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16 Dec 2002 : Column 582—continued

Mr. O'Brien (Eddisbury): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I should be grateful for your guidance, as I could not help but notice that the Minister appeared to be reading about the blockage at the Carriage Gates as though he knew about it in advance. I dare say that he can clear up the matter by disclosing his text.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: That is not a matter for the Chair.

Alun Michael: It is clear that the hon. Gentleman does not understand that when one has carefully prepared a text and things change, one adds words. If he wishes to see my notes, he will see that they contain no reference to the events at the Carriage Gates. Obviously, he does not have the flexibility to speak in such a way.

I ask all hon. and right hon. Members objectively to examine the Bill, the clear principles on which it is based and—

Mr. O'Brien: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In the light of the Minister's response, I dare say that he would be willing to give you an undertaking to place his notes, as they are, in the Library.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: That is even less of a point of order for the Chair.

Alun Michael: If it is of any interest, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall be pleased to hand my notes to you immediately after I sit down, but I have to say that the hon. Gentleman demeans himself in his intervention.

I was asking in reasonable tones that all hon. and right hon. Members should objectively examine the Bill—something that Opposition Members seem unwilling to do—consider the clear principles on which it is based and the evidence-based process that led to its drafting, and ask whether it will achieve what they believe in while being seen by the public as tough and fair and being strong enough to withstand legal challenges.

Let us remember that while this is a difficult and contentious issue, it is not as important to the countryside generally as the issues with which my colleagues and I grapple day by day: the creation of jobs and opportunities in a strong rural economy, education, health, tourism, transport, post offices, services in rural areas and the future of farming and food—which was given a fresh lead and new hope by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs only last week.

Yesterday the Sunday Express also helped to make the case for the Bill, although I am not sure that that was its intention. Its headline claiming that hunting had so far cost Parliament some #30 million was based on extremely dodgy arithmetic, but its point about the cost in terms of parliamentary time and opportunities and the impact on far more important parliamentary business was right.

We cannot go on debating this subject year after year after year without a conclusion. That is why the Government gave a commitment to enable Parliament to reach a conclusion, and that is why I have fulfilled the

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remit given to me by presenting a Bill that will prevent cruelty caused by hunting with dogs while dealing with the genuine needs of farmers, gamekeepers and land managers—a Bill that will stand the test of time and make good, effective law. I commend it to the House.

6.1 pm

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury): I beg to move,

First, let me make it clear that there will be a free vote for Conservative Members on both Front and Back Benches.

The Bill will turn into a criminal offence an activity now lawfully enjoyed by a small but significant minority of our fellow citizens. I agree with one thing the Minister said. He said that at the heart of the Bill lay a moral question, which, to my mind, is this: do the claimed benefits in terms of enhanced animal welfare justify the restrictions on individual liberty that the Bill, even in its current form, seeks to impose? I shall argue that the Bill will impose unnecessary and unjustifiable restrictions on individual freedom, that it will rob some of our fellow citizens of their livelihood and take homes from a number of families, and that, far from enhancing animal welfare, it will do that cause considerable harm.

Mr. Tony Banks (West Ham): The hon. Gentleman's arguments about the removal of the rights of a minority to pursue a particular activity are precisely the arguments that were used when bull-baiting, bear-baiting, cockfighting and otter-hunting were banned. Obviously, when we pass laws in this country people must obey them. If they do not, they criminalise themselves.

Mr. Lidington: To be fair to the hon. Gentleman, he has taken a long and consistent stand in favour of an outright ban on all forms of hunting with hounds. What he does not take into account, however, is that when the aim is, through legislation and as a matter of public policy, to outlaw a recreation that has been lawful and enjoyed by a large number of people—albeit a minority—for many years and many generations, the burden of proof should rest with those who wish to restrict individual liberty. I do not believe that the hon. Gentleman or others on his side of the argument have proved their case.

Mr. Hogg: My hon. Friend could develop his argument further by pointing out the necessity of measuring what is to be banned against what is to be allowed. If there is no distinction in principle between

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foxhunting and angling—which the hon. Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks) enjoys so much—what possible case is there for banning foxhunting?

Mr. Banks: You put the fish back.

Mr. Lidington: My right hon. and learned Friend has made an important point. It is clear to those who examine the details of the Bill that it is based on no consistent ethical principle.

I was rather pleased when the hon. Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) teased out from the Minister something of what I believe to be the intention behind the Bill, suggesting that if it were enacted in its present form it might lead to the banning of hunting in most of lowland England and Wales while, perhaps, leaving it to survive in a few parts of upland areas. Certainly, it is clear that the Bill is very far from constituting any sort of compromise. The Minister would be horrified if he believed for a moment that as a result of his legislation the registrar would grant a licence to all or even most of the 300 or so hunts currently operating in England and Wales.

Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe): A number of Conservative constituents have told me that they will never vote Conservative again if the party maintains its commitment to reintroducing hunting if elected. Will the hon. Gentleman maintain that commitment?

Mr. Lidington: I certainly repeat the commitment given by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition that were a ban on hunting to be enacted, we would, on our return to government, make time available for Parliament to reverse it. My right hon. Friend has made that perfectly clear, and we stand by it.

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal): I would not like my hon. Friend to leave the morality question without thinking a little about the rather curious fact—if this is indeed a moral issue—that no known Church leader of any kind has ever said that hunting is immoral.

Mr. Lidington: I bow to my right hon. Friend's superior theological and ecclesiastical knowledge. He has made an important point about the assessment of a moral debate.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough): Labour Members have suggested that hunting is akin to bear-baiting. Such sports, which were banned a long time ago, were intended to enable spectators to enjoy seeing an animal being tortured. Will my hon. Friend confirm that that simply does not happen in hunting? Most people who follow the hunt never see the kill. They are not doing it because they want to enjoy the kill; they are doing it as part of country life, and to control the fox population.

Mr. Lidington: My hon. Friend is right—and, according to my understanding of the present law, if a fox were baited as bears and other wildlife were centuries ago, that would indeed constitute a criminal offence.

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The Bill would make hunting a criminal offence unless it fell within the narrow range of exemptions defined in schedule 1 or, alternatively, had been registered under the system described in part 2. Much of the debate has centred on the registration scheme. I find it objectionable that the burden of proof in that scheme rests so clearly with the applicant for a licence—which is stated clearly on page 6 of the Government's regulatory impact assessment. It will not be for the authorities to prove that cruelty takes place; if the Bill is enacted, hunting will be unlawful unless those who hunt can meet the tests of cruelty and utility described by the Minister. Those tests are defined in the Bill in such a way as to weaken the chances of a successful application.

Let us first examine the utility test. The definition in clause 8 is extraordinarily narrow: it is, in effect, restricted to the work of pest control. That is the case despite all the discussion involved in the Burns inquiry, and all the evidence heard then about the relationship between hunting and conservation, the role of hunting in species management and its role in providing employment, especially in remote rural areas.

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