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Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): The Minister is explaining what happened in the other place, but does he agree that, in the light of what he has said, it would be wrong to say that their lordships sabotaged the previous Bill or acted out of kilter with what was expected of them? They did their best to try to improve the Bill and it is quite wrong to say that they sabotaged it.

Alun Michael: It is the hon. Gentleman who used the word "sabotaged". I would not wish to be impolite to
 
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their lordships, but I have to say that that term lends itself to the description of events that took place on the last occasion. They did not seriously try to amend or improve the Bill before sending it back to us. They failed signally in their responsibility in that regard.

There have been some fairly abstruse legal arguments to the effect that the Parliament Act 1949 was improperly passed and that Acts passed under it are invalid. I would like to kill that one off as well. The Government's clear legal advice is that those arguments are incorrect. There is no question about the validity of the 1911 and the 1949 Acts and there is no reason for this House not to act in accordance with their terms. It is a matter for the House of Commons at the end of the day.

It was also alleged a few moments ago that the Bill is incompatible with the European convention on human rights. I have certified that it is compatible with the convention, on the basis of clear legal advice. Contrary to what has been claimed, during the last Session the Joint Committee on Human Rights did not take the view that the Bill generally raised questions of compatibility, but it rightly examined the effects of a ban on people's ability to carry out contracts that they had already entered into in respect of hunting. The Government have looked carefully at the technical legal arguments raised by the Committee, and take the view that there can be no enforceable contractual right to carry out hunting after it has been banned. In practice, therefore, there is no human rights issue.

It is therefore wrong to suggest that the Bill raises issues of human rights and the Government's view is clear—that any challenge to this bill on human rights grounds is likely to be unsuccessful. The fact that a challenge might be mounted in the courts is no reason not to use the Parliament Acts.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): I draw the House's attention to the serious point made by the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith). I believe that there are more hunts in my constituency than in any other. A substantial number of jobs will be lost in my area and elsewhere. This Bill will put people out of work, and other people will lose their property. Does the Minister consider it right that it offers no compensation? Is that compatible with human rights legislation, which ensures that people have the freedom to enjoy their property?

Alun Michael: Yes, I do believe that it is right for this Bill not to offer compensation, and that there is no conflict with human rights legislation. Again, I have encouraged the Countryside Alliance to start thinking about the likelihood of legislation, and to prepare the ground with its members and with people involved in hunts. I have suggested that people should look at the business opportunities that will arise—for example, under the fallen stock scheme that the Government are introducing this autumn, and as a result of changing to drag hunting, among other things.

The Bill does not prevent people from using their property, but they will have to think sensibly about that. It is a pity that the leadership of the pro-hunting factions has been too narrow in its approach to this matter, and
 
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that it has failed to engage with the likelihood of legislation, even though the House has given sufficient warning. That is why, even at this stage, the Government are recommending further delay in commencement: we want to give time, after the Bill has reached the statute book, for common sense to be brought to bear. The pro-hunting leaders need to think about the employees to whom they have a responsibility.

I hope that the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) will think again, as I am fed up with some of the unfounded allegations that are made. The Burns report and the evidence given in Portcullis House made it clear that the rural economy is generally vibrant, despite some weak points. There has been a greater increase in employment in rural areas than in urban areas.

The Minister for the Environment and Agri-environment (Mr. Elliot Morley): There are labour shortages in many rural areas.

Alun Michael: As my hon. Friend says, there are labour shortages in many rural areas. We will use the normal channels—the employment agencies, the Small Business Service and the regional development agencies—to help people and to advise them about how to make sure that they are gainfully employed in other activities. We are willing to care for the small numbers of people who will be affected by a hunting ban, but the matter should not be exaggerated.

Finally, it has been suggested that if the Bill is passed under the Parliament Acts, many people who passionately oppose it will feel justified in continuing to hunt in defiance of the law because it has been passed unfairly or improperly. That argument turns democracy on its head. The rightness or wrongness of a piece of legislation is always the subject of argument, and our parliamentary processes are the means by which these issues are argued through. The Parliament Acts are part of that process, and of the structure of our democracy. Yes, they must be used sparingly and only under provocation, but it is axiomatic that the will of the elected Chamber must prevail in the end.

In the democratic process, the role of the Opposition is important. The Conservative website states, in one place, that we should not spend time on hunting in the Chamber, but elsewhere says that the Conservative party would use parliamentary time to overturn a ban. There is no great consistency there. When the Opposition respond, I hope that we shall hear where the Conservative party stands and what it will do—if and when it ever forms a Government. Will the Tories change the law? Will they overturn a ban, or will they not? Will they encourage their colleagues in the House of Lords to engage with the Bill this time, because they did not do so on the previous two occasions? Will they encourage supporters of hunting to respect the law? I pay tribute to the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) for making his own position clear on that point a few moments ago, and a united message needs to go out from the House.

We have had many requests from rural communities, and from the National Farmers Union, to tackle the pernicious activities associated with illegal hare coursing. That can be done only if we give the police the
 
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tools to do the job and change the basis of legal action from trespass, which is too limited to be able to deal with some of the people involved in this activity and in threats, intimidation and violence, to the activity of hare coursing itself. The Bill does both those things. We shall return to that point later, but it is not proposed that we delay commencement of that part of the Bill.

I see that some people have signed a declaration that they will defy the law if the Bill is passed. The leaders of the Countryside Alliance should stamp out such ideas. I understand the strong feelings that some people have about hunting, but I reject utterly any suggestion that defiance of the law would be justified because the law has been passed under the Parliament Acts. The passage of legislation through this House has to be respected. The Parliament Acts are an integral part of our constitutional arrangements, and the House is entitled to use them to pass the Hunting Bill, if that is the House's will.

Like many on my side of the House, I objected to a measure that really was unjust—the poll tax. I protested against it, but I disagreed passionately with those who advocated law-breaking or non-payment. Respect for the law and the decision of Parliament is bigger than any specific issue, including hunting. Indeed, it is bigger than any specific issue, even—perhaps especially—when feelings run as high as they do in this case. I commend the Hunting Bill to the House.

4.16 pm

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): Before I start my substantive remarks, I must say that for the second time this afternoon I find myself agreeing with the Minister. I hunt. If this disgraceful little Bill is passed, I will not break the law, or hunt until such time as an incoming Conservative Government turn the law round, which, to clarify the point that the Minister raised, we are committed to do. We are committed to introducing a Government Bill in Government time to repeal this Bill, albeit, of course and as always, with a free vote on both the Front and Back Benches. One of the first things that we will do when we come into power next May will be to reverse this disgraceful little Bill. I am pleased to say that that will happen in good time for me to start hunting again the following season. Like the Minister, however, I would not condone the breaking of the law, in this context or in the context of protesting against the disgraceful activities that we are seeing in the House this afternoon.

The nation, and the world as a whole, will look at our procedures today with some amazement and horror. With the world in the state that it is in, with 1 million people waiting for treatment in the national health service, with Darfur—


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