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3 Dec 2002 : Column 767—continued

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex): Nowhere in the admirable Burns report, nor in the excellently conducted hearings in Portcullis House—I pay tribute to the Minister for the way in which he chaired them—was any cruelty proved. It is therefore a mystery to us why the Bill should be predicated on such a basis. A total of 407,000 people marched peacefully in London to express their anxieties about the havoc wreaked on the countryside by this Government. I want the Minister to know that hunting will fight this provision, and hunting will be right.

Alun Michael: We treated with courtesy the people who marched through London a few weeks ago. They sent a variety of messages about the needs of the countryside, however, and there was a degree of muddle in that regard. Nevertheless, we responded to them with respect. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman acknowledges the value of the Burns report. It provided not a conclusion on recommendations for legislation, but a strong basis of evidence, on which I have built through the evidence that I have taken.

On cruelty, the activity of hare coursing has no utility. The intention is to test the speed and agility of the dogs, not to protect livestock or anything like that. That is why it can be concluded that that activity cannot be allowed, as it does not pass the cruelty test.

I have looked carefully at all the evidence in connection with the hunting of deer. It does not satisfy either the utility or the cruelty test, and that is why it is banned. The proposed process will allow us to test whether cruelty occurs, and that is surely fair and

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reasonable. If the hon. Gentleman agrees that we should not do things that are cruel, he must be prepared to allow hunting to be tested against the evidence.

Mr. Ian Cawsey (Brigg and Goole): I thank my right hon. Friend for his efforts to find a way forward on this matter, and for the early opportunity that the House will have to decide how it should be resolved. The Bill will be the starting point, but will he explain whether it will contain a presumption against the use of dogs to cull foxes? If not, will not the Bill be just another version of the middle way proposal? A BBC online poll this morning showed that 75 per cent. of respondents were against that option.

Alun Michael: There is a significant difference between the Bill and the middle way proposal, which I could not accept because it licensed cruelty—that is, it would have allowed cruelty on the part of those licensed to undertake the activity. I do not believe that to be right.

The starting point is that people wishing to undertake an activity with dogs will first have to show utility—that there is a reason, purpose or outcome worth pursuing, against the tests that my hon. Friend will see in the Bill when it is published later today. Secondly, they will have to show that the activity is not cruel—that there is no other way of dealing with the mischief that is less likely to cause suffering. I think that that proposal gets the balance right, as it will be for the applicant to show that both those tests are met.

There is a third reason why the Bill is not another version of the middle way. Even if an activity is allowed, it will have to be undertaken in a way that is not cruel. An automatic condition of any registration is that any activity undertaken as a result of the registration will have to be undertaken in a way that is not cruel. That is a very important principle, and it is built into the Bill.

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon): Does the Minister accept that there are particular issues associated with hunting in Wales? They have to do with the continued viability of upland farming, and with the difficulties that the regulation of hunting on foot—and especially its possible abolition by the back door—could cause rural communities. The hunting issue in Scotland is to be decided by the Scottish Assembly, and I am informed that hunting in Northern Ireland will be dealt with by the Northern Ireland Assembly. Will the Minister say why the Welsh Assembly is not looking at the matter?

In addition, will the independent tribunal be a national Welsh body or a national English body, or is the Minister suggesting that it will be a supranational body covering both England and Wales?

Alun Michael: The Welsh Assembly has had an opportunity to consider the matter and one of its Committees undertook some hearings before providing its views. I wrote to all members of the Assembly, as well to everyone in this House and another place, inviting them to provide evidence and their views on the matter before I considered the legislation that I would bring forward. If there are circumstances that justify activity in a particular area, as the hon. Gentleman has described, it will be for the registrar and the tribunal to

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be satisfied that the tests of utility and cruelty have been met. I can confirm that the registrar and tribunal will be national and will deal with the matter in England and Wales.

Mr. Mike Hall (Weaver Vale): My right hon. Friend served on the Standing Committee considering the Bill brought forward in 2000. He will therefore know that that Bill, had it reached the statute book, would have banned the hunting with dogs of foxes, deer, mink and hare. My constituents will not be able to understand why, if the Bill is to ban hunting with dogs of hare and deer, it cannot also ban the hunting of foxes? I want the decision to be taken not by tribunal but by the House of Commons.

Alun Michael: I have said that the previous legislation was designed in a different way, listing activities that could not be undertaken. I have sought to put in the Bill the basic principles of utility and cruelty that we debated at great length in Committee and on the Floor of the House on the previous occasion. The purpose is to eradicate cruelty. That is the mischief that we should be addressing, and the Bill will address it.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East): Is the Minister aware that the small minority on this side of the House who deplore hunting with hounds have been appalled at the way in which a Government who claim to be a Government of principle have used every device and trick for the past five years to prevent the House of Commons from coming to a decision on the matter. What is the point of having a democratic Parliament if Members are not allowed to come to a decision on an issue that they believe to be fundamental to a civilised society?

Alun Michael: I have made it clear that the first point about the Bill is that it deals with the principles. It starts from the point of principle. The hon. Gentleman is quite right that the Government pride themselves on applying principles. Secondly, it is for the House to take a decision. I have a responsibility to bring forward proposals to enable Parliament to reach a conclusion on the issue. I have sought to do that and I shall also seek to persuade the hon. Gentleman as well as other right hon. and hon. Members that I have got it right.

Mr. Kevin Hughes (Doncaster, North): Is it not usually the case that he who tries to ride two horses with one golden thread falls through the middle and gets trampled by both sides? Will not the Bill be seen outside for what it really is—a sell-out on the main question of banning the hunting of foxes with dogs?

Alun Michael: The Bill will be seen in that way only if it is misrepresented, and I hope that it will not be misrepresented by anyone in the House. The Bill is based on principle rather than prejudice. It provides a framework that allows those principles to be applied in any particular circumstances. I know that my hon.

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Friend is concerned about cruelty. I invite him to look at the Bill once it is published and I hope that he will be satisfied that it deals with the problem of cruelty.

Mr. Adrian Flook (Taunton): The Minister has labelled thousands of my constituents as cruel, as they follow a hunt—the Devon and Somerset stag hounds or the Quantock stag hounds. He will not be thanked or respected for that. Thousands of my constituents will lose their liberty and many hundreds of them will lose their livelihood. Given the social and economic impact of the Minister's decision to ban stag hunting, what action will he take to ensure that those in my constituency are helped?

Alun Michael: The hon. Gentleman needs to ask himself whether he considers it right for people to have the liberty to be cruel. Surely not. The House has previously said that that is not a liberty that it can support. I invite the hon. Gentleman to look at the evidence and at the Bill. He will see that it tests any activity against the two principles of whether there is good reason for undertaking the activity and whether cruelty is involved. It is against those two tests that I have looked at the evidence on deer hunting and stag hunting and reached a conclusion that I believe to be grounded firmly in the evidence.

Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West): Will my right hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to Britain's 2 million-plus coarse anglers who have steadfastly refused to be conned or hoodwinked by the hunt lobby and their supporters on the Opposition Benches into supporting the doomed cause of hunting with hounds? Will he confirm that not only are field sports such as angling and shooting safe with the Government but they are being enhanced and supported as never before?

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