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16 Dec 2002 : Column 640continued
Andrew George: As the hon. Gentleman and Conservative Members go on about individual freedom, may I ask who has the greatest civil liberty or individual freedomthe person born and brought up in the country, managing the countryside without hunting who is offended by hunting, or the person who arrives from town one day, buys up the land, and declares that he will get pleasure from hunting? Who has the pre-eminent freedomthe townie or the countryman?
Mr. Gray: I always thought that the Liberal Democrat party was interested in individual freedom. Apparently, its Front-Bench Members are opposed to the Bill, but its Back-Bench Members are all in favour of it. The hon. Gentleman is all over the place, and we will not bother to respond to his rather silly point.
This is a very bad Bill. In a free country, it is fundamentally wrong to criminalise innocent citizens for activities that harm no one. That is the important point, and perhaps it is the answer to the question posed by the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George). Hunting may harm animals, but it harms no one. Parliament's first duty should be to defend the rights and legitimate interests of minorities. The Queen's Speech says that Ministers want to resolve the issue of hunting with dogs. I shall tell them how to resolve itleave it alone. Leave the people of countryside in peace, and respect their liberty and livelihood. Listen to them, and join me in voting against this unnecessary, illiberal and ineffectual Bill.
Mr. Speaker: It takes only one objection, and the Minister does not have a right to speak again. [Interruption.] Order. In that case, I shall call a Member from the Government side. Does Martin Salter wish to address the House?
Mr. Kaufman: On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Will you correct me if I am wrong? I was under the impression that when a right hon. or hon. Member moved a motion, he had the right to reply to it, and did not need leave.
Mr. Speaker: Parliamentary rules say that the Bill is an Order of the Day, therefore neither the Minister nor any Member has the right to address the House on two occasions if there is one objection. [Interruption.] Order. I am guided by the rules of the House.
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. You are, of course, entirely correct. I do not remember since 1970 anybody having such an objection called against them, but nor do I remember any time when the Government failed to put up two Ministers to defend their own Bill. Do you remember such an occasion?
Mr. Speaker: Order. Will the right hon. Lady please be seated? We shall be here all evening discussing points of order, when I have clearly made a ruling based on the rules of the House. I call the Secretary of State.
Margaret Beckett: Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. It might be helpful to the House to know that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State is at the Agriculture Council in Brussels, from where I have just returned, which is why I was not in the Chamber earlier. I do not believe that even the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) would wish someone who had not heard the debate to reply to it. My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment was engaged in other parliamentary business.
Mr. Gummer: Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. You will understand that the matter affects the rural areas of Britain considerably. The Secretary of State is right: she cannot be asked to reply to a debate
Mr. Salter: Now is not the time for soundbites, but I feel the hand of history upon me. With my short political career, I am gratified that Conservative Members are so anxious to prevent me from speaking, and that Members on the Government Benches are so anxious to prevent me from giving this speech from the Dispatch Box, but I shall have to live with that.
I have been listening to the debate with interest, for what seems like many years. I have not come armed with a lengthy or prepared speech, but I shall use the time available to me. My views on hunting with hounds are well known. I agree with the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier), who said that probably not a single opinion was swayed in the House tonight as
What I am interested in exploring is whether the fourth Bill on hunting to come before the House in six years will ensure the end of the obscene and barbaric sport of hunting wild mammals with hounds, or whether, as some have said, it is merely an unworkable fudge that pleases no one other than the lawyers and the middle way group. I suspect that my right hon. Friend the Minister will consider that the letter circulated by the middle way group was something of a mixed blessing.
Dr. Palmer: Both of us support that early-day motion, which my hon. Friend initiated, and have supported earlier early-day motions on the same subject. Does he agree that the Bill gives us the first chance that we have had in our generation to end hunting with hounds? Does he also agree that, whatever its defects, it is an entirely welcome development[Interruption.]
Mr. Salter: I thank my hon. Friend for the parts of his intervention that I heard. Most Labour Members have been consistent in calling for a hunting ban, but let us make no mistake: we will resist the blandishments of Opposition Members, because the only way in which we will deliver a ban is to give the Bill a Second Reading.
Mr. Tom Levitt (High Peak): Opposition Members have been chastising us for making criminals out of people for doing something that is currently legal. Will my hon. Friend confirm my belief that the Bill is not retrospective, so the only people whom it will turn into criminals are those who knowingly break the law in future, once it has been enacted?
Mr. Salter: I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. We saw no greater example of thuggery and criminal behaviour than that which was set by the rural yobs who were outside this place earlier. Opposition Members and others in the pro-hunting lobby claim that they are the champions of tradition and law and order, but we saw that they have selective hearing. They will condemn others who break the law. They are the group of people who used to run the country. They still own it, but they cannot come to terms with the fact that they no longer run it.
Mr. Banks: Does not my hon. Friend find it extraordinary that the arguments mounted tonight about the freedoms of minorities, the right to debate and the exchanges that we have in this House were ruined when my right hon. Friend the Minister attempted to respond to the debate in the logical, cool and