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Alun Michael: I think that if the Lords did not accept our proposed date of commencement, we would have reached the end of the road. The Bill would be Parliament Acted with no change in the date of commencement.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): I am not convinced that the Minister is necessarily correct, but perhaps he can put me right. As I understand it, there are two debates going on, one about the nature of the Bill and the amendments and the other about the date of commencement. The date of commencement is not connected with the question of the Parliament Act. In
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theory, we could go on arguing about the commencement till kingdom come, regardless of whether the rest of the Bill is enacted.

Alun Michael: In theory, we could indeed continue to argue about it for a long time. I am giving the hon. Gentleman an assurance that we will not.

Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle) (Con): Does the Minister understand that everyone in the countryside who cares for liberty and the environment will see that his machinations over commencement have absolutely nothing to do with reasonableness, as he is suggesting, and everything to do with shabby political horse-trading between Labour Members behind the scenes? The whole thing is a disgrace.

Alun Michael: I know that no hon. Member would seek to mislead the House, but it sounds as if the hon. Gentleman wants to mislead the countryside. In our original discussions with organisations that have been involved in this debate for many years, including the Countryside Alliance, those organisations—including the Countryside Alliance—accepted that the issue was cruelty. That is the subject that has dictated the debate about legislation on hunting. Let me also tell the hon. Gentleman, yet again, that people in the countryside are divided on hunting, just as people in urban areas are. This is not about a divide between urban and rural people.

This House voted on Tuesday to insist on the Bill in the form in which we sent it to the Lords in September—that is, what is generally called the banning Bill. The Lords have now insisted on their feeble version of the registration scheme, so it is the Lords who have chosen confrontation, and I regret that. At this stage, I sense no appetite among supporters of a ban in this House for any change in the House's well-established position. It is the will of this House of Commons to have this Bill. I should make clear that it is not this House that is insisting; it will be the House of Lords, if it does not accept what we are saying today, that will have provoked the application of the Parliament Act.

There remains the question of when the Bill is to come into force. As it stands, it will come into force in three months, on 18 February 2005. That three-month period applied to the original Bill, involving a tribunal system which I sought to persuade colleagues to support and which would have come into force three months after the Bill. This House has reasonably proposed a delay of about 18 months, until 31 July 2006, for the start of the ban on hunting—but not on hare coursing events, which would be banned three months after implementation in any case.

In their amendments the Lords suggested a three-year delay for all hunting, including hare coursing events, until 1 December 2007 or even later; but that would be for their registration Bill. At the same time, they voted against our suggested amendment proposing commencement on 31 July 2006. In doing so, they have in effect voted for a ban that will come into force in February next year. All the Lords' decisions on the Bill have been, in my view, irrational. With this one, they have behaved like turkeys voting for Christmas. I cannot believe that they meant it, although my noble Friend Lord Whitty made the position absolutely clear to them.
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My proposed amendment in lieu would give the Lords another chance. It takes the same form as our earlier suggested amendment. It would bring the Bill into force on 31 July 2007 for hunting purposes, but again not for the purposes of hare coursing events. By sending it back to the Lords, we will give them a straightforward choice between the date that we suggest and three months from Royal Assent today. If they seek to insert a different date or to change the clause in any other way, this House will insist on the three-month period, because that will keep the Bill within the Parliament Act.

David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): Is my right hon. Friend aware that those of us who want a total ban were willing, and continue to be willing, to go along with the earlier postponement to 31 July 2006, but no later than that? Is there not a danger that what he now proposes will give the impression that we are terrified of the threats of violence and thuggery from those who intend to break the law? Given that the House of Commons has agreed to a total ban six times in the past four years, what we propose—unlike what my right hon. Friend now proposes—is surely compromise enough, and responsibility for any further delay lies entirely with the House of Lords.

Alun Michael: My hon. Friend is quite right. I think it showed great willingness to be reasonable on the part of Members to agree to the delay of commencement until 2006. I am asking them now to go the extra mile. Whether they do so or not is in their hands. It is Members of this House who will vote on the two motions in lieu; I simply seek to persuade them to consider the 2007 option.

My proposal for a delay until July 2007 would indeed be a compromise between the Lords' proposal for 1 December 2007 and the House's earlier proposal for 31 July 2006. Hon. Members will know that my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Peter Bradley) has tabled an amendment to reinstate the 31 July 2006 commencement date, which gives my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (David Winnick) an opportunity to vote in the way in which he has suggested. I do not feel passionately about the choice between the two dates, but it is important for us to demonstrate—as my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North did when he agreed to 2006 on the last occasion—that this House is being reasonable, as well as insisting on the Bill being in the form for which this House has voted on a number of occasions.

2 pm

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): When the original Alun Michael Bill, as it came to be called, was recommitted to the Standing Committee on which I sat, I tabled 45 amendments, which the Government adopted, to make it a banning Bill. I deliberately did not table amendments to change the three-month implementation period, and nor did the Government. Will my right hon. Friend explain why he appears to have changed his position, because he could have tabled an amendment in Standing Committee to change the three-month period? He did not do so, but he now seeks July 2007.
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Alun Michael: When the Bill came before the House last year and it became clear that it could be reintroduced and have the Parliament Act applied to it, I thought that common sense would prevail and that people involved with hunting would say, "Well, if the elected House of Commons in the Parliament of this country is intent on taking that decision, we had better start thinking about it." However, those who oppose a ban on hunting have encouraged their followers to believe that legislation will not be introduced. Ordinary people, who have perhaps been misled by their leadership, should be given time in order to prepare for a ban, deal with animal welfare considerations and change the activities and businesses in which they are involved. That is the common-sense and generous way in which to approach the Bill, without changing the nature of the legislation, on which this House has agreed on more than one occasion.

Clare Short (Birmingham, Ladywood) (Lab): Many of us think that the constant dithering over the Bill brings our political processes into disrepute. We thought that we had reached an agreement with the Government on 2006 to settle the matter. Will the Minister explain what could possibly be gained by extending the implementation date to 2007?

Alun Michael: If my right hon. Friend had listened to my response to my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Rob Marris), the answer would be clear: it is because the people involved in hunting are unwilling to accept that the Bill will completely change their situation and make illegal some of the activities in which they participate. I want law-abiding people to obey the law, and I hope that they will do so. The change in the implementation date will make it more possible for them to obey the law, without giving rise to employment problems or animal welfare difficulties, concerning, for instance, the disposal of packs of dogs. That is a perfectly reasonable way in which to proceed. I say to my right hon. Friend that being reasonable, which is all that I seek, cannot bring this House into disrepute. I ask the House to insist, as it has done, on the nature of the legislation that it passes, but to do so with a reasonable implementation date.

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