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Alun Michael: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Gray: If I must.

Alun Michael: Yes, it is rather boring—the hon. Gentleman repeats himself again and again. I said that the case against deer hunting was incontrovertible. As I reported to the Committee, I spent time with people on Exmoor and became absolutely convinced that the case remained incontrovertible. The case does not depend solely on Professor Bateson's evidence, important though that is. It also applies to hare coursing: it is impossible to make the case that hare coursing has utility—that argument must fail. That is what is incontrovertible. The hon. Gentleman does not appear to understand the English language.

Mr. Gray: Let us accept for a moment the Minister's argument that he has incontrovertible evidence that stag hunting and hare coursing are so wicked that they must be banned outright. If that is so, what is the incontrovertible evidence that proves that hare hunting, terrier work and now, apparently, autumn hunting also have to be banned outright? What has happened since Portcullis House that provides new evidence on those three activities? The right hon. Gentleman never said before that he had incontrovertible evidence in respect of them. He banned stag hunting and hare coursing saying that those things were cruel, but said that he would allow autumn hunting, terrier work and so on. However, since Portcullis House, since Second Reading, since Committee stage, the Minister has suddenly decided that there is an incontrovertible argument that those things too must be abolished.

Andrew George: The hon. Gentleman has considered the issues deeply and thoroughly examined evidence from a variety of sources, but has he looked at the management of deer on Bodmin moor and the strip of land from the moor down the Tamar? There is no hunting there, yet there is a substantial deer population and perfectly satisfactory deer population management. Has the hon. Gentleman understood that case?

Mr. Gray: The hon. Gentleman speaks for the Liberal party which, I understand, has as party policy a ban on all forms of hunting. He does not seem to have realised that the thrust of my argument has moved on. I am trying to establish what the Minister's incontrovertible evidence was that stag hunting ought to be banned, whereas other forms of hunting ought to be allowed. The Minister's argument is that there was incontrovertible evidence on that subject; I am trying to

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establish what that evidence was, especially in the context of his decision that now three other activities must also be banned outright. He never argued that at Portcullis House or on Second Reading, and he never hinted at it during Committee stage. Something has happened—some new evidence has emerged—to make it absolutely plain that autumn hunting, for example, is as wicked as stag hunting. What we want to know is: why did the Minister not propose that it be banned before; what new evidence has emerged; and what has changed since Portcullis House?

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Elliot Morley): It is a shame that many of these points were dealt with in Committee and we seem to be going over them yet again. Will the hon. Gentleman answer one question? In the context of utility, is he trying to tell the House that the only effective way to control deer is to chase them for hours at a time?

Mr. Gray: The Minister was not listening. I sought to use the argument advanced by his right hon. Friend the Minister for Rural Affairs and Local Environmental Quality in respect of stag hunting—that there was incontrovertible evidence that it was wicked—to explore the reasoning behind new clause 13. Incidentally, new clause 13 has nothing to do with stag hunting, so it would be quite out of order if I did answer the question.

New clause 13 is about the banning of autumn hunting and terrier work. The Minister has now chosen to ban those things; I am seeking to discover what has happened since Second Reading and Committee to make him do that. Why does the Bill allow the hunting of rabbits, but not of hares? Why does he propose a closed season for the use of dogs to cull foxes, but not for the shooting or snaring of foxes? Apparently, it is perfectly legitimate and acceptable to shoot or snare foxes, no matter how old, young or indifferent, in August, September and October, but not to hunt them using dogs in those months. Why does the Minister differentiate in that way?

Why has the Minister called autumn hunting, with his usual objectivity, a "mischief"? Is there any genuine animal welfare need for a closed season? If there is, surely it ought to be during the breeding season. Why has the Minister proposed a ban on fox hunting during August, September and October? Those of us who hunt would never do it, but the Minister's proposal means that theoretically it would be legitimate for us, under registration, to use dogs to hunt foxes in May, June and July—the time when vixens are pregnant and cubs are very young, still in the earth, and cannot look after themselves. It would be legitimate under the new clause for us to continue to use dogs under registration during that period, but apparently he wants to ban the practice during August, September and October. Why? Where is the animal welfare logic in that? There is none.

Why should not all fox hunting be subject to the tests of utility and least suffering? If the activity is as bad as the Minister has argued it is, presumably the registrar and the tribunal will find against all hunting, whether in autumn or winter. The truth is that new clause 13 has absolutely nothing to do with improving animal welfare

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or humaneness. It has everything to do with sentimentality, ignorance and, overwhelmingly, with political deal making.

