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David Winnick (Walsall, North): Is the hon. Gentleman's logic that, because there are always other important issues, the House of Commons should be deprived of the opportunity to discuss hunting with dogs?

Mr. Gray: The House has discussed the issue on many occasions and given that the country and the health service are in such crisis, one would have thought that a Labour Government would have thought that those matters were much more important than hunting with dogs. Frankly, most people in the country could not care less about the issue.

Dr. Stoate: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Gray: I shall because the hon. Gentleman is very persistent.

Dr. Stoate: May I inform the hon. Gentleman that, although 2 per cent. of the population think that fox hunting is the most important issue for them, many of my constituents in Dartford think that ending the cruel and barbaric sport once and for all is a high priority? Although it might not be the only thing on their minds, it ranks as one of the most important things.

Mr. Gray: I grant the hon. Gentleman that of the 55 million people in this nation, there are no doubt a few thousand people on each side of the argument—mine as well as his—who think that the issue is overwhelmingly important. However, I challenge him to cite a poll of any kind that shows that people believe that it is important for the House to discuss hunting with dogs. It is a total and utter waste of time. Parliament should not consider

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such a matter. It should be a matter for individuals' consciences and individuals should make up their own minds.

Dr. Palmer: On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I have not been in the House long, so am I right in thinking that the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) should be addressing new clause 12?

Hon. Members: Thirteen.

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. The debate that is currently under way certainly begins with new clause 13. I hope that the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) and others will address their remarks to the group of amendments.

Mr. Gray: I most certainly am doing so, Madam Deputy Speaker. New clause 13—rather than new clause 12—and the other new clauses and amendments in the group are central to the entire question of whether hunting should be banned outright, as many Labour Members want; whether, as we believe, it should be registered and all types of hunting should be licensed if that is the registrar's view; or whether the Minister's half-hearted view, which is a muddle between the two, should be adopted. The debate is almost like a Second Reading debate on fox hunting and the way in which it should be regulated, which is why it is important to address the general points.

The Bill—especially if it is amended in the way in which the Government wish—bears no resemblance to the Bill that we discussed on Second Reading. Fundamental changes were made in Committee and the Minister is now asking us to accept further changes.

Mr. Bellingham: My hon. Friend has explained that we are spending much more time on the issue. Surely the response to the point made by the hon. Member for Walsall, North (David Winnick) is that if we knock on 100 doors in our constituency, we might well find that 50 people would be against hunting and support a ban. However, perhaps only one out of those 100 people would tell us that it is a top 20 issue that should be a Government priority while so many other things are going on.

Mr. Gray: My hon. Friend makes a good point. I told a friend, who is a Labour Member, that a certain matter was a big issue in my postbag. When he asked me how many letters I had received, I said that I had received at least 100. He said that at least 89,900 people had not written to me.

Lynne Jones: Will the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues guarantee the House that they will never waste its time with any matter that is not in the top 20 of people's concerns?

Mr. Gray: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving me the opportunity to reiterate something that my right hon. Friend the leader of the Conservative party made plain recently. If hunting were banned under the Bill, an

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incoming Conservative Government would give equivalent time to a private Member's Bill so that hunting could be reintroduced.

The Bill has already been subject to an extraordinary amount of consideration. The Burns report took six months to prepare, at huge national cost. There were three days of discussions in Portcullis House and we had 27 Committee sittings—a total of 75 hours and 43 minutes all told. After all that, we have a mere five and a half hours on Report, which is too little time, in which to consider 100 amendments and 15 new clauses, many of which are complex and fundamental measures that were tabled by the Government.

Mr. Gummer: Will my hon. Friend cast his mind back to the start of the Committee stage when the Minister for Rural Affairs and Local Environmental Quality said that the Bill was presented on a moral ground? He talked about morality a great deal, but when we pointed out the extent to which the morality that he put forward was immoral, he stopped talking about it. Will my hon. Friend help the Minister by pointing out the moral basis of the proposals in the amendments?

Mr. Gray: My right hon. Friend's speech on the morality of banning hunting was probably the finest of the many speeches made in Committee. I shall return to the point that he raised in a moment.

The provisions in new clause 13 that the Minister is asking us to accept were not hinted at in the Burns report, in Portcullis House or in Committee. Neither he nor anyone else has suggested a close season for hunting. We heard no whisper of that brand new idea until today, and the same is true of several of his other novel ideas, such as limiting the chase. No one tabled such an amendment in Committee and no one in Portcullis House suggested such a measure. No one has suggested limiting the chase but all of a sudden, as the Bill reaches its final stages, the Minister has come up with that extraordinary idea.

Gregory Barker: Does my hon. Friend have any idea how the Government might enforce such a bizarre and ridiculous idea as limiting the chase? How would it be enforced if it reached the statute book?

Mr. Gray: My hon. Friend is right to raise that important point. The Minister has not thought through the provision at all, and I shall suggest why he has come up with the peculiar notion of limiting the chase in a moment.

Rob Marris: The general thrust of the hon. Gentleman's argument seems to be that new clause 13 is ill considered. Does he intend to vote against it?

6.30 pm

Mr. Gray: Yes, indeed I shall vote against new clause 13. I cannot think why the hon. Gentleman asked that question because I thought that I had made that obvious but if I had not, I shall now. I hope that many Labour Members will join me in voting against it because of the

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absurd procedure that the Minister disgracefully put in place to try to disfranchise them.

The group of amendments offers three approaches. First, there is the Minister's desperate struggle to keep his much abused licensing system, although frankly his attempt to add further bans wrecks any principle that ever existed behind the approach. The new clause tabled by the hon. Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks), which is supported by 150 Labour Members, would introduce a straightforward outright ban on all forms of fox hunting at all times of the year.

Incidentally, I mention in passing new clause 6 and amendment No. 1, tabled by my hon. Friends in the middle way group, which would allow terrier work underground to be licensed, a move that would be much welcomed by the shooting lobby. The Minister has failed to answer my procedural question: if he introduces amendments in the other place to differentiate—I have no idea how he would—between hunt terrier men and gamekeepers, and if, at a later stage, the Bill is subject to the Parliament Act, is it his understanding that any such amendment passed in the other place would be part of that Parliament Act procedure? I suspect not and if he has not tabled amendments in this place, any such lip service to the gamekeepers may bite the dust subsequently. Perhaps the Minister would care to give his view on that.

Alun Michael: Quite simply, there are ways, by means of resolution of the House, by which something that is not in the Bill when it leaves this place can be associated with a Parliament Act procedure.

Mr. Gray: The Minister has some pretty crafty things up his sleeve, and I am delighted to hear it. When his noble Friends table such amendments in the other place, I hope that he will reiterate that those amendments introduced in the House of Lords will remain part of the Bill irrespective of what happens in this House.

Mr. Garnier: We are extending the criminal law. Does my hon. Friend think it in the least acceptable that it should be extended so haphazardly by amendments and new clauses written on the back of an envelope and by exchanges between here and another place? We should know with certainty what the Government intend to do with the criminal law rather than fiddle around in an absurd way with this absurd Minister on this Bill.

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