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Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal): Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. If Mr. Speaker is unable to get the response that my hon. Friend seeks, will he seek a concession from Ministers so that they issue a series of apology notices that Members of Parliament can send out to make it clear that, when constituents do not get a proper reply, it is because the Minister, not the Member of Parliament, has been dilatory?
Mr. Frank Field, supported by Mr. Derek Wyatt, Mr. Kevin Brennan, Vernon Coaker, David Wright and Mr. Andrew Miller, presented a Bill to provide for the distribution of the assets of pension schemes on winding-up and the duties of trustees in relation thereto; to make provision relating to the fees chargeable in relation to the process of winding-up a pension scheme; to establish arrangements for a compensation scheme for certain members of occupational schemes, including for the establishment of a levy on pension schemes; and to establish a review of the status of pensions-related liabilities in insolvency; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 7 March, and to be printed. [Bill 36].
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): I should inform the House that Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition. The House will be aware that Mr. Speaker has put a limit of eight minutes on Back-Bench speeches today, and it would be greatly appreciated by the House in general if Front-Bench spokesmen could also limit their contributions to a reasonable length to allow as many Back Benchers as possible to take part in today's very important debate.
Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker, would you remind the House what the rules are on interventions, and what is the impact of interventions on the eight-minute limit?
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Yes, I will again tell the House how this works. The first intervention that a Member accepts does not count against his time, and he is allowed an extra minute on the end of his speech. The same applies for a second interventionthe intervener's time does not apply, and the hon. Member is allowed a second minute on the end of his speech. After that, there are no allowances at all.
The purpose of this Bill is to enable Parliament to reach a conclusion on the long-running and contentious issue of hunting with dogs. Some people have congratulated me on achieving the impossible: creating a sort of unity by getting both sides in the debate to express initial opposition to my Bill. I am told that I have demonstrated a special talent.
In fact, such opposition is almost inevitable when entering a debate that has been raging for decades, in which both sides have been in campaigning mode for years, and where hon. Members have made personal commitments to one side or the other. Each person is looking for a Bill that enshrines his or her beliefs in law, and will take some persuading that they should consider supporting anything that differs from the Bill for which they last voted.
I need say little about the Conservative amendment because it says little that is helpful or true. The Conservatives talk about the rights and legitimate interests of minorities, but have they forgotten how their party devastated the rights and interests of minorities and majorities alike, and how rural communities suffered as well as urban communities? That is why Labour now represents some 180 rural and semi-rural constituencies. The Conservatives claim to be concerned about restrictions on individual freedom. Do they really demand the freedom to be cruel to animals? Is that how low the Conservatives have sunk?
Since I first took on this job, I have been clear with everyone that my task is to put before the House a proposal that deals with the issue in a way that is based on the right principles tested against evidence, that will make good law, that is enforceable and that will stand the test of time. The Bill is robust when tested against all four of those challenging criteria in a way that previous Bills were not.
Many right hon. and hon. Members and others who have taken the time to look carefully at my Bill have, without compromising their views, acknowledged that it is well crafted and will make effective and enforceable law. It will tackle cruelty, but it also recognises the need to deal with pests and to protect livestock and crops.
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): How does the right hon. Gentleman's Bill deal with cruelty if it will allow rabbits but not hares to be hunted with dogs and if it will allow falconry and therefore animals to be torn apart by hawks? The Minister has introduced a Bill that is riddled with inconsistencies and that is totally unacceptable. It shows why he is reading from the XYellow Pages".
Alun Michael: The hon. Gentleman has shown his prejudice, the fact that he has not read the Bill, and that he does not understand the concept of cruelty. He referred to suffering, which may be caused in a variety of ways. Cruelty is well defined in English law, and my Bill deals with the issue.
As well as being practical, the Bill deals clearly with the moral issue. At the Bill's heart is the key purpose of preventing the cruelty associated with hunting with dogs. That is why it is important to emphasise that the Bill, far from being a compromise, is uncompromising in seeking to root out cruelty. It will not allow cruelty through hunting in the way that the Protection of Animals Act 1911 did, it will not license cruelty in the way that the middle way group's proposals sought to do, and it will not just list the activities to be banned in the way that previous Bills have sought to do at the risk of creating a jamboree for lawyers in the courts. Instead, it goes straight to the heart of the matter by enshrining in law the principle of preventing cruelty as well as the principle of recognising utility. Those principles emerged from the Burns report.
Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): Will the Minister explain why he has unfairly singled out hare coursing and stag hunting? Will he confirm that he has accepted that both stag hunting and hare coursing meet some of the tests of utility and cruelty? Will he also
Alun Michael: I shall explain those points in a moment, as I did in the statement that I made last week. The hon. Gentleman should have paid attention to the careful explanation that I gave on that occasion.
Lembit Öpik: Does the Minister accept that, far from trying to license cruelty, the middle way group was also seeking a formulation? I accept that it is slightly different from the one that the Minister has come up with, but the whole point behind our view was that we could reduce cruelty more effectively through regulation than through a ban.
Alun Michael: I accept that the hon. Gentleman and those involved with him sought to open up a debate that was not just part of the polarised yah-boo of much of the debate that had taken place. However, their formulation would have amounted to a licensing of cruelty and, as I have made clear to him on previous occasions, that would be unacceptable.