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Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): I fully accept that the amendment that I tabled could have been drafted a little tighter in places, but the Minister has not dealt with the principle. If a ban could be introduced within three months, which is a prospect under the present proposals, surely the Minister must accept that there is a strong case for compensation. What about the principle?

Alun Michael: No, I do not accept that, which should not come as a surprise to anyone, given the long period during which the issue has been debated in the House. As I made clear when we discussed the issue at length on a previous occasion, my advice is that there are no human rights implications nor any implication for a requirement to compensate either in the Bill that I originally introduced, or in the Bill as amended when it left the House. In any event, I proposed a motion, which was supported in the House, to delay implementing the legislation because it is quite clear that some people will not accept that the current situation is likely to change until there is something to that effect on the statute book. That delay would allow those who have put their heads in the sand time to adjust, but that is a bonus, rather than a necessity in respect of human rights legislation.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): We have the precedent of the Fur Farming (Prohibition) Act 2000, under which compensation was paid. However, when and if the draft animal welfare Bill is introduced, will my
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right hon. Friend consider whether it could include a mechanism by which some form of compensation could take place?

Alun Michael: I have to correct my hon. Friend: there is no precedent relevant to the Bill. In the case that he mentions, there was deprivation of property, and a timing was proposed that aimed to mitigate the affect of that deprivation of property.

Let me make a couple of points about the Lords amendments. Some Lords have said that the amendments that they approved would establish a registration and tribunal system that would be an improved version of the system proposed in the Bill that I introduced in December 2002. That is a gross misrepresentation. My Bill was not a compromise—there can be no compromise on cruelty—and it would have put an immediate end to all the cruelty associated with hunting with dogs. Cruelty is well defined in law as the cause of unnecessary suffering.

My Bill would have only allowed hunting in cases where it was proved beyond doubt that the use of dogs was essential for necessary pest control and would cause less suffering than other methods of pest control. That is a principled approach that addresses the reasons why so many people find hunting with dogs for sport so abhorrent.

Let me make another couple of points about the differences. My Bill sought to ban deer hunting because it is absolutely clear on the evidence that that form of hunting would never pass both the utility and the least-suffering tests, since it will always cause more suffering than the alternative of stalking and shooting. That stands to reason. It will always cause the deer more suffering to chase it for hours until it is exhausted and can run no more before shooting it than approaching it quietly and shooting it unawares.

Mr. Gray: That is not what Professor Bateson said. If the Minister is so certain that there is no chance that deer hunting will pass the test as defined in the Bill, why not leave it to the registrar to turn it down?

Alun Michael: Very simply, because that would be a waste of the tribunal's and registrar's time. I made that point very clearly when I introduced the Bill. There is a difference between deer hunting and the evidence that Lord Burns acknowledged in respect of some aspects of fox hunting—he referred only to some aspects—which is what the tribunal system is meant to deal with on the basis of an objective consideration of the evidence.

The hon. Gentleman was wrong to suggest that we have done nothing to promote deer management. Indeed, we have done a great deal. Part of the problem in relation to Exmoor is that some fear—I speak of those who support hunting—that the proper management of deer would be the thin end of the wedge for the regulation or banning of deer hunting. It is a pity that there has not been more engagement in deer management by those involved in hunting if they have such concern for the deer. We will continue our efforts to seek to engage all parties in effective management of the deer population.

In respect of the amendments suggested by the other place, I have to point out that my Bill was drafted to ban hare coursing. Hare coursing events have no pest
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control justification; their primary aim is to allow people to gamble on the relative performance of dogs when they are set after hares in a confined space. I took the view that setting a dog on a wild mammal just for fun is not just totally unacceptable, but certainly has no utility. It certainly does nothing to assist in pest control.

The Bill and the amendments that the Lords have sent us do not offer us the Bill as I originally introduced it to the House or as it emerged from Committee. It is a far more extreme measure and, as I indicated earlier, limp in terms of pretending to provide a form of regulation. It would be pretty weak and ineffective.

The Lords also widened the utility test to allow hunting for the purpose of wildlife management. Except in the narrow sense of pest control, the evidence did not justify such an approach. It did not suggest widespread benefit for wildlife management. However necessary it is in the modern world to manage wildlife, we do not do it by chasing wild mammals with dogs.

For all those reasons, I believe that the House should disagree with all the Lords amendments on registration. They would also prevent the new system from coming into force for at least three years from now and would give an effective veto to the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons. In contrast, my registration system would have been up and running within three months and the alternative of the Bill that went from this House with a motion for a later commencement date would have given July 2006 for the date of commencement.

