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Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): The Minister said that the countryside has been misled. Is not the truth that the countryside has been misled by the honeyed words from No. 10 to the effect that a ban would not be implemented?
The right hon. and learned Gentleman is totally wrong, as he very often is. I did not say that the countryside has been misled; I said that those who are active in hunting have been misled by their leaders into thinking that this House would not act. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has acted with integrity throughout: he made it clear that he wanted to see a compromise and that he supported the Bill in the form in which I brought it to the House. He also made it clear that he respected the fact that for many years this has been a free vote issue for hon. MembersI thought that it was a free vote issue for hon. Members on both sides
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of this House. That is acting with integrity, and it does the right hon. and learned Gentleman no credit to cast doubt on that.
Mr. Patrick Hall (Bedford) (Lab): I agree with my right hon. Friend on the need to go the extra mile, but will he accept that many Labour Members think that we went that extra mile with the July 2006 date? If he does not feel strongly about 2006 or 2007, will he assist other hon. Members and me by explaining why he has introduced the 2007 implementation date?
Alun Michael: Essentially, the 2007 date gives the House the option of being reasonable, as we were on the last occasion when we proposed 2006. It also gives the House the option to go the extra mile. It is between the date that we proposed and the date agreed in another place. Either 2006 or 2007 would be reasonable, but 2007 would go the extra mile.
Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend clarify this point? Two months ago, he moved that the implementation date be postponed to 31 July 2006, and the House of Commons voted in favour of that. Now, he says that he wants to be reasonable by postponing the implementation date for a further year. What has happened between his moving that motion two months ago and today to make 2007 more reasonable than 2006?
Alun Michael: First, if one of the choices is reasonable, the other choice is even more reasonable. Secondly, on what has changed, we have continued to have discussions and arguments in the public domain in seeking to demonstrate that this House is being reasonable, and I have therefore put the two options before the House. I am convinced that the House will be reasonable and that one option is more reasonable than the other.
Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): Will the Minister clarify whether he accepts the fact that, if the Bill were introduced within three months, it would have a substantial impact on rural areas? If either of the two amendments were defeated in the Lords, is the Minister saying that he accepts in principle that the Bill would have a substantial effect and that he would introduce measures to ameliorate the effect on hunts and on the rural economy?
Alun Michael: No. As I have explained to the hon. Gentleman before, the effect on the rural economythis is demonstrated in the Burns reportwill be small, but the Bill will affect some individuals. Although it is not wrong to impose a three-month limit, which raises no serious issues, delaying implementation until July 2006 would provide a reasonable and generous opportunity to prepare for the application of the legislation, and a delay until 2007 would provide an even greater and more generous opportunity. That is the only difference.
Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC):
Earlier this week, it was trailed that some elements within the Government are concerned about the possibility of a judicial review of the procedure. The
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right hon. Gentleman may know that the main criterion is to have acted reasonablythis afternoon, he has repeated the word "reasonable" 25 times.
Alun Michael: That is because I am being reasonable, and I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has noticed. I have received legal advice, and we are content that the Bill and the process will not lead to difficulties of the sort that, for instance, an attempt at judicial review might bring about. It is, of course, open to organisations to seek judicial reviewI understand that the Countryside Alliance has sought to do soto give notice and to take action in the courts, if they wish to do so. However, my legal advice is clear.
Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): The Minister is not being unreasonable with the House this afternoon, even to those of us who fundamentally disagree with the Bill and who are 100 per cent. in support of hunting. He is advancing a number of propositions, but is he prepared to advocate from the Government Front Bench that Labour Members should vote for 31 July 2007?[Interruption.] I am not saying that he is mandating Government Members; I am suggesting that he might advocate that they vote for the amendment that would enable the country as a whole to take a decision on this issue, because between now and then there will be a general election, which can perhaps finalise the matter.
Alun Michael: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments and for his recognition that I am trying to be reasonable. I am glad that he spotted that each individual Member on this side of the House will make up their own mind and vote as they see fit. I have tabled the motion on 2007 and will invite my right hon. and hon. Friends to join me in the Lobby to vote for it. I make it clearbecause at that point only motions moved by a Minister will be consideredthat I intend, should the 2007 date be defeated, to move the second motion to give the House an opportunity to vote on the date of 2006. I am grateful for the opportunity to clarify that.
Mr. David Clelland (Tyne Bridge) (Lab): On the question of possible challenges in court to the Bill once it is enacted, what legal advice has my right hon. Friend received as to whether such challenges would be more or less likely to succeed if the Bill were to be further complicated by amendments at this late stage?
Given that it is a free vote, it is up to the Prime Minister just as it is up to the hon. Gentleman. The way in which all right hon. and hon. Members vote, or do not vote, will be clear when the record of the Division is published.
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David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, despite the hyperventilation of some sections of the media, the latest date for a general election is late June 2006? In contradistinction to the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton), I suggest to my right hon. Friend that the rationale for his motion might be that to add one further year beyond that latest date for the next election would allow for the election of a more hung Parliament and delay the issue into the middle distance.
Mr. Tony Banks (West Ham) (Lab): My hon. Friends and I trust my right hon. Friend, but it is what might happen afterwards that really concerns us. If both the amendments on the implementation date fall, he will then move the Bill as it left this place before. In those circumstances, would not it be much clearer were the Government to sayperhaps he can say nowthat during the new Session of Parliament a one-clause Bill will be introduced with an implementation date of 2006, so that there is no dubiety, as they say in the trade union movement?
Alun Michael: I am not prepared to do that. It is an option for the Government to introduce a one-clause Bill to delay implementation, but that would have two disadvantages. First, it would be some time later, and part-way through the period to February 2005, and therefore would not provide immediate clarity on the date of commencement. Secondly, it would mean this House and another place spending more time debating this issue, on which plenty of time has been spent over many years. It would be better for us to agree today a motion proposing an amendment in lieu and to invite another place to agree with it, and then to have drawn a line very clearly under the whole issue and to have given a very clear date of commencement for the legislation.
The important point is to put the issue back to the Lords to ask them to think again. Do they want the hunting ban to start this February or at whatever later date this House suggests? They will have a straight choice, and we should leave it to them. They claim to defend the interests of people and animals involved in huntingI refer of course not to the whole House but to those who support hunting. If they want the ban to start sooner, so be it.
In asking the House to support the motion, I hope that it will respond in the spirit in which Members have questioned me today, and send to the House of Lords a reasonable proposition, as well as the Bill in the form on which this House has already agreed.
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