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3 Dec 2002 : Column 761—continued

Alun Michael: To take the last point first, I agree that many more important issues affect the countryside. It is a pity that the hon. Gentleman did not mention post offices, about which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made an announcement yesterday. She outlined the investment that the Government are making in preserving rural post offices. We are also taking steps to strengthen the rural economy, and to deal with rural housing and many other issues that are far more important than the subject of the statement. However, the matter must be tackled. It is important and hon. Members have made it clear that they want it to be resolved.

I am glad that the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) acknowledged that all views exist in his party and that the Liberal Democrats, like Labour Members and Conservative Members, will have a free vote.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned fallen livestock. There is a need to end on-farm burial because of its environmental impact and the European regulations. The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), continues to hold discussions with the industry on the best way to deal with that.

The hon. Gentleman referred to Exmoor, and I acknowledge that there is a specific culture that relates to deer on Exmoor. I have spent time there and met all the groups to understand the reasoning behind their defence of hunting. The evidence is conclusive and that is why I believe it must be banned. However, I am prepared to spend time considering the consequences for the health and continuation of the deer herd on Exmoor, and to engage with those of all parties who have an interest in that as well as those who represent people in the Exmoor area.

Mr. Michael Foster (Worcester): From the evidence that my right hon. Friend has read, does he envisage that foxhunting in traditional areas such as Worcestershire and Gloucestershire will pass the utility and cruelty test? For hon. Members with short-term memory lapses, will he restate the commitment that he made to my right

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hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) about the possible use of the Parliament Act?

Alun Michael: I confirm that I made the position clear on the Parliament Act in March. I made two points. I said that the Government are committed to enabling Parliament to reach a conclusion on the subject and that the Parliament Act would be available in the event of conflict between the two Houses.

I also made it clear that we want to get legislation before the House and the other place that will command support on all sides because it is fair, objective and based on principles, and because it deals with the issue of cruelty in relation to hunting with dogs. It is our preference that, in considering legislation that comes from this House, the other place should support it and seek to improve it, rather than seeking to obstruct it. I hope that such legislation will be dealt with in that way.

Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells): These proposals, with all their fatuous bureaucracy, truly represent the low point of Labour's third way. What representations has the Minister received from police organisations about whether the proposals are workable and enforceable? If they are thought not to be, will not they discredit the rule of law and divert scarce police resources from the real war on crime that his Government make so much of, while doing absolutely nothing for animal welfare?

Alun Michael: It is an odd suggestion that we have reached a low point by basing legislation on principle. The Bill is based on two clear principles: that of eradicating cruelty and that of allowing the utility necessary for land managers to undertake their work. I said in response to an earlier question that I had consulted the police at the highest level. I am satisfied that the measures will not only be enforceable but will make life easier for the police—for example, in enforcing the law in respect of illegal hare coursing, which causes a massive nuisance in some parts of the country. Indeed, many Conservative Members have asked me to take action on it. I am satisfied that the Bill will improve the situation and that it will be simple and straightforward to enforce.

David Winnick (Walsall, North): I recognise the amount of work that my right hon. Friend has done on this issue, but does he not realise that it should not be the subject of a compromise? Those of us who believe strongly that hunting with dogs is totally inappropriate and should be banned hope that—with our majority in the House of Commons—that can now be done, and many of us believe that it should have been done in the last Parliament.

Alun Michael: I have not put forward a compromise—or a fudge, as it has been described by some. I have put forward proposals, as my hon. Friend will see when the Bill is published, that are based on principles and on evidential tests, and I hope that they will command the support of the House. There is a tendency for people to say either that we should leave things as they are, or that we should have a complete

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ban. That approach is too simplistic. [Interruption.] I ask my hon. Friends to listen to this point. The Bill that was introduced on the last occasion, which was drafted by Deadline 2000, did not propose a simple blanket ban. It recognised utility, and listed some activities that could continue. We should be careful not to ban activities unless they fail the two tests of utility and cruelty. I promise my hon. Friend that the Bill that I will publish this afternoon deals with the issue of cruelty.

Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon): Cannot the Minister see that even his statement is biased and prejudicial? Surely the burden of proof in any licensing system should be with the licensor in turning down an application, rather than with hunting people having to justify their requirement for a licence every time they apply for one.

Alun Michael: Clearly, I disagree with that. If people want to undertake these activities with dogs, they will have to show that there is utility, that they have a reason for doing it and that no cruelty is involved. They will have to show that any suffering involved will be kept to a minimum unless there are no alternatives for dealing with land management issues. That is a simple and straightforward matter of principle.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton): Is my right hon. Friend aware that this botched attempt to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds is unacceptable to many Members of the House of Commons? Will he make it clear to me that the Bill that he is publishing has been drafted in such a way as to allow hon. Members to amend it to bring about a complete ban? Will he also reiterate his assurance to me that, if the House votes in that way, a complete ban will be forced through Parliament—if need be, under the Parliament Act?

Alun Michael: I shall not repeat what I said to my right hon. Friend in March because that stands, but I ask him to consider whether he wants to outlaw ratting, for example, which seems to be the implication of his remarks. He has not seen the Bill as yet. When he reads it, he will see that it deals with the issue of cruelty. Surely cruelty should be foremost in the minds of Members of the House, and I shall seek to persuade my right hon. and hon. Friends that what I have drafted and introduced will indeed deal with that issue.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough): What is the substance of the evidence that the Minister saw and which Lord Burns and his inquiry team did not?

Alun Michael: First, the conclusions of the Burns report and the evidence available to Lord Burns were available to me as my starting point. Secondly, the evidence that I saw will be available in the Library. Thirdly, I hope that the hon. and learned Gentleman, before asking his question, took the trouble to consider the videos of the evidence and the discussions from the three days of public hearings in Portcullis House, which involved all three main campaigning organisations. I wrote to every Member of the House to point out their availability to all. That information is in the public

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domain and it is transparent. The process, I suggest, should be respected, as it is clearly respected by all three main organisations.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall): I thank the Minister for the time that he has put into this very divisive issue; I know that the job has been difficult for him. I welcome the fact that he has clearly changed his mind to accept what some of us—at least one or two of us—on this side of the House have said about a complete ban on hunting being wrong and unacceptable. Will he clarify this for me: if the Bill that he is introducing is a Government Bill, on which there will be a free vote, how can he possibly allow the Parliament Act to be used if it is amended?

Alun Michael: I do not think that I understand the final point. The Bill is a Government Bill, and I am acting on the Government's behalf in making proposals to enable Parliament to reach a conclusion on the issue. Of course, if a Bill were passed by the House and blocked by another place, it would be reintroduced, as we have indicated. It would be not for us but for Parliament to decide whether the Parliament Act applied. Indeed, it is a matter for you, Mr. Speaker, to decide whether the Parliament Act applies in any particular circumstances.

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