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3 Dec 2002 : Column 764—continued

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire): I have reservations about banning any of the activities covered by the Minister's statement, but does he understand that, because he put animal welfare at the centre of his remarks, the middle way group will have to give his proposals a cautious welcome? Does he also understand, however, that many will be concerned that, used improperly, those powers could lead to the banning of hunting through the back door? Is he open to suggestions on how the utility test could be modified to ensure that that does not happen?

Alun Michael: The question will be straightforward for any aspect of hunting that is not either accepted or banned outright—that is, it can take place only if it satisfies the two tests. First, there must be a genuine utility in it and it must be useful. Of course, that is the ground on which hunting has been defended over time. Secondly, it must satisfy the cruelty test. In other words, if it is cruel, it cannot be undertaken. So, the two tests are very clear and I believe that they will be applied clearly and successfully.

Mr. Tony Banks (West Ham): May I commend my right hon. Friend for his political adroitness and unfailing courtesy during a process that many would consider to be the political equivalent of getting the black spot from Blind Pew? I say to him in all friendliness that he will be caught like piggy in the middle and I suspect that Parliament will indulge in a bit of pig sticking, which is a revolting pursuit when it involves either pigs or Ministers. Will he give the House an absolute assurance that the Bill is amendable—I assume it must be—and that there will be a free vote at every stage of its consideration?

Alun Michael: I can confirm both those points. The Bill, of course, is amendable and it will be dealt with on a free vote. That does not mean that I am relaxed about

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whether it should be amended, and I shall seek to persuade colleagues that it is correctly judged and that it deals precisely with the issues, not least that of cruelty, which is the one that concerns my hon. Friend.

I invite colleagues to read the Bill in the light of this question: what is the concern and why has hunting been such an issue for Parliament over many years? The answer, I suggest, is that Members of the House are not happy with the cruelty that is associated with hunting. If they read the legislation and see that it deals with cruelty, but does so in a way that allows land managers to do what they need to do to continue with their livelihood and activities, I suggest that we will have the balance right. If I get shouted at from both sides for trying to get it right, I shall take that as a slightly curious form of support.

Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle): Earlier this morning I was able to talk to hunt followers at a meet in my constituency, and to discuss the Minister's comments, which had already been leaked ahead of his statement. They considered those comments draconian, unnecessary and intrusive. Nevertheless, if the Minister genuinely proposes to introduce legislation that is based on Xcruelty and utility" and if those criteria are fairly and objectively met, they will have no problem with it because, in so many parts of the country, hunting is not cruel and does serve a utilitarian purpose.

Is the Minister aware, however, that it is not just hunting that is on the line, but his integrity and the integrity of the Government in pursuing those two requirements and ensuring that they are fairly met?

Alun Michael: That was another absurd contribution. The hon. Gentleman has listened to people's comments on a Bill that they have not seen and he has not seen. I suggest that he was indulging in an exercise in prejudice this morning.

The hon. Gentleman should not believe claims that there have been leaks in advance. The fact is that we have engaged in an open and transparent process. I set out the principles of the Bill—the principles of utility and cruelty—in my statement to the House on 21 March. The evidence we have heard has been available on a website, on video and in transcripts throughout. It is not surprising that people may have looked at the evidence and reached conclusions on the nature of the proposals I would present; but I have presented my proposals in a statement to the House first, and will subsequently present them to the House in a Bill.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): I welcome the statement and I welcome the Bill, to the extent that it can be amended. In an earlier statement, however, my right hon. Friend said that Ministers would be given a free vote on this issue. Is that still the case?

Alun Michael: It is a free-vote issue. A Government Bill is being presented to enable Parliament to reach a conclusion on the issue. I will seek to persuade colleagues to support the Bill, because I believe it to be

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right. I am happy to talk to them long into the night if necessary to explain why it will work, why it will be fair and why it will be right.

Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster): I am curious about whether the register system will work. Surely one side or the other will inevitably appeal. I am also curious about how the Minister will deal with someone out rabbiting whose greyhound chases a hare. How will he handle such enforcement issues?

Alun Michael: Such casual incidents would certainly not be caught by the Act. If the hon. Gentleman reads the report of the Committee stage of the previous Bill, he will see that spurious points of that kind were raised fairly repetitiously then.

The point is that the registrar and the tribunal will have to deal with the evidence that comes before them in the light of criteria established in legislation by the House. Those principles will be very clear. An applicant will have to demonstrate utility, and show that he or she could not have reached the same end without causing suffering. Applicants will have to satisfy those two criteria: it is as simple as that. If they satisfy the criteria, they will be able to undertake the activity; if they cannot satisfy them, they will not.

Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate): I regret to tell my right hon. Friend that most of my constituents who have been campaigning for a total ban on hunting with dogs well before the issue came before the House would have regarded his golden thread as somewhat pinchbeck if there had been no opportunity for the Bill to be amended so that the House could yet again debate the issue of a total ban. May I say that I am grateful to him for reiterating that if the House does return the result it has returned so many times in the past, he will exercise the Parliament Act?

Alun Michael: I ask my hon. Friend to consider this question: did she believe that she was voting for a total ban when she voted for the Deadline 2000 option—as I believe she did—in the previous Parliament? In fact, that option did not constitute a total ban. Some activities were allowed to continue because it was felt that they had utility and should not be banned. The Bill that I have introduced is not some form of shopping list. It enshrines the principles of utility and of eradicating cruelty. I hope that those two principles will command my hon. Friend's support, and that the Bill, which I shall publish later today, will do the same.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): Does not the right hon. Gentleman understand that there is no distinction of principle between shooting, hunting and angling? They are, in substance, the same, and in a free society individuals should be entitled to participate in all of them. Furthermore, it is the business of this House to protect minorities, not to trample on their rights. In a free society, the golden thread should be the liberty of the individual, not the tyranny of the majority.

Alun Michael: I am tempted to ask whether there is a doctor in the House. The right hon. and learned Gentleman should try to keep his temper, because then

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he would be able to deal coolly and objectively with the principles that I am putting to this House. He is one of those who pressed me to deal with illegal hare coursing. This Bill will do that, and will do so according to the criteria that he suggested in a letter to me. The right hon. and learned Gentleman has made himself absurd.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): My right hon. Friend said that his proposition would settle the matter, but on reflection he must admit that, if there is a shabby compromise or a golden fudge, this issue will return time and again. This Parliament has a Labour majority of 160-odd. Some 400 Labour Members stood firm before, and if the third way is introduced, they will do so again. Let us get on with it and settle the matter.

Alun Michael: I do not expect that a statement from me will be sufficient to satisfy Labour Members; they will have to look at the legislation. I believe that they—that includes my hon. Friend—are reasonable and sensible people who will ask—[Interruption.] Well, Conservative Members may not agree, but I believe that to be true. I believe that my hon. Friend and other Labour Members will do me the favour of looking at the Bill and asking whether it deals with the issue of cruelty. I can assure them that it does, and that there is no fudge in it, be it golden fudge or dark fudge. My hon. Friend will have to visit those parts of the country where fudge is produced because he will not find it in my statement or in the Bill.

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