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3 Dec 2002 : Column 758—continued

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury): May I begin by thanking the right hon. Gentleman sincerely for his courtesy in letting me and my Front-Bench team have an advance copy of the statement? That was much appreciated.

When the Government's Bill comes before the House, Conservative Members, Front and Back Bench alike, will have a completely free vote, as they have in the past. When the right hon. Gentleman commends the proposals, is he expressing the collective view of Her Majesty's Government? Will all members of the Government support the Bill as it has been described by the right hon. Gentleman? Can he even vouch for the support of fellow Ministers in his Department? Do the Government intend to use the Parliament Act to force through a Bill in whatever form it leaves the House of Commons? Is not it the truth that Labour Members of Parliament are not going to let the Minister get away—golden thread or no golden thread—with anything short of the complete ban that they have been calling for over so many years?

I have questions on specific aspects of the package. Let me begin with the licensing procedure. On whom does the Minister propose that the burden of proof should rest? Will it be for the applicant to prove—if so, to what standard?—that hunting meets the two tests, or will it be for the objector to prove that there are good reasons why the licence ought not to be granted? Once the licence has been granted, will it be permanent? If not, why not? Will there be a time limit? If so, on what grounds?

The Minister made much of the two tests. Does not he accept that both terms—cruelty and utility—must inevitably involve a subjective judgment?

Will the test of utility allow arguments to be heard about the importance of hunting in supporting conservation and about the impact that a ban would have on employment, especially in remote rural areas? Who will appoint the new registrar? How will the impartiality of that Solomon-type figure be assured?

The Minister proposes major restrictions on the individual liberty of our fellow citizens, yet the one omission from his statement was any mention of the new criminal offences that I presume he intends the Bill to create. What offences does he plan to create, and which people does he intend to criminalise? Is it the Government's intention that landowners and dog owners or dog keepers should face criminal penalties as well as people who might continue to hunt in defiance of a refusal of a licence? Is that sort of new criminal law a sensible priority for a hard-pressed and overstretched police service that is having great difficulty responding to reasonable public expectations at the moment?

What lessons has the right hon. Gentleman drawn from the experience of our neighbours north of the border? He proposes that hounds should continue to be used in falconry to flush out prey. He will know that in the previous Bill on this subject the use of dogs to flush out deer from woodlands and coverts was extensively debated, so will this Bill include a similar exemption for flushing out deer, as well as foxes, mink and other species?

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The point at which I found myself in greatest agreement with the Minister was when he said at the outset that this is hardly a subject that comes high on the list of priorities for people in this country. Does not the Government's decision to give such a high priority to this statement and the proposed legislation indicate what an absurd sense of priority is possessing Ministers? Let us contemplate this afternoon's business: surely it is crazy that the Government should place a statement on hunting with hounds ahead of a statement on the crisis in our public examinations system. We know from the Government that—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman should not refer to the next statement. We will deal with that when we come to it.

Mr. Lidington: I accept your correction, Mr. Speaker.

The Government, including the right hon. Gentleman's Department, have made it clear that they can find no time in their programme for a Bill to strengthen controls on illegal meat imports or to debate today's compelling report on rural poverty from the Countryside Agency, yet they can spare scarce parliamentary and ministerial time to debate a Bill on hunting at a time when our public services are in crisis. The Minister may hope that, for a while, his statement will distract the attention of his Back-Bench colleagues, but one thing is certain: this statement and this Bill have nothing whatever to do with the genuine priorities of the British people.

Alun Michael: May I start by dealing with one of the most absurd elements in the hon. Gentleman's comments? The Bill will come before the House because Members have voted time and again to introduce legislation, and I point out also that Members have turned up in large numbers to vote against legislation, so those on both sides of the House have engaged with the issue and made it a priority. This is a Government Bill, introduced to help Parliament to resolve the issue.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the issue of the Parliament Act. I dealt with that in March, and made the point that we hope that it will not be necessary for that Act to be applied, as we hope that people will engage with sensible proposals that will command the support of the House and, indeed, of another place. I hope to be able to persuade Labour Members, about whose views the hon. Gentleman asked, of the effectiveness of the legislation in dealing with the issue of cruelty associated with hunting.

