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David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Gray: If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I am right in the middle of a rather delicate point, but I will come back to him in a few moments.

Those who favour an outright ban will find it difficult to accept the licensing proposal of the hon. Member for Ogmore. If it is any compensation to them, I, too, would find it quite extraordinarily difficult to accept that same proposal.

7.30 pm

David Winnick: If an incoming Conservative Government were to do what the hon. Gentleman has just said, would it not amount to a challenge to those who want to break the law? If the House agrees that these provisions should become law by end of this week, people who oppose what I hope will be a total ban on hunting will have an opportunity shortly in a general election. If they disagree with what Parliament has so decided, they can vote Conservative, so democracy will be decided in the usual way. What is wrong with that?

Mr. Gray: The hon. Gentleman takes quite a long time to make an obviously correct point. I have never for one second suggested that people should break the law. He is quite right. If people believe in hunting, they will vote Conservative. I suspect that quite a lot of people will vote Conservative whether they believe in hunting or not. Things could well be the other way round by 6 May next year.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that it is essentially a matter for and of liberty? Those who vote Conservative will be voting for liberty on this matter.

Mr. Gray: My right hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right. It is not about hunting, but about liberty, freedom and tolerance. That is why people will vote for a Conservative Government in this area of policy, as in so many others.

I entirely accept that the licensing proposal before us this evening will be difficult—it will stick in the craw—for the outright abolitionists on the Government side. It sticks in my craw as well. I have spent the best part of the last three years arguing, on occasions quite passionately, against such proposals. Indeed, I have spent a large part—too large a part—of my parliamentary career attempting to leave hunting alone and allow it to remain unregulated. These proposals are certainly not something that I genuinely welcome. I also have to say that, from my standpoint, there is a risk—many people think it is a very substantial risk—that if the licensing regime were to be passed, it would be the end of normal,
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ordinary, traditional hunting as I know it. That is very likely to be the case, which makes me not at all keen to endorse the proposals.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the approach proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies)—I share his views in many respects on this matter—would be improved further if we could get wildlife management brought into the whole equation? Then, we really would be considering the issue as the Government originally intended, which was subsequently changed. The Minister himself promised people that he would look into the wider issues, including wildlife management.

Mr. Gray: The hon. Lady is indeed right. In a few moments, I shall speak to the Lords amendments, some of which include wildlife management in the test for utility. The Minister said on many occasions that he would like to see wildlife management made part of those utility tests, so the hon. Lady is entirely right. I am merely explaining that, if the regime proposed by the hon. Member for Ogmore were accepted, it would still be accompanied by a great deal of concern on my part, but we might be prepared to consider it none the less.

Alun Michael: The hon. Gentleman repeated something that was said in the other place—that I had suggested that wildlife management should be viewed as an element of utility, but that is not the case. When I sought evidence and invited people from all quarters to submit it, I did so on the broadest possible range of issues that might help to define utility, but that is quite different from the conclusions that I reached, having heard the different submissions provided by different groups of people.

Mr. Gray: The Minister is, of course, entitled to change his mind. A couple of quotations show that he has done so. One is from a press release announcing the Bill, dated 11 September 2002, where he plainly says:

Again, on 10 April 2003, the Minister said in a letter to the chairman of the Countryside Alliance that the term "utility"

Like any lady, the Minister is of course entitled to change his mind. However, when he discussed these matters with the Countryside Alliance and others—in the run-up to the Portcullis House meeting and while the Bill was being prepared—the Minister made it clear that he believed that wildlife management was an important part of the utility of hunting. It was only when the Bill was finally published that, for mysterious reasons that
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may be not unconnected with political expediency, the wildlife management heading disappeared from the utility definitions.

Alun Michael: I must correct the hon. Gentleman again. That happened as a result of consideration of the evidence. The opportunity was given for evidence to be given, and I based the Bill on the evidence that I saw. The record of all the evidence that was considered is still available.

Mr. Gray: The Minister is trying his best, but that does not explain why, after all the evidence had been presented at the Portcullis House hearings, the Minister said that he believed that wildlife management was one of the matters that had to be considered.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that all of us who opposed a ban at that time were fully convinced that the Minister had accepted the case for wildlife management? He now pretends that he changed his view on the basis of the evidence, but the fact is that he gave us documentary confirmation, after he had heard the evidence, that he believed that wildlife management was a key consideration.

Mr. Gray: That is right. The quotations that I gave the House show that, long after the Portcullis House discussions, the Minister said time and again that he believed that wildlife management was a legitimate part of the utility test. He has changed his mind about that—I suspect because he needed to buy off some of the opposition on his Back Benches. None the less, he must admit that at one time he believed in the legitimacy of wildlife management in the utility test, and that now he does not.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): While it could turn out that wildlife management will lie at the heart of any rationalisation of hunting on the basis of utility, does the hon. Gentleman agree that the test of cruelty is likely to fail, for the reasons elucidated by Lord Burns—that is, because there is too little information about the comparative welfare implications of the different ways to kill foxes? Is not that the problem over which any scheme of registration will stumble at the first hurdle?

Mr. Gray: The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely good point. On several occasions, scientists have said that we need a great deal more scientific evidence about the welfare implications for different species. The Lords suggested that implementation be delayed for three years, so that research by the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons could be commissioned to determine the relative cruelties inflicted by the different ways available for dealing with the different species. That emphasises why we should not proceed with a ban this evening. We should go ahead with a licensing system that would allow the registrar to consider the very difficult and complex scientific matters to which the hon. Gentleman referred. I hope very much that he will join us in the Lobby.

The hunting world is ready to consider some form of compromise involving a registration system, albeit with gritted teeth. We have come to accept that, ill informed
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though it is, there is public concern to make sure that hunting is the most humane and sensible way to dispatch foxes, mink, hare and deer. If licensing will assuage that public concern, then so be it: hunting has nothing to hide. We are not afraid of regulation, so long as it is fair minded and evidence based.

That leads me on to a discussion of the type of regulation being proposed this evening. After all, we on this side of the argument are convinced that hunting mammals with dogs produces the most animal-friendly, and the least cruel, solution to the killing of foxes, deer, hare and mink. We argue that shooting, snaring, gassing and poisoning are far more cruel and—importantly—far less selective. We argue that there is a real utility in many aspects of hunting with hounds, that the rules and conditions that govern it are clear, straightforward and above board, and that they would pass the scrutiny of any dispassionate registrar or arbiter.

Of course, I am well aware of the contrary arguments advanced by Labour Members. They say that they can prove that hunting mammals with dogs has little or no utility, and that it is more cruel than any other method of dispatch. That is their argument, and they express it passionately enough. If they are convinced of their case, however, and if they are convinced that they can prove it, I challenge them to allow the registrar to weigh up my views, my passion and my beliefs against theirs. They are not prepared to do that; they want this House, which does not have the scientific evidence called for by the hon. Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor), to make up its mind whether stag hunting, for example, is more or less cruel than allowing people to shoot the stag, which would certainly happen if it were to be banned.

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