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Hunting Act 2004

12.33 pm

Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab) (Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs if she will make a statement on the Government's policy towards applications in the courts for injunctions to delay or to prevent the commencement of the Hunting Act 2004.

The Minister for Rural Affairs and Local Environmental Quality (Alun Michael): I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for his question, because it enables me to provide the House with some clarity in respect of issues that have been rather muddled in the press and other media comment. It might assist the House if I explain the legal and policy background to this issue before coming to the specifics of what we expect to happen in court on 25 January. I shall deal in particular with the challenge mounted by the Countryside Alliance to the validity of the Hunting Act 2004, which is based specifically on its argument that the Parliament Act 1949 is invalid. We disagree. We do not believe that its challenge will succeed, and we will vigorously contest that challenge.

In view of some confused press comment, I must make it clear that what I am about to say has nothing whatever to do with any possible challenge under the European convention on human rights. Those who suggest that there could be a long delay in commencement from 25 January because of a human rights challenge are incorrect and misinformed, as incorporation challenges on human rights grounds are dealt with in our own courts under the Human Rights Act 1998. We do not have such a challenge as yet, but a challenge to the Scottish legislation failed, and we would not expect a different outcome here. In any event, human rights challenges are usually dealt with following commencement of legislation, and there are plenty of precedents. There are two possible avenues of challenge, and they are unrelated, as is our response to them. I want to be absolutely clear about that.

Let me now come to the Parliament Act challenge. The point of that challenge, to be heard on 25 January, is to allow the Countryside Alliance to promote its claim that the Hunting Act 2004 is not valid law. We expect that challenge to fail. It is only after the court has decided against that Countryside Alliance claim that any issue of delay becomes relevant. As the chairman of the Countryside Alliance himself made clear, lawyers have already discussed the next steps, as is quite normal in advance of a court hearing. Having failed, the alliance will seek leave to appeal to the Court of Appeal. If that is granted—it is a matter for the court—it says that it will seek an injunction to delay commencement of the Act from 18 February. As hon. Members are aware, that date is three months after Royal Assent, as provided for in the Hunting Act itself, and the Countryside Alliance intends to seek a delay until after its appeal has been heard.

I do not know what view the court will take, but we neither oppose nor support such an application if we reach that stage—and for two reasons. First, we want certainty, and supporters of hunting have claimed that there is uncertainty. The right place for their challenge is
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in the courts. We confidently expect to have our view that the Act is valid upheld. We expect the case and any subsequent appeal to be dealt with quite quickly, and no one will then have reason for any doubt whatever or for believing that they might be justified in undertaking activity that is, in fact, illegal. Secondly, we are relaxed because the date of commencement of 18 February was neither the Government's proposal nor what the House voted for. MPs voted for 31 July 2006. It is the Countryside Alliance and its representatives in the Lords, through what the media described as the kamikaze option, who rejected that date and insisted on retaining early commencement.

What is in the Act is a matter of fact, and it is for the courts to interpret what is in the Act. I suggest that any colleague who says, in effect, that those who made their bed must now lie on it, should also be relaxed and leave it to the courts. We are confident that the Hunting Act is valid and rightly fulfils the will of the elected Chamber of Parliament. We are confident that the result of the court hearing will uphold that view and do so soon, providing certainty for everyone on all sides of the debate.

Sir Gerald Kaufman: Will my right hon. Friend give the House an assurance that there have been no discussions between the Government and the Countryside Alliance on this issue behind the back of the House of Commons, which has expressed its will repeatedly by large majorities? Will he further confirm that, whatever the courts may be able to do, they are not able to change the text of an Act of Parliament, and the Hunting Act lays down commencement three calendar months after enactment on 18 November? Will he take it from me and many other Members that we are sick and tired of hearing two voices coming from the Front Bench on this dispute? The House of Commons has expressed its will that it does not want any fiddling or messing about: it wants this Act of Parliament to come into force and to do so without the Government conniving with the Countryside Alliance to prevent it.

Alun Michael: I urge my right hon. Friend not to give in to any temptation to believe that there are two voices coming from the Government, nor to indulge in conspiracy theories. I am happy to give him all the assurances that he requests on these matters. First, he asked what discussions had taken place. I have confirmed precisely what the chairman of the Countryside Alliance said: that there have been discussions between lawyers about what will happen when a case comes before the court. It is as simple as that. No other discussions are of any relevance whatever.

Secondly, my right hon. Friend asked about what the Hunting Act states. As I have made clear, it states that commencement will be three months after Royal Assent. It is not for me to say what the court will make of that. I simply do not know. Neither am I a lawyer nor do I seek to look into the court's mind. The court must do its work, just as this House did when it decided on the legislation.

Finally, I assure my right hon. Friend that the Government do not have two voices on this matter. There is only one voice. I have articulated the Government's position, which has been consistent
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throughout. I am very pleased that many hon. Members who worked passionately to bring the Hunting Act into law believe that my approach, which I articulated in December, is right. We want the law to be clear. It is the Countryside Alliance, not the Government, that is attempting to cause confusion, and we want that confusion to be set aside authoritatively by the court. After that, let everyone obey the law of the land.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): There can be no precedent for the way in which the Government used the Parliament Act to ram through a Bill and then immediately briefed the press to the effect that they would not object to a judicial delay to its implementation. The Minister is right to say that that delay is a matter not for the Government or the Attorney-General but for the court. The Government's view is irrelevant and does not matter at all. In that case, surely the briefing given by No. 10 in advance of the Boxing day meets can be seen as nothing other than a grubby political ploy to avoid too great a political outcry in the run-up to the general election?

Alun Michael: That was a pretty pathetic attempt. The hon. Gentleman has introduced nonsense to the debate, and it is clear that he did not listen to the answer that I gave to my right hon. Friend. The Government did not ram through the Hunting Act. The House voted 10 times in 10 years for the essential content of what is a good piece of legislation. That should be respected, as we now have an Act of Parliament. The Countryside Alliance has every right to challenge it in the courts and to set out its beliefs in a proper and constitutional way. That is what is happening, and we should await the outcome.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about a briefing. I am not sure what briefing the Countryside Alliance gave. I first heard its chairman say that the issues had been discussed by lawyers from both sides on the "Today" programme, shortly before I had to respond to his comments. However, the hon. Gentleman, like the Countryside Alliance, likes to spread confusion. He should not be allowed to succeed.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall) (Lab): I am sure that the Minister's contribution has clarified matters for everyone in the House, as his previous statements on the legislation have done. Does he agree that in a sense whatever the court or Parliament may say is irrelevant, as the Act as currently constituted is unworkable and will not bring an end to hunting?

Alun Michael: No, my hon. Friend is absolutely wrong. I am grateful to have the opportunity to contradict her in terms. The Act is workable and enforceable, and makes very clear what is banned and what people should not do because it is now illegal. Hunters are always described as normally law-abiding people. I hope that they will abide by the law.

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