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16 Dec 2002 : Column 575—continued

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk): I congratulate the Minister on his handling of the debate so far. If I take out my long dogs and deliberately course a small hare, I will be breaking the law, but if I take them out the following day and deliberately course a large rabbit, twice the size of a hare, I will not break the law. Is not that ridiculous? Why has the Minister got it in for large rabbits?

Alun Michael: No, there is a difference in the species. There is also the fact that hare coursing fails the test of utility. As I have said, it is also a pernicious activity in many parts of the countryside. I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman is not aware of that.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Is not the logic of the argument that rabbits should not be hunted by dogs either?

Alun Michael: I shall leave my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) to continue that debate. I have put my conclusions before the House and I believe that they are sound.

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The Bill deals with the fact that the 1911 Act specifically allows hunters to be cruel by releasing a captive animal in order to hunt it—a situation in which there could be no utility—so the Act remains explicitly a permission in law to hunt animals for the sheer fun of it. Few who defend hunting would argue for such an approach today. Indeed, the chairman of the Countryside Alliance, John Jackson, has said repeatedly that if an activity is cruel, we should not be doing it.

The principle of utility has also been acknowledged on the other side of the divide, not least in the exemptions included in the options Bill, which the House approved and which was introduced on behalf of Deadline 2000 in the last Parliament. I suggest to my right hon. and hon. friends that through those principles the Bill deals fairly and squarely with fox hunting too.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West): I am still having difficulty with the concept of balancing utility against cruelty. If, like me, one is against hanging humans for crimes, the Bill appears to be introducing in legislation the contradictory concept of, XWe're against hanging, but we'll allow it on Sunday afternoons between 2 and 4 o'clock."

Alun Michael: That is the point of the two tests in the Bill. People first have to satisfy a test of genuine utility—a need for the activity to take place for the protection of livestock, crops and so on—that is clearly spelt out in clause 8. If the utility test is satisfied, we must find the method of dealing with that utility least likely to result in suffering—the definition of cruelty involves needless or avoidable suffering. If another way of pursuing a necessary activity involves less suffering, the proposed activity cannot be undertaken—that is why the issue of deer hunting has not survived the drafting of the Bill. In the case of ratting, however, both tests are satisfied, so the activity can be undertaken. Cruelty is a precisely defined term in law, and I have used it as tested over a period of years.

Mr. Colin Pickthall (West Lancashire): What happened to mink? Was the Bill drafted by Baroness Golding?

Alun Michael: No. Any activity involving mink would have to survive the two tests to be undertaken in any particular circumstances.

I suggest to my right hon. and hon. Friends that in applying the principles I have just described, the Bill deals fairly and squarely with the issue of hunting foxes. Of course, on the hunting of foxes, the divisions to which I referred a few moments ago go even deeper. Indeed, they can be almost tribal on both sides. I suggest to the House that in those circumstances it is even more important to be clinical in applying principles and looking at the evidence. Any hon. Member who looks at the evidence in the light of the key principles may or may not reach the same conclusion as before. I simply remind

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all my colleagues that in free vote territory like this, there is always an uncomfortable personal responsibility to be open to new evidence and the power of argument.

Paddy Tipping (Sherwood) rose—

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) rose—

Alun Michael: I shall give way to my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman).

Mr. Kaufman: My right hon. Friend said that with regard to the Bill we are in free vote territory, and I am very pleased indeed to hear that. I know that he will understand that when we come to vote next year on amendments that could bring about a complete ban, if the bulk of Labour Back Benchers voted for a ban, and if the bulk of the payroll vote voted against the ban, that would arouse outrage in the Labour movement.

Alun Michael: I can assure my right hon. Friend that this is free vote territory for all members of the parliamentary Labour party. I was about to touch on colleagues' wish to amend the Bill to achieve what is described as a Xtotal ban on hunting" and urge them to reflect. Of course, I understand their objection to the possibility of any form of fox hunting with dogs being allowed anywhere in any form. If my proposals are accepted as drafted, there will be the possibility of some use of dogs where the circumstances justify it. However, Members should consider the implications of a so-called blanket ban in certain circumstances. The Burns report says:

Lord Burns did not suggest open season for all forms of hunting, and neither do I, but only where concerns, to which he referred in a general sense, can be shown to apply—where the need for pest control has been demonstrated and where alternative means of pest control are demonstrably more likely to involve suffering. The provisions in my Bill deal with that situation.

Mr. Stephen McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green): I would like to clarify the position on registration. When someone applies for registration on the two tests of utility and least suffering, do they have to meet those tests only on application, or do they have to meet them throughout the whole period of registration? If the latter, how will that be supervised?

Alun Michael: Applicants would have to justify the period for which they were applying. The provisions in the Bill deal with that situation. The applicants would have to show that the activity that they wanted to undertake was necessary. Clause 8 sets out the tests of what is necessary for the protection of livestock, crops and so on. The evidence would have to satisfy the registrar or, on appeal, the tribunal. On both the cruelty and utility tests, a designated animal welfare

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organisation can also provide evidence to the registrar and to the tribunal about the activity. Furthermore, the applicants would have to show that they passed the cruelty test. They would have to show that the activity that they wished to undertake with dogs involved less likelihood of suffering than the alternatives that were practicable in their area.

The measure is tough but fair, and it will be simple to enforce. I ask colleagues to consider that when the criteria can be met, the effect of a blanket ban would be to require the use of a method that is more cruel—that is, a method more likely to cause suffering. I am sure that that is not intended by those who support the idea of a blanket ban in principle. I simply ask colleagues to join me in testing the practical implications of different approaches as we consider the Bill further, to ensure that together we get it right. Again, bear in mind that any decision is not a licence to be cruel. The automatic conditions set out in clauses 27 and 28 impose a duty for any activity to be carried out humanely so that suffering is kept to a minimum. The error of the 1911 Act is avoided.

Several hon. Members rose—

Alun Michael: I have given way many times, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I am conscious of your strictures about the number of Members wishing to speak. I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping), who has tried several times to get in.

Paddy Tipping: My right hon. Friend has spoken of the practical consequences of the Bill. Has he seen the advice from Bill Swann, who used to work for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, that in his opinion the Bill will bring an end to foxhunting as a sport, and an end to foxhunting in low country areas by mounted packs? Mr. Swann has read the Bill. Is he right?

Alun Michael: Mr. Swann has made an interpretation of the Bill. As the Minister responsible for making sure that these matters will go to the tribunal, it would not be right for me to anticipate, but it is right for hon. Members to study the Bill and ask themselves whether Mr. Swann's conclusions are right. I hope that both today, in Committee and on Report, we will examine the practical implementation of the Bill. I ask no more of my hon. Friends and Opposition Members than to consider how the Bill applies.

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