason for re-engaging in a process to try to achieve wider agreement is precisely that we recognise that there are legitimate concerns in the countryside about pest control, land management and other practicalities, and we want to address those issues in the Bill. Those concerns were raised both in this House and in the other place.

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I reiterate our manifesto commitment that

I also want to stress to everyone in the countryside that hunting is at the margins of the real debate about the priorities that we set out in the rural White Paper, which are to ensure that people in the countryside get access to good public services, proper investment, sound environmental policies and sustainable development.

On the content of the Bill itself, I believe that some common ground can best be found by focusing on two general principles. The report by Lord Burns on hunting with dogs examined in great detail the principles of cruelty and utility. We propose to frame legislation that prohibits activity based on those two principles rather than simply setting out a list of activities to be banned.

The Burns report did not provide a route map, however. That is why further thought should be given in applying these principles, and that is what I shall be doing over the next few weeks.

I am sure that the House will have noted the very clear assurances that I have given today about timing and outcome, and about the engagement of those campaigning for a ban on hunting, of Members of this House, and of those involved in land management. I recognise that this is a difficult issue, especially as we all know that there are other pressing matters, such as legislation on crime, health and education, that also demand our attention. We must deliver on our central promises on reform and investment in our public services.

I ask the House to trust me to deliver, and to join me in a process that is guaranteed to achieve an outcome as soon as possible. I look forward to engaging with colleagues on both sides of the House and in the other place. The process that I am setting out today will ensure that we deliver on our manifesto commitment to resolve this issue during the lifetime of this Parliament.

Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton): I thank the Minister for letting me have sight of his statement this afternoon. I had tremendous difficulties with my computer at the weekend, and I understand that he had similar difficulties today. I received the statement hot off the press only a few minutes ago, therefore. However, I am grateful at least for the attempt to get it to me in good time. The proposals that the Minister has announced today, which will be introduced in the next Session of Parliament by the use of the Parliament Act if necessary, say very little and shed very little light on how the Government see the way forward, especially after two full days of debate this week.

The proposals are most certainly not a middle way. However, in their small print, they show the way in which the Minister proposes to curtail the freedoms enjoyed by generations of British people. Can the Minister take powers, on a whim, to make regulations under the new "necessity" test, in the Burns report, of "cruelty and utility"—"vermin control"—which will, at a stroke, maim hunting as we have known it, except for a few foot packs in some upland areas? Hunting would then only be tolerated under licence, with rights of appeal given to anti-hunt organisations if a licence were granted.

The devil will, as ever, be in the detail. When will we see precisely what regulatory powers are planned? How will they be implemented, and by what means? With whom will the Minister consult? How will he reassure the

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countryside that he is not just buying time? Many believe that the decisions are already taken, as The Times today makes clear. Will he confirm that, in addition to the list of consultees on page 3, he will fully consult those who support field and country sports and foxhunting in particular? How will he ensure that the consultation focuses on other real issues such as species management, conservation and employment?

It is obvious to one and all in the House and elsewhere that the Government are caught between a rock and a hard place of their own making. They are caught by their own Back Benchers, who are deeply unhappy about the failure of Government policy, and by the fear of a countryside march of up to 1 million people joining together in comradeship and common purpose, as they did before. The issue is not animal cruelty; it never was. It is about the settling of old scores.

The message must go out the length and breadth of this land: we must fight for our country traditions and values. That fight for freedom and liberty begins today.

Alun Michael: It is very disappointing that the Conservative response has been so narrow and petty. It is clear that Opposition Front-Bench Members are determined to create division and not to help a process that will create good legislation. It is the process of creating good legislation that is important—[Interruption.] I invite Opposition Members to stop gnashing their teeth, and to listen to what I am saying in response to serious points made by the hon. Lady—her contribution included serious points among its scattering of prejudice.

We seek to introduce legislation based on principles. Legislation often bans things—frequently, it involves a curtailment of liberty—and the House must ensure that that is done carefully, judiciously and appropriately. Surely that is the purpose of writing good legislation. It is ludicrous of the hon. Lady to suggest, in her words, that I intend to take powers "on a whim". The House will decide exactly what legislation is passed. My responsibility is to help that process and to enable us to have good law.

The hon. Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton) is right to say that the devil is in the detail, which is why I have announced a process in which the detail and the practicalities will be discussed. She asked for the sort of information appropriate to a Second Reading debate, after the publication of a Bill. As I indicated, we are starting a process. I assure the hon. Lady that consultation will be open to anyone.

I am not sure what it says on page 3 of The Times, as I have not read it today—

Mrs. Winterton: I was referring to page 3 of the statement.

Alun Michael: I beg the hon. Lady's pardon. She was speaking about The Times, so I thought that that was the organ to which her pagination applied. I know what is in my statement; it is The Times that I have not read.

I can tell the hon. Member for Congleton that the consultation process will be very open. Certainly, people who engage in hunting will be part of the process, and they will be fully involved. Indeed, I met representatives from the campaign for hunting yesterday. My door has

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been kept open to that organisation, as it has to other bodies with an interest in the matter. I had friendly and useful exchanges with them, because I am engaged in a process of dialogue.

The hon. Member for Congleton spoke about marches. I do not recall any Conservative Government being swayed by marches of any sort, whereas this Government do take notice of strong opinion, regardless of whether it is expressed by demonstration or by the process of consultation. We respect people's freedom to protest, but I ask those who consider protesting about the issues involved in this matter to recognise that they are being invited to take part in a process. They will be listened to and they will have an opportunity to influence the legislative proposals that come before the House. That seems to be the biggest difference between Government and Opposition.

Several hon. Members rose

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. Many hon. Members are trying to catch my eye. It would be extremely helpful, therefore, if hon. Members raised only one point with the Minister.

Mr. Michael Foster (Worcester): I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement today. My question will no doubt be put to him by people outside the House. If, after the process outlined today, the House of Commons once again votes to ban cruel and unnecessary sports such as lowland fox hunting, and if the House of Lords rejects that view, will my right hon. Friend ensure that the Government use the Parliament Act to allow this House to have its say?

Alun Michael: I thank my hon. Friend for his welcome for my statement. In essence, he asks whether the Government would apply the Parliament Act. However, use of the Parliament Act is a matter for the House. As I made clear, that process would be enabled by the Government if it became necessary, but we very much hope that the process will be one of engagement, and of improvement of any legislation that is brought forward. Our preference is that the Parliament Act will not be needed. I hope that that will be the case, but my hon. Friend is right to understand that the Government would enable use of the Parliament Act, if necessary. In that way, the House of Commons will be able to decide the matter.

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