Mr. Simon Thomas: I take the Minister back a few sentences to what he said about wildlife management. Is he aware that the Countryside Council for Wales actively promotes hunting on Cors Fochno near Borth—it is one of the lowland bogs in Wales and a site of special scientific interest—precisely because hunting with hounds and flushing out foxes with hounds to be shot afterwards is the best way to protect the ground nesting birds on that essential site? He should surely consider the wider wildlife protection issue. If the Countryside Council for Wales can support it, surely he can.

Alun Michael: The circumstances that the hon. Gentleman describes may be correct in relation to flushing, but he generalises too far about the activities to which he refers.

I remind the House of how we reached this position. Strong and passionate views have been expressed on both sides of the hunting debate on many occasions. The House has voted nine times in 10 years and, on each occasion, it has voted to introduce a ban on hunting. On two occasions, those votes came about because a Back Bencher had introduced a Bill and, on seven occasions, there was a vote because the Government, who were seeking a less contentious way forward, had brought forward other options or proposals. I have to point out that the House has voted for a ban by a large majority on every occasion, so its views have been made clear.
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Mr. Bellingham: The Minister talks about the past 10 years, but I seem to remember that in the vote in 1996, there was a majority of 11 in favour of keeping hunting.

Alun Michael: No, I do not think so. I have been through the records and found nine occasions on which there were votes, and on each occasion there was a large majority in favour of a ban on hunting.

David Winnick: In view of what my right hon. Friend said a moment ago, is it not a fact that the House of Lords has not shown the slightest desire to accommodate the House of Commons? It is responsible for the confrontation that is occurring between the two Houses, and the fault for it lies entirely with the majority of the Lords who have not the slightest wish for any kind of ban whatsoever?

Alun Michael: I cannot disagree with what my hon. Friend says.

Kate Hoey: Does the Minister agree that a majority of Labour peers in the House of Lords voted for a licensing regime?

Alun Michael: The decisions of Parliament are not taken by some sort of opinion poll in which the votes on either side in the House of Lords and the House of Commons are averaged out. I am trying to address this House—the elected House—on the issue.

I am often asked whether the House of Commons regards hunting as the most important issue before it—certainly not, as far as the Government are concerned. Hon. Members on both sides of the argument say that it is not the most important issue facing them, but we must look at their behaviour. Time after time when we debate hunting, both sides of the Chamber are full, but when we consider issues that are far more important to people in rural areas, such as jobs, the economy, housing, health or education, the Chamber empties. Hunting might not be at the top of anyone's agenda, just as it is not at the top of the Government's agenda, but it must be dealt with because of the consistent strength of view that has been expressed by hon. Members on both sides of the argument year after year.

Have the Government tried to find a less divisive way forward? They certainly have. The Government commissioned the Burns inquiry and introduced a Bill that offered three choices for consideration by the House and the other place. The Government, through me as the Minister, invited all sides to give evidence to try to find a way forward. I undertook proximity talks with the three main groups—they were necessary before we could get them into the same room—to discuss the possibility of them examining the evidence together.

We held hearings in Portcullis House during which the focus was on cruelty. All three groups, including the Countryside Alliance, agreed the issues that we debated and on which we heard expert evidence. It was at that point that the chairman of the Countryside Alliance, John Jackson, said:

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This has nothing to do with liberty, freedom or respect for people's way of life, but, as the Countryside Alliance acknowledged at the time, it is about the question of cruelty. Of course I respect those who argue that hunting is not cruel. That is why we gave them the opportunity to agree on both the people who gave evidence to the inquiry and the questions that should be put to them. That is why we spent a day considering evidence on the principle of utility—cruelty is the causing of unnecessary suffering, so necessity must be considered. We also spent a day considering the principle of least suffering and a further day debating how best to apply those principles on the basis of a list of topics that was agreed by all three main groups. We listened to expert witnesses, the list of which was agreed by all three groups.

I was proud of securing that debate and of the quality of the discussion. I paid tribute at the time to the way in which all three groups engaged in the process. However, it was rather sad that after people left the meetings, they claimed that everything that they had heard justified the view with which they went into the room in the first place. That illustrates not just a perversity on the part of the people who expressed those views, but the extent to which views on all sides of the debate are deeply entrenched, passionately held and very difficult to move in any way.

8.15 pm

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