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16 Dec 2002 : Column 594—continued

Mr. Garnier: The hon. Gentleman is making a sensible point. Farmers and landowners who do not want the hunt to go across their land have only to say so, but plenty of them see the utility of having the hunt there, and they should not be prevented from exercising their free choice to allow it.

Andrew George: I appreciate that point, and no doubt the civil liberties theme will run through this debate, as it has through all our earlier debates on the subject. Many have said that this is a matter of principle and consistency, but I challenge anyone in the House to claim that they have been consistent throughout on all policies.

Dr. Palmer: While we are talking about consistency, if a future Conservative Government proposed to take parliamentary time to reverse a ban, what would be the Liberal Democrats' position?

Andrew George: That is a matter for the Conservatives, but the hon. Gentleman knows that

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there is a range of views within all the parties, and we will cherish them all, as he will no doubt cherish all the views on the Labour Benches. The Liberal Democrats have been consistently in favour of a ban, and that will remain the case. Personally, I think that any review of that position is unlikely. However, I must say that this issue is monumentally less important than all the other country issues that concern me, such as rural housing, the future of farming, rural services and the potential devastation of the fishing industry, which may be literally only days away. Many hon. Members recognise that a disproportionate amount of parliamentary time has already been spent on this issue. Of course, it was not my decision to introduce this Bill, but now that that has happened, it is clearly important to deal with this issue properly and to get it right once and for all, rather than having it come back again.

My concern is that the Bill compromises perhaps a little too much. I agree with the Minister when he says that one of its great strengths is that it is enforceable, unlike the previous failed Bill, which would not have passed the enforceability test for legislation. However, although the current Bill is strong in that respect, it does not set the thresholds for utility and cruelty sufficiently high to make it worth pushing such a Bill through Parliament. It compromises so much that it compromises the welfare of the Bill itself.

Mr. Swire: Will the hon. Gentleman enlighten the House by telling us whether it is still official Liberal Democrat party policy to ban hunting, and if it is not, is there a free vote on the issue?

Andrew George: I thought that I had already answered that question, but for the benefit of the hon. Gentleman—who perhaps was not listening or was not present at the time—I shall repeat that the party policy is clearly in favour of a ban on hunting, and there is a free vote for Liberal Democrat MPs on that issue.

Lembit Öpik: Does my hon. Friend agree that this issue is so tribal—a point that the Minister has already made—that the last thing that we want to do is to add party political tribalism to it? It must be regarded as a matter of conscience.

Andrew George: I agree entirely with my hon. Friend, and as Conservative Members know, a range of views exists among them—[Interruption.] Well, they may be embarrassed about that, but such a range does exist among them, just as it exists among Labour Members in this House, among Labour peers in the other place, and among Liberal Democrats. If we see this as a moral issue, it is right that we have a free vote on it.

We will doubtless rehearse many of the arguments that we have had many times before, but I am looking forward to getting down to the nitty-gritty of the Bill itself. I hope that the hon. Member for West Ham is right in saying that amendments will be tabled to it. [Interruption.] As a Front-Bench spokesman, I shall ensure that I cover all of the issues that I want to cover in this speech. We must get down to the nitty-gritty of the Bill in Committee, because it is important to do so.

I realise that there are Conservative Members who perhaps do not want to hear about these matters, but I was surprised at their failure to mention the importance

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of the future of farming. In fact, there are important farming matters that relate directly to the Bill. I hope that the Minister can clarify in his winding-up speech—or in Committee, at least—that the Bill does not unreasonably or inadvertently limit practical pest control measures on farms. I foresee that in a number of respects—I shall not detain the House by discussing them now—the Bill may affect farmers' ability to implement effective, humane and efficient pest control measures.

No mention has so far been made of the issue of fallen stock, which I questioned the Minister about when he made his initial statement. When the Bill is considered in Committee, it is important that the Minister reassure livestock farmers that cast-iron proposals are in place to assist them, should they lose a convenient outlet for fallen stock. It is clear that animal by-product regulations will ban on-farm burial from May next year. The Minister's Department is responsible for such matters, so it is important that he bring forward suitable measures. There is a greater likelihood of support in this House, and in another place, if we are reassured on that issue.

Alun Michael: I can reassure the hon. Gentleman and others who may be concerned about this issue that we are indeed addressing it vigorously; however, the Bill is not the legislation to deal with it. I am entirely happy to discuss how the Bill relates to that issue, but it does not refer to it directly.

Andrew George: I appreciate that the matter may not relate specifically to the Bill, but the Minister will understand that it directly affects the likelihood of the Bill winning the level of support that he would like.

I am also concerned that in certain circumstances, the utility argument may set—

Mr. Bellingham: My sister recently had to have her pony put down, and it was the west Norfolk hunt that did so and removed the carcass to its kennels. Who would have taken that carcass away had the hunt not been there? The council would not have done it, and it certainly could not have been buried.

Andrew George: The hon. Gentleman is simply assisting me in making the point that such arrangements need to be in place. As I have already said, it is clear that on-farm burial will be banned from May next year. This is an important matter.

Mr. Swire: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Andrew George: Well, in doing so I am taking up the hon. Gentleman's own time.

Mr. Swire: The hon. Gentleman is on to a good thing here, and I support what he is doing in calling for compensation—if that is what he is doing—or for alternative arrangements to hunts for farmers who wish to dispose of their stock. However, nowhere in this tawdry Bill does it remotely address the question of compensation for those whose livelihoods depend on the hunt.

Andrew George: I appreciate that a compensation culture exists in certain circles; perhaps it now exists

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among Conservative Back Benchers, rather than among Conservative Front Benchers. I have made the point about fallen stock, and I want to move on to another farming-related matter.

I am concerned that the utility argument may set farmer against farmer. As I have said, many of the farmers in my family will not allow the hunt across their land, often for good practical reasons. However, in constructing a utility argument, we may find that one farmer argues that hunting is necessary in a certain area, but that a number of other farmers and landowners argue that they do not want hunting there. It is important that the Minister recognises that the measure may lead to an unwelcome conflict in rural areas, simply in order to enable an application for a hunting licence to be pursued.

On clause 7, I further caution the Minister that he should not inadvertently criminalise the landowner who permits hare coursing on his or her land. Sometimes, such activity has taken place against the will of the landowner or farmer, has been enforced by a gang of thugs, and has resulted in serious physical assault on the landowner or farmer. The Bill needs amending in that regard. The Minister needs to recognise that the issue is the giving of permission, rather than where hare coursing happens to take place. On first looking at the Bill—and as my initial response to the recent statement made clear—I felt that it constituted a de facto, workable ban on recreational hunting that none the less permitted efficient and humane pest control where necessary. However, I am not sure that it will actually achieve that; it needs strengthening in a number of respects.

Mr. Sanders: The Minister also used the word Xhumane", but to me Xhumane" means by or of the human being. I cannot understand how, in any circumstances, a trained dog tearing another animal apart could be described as humane. Surely this Bill ought therefore de facto to outlaw all hunting.

Andrew George: My hon. Friend makes an important point. We will have an opportunity to probe the boundaries of where permitted pest control should take place.

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