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Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion): May I give a cautious welcome to what the Minister said today, particularly on the process and the new twin principles of utility and cruelty? I hope that he will introduce a Bill that is genuinely based on those twin principles and will not approach countryside activities in a prejudiced way. Does he acknowledge that the difference in votes cast in this House and in the other place reflects a wider disagreement in society about the way in which the issue needs to be addressed? Within the six-month period he has granted himself, he needs to engage in that wider public debate. We are not the only people who have something to say on hunting and cruelty.

In that context, he will have received a letter from Glyn Davies, Chairman of the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee in the National Assembly for Wales. It asks him specifically to take into account more than 900 submissions to the committee on hunting in Wales, and further to take into account in the legislative process the Committee's deliberations on the best way forward for hunting in Wales, which is characterised by upland areas. Will he undertake to do that?

Alun Michael: I am happy to respond positively to each of those three points. First, the hon. Gentleman is right to say that we are seeking to legislate through the

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application of principles. I have outlined those principles, it is clear that he understood my comments, and that is the way forward. Secondly, he is also right to say it is not just a question of views in this House and the other place. There is wider disagreement in society—and in the countryside—and it is right that we engage with people outside this House. He will know that I have met a wide variety of groups in England and Wales that wish to make representations on the issue, and I shall continue to do so. Thirdly, it is certainly right to take into account views from Wales, including views expressed by the National Assembly for Wales and its Members. I have not seen the letter to which he refers, but I would expect to be able to respond positively to it.

Paddy Tipping (Sherwood): My right hon. Friend is right to establish a short period of consultation, but he is fundamentally wrong if he believes that consensus can be achieved for a Bill with a framework of utility and cruelty. Will he stick to a closely defined timetable, so that those of us who live in, and represent, rural areas can get on with the real issues that affect the countryside?

Alun Michael: My hon. Friend says that I would be wrong to believe that consensus can be achieved, but I have not used that word—I used the term "common ground". We want to achieve as much common ground as possible, and in that regard I am being realistic. I am not hoping that somebody will suddenly wave a magic wand and achieve consensus across the piece on this difficult issue.

As I said, the timetable for consultation on the practical matters to which I referred, and for the drafting of legislation, will be very tight. The answer to his question is therefore a simple yes.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough): The Minister properly suggests that there should be a six-month period of consultation, and he tells us that he is a co-operative person and Member of Parliament. In the interests of informing himself over the next six months, will he come to Harborough in Leicestershire, where five hunts operate, the better to learn about the utility of hunting and the absence of cruelty? I appreciate that he takes a different view, but will he please take the opportunity to meet the people in Leicestershire with an interest in the subject? I invite him to come and stay with me. In Committee, I invited the hon. Member for Basildon (Angela Smith) to do so, and she would be very welcome. The right hon. Gentleman could bring his wife and his private office staff, but I urge him to come to hear at first hand the worries of my constituents. He could then come back to Parliament after the six-month consultation period better informed for that visit.

Alun Michael: I am grateful to the hon. and learned Gentleman for his invitation. I referred to a period of six months of consulting and drafting in order to get the legislation right, and we want to stay within that time scale. He generously invites me to Leicestershire—I am very popular; I am being invited to visit many parts of the country—but his underlying question is whether I will listen to people involved in hunting, consider the practicalities and listen to their experience. Yes I will, which is why I visited a hunt a few weeks ago at the invitation of the campaign for hunting and devoted as

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much time as I could to listening to people's views. I did so partly to hear those views and partly to engage with the practicalities, which is one of the reasons why it is important to have the process that I have introduced today. I make no specific promise about where I will spend my time in the next few months.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): I trust my right hon. Friend and we all know of his deep personal commitment to an outright ban. The House will know my view that this is a wasted opportunity and that, even with this timetable, we might still be discussing the issue right up to 2004. Who wants that? The Minister talked about consultation—endless consultation. What will we learn from six months of consultation that we do not already know?

Alun Michael: If one does not take part in a discussion, one does not discover what one would learn by having the discussion. My hon. Friend asks me to jump ahead of a process that, I suggest, makes sense. I have proposed not endless consultation but a limited period of consultation and drafting—the serious work of enabling the process of bringing legislation before the House at the earliest possible date.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): Will the Minister accept that the two principles of cruelty and utility offer a serious chance for discussion of the best alternative means of adhering to those principles? An unwillingness to engage by those who take an extreme view can be interpreted only as an unwillingness to listen to alternative ways to achieve those two principles. Does he agree that if the Middle Way Group, Countdown to the Ban and the Countryside Alliance wish to be involved in the process, the best thing that he can do is to ensure that they listen without prejudice to the reasons why they have reached different views? The best legislation will be achieved by listening generously, even to views that one does not hold at the beginning, in the hope that we will find something better than anything on the table at the moment, in the interests of animal welfare.

Alun Michael: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's comments and for his underlining the issue of animal welfare. I assure him that all three groups will be welcome to take part in the process of considering the practicalities, as will a variety of other organisations that have an interest, such as the farming organisations and others that are not part of the three groups. I underline the point that this will be an open process, not a closed one. An unwillingness to engage in discussion looks not like strength but like weakness.

Mr. John McFall (Dumbarton): I commend the Minister for his patience in renegotiation, but may I remind him that in 1994, when the House passed my anti-fox hunting Bill—the Wild Mammals (Protection) Bill—by a majority of 253 to zero, I engaged for six months with those in the other place but not one inch was given on foxhunting? Let us face the fact that this is no longer about foxhunting but is now a constitutional

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issue. [Interruption.] If the will of the House prevails, as expressed year after year in massive majorities—[Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. Let the hon. Gentleman put his question.

Mr. McFall: Will the House's will prevail, and within a year will foxhunting be totally and utterly banned?

Alun Michael: My hon. Friend refers to his own history in these matters, and I remember the frustration that he experienced in being unable to enact a Bill that had been passed by this House. Above all, we do not want this issue to become a constitutional issue. If there is a will in the House of Lords and this place to avoid that, it can be avoided. However, I have made it clear—and my remarks are intended to assist this House and the other place in terms of the confidence that they may have in the process—that were the other place to frustrate legislation, the Government would not stand in the way of the Parliament Act being used as the result of the reintroduction of a Bill. I hope that I have been clear—not because I wish to provoke confrontation with the House of Lords but because I wish to avoid it.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): Will the right hon. Gentleman take time to reflect on the fact that in a democracy majorities—even elected majorities—can be as tyrannical as individual dictators? When he frames the legislation, will he bear it in mind that his fellow citizens should be as free to go foxhunting as they are to go fishing and shooting—as do many Labour Members? If he does not allow those principles, he will have to accept that his legislation will be perceived to be but a form of mob rule.

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