Dr. Palmer: I detect in the hon. Gentleman's speech a note of criticism of new clause 13. In an interesting passage, he said that if we introduced registration, a future Conservative Government might be able to use it to restore fox hunting. How many of the practices mentioned in new clause 13 would the Conservatives reintroduce?

Hon. Members: All of them.

Mr. Gray: Yes, all of them. That is the simple and straightforward answer. The activities are legal now and we see no reason to make them illegal. They are perfectly legitimate activities.

Mr. Simon Thomas: I am interested in the hon. Gentleman's response to the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer). Earlier, he said that the Conservative party now accepted that hunting should be regulated in some way. I, too, have taken that point on board, because there are issues of cruelty and utility that require some form of licensing and independent assessment. It therefore cannot be as simple as the hon. Gentleman says. If we state the twin principles of cruelty and utility, the only credible course open to us as politicians is to hand the matter to the independent authority and let the authority deal with hunting in every situation and at every time of the year. Surely he agrees with that.

Mr. Gray: The hon. Gentleman offers one possible solution, albeit not one that comes within the terms of the new clause. I have always accepted the need for some form of regulation or registration. Indeed, throughout my hunting life—I have hunted for 30 years—I have hunted under a licence. For the past seven years, the Labour Government have issued me with a licence to hunt on Salisbury plain with the Royal Artillery hunt. Forty hunts across Britain have hunted since the last war under Government-issued licences, and there is no reason why that licensing regime should not be expanded to cover all hunts—indeed, that was precisely the thrust of new clause 1 and new schedule 1, which I proposed and which we discussed briefly in Committee. It is perfectly sensible to register and to regulate hunting—there is no problem with that. We are perfectly confident that we would pass the tests if they were properly drafted.

David Winnick: If the Bill is passed, in one way or another, may we take it that at the next election the Conservatives will make it clear that if they are elected, the House of Commons will have the opportunity to discuss and to make a decision on this issue? Will the Conservative party itself be pledged to repealing the measure that we are now debating and to bringing back fox hunting?

Mr. Gray: The hon. Gentleman must have slipped out of the Chamber earlier, because I made the Conservative position clear. My right hon. Friend the leader of the Conservative party has always made it plain that

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hunting is free vote territory and that members of the party can make up their own mind. A great many members of my party in North Wiltshire strongly oppose fox hunting and I respect their position—I have no problem with it. We have said that if the Bill becomes law, an incoming Conservative Government will provide Government time to debate a Back Bencher's motion to turn it around. That is the commitment that we have made, and we did so publicly. However, that has nothing to do with new clause 13.

7 pm

I am keen to know why the Minister has decided, since Second Reading, consideration in Committee and Portcullis House, to introduce new clause 13, which would ban cub hunting and confirm the ban on all terrier work and the rest of it. The answer is that the clause is overwhelmingly to do with political deal making.

If that is doubted, we need to look no further than a letter that came my way from the Minister to the Deputy Prime Minister, dated 14 May 2003. The Minister writes:

That is what the right hon. Gentleman had to say to the Deputy Prime Minister. It is nothing to do with animal welfare or human activity. It is because

The Minister had a dinner at Shepherd's with his friend Jackie Ballard, during which he did a dodgy deal. He agreed that he would bring forward a new clause that would ban cub hunting and do other things. That is not because he believes that that is the right course, but because he has done a deal with the RSPCA and one or two Labour Back-Bench Members. That is a disgraceful and ridiculous way in which to put together any sensible animal welfare measure. It is entirely contemptible.

Any principle that the Bill ever had was destroyed by the Minister's attempt to ban certain activities outright in a desperate rearguard battle to save some vestige of his tattered Bill and some vestige of his tattered political career. The right hon. Gentleman might as well give up the unequal battle, and either give in to his straightforwardly abolitionist hon. Friends who supported new clauses 11 and 14, or allow me amendments Nos. 43 and 44, which would effectively bring all forms of hunting with dogs into the category that can be considered by the registrar.

Incidentally, I am grateful to the Minister and his parliamentary private secretary for supporting amendments Nos. 43 and 44. I hope that they will support them even if their useless new clause 13 is defeated. By doing so, they will be reconstructing the logic of the Bill along with the intellectual rigour of the

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Bill, and allowing the registrar and the tribunal to decide whether or not any form of hunting should or should not be allowed. That would be an intellectually coherent position, unlike the present one.

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