The hon. Gentleman asked a number of specific questions. It will be for the applicant to show that he has satisfied the two tests before registering for any activity, and a designated animal welfare organisation will have the opportunity to show evidence to the contrary. We envisage that permission will be granted for three years, after which a renewal can be applied for. The whole point of the two tests will be set out clearly and defined in the Bill, which I look forward to debating on Second Reading and subsequently. The two tests will be applied to the evidence that is offered, and utility will be carefully defined in the Bill, as I suggested in my statement.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the effect on employment. The evidence is that generally it would be minimal, but of course there could be an effect on

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individuals who, as in any question of employment, would have the sympathy and support of the Government and the House.

The hon. Gentleman asked about appointments. There are procedures for making sure that people appointed to any body with a regulatory function are appropriate and able to deal with the questions independently. The tribunal will be dealt with under the powers of the Lord Chancellor.

The hon. Gentleman asked about liberty. Surely he is not asking for the liberty to be cruel; people would be criminalised only if they broke the law.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that there should be simple tests. We will put simple tests in place to establish whether the law has been broken. We have been told that these are law-abiding people. In that case, I am sure that they will obey the law, as decided by Parliament. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I have discussed enforcement with police at the most senior level, and my proposals are clearly workable.

There is one mischief about which many Opposition Members write to me—the problems that arise from illegal hare coursing. The Bill will tackle that by giving powers to the police to enable them to deal with illegal hare coursing, which they are currently unable to do.

On some of the particulars, I suggest that the hon. Gentleman wait to see the details of the Bill. There will be an opportunity to debate them on Second Reading and subsequently, so I do not want take up too much of the House's time now. However, as I said at the outset, we are taking the time to deal with this issue because, year after year, hon. Members have demonstrated that they believe that it has to be dealt with. In our manifesto, the Government indicated that we would enable Parliament to reach a conclusion on the issue. I hope that the Bill that I will publish later today will indeed enable Parliament to do so on the basis of principle and evidence.

Andrew George (St. Ives): I, too, am grateful to the Minister for his usual courtesy in providing an advance copy of his statement.

The Minister will be aware that the Liberal Democrats have a party policy on the issue that favours a ban, but of course we would allow a free vote, to satisfy a range of views within the parliamentary party, all of which are cherished. On the basis of his statement, I can give the proposed legislation a cautious welcome, but much will depend on the Bill's capacity to set utility and cruelty thresholds at a meaningful, rather than synthetically low, level.

Livestock farmers want to be reassured that the Government have considered the impact of the proposed legislation on their current arrangements for the efficient removal of fallen livestock from farmsteads. The Government must take account of the need for an efficient method of fallen livestock removal, especially in view of their intention to ban on-farm burial in February.

Farmers will not want to find their activities outlawed by a Bill, especially when efficient and humane methods of on-farm pest control exist. I gave the Minister an example of one of my cousins who has a poultry farm and found an ingenious and humane method of dealing with pests.

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The Minister said that he favours a ban on hare coursing and deer hunting, but will he ensure that, before the Bill is enacted, a proper deer management and culling plan is in place on Exmoor to avoid the predictable mayhem that would ensue in the area? If he favours banning hare coursing and deer hunting, what conclusion has he reached on the utility and cruelty case for pre-season cub hunting, which is undertaken mainly on the basis of dog training?

If the Minister favours the least cruel method, what is his view of the use of dogs that are not capable of efficient pursuit but are bred to prolong the chase? Above all, does he agree that there are many more important matters that affect country folk—for example, the future of farming and rural housing—than hunting and that the Government are concentrating a disproportionate amount of parliamentary time on those who happen to get their kicks out of chasing wild animals around the countryside?

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