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Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD):
It is important that the democratic will of the House is properly and rigorously defended by the Government. The Minister knows that a case was made at various stages of the Bill's progress for compensation for those whose livelihoods would be affected by the Act. As the Act is supposed to
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be implemented on 18 February, does he agree that if the Government had accepted compensatory measuresafter all, it is an Act of Parliament, not an act of God, and livelihoods will be affectedthe case for delay and the case being made by the Countryside Alliance would be considerably weakened?
Alun Michael: We do not accept that there is a case for compensation. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman and I have discussed that on a number of occasions. I have made my position clear. We do not believe that with commencement on 18 February, there is any justification for compensation. Our view is consistent with the view that was taken by the Joint Committee on Human Rights. Incidentally, people often say that the Joint Committee on Human Rights found that there were flaws in the Act. It did not, and that has been made clear in the House. Nevertheless, people attempt to spread confusion about that, so I am glad to make it absolutely clear. We recognised that some people's employment would be affected, so the later date for commencementwe proposed July 2006, and the House agreed with that propositionwould have given everyone time to change their activities, take up drag hunting and consider other ways of ensuring that employment could continue through other equine activities, and so on, but the case against compensation remains strong, even with the date of 18 February. That is not the issue today. The question of a challenge is nothing to do with human rights or compensation. It is to do with whether the Parliament Act 1949 is valid. We believe that it is. We believe that the Hunting Act 2004 is valid and sound, and we will say that clearly in the courts, as we have said in the House. We are being entirely consistent, as always.
Alun Michael: Yes, my hon. Friend is right. My advice to hunts[Interruption.] I would advise hunts not to consider that the challenge might succeed, but to undertake such actions as are necessary for them to comply with the Hunting Act 2004, as passed by the House.
Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): The Minister said a moment ago that the Countryside Alliance and its supporters in the Lords voted for an immediate ban. Which way did the Lord Chancellor vote?
I am not sure what the relevance of the question is. It was the president of the Countryside Alliance who sought to frustrate the possibility of the House of Lords endorsing the date of July 2006 which was proposed by this House. The House has taken a clear and reasonable view. The Government have always sought to bring reason into a debate where reason is often in short supply. We continue to do so.
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Tony Wright (Cannock Chase) (Lab): On a previous occasion, I suggested to the Minister that whether the Act was good or bad for foxes, it would be certainly be good for lawyers. He rejected the suggestion at that time. Does not his statement today confirm it?
Alun Michael: No, it does not. It confirms what I said before. We have always known that the Countryside Alliance would make two challengesone on the Parliament Act and the other on human rights issues, although it has not commenced any such action. The Countryside Alliance has made it clear for several years that that was its intention, so it should come as no surprise to anyone. We believe that the outcome will be clear and simple in both cases and that neither of the challenges will succeed, so I still say my hon. Friend is wrong.
Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): The right hon. Gentleman will doubtless remember the amendment on the Order Paper of 15 September in my name, which provided that if the legality of the Act should be challenged before the courts at its implementation date, the Act should not come into force until those proceedings had been disposed of. Would it not have been a great deal more transparent and, some might say, honest of the Government to have accepted that amendment, or at least its sense, rather than to embark on a wholly unprecedented device in order save their electoral bacon?
Alun Michael: No, that is a crazy approach. The right hon. and learned Gentleman suggests that we should anticipate challenges to legislation that has properly been put in place by the House. He may want to undermine the good law-making processes of the House, but I think it is for the House to pass legislation in a proper way and for the courts to do their job. Let us keep the two separate.
Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): Am I the only Labour Member to be fed up with the constant sniping by my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman) at the Front Bench? I take the view that the Hunting Act that was passed is good law and we should leave it to the courts to decide how it should be implemented.
Alun Michael: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support. I would not criticise my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Sir Gerald Kaufman), because by raising the question he has enabled the House to clarify things and to give less excuse to those on the Opposition Benches and in the Countryside Alliance who want confusion to prevailbut I agree with my hon. Friend.
Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): The Minister hopes for clarity on the law, and I agree. Can he confirm that after the date of commencement, whenever it turns out to be, exempt hunting, drag hunting, exercising hounds, chasing away, searching and unintentional hunting will continue to be legal?
I can confirm that the Act bans only those things that it bans. What people ought to do is to
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look at the Act, the provisions of which are clear. We are doing all that we can to ensure that people have clear understanding of the legislation, which is quite a challenge given the amount of misinformation that has been put out by those who do not like the Act. I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that the Act is much clearer than he seeks to imply.
Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): What is the Minister's current forecast of the implementation date for the legislation, in the light of what he said in his statement about likely court proceedings and their timing? Will he assure his hon. Friends that he is desperately striving to get the Act implemented before the election?
Alun Michael : My current prediction on the date of implementation is 18 February. It will be a court decision, which I shall certainly not anticipate, as to whether there should be any delay to that commencement. We have already heard people say that there could be no delay because the legislation is clear and specific about the date of commencementthree months after Royal Assentbut that is a matter to be discussed if, as we anticipate, the case fails following the hearing of first instance and an application is made for an injunction. It will be for the court to decide, and I am happy to leave it to the court.
Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale) (Con): The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) is right in