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David Burnside (South Antrim) (UUP): The hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable argument for consensus and agreement. If there is no consensus and no agreement on a middle-way approach and if, after 5 May, the Conservative party does not have an overall majority in the election and needs some other support, would he welcome the fact that at least 11 of the 14 Ulster MPs who sit in the House will give cross-party backing to our English, Welsh and Scottish colleagues in reversing a ban on hunting?

Mr. Gray: I am extremely grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his support, which is especially important, as he has recently suffered from an ignorant and prejudiced ban on hare hunting in Northern Ireland, for all the wrong reasons and with no scientific evidence whatever. We entirely support him on that.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury) (Con): I share my hon. Friend's analysis. I speak on behalf of the five hunts that use land in my constituency, and it is clear to me that, although the Minister and his party will vote for many measures to give definition to a permissive society, the compromise that my hon. Friend advocates—albeit through gritted teeth—is a test of whether they truly believe in a permissive, civilised, free society.

Mr. Gray: My hon. Friend is entirely right. I look forward to hearing the Minister's reaction to the amendments proposed by the other place and by the hon. Member for Ogmore. Indeed, I am rather surprised that the right hon. Gentleman has not been on his feet before now to promote his original Bill.

If the House does not accept the amendments that the other place has sent us, or the alternative proposals made by the hon. Member for Ogmore, the net result
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will be an outright ban on hunting. The truth of the matter is that the countryside will be a poorer place if that happens and the people of the countryside will neither forget it nor forgive it.

Alun Michael: We have started well. I congratulate in particular my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) on demonstrating something that is always respected in the House—a consistent personal view on a controversial issue.

The hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) expressed his views in a forthright manner. I disagree with a great deal of what he said, but we can certainly agree on the dangers of selective quotation from the Burns report. That report, like the hearings in Portcullis House, is illuminating if one approaches it looking for enlightenment rather than simply searching for quotations that support one's original point of view.

I respect especially the important point that the hon. Gentleman made when he said that he would not breach the law in the event of the House legislating for a ban. He made clear his point of view that, should a ban be introduced, he would try to change the law, but that he would respect the law. I respect that point of view. In discussing these issues, some people on both sides of the argument, and sometimes Members of the House, have allowed their passion to take them beyond the bounds of reason. We have heard some of the language used in Parliament square. I respect the strength of view that people expressed in that demonstration, but I do not support the disrespect to the parliamentary process that was expressed there and in a variety of other places.

I know of the hon. Gentleman's personal strength of view, so I congratulate him on not going down that road when he speaks in this place and elsewhere. It is an approach similar to that taken by many of us in our opposition to a really unjust law—the poll tax. Although we opposed the law and sought change—we were eventually successful—we argued that people should neither break the law in their demonstrations at the time nor fail to pay the poll tax.

Tony Wright (Cannock Chase) (Lab): I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way, but we should also know what we are doing, should we not, and is it not the case that if we do go for a total ban there will be three certain effects? One is that there will be lots of work for lawyers. The second is that there will be lots of work for policewomen. The third is that the forces of political extremism will be nourished. We should at least know that in doing what we do?

Alun Michael: The response to my hon. Friend is no, no and no. The way in which language has been used in some quarters in this debate to appear to justify or condone acting outside the bounds of legitimate protest is unacceptable. That has been wrong. But the options that are before the House, as I will spell out in a moment, are reasonable and clear, and the House of Commons will have to take a view on them.

Mr. David Cameron (Witney) (Con): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
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Alun Michael: In a moment.

I referred to what the hon. Member for North Wiltshire said in his introduction, and I would say to him that it is a pity that the willingness he has expressed tonight to seek compromise has not been seen over the last three years. Whereas he suggested that the Government were coming belatedly to look for a way through this issue, I have to say that anybody who has watched the work that I have undertaken and the debates that we had exhaustively in Committee, has to say that it is on the Government Benches that there has been an attempt to find a way through the issues.

I also point out to the hon. Gentleman that the spontaneous action of the Lords Back Bencher last week to put forward the Bill as it came out of Committee in the House, was unceremoniously dismissed by some 189 votes to 39 in the House of Lords last week. If his view is shared on the Conservative Benches in the House of Lords, it is a pity that it was not reflected in that vote.

Lembit Öpik: On the matter of compromise, while I agree that the Minister has worked hard to try to find some alternative involving regulation, does he not accept that the middle way group and others have sought to do so as well? While perhaps not always having the resources to shout as loudly as the others, we have for a long time been trying to lead the thinking in the Chamber towards some sort of regulation. Does he agree with me, therefore, that when one starts looking at the evidence, as the Minister has done, one comes to the incontrovertible conclusion that only regulation has a chance of increasing animal welfare?

Alun Michael: I have to agree with the hon. Gentleman on one point and disagree with him on the other. First, yes, I pay tribute to him and others who have sought to find another way through, and it has been a cross-party effort; however, no, I do not agree with the conclusion that he reaches. I made it clear that I did not agree with the middle way Bill option as he drafted it, but that does not stop me respecting the efforts that he put in to try to find a way through this divisive issue.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): The Minister knows that I deplore breaking the law as much as he does, but does he now accept the validity of the case made so eloquently and bravely by his hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) this evening?

Alun Michael: Coming to my Bill, I still believe that that Bill was well drafted and would have provided the basis for good legislation, and I shall make that clear in a moment. However, I want to draw to the attention of the House the fact that there are three choices before the House. First, there are the amendments proposed by the House of Lords, which I would describe as a limp system of regulation; secondly, there is the Bill as introduced in the House and sent to the Lords earlier in this Session; and thirdly, there are the amendments moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore, which essentially would turn the Bill back into the Bill as I introduced it to the House in the previous Session.

May I deal with the questions of finance, as I promised that I would? As I said, the money resolution dealt with the propositions that have been sent to us by
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the House of Lords, and I have not exhaustively studied the matter to see what the cost of those would be. The current estimate of the costs of the registration system within the Bill as I originally introduced it was £10 million for the first year. Three quarters of that cost would be in respect of tribunals.

The money resolution, of course, would not be necessary if the Bill as sent to the House of Lords were approved, since policing costs have been authorised already. Indeed, the Association of Chief Police Officers expressed the view that the cost of policing a ban would be much the same as that of policing hunt protesters at present.On finances, perhaps I should also refer to the amendments proposed by the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George). Of course, I shall listen to the contribution that I am sure he will make shortly, but such an amendment would provide an open-ended compensation clause—a blank cheque—and even a so-called banning Bill would not deprive anyone of their property. It would only place a restriction on the use to which the property is put, and there is no human rights requirement to pay compensation in such cases. Of course, when the House last debated the issue, we heard the views of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which made a narrow point about contracts, which a ban must frustrate, but it did not call into question the human rights issues in general.

8 pm

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