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Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), whose speech was, by any standards, honest, passionate and, above all, brave. I do not welcome the solution he proposes, which I shall discuss in a moment, but he has done his reputation in the House no harm at all, and I congratulate him on his speech.

The hon. Gentleman made it plain that the Minister for Rural Affairs and Local Environmental Quality is disappointed that the other place has not returned with a better compromise. Those of us who watched the debates in the other place found one thing astonishing: Lord Whitty, the Minister responsible for the Bill in the Lords, took great steps not to speak in favour of an outright ban, which the Bill would have introduced before it went to the Lords. It was extraordinary to see a Minister at the Dispatch Box failing to speak even once for his own Bill.

Lord Whitty went to great lengths to tell noble Lords that they should come up with a compromise. Unsurprisingly, noble Lords cross-examined him time and again about the compromise that the Government would like, but answer came there none. No hint was given throughout the entire process in the other place about what kind of compromise the Government would like.

There have been plenty of noises off. The Prime Minister has made it plain in briefings and elsewhere that he favours a compromise, and the Secretary of State for Health—when he is not talking about smoking—has made it plain that he, too, would welcome a compromise. All the noises off have said that the Government want some kind of compromise, but try as we might, formally and informally, we have not been able to find out what kind of compromise.

That is why the other place came up with this compromise. It sought to recreate the Bill initially introduced by the Minister for Rural Affairs and Local Environmental Quality—admittedly, it has made a number of changes, which I shall discuss in a minute. It has received no guidance from the Government and it has sought to do what it believes the Government want, namely to recreate the Bill about which the Minister spoke so passionately at the Dispatch Box a year or two ago. We cannot hold it against the other place that it went no further than that and that it sought to improve the Bill in a number of ways.

I welcome the fact that the Government—in the form of No. 10, if not in the form of DEFRA—are now beginning to engage in discussions about a compromise, albeit by using the unconventional, if highly competent, mouthpiece of the hon. Member for Ogmore. Incidentally, the Government used the same tactic in the other place, where a brand new noble Lord tried to propose a compromise. Like the Minister tonight, the Minister in the other place sat on the Front Bench, not speaking at all. The Minister has left it to a Back Bencher to come up with a compromise. I am glad that No. 10 has taken a grip of the situation and sought to put together a compromise.

Before discussing the details of a compromise, perhaps it is worth touching for a second on the principle of licensing versus banning—we must not forget that if the House does not accept licensing this evening, the net result will be an outright ban. Believe it
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or not, we have just passed the fifth anniversary of the publication of the Burns report. Most outside observers might well be forgiven for thinking that never in the field of legislation has so much time been spent by so many on a matter of importance to very few.

Most sensible people view hunting as a matter for the individual's conscience. Lord Burns seems to take that view—he failed to find any evidence whatsoever that hunting with hounds is cruel. The Minister took us through the six-month consultation period, which culminated in the Portcullis House hearings, but that also failed to produce any such evidence. Lord Burns concluded that

Lord Burns reiterated that view in an important speech in the other place:

The Government's great guru, Lord Burns, wants to see licensing, and I hope that many hon. Members agree with him.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) on his courageous and eloquent speech. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Burns inquiry found that hunting remains the most humane form of pest control in safekeeping our habitat for future generations? Will my hon. Friend raise that with the Minister?

Mr. Gray: My hon. Friend makes a good point, and she is of course right. I hope that this evening we can avoid doing what we have done in so many of these debates in the past in exchanging quotes from Lord Burns and seeking to make use of him on either side of the argument. His report produced a great deal of evidence, but I am not sure that it is as conclusive as his speech during the Bill's passage in the other place.

The amendments give Parliament the opportunity to find the way forward. After all, licensed hunting is precisely the principle that the Minister advanced in the first place. He will remember that he said in his press notice when he announced the first Bill:

When, at the Dispatch Box, he laid out the principles behind the Bill, he said that because the two Houses could not previously reach an agreement on the issue of hunting with dogs

He said that he hoped that the Bill would enable Parliament to act on the

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Those proposals are precisely those that the hon. Member for Ogmore set out. That is the golden thread that ran through everything that the Minister proposed two years ago, and those are the very principles that the Government now seem to want us to adhere to.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that if the Government were not seeking compromise they would long ago have stopped hunting on Ministry of Defence and Forestry Commission land, as they easily could have done without any legislation?

Mr. Gray: My hon. Friend is not quite right, because the Government have taken a very honourable position with regard to hunting on MOD and Forestry Commission land. I must declare an interest, in that I hunt on Salisbury plain. The Government have always said that hunting on MOD and Forestry Commission land will continue under licence until such time as hunting elsewhere is banned. That is a perfectly sensible and correct position for them to have taken, and I am glad that they have done so. Year after year Ministers have signed the licences for those two areas.

By comparison with the golden thread—the principle that ran through the Minister's Bill—the banning Bill that left this House flew in the face of the evidence and principle on which the Minister constantly relies. As he himself said in a letter to the Deputy Prime Minister dated 14 May,

During the doomed Bill's Report stage in this place, the Minister said:

The Secretary of State reconfirmed that view in an article in The Times in which she said:

namely, the licensing Bill so ably supported by the hon. Member for Ogmore—

I am happy to confirm to the House that if a banning Bill is passed using the Parliament Acts—a Bill that is described by the Minister and his Secretary of State as wrecking and unworkable—an incoming Conservative Government will introduce a Government Bill in Government time to repeal it.
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I readily accept that the licensing solution proposed in the other place and by the hon. Member for Ogmore will not be easy to accept for those Labour Back Benchers who have made it a lifetime project to achieve an outright ban.

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