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16 Dec 2002 : Column 572—continued

Mr. Hogg: Would the Minister be good enough to tell the House the difference in principle between hunting with hounds, angling and pheasant shooting?

Alun Michael: The right hon. and learned Gentleman has read with great care his brief from the Countryside Alliance. It is the only group that believes that there should be any read across from the issue of hunting. That has been made a major issue because Members on both sides—those for and against hunting—have turned up on many occasions to vote one way or another. I suggest that he does not allow the Countryside Alliance or anyone else to confuse the issue. The issue is hunting with dogs.

Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon): Will the Minister concede that, at no stage, did Lord Burns or any of the hearings in Portcullis House conclude that there was a proven link to show that hunting was in any way cruel?

Alun Michael: I suggest that the hon. Gentleman takes the trouble to read—or watch the video if he finds it difficult to deal with the print—the Burns report,

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the evidence provided to it and the transcripts of the proceedings. He should go through all the evidence and take the time that I have taken to engage with those who support hunting as well as with those who oppose it before he comes to the House with reasoned conclusions.

The principles that I explored with all the campaigning groups during the hearings in Portcullis House in September were those of cruelty and utility. The approach adopted in the Bill is challenging, but it is the way to make good law—law that is Xtough and fair", as The Guardian said in a leader that called on MPs and peers to support the Bill. [Interruption.] Opposition Members seem to want to cheer me up with their entirely predictable response. If they do not like that quote, perhaps they should try The Daily Telegraph for size. It said:

Let us consider the Bill's practical effects. Hare coursing is indefensible. Bearing in mind the fact that the defenders of hunting have argued consistently that their activity is needed and necessary, we have to consider the utility aspect of hare coursing. As the objective is to test the speed and agility of the dogs not to catch the hare—the House should not take my word for it; that is what it says on the National Coursing Club's website—hare coursing has nothing to do with controlling pests, so it fails the test of utility.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): What estimate has the Minister's Department made of the number of hares that would survive modern intensive farming if it were not for a sport that has preserved their habitat, which is available to all wildlife?

Alun Michael: The hon. Gentleman takes me into territory that is not covered by the Bill. I shall be happy to debate that with him another time. The question before us is whether coursing can meet the criteria laid down in clause 8, and it cannot. It may play well in tribal discussions for the Countryside Alliance to say that an attack on one form of hunting is an attack on all, but it does its case no favours. If it seeks to defend the indefensible, how can it be taken seriously when it argues for the utility of another form of hunting? I hope that it reconsiders the logic of its position.

Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West): My right hon. Friend mentions the Countryside Alliance, which has circulated its brief extensively to its supporters in the Opposition. Will he join me and, hopefully, the rest of the House in condemning the act that took place only a few minutes ago when pro-hunt supporters threw a lighted flare at my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey)? Is that the Opposition's idea of free speech and a genuine expression of protest?

Alun Michael: Peaceful protest is the right of any citizen in this society, but protest that involves violence and a lack of reason has no place in it. It is hardly a persuasive way to approach the issue.

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Having made the position on hare coursing clear, let me deal with the police. They will gain a real benefit from the powers that the Bill gives to them. As letters from a number of hon. Members on both sides of the House have made clear, the threats, intimidation and violence associated with illegal hare coursing cause fear in many rural areas, yet the only law broken is the law of trespass. The police have few teeth and little power to act. The Bill will give them the power to deal with that nuisance for the first time. The power of arrest, the #5,000 fine and the power of confiscation of animals and equipment will enable that rural nuisance to be tackled effectively with a minimum of fuss and evidence gathering.

Mr. Boris Johnson (Henley): Can the Minister give an idea of what extra resources will be committed to the police to deal with the thousands of people who will be criminalised by this absurd Bill?

Alun Michael: I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman is not aware of the amount of police time that is taken up because they cannot deal effectively with illegal hare coursing. It is right to give them the powers to deal with it rather than simply letting it take up their time.

Mr. David Cameron (Witney) rose—

Alun Michael: I must make a little progress before giving way again.

Let us consider deer hunting, another activity that is dealt with in the Bill. I have already taken one intervention on that. It is necessary to control deer numbers and to disperse the herd to protect crops and growing trees. Although the test of utility may be passed, the test of cruelty—to inflict the least suffering—is not. Both the Bateson report and subsequent evidence to Burns show clear evidence of chased deer suffering even if they are not caught. In stag hunting, a particular stag is selected for pursuit a day before the hunt. Even on Exmoor, where there is a widespread belief in the value of hunting, the belief is passionate rather than grounded in reason and evidence. I have spent time meeting a variety of groups there to understand the situation, and I know something of the distinct local culture on Exmoor.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): The Minister will be aware from the report sent to him by the Exmoor national park authority, in response to his consultation, that it believes that a ban on deer hunting on Exmoor threatens the sustainability of the wild deer herd. In reaching his decision on deer hunting, what do his calculations suggest will be the long-term life of that wild deer herd if he bans hunting on Exmoor?

Alun Michael: I have taken account of those views; indeed, I have met representatives of the national park authority, local authority representatives and others, and as I said, I spent some time in Exmoor because it is clear that there is an unusual culture in respect of the deer herd. Even some of those who strongly oppose deer hunting acknowledge that powerful cultural attachment, while those who support it appear to be unable to see the weakness of their case. Having given

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every opportunity to all sides, I have concluded on the evidence that deer hunting cannot satisfy the Bill's key principles and will therefore be banned outright.

Mr. Cameron: Before the right hon. Gentleman leaves his beloved principles, will he tell us what is the utility of coarse fishing?

Alun Michael: The Bill is about hunting, and I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that he leaves neither the important principles nor the topic of the debate.

There have been arguments in the past about the need to control or protect different species; for instance, about otters in the 1970s and more recently about mink, which has become a new quarry species. My point is that if the principles in the Bill are endorsed by the House, in future there will be good law in place to deal with each and every new element against clear principles and all the available evidence. The Bill will cover all mammals so that tests can be applied when circumstances arise, rather than us having to wait years for a legislative opportunity to clear up an anomaly.

Let us apply the principles to ratting. In this case, the alternatives to using dogs are poisoning or trapping, both involving a likelihood of prolonged suffering and both likely to cause suffering for other species. Similar exemptions on ratting and rabbitting were included in the Deadline 2000 Bill, but as a member of the Standing Committee that considered that Bill, I remind the House that those exceptions were concessions made in Committee, and therefore true compromises, whereas in this Bill they clearly come from applying the key principles set out in clause 8.

Is not that the logical outcome? Who can deny the need to eradicate rats to promote crops and animal health, and indeed human health? Who would wish to insist on the use of a more, rather than less, cruel method of doing so? Ratting is an example where hunting with dogs is necessary; undertaking such an activity just for fun is indefensible, and it will be banned, but there are circumstances in which the use of dogs is less cruel than the alternatives and in which there is a need to control pests, so the activity will survive.

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