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16 Dec 2002 : Column 578—continued

Mr. George Osborne (Tatton) rose—

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex) rose—

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion) rose—

Alun Michael: The tests, as I have said, are tough but fair. Supporters of hunting say that it is necessary, but that cruelty should not be allowed, so they should be satisfied that necessary activity will be allowed where it is not cruel.

Mr. Soames: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Alun Michael: Those who oppose hunting should be satisfied that it will be allowed only where it is necessary

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and that the alternative methods would be more cruel. Some colleagues have asked why Parliament should hand over its prerogative to an unelected—[Hon. Members: XGive way."] I seek your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am happy to continue giving way, but I recognise that that will cut into the time of Back Benchers who wish to contribute. I am not sure whether I should continue to give way or not.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: It is entirely a matter for the Minister whether he gives way or not. The whole House will have heard the comments that I made earlier. I trust that he will bear those in mind, and so will all hon. Members who wish to contribute later to the debate.

Alun Michael: I shall therefore be constrained, but I ask hon. Members to note that I have given way 21 times, I think, so far. However, it is a pleasure to give way to the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames).

Mr. Soames: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. As the welfare of the quarry species will be seriously compromised if stag hunting is banned, and also in many cases if foxhunting is banned, where is the sense in that, from the cruelty point of view?

Alun Michael: I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's point. The aim of the Bill is to deal with the issue of cruelty associated with hunting with dogs. The questions of welfare—for instance, of the deer herd on Exmoor—is a serious consequential issue which, in view of the culture that I mentioned in reply to the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning), needs to be tackled sensibly. It is foolish for people simply to say that they will ignore other methods of deer management or ways in which the herd can be properly controlled.

Mr. John McFall (Dumbarton): Will my right hon. Friend take an example from Scotland, where the Deer (Scotland) Act 1959 allows the culling of deer, so that we have proper control in dealing with pests? A foxes Act could be introduced to allow the culling of foxes while enabling those who wish to participate in foxhunting as a sport to practise drag hunting. We would then all be happy.

Alun Michael: I am delighted that my hon. Friend would be happy. I am not sure that the situation in Scotland precisely translates elsewhere, but there are lessons to be learned from the control of deer in other parts of the country.

Mr. George Osborne: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. He rests a great deal on the objective tests and tells us that he does not want to prejudge the tribunal's decision on whether lowland hunting meets them. In that case, why does he prejudge the tribunal on hare coursing, stag hunting, ratting and all the other activities about which he has spoken?

Alun Michael: For the simple reason that those activities fail to pass the test in general terms and that it would be a waste of time and a bureaucratic addition to the work of the registrar and the tribunal to allow that to happen.

Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test): I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way. He provides in clause

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10 for the Lord Chancellor's Department to make rules that the tribunal will abide by and in clause 48 for this House to annul those rules by resolution if it so wishes. Is it his intention thereby to enable the House to consider whether the rules genuinely allow for hunting only in very restricted and special circumstances and to reconsider and perhaps annul them if they do not?

Alun Michael: My hon. Friend points to a way in which the opinions of this House are respected in the drafting of the Bill.

Some colleagues have asked why Parliament should hand over its prerogative to an unelected registrar or tribunal. The answer is that it will not do so. Parliament will make the law on this matter, as on every other. The registrar and tribunal—

Mr. Kaufman: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am sorry to interrupt my right hon. Friend, but you will see on the Annunciator that there has been a serious disturbance at the Carriage Gates, which are now closed for exit and entry. In view of the fact that the Sessional Order that we passed on 13 November lays down that entry by Members of Parliament through New Palace Yard and in other ways should not be interfered with, if it has clearly been broken, can Mr. Speaker be notified so that action can be taken and those responsible detained not by the police, but by the authorities of this House—[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I am sure that the appropriate authorities will be investigating those matters even as we speak. I suggest that we now get on with the debate.

Alun Michael: I was explaining the situation regarding the tribunal and saying that Parliament would make the law on this as on every other matter. The registrar and tribunal will be required simply to interpret the legislation as similarly appointed tribunals do in other spheres, such as employment and housing. The tribunal will be a national body, not a local one. Colleagues who have worked in other spheres will know that simple cases can be dealt with quickly by a tribunal that has the capacity to focus on genuinely difficult cases whose circumstances could not have been anticipated in primary legislation.

The registrar will have to be an independent person. We demand such independence in all sorts of circumstances in our parliamentary system. The Charity Commission is a good example in that regard. The registrar will have to have regard to the decisions of the tribunal in reaching his or her decisions. The registrar and tribunal will be strictly non-partisan. They must operate within the terms of the Bill and will not be able to exercise a discretion that it does not allow. They will not start with a blank piece of paper.

The Bill clearly sets out two tests that must be met in order for any hunting with dogs to continue. Those tests must be the starting point for the registrar and the tribunal. It is highly likely that a body of case law will develop quickly, so that subsequent decisions can be made authoritatively and expeditiously. If hon. Members consider the challenges that any legislation has to face—we are now seeing such challenges in

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Scotland, more than a year after enactment—they will see the strength of the Bill. Instead of a variety of complex court challenges, we will have a Bill that is based on principle and tested against evidence, and legislation that can be enforced without creating a legal bureaucracy that is dependent on prosecution and complex legal interpretation after the event.

Those who say that the scheme is complicated should consider how it will work in practice. We will have simplicity in respect of enforcement that has not been offered by any previous Bill, and simplicity and clarity about who can and cannot do what. I have tested out the ideas with experienced senior police officers, who confirm that enforcement will be straightforward and involve a minimum of bureaucracy.

Some have wrongly suggested that the Bill is a compromise pulled out of thin air and others that it is a vindictive attack on a beleaguered minority. It is neither. It is based on clear principles and on evidence against which they have been tested in a uniquely open and transparent process over the past eight months.

Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay) rose—

Alun Michael: I have given way on numerous occasions and I must make progress.

Nothing better illustrates the tribal nature of this debate than the way in which those who support hunting have been encouraged to come to Parliament square today to make a great deal of noise. Given the time that I have taken to listen again and again to such groups, their representatives and groups of individuals who have been involved in protests of different sorts, some well mannered and others not, and also the way in which their genuine concerns have been taken into account, it is disappointing that they are not showing similar respect to the process and to Parliament. Of course, in a free society everyone has the right of peaceful protest, but I remind the Countryside Alliance and its supporters that the process that I have undertaken has involved them at every stage, has been every bit as open and transparent as they asked and has taken the Burns report as its starting point, as they asked.

Those on both sides of the argument should recognise that it is now for Parliament to look at the outcome of that work and take the decisions. I am sure that the vast majority of those involved in the protests today are law-abiding people who will respect the law as determined by Parliament and indeed may regret the behaviour that is taking place. I ask the Countryside Alliance and its supporters, including the more extreme wings, which include some Opposition Members, to show to Parliament the respect that I have shown to them in the past few months. I also ask those who want to return to a different sort of Bill to bear it in mind that the way in which we deal with the Bill will say a great deal about the capacity of both Houses of Parliament to deal with issues that are difficult and wildly contentious. It is Parliament that has to take the decision, but we should reflect that decisions taken through sensible debate frequently make better law than those designed in the heat of the moment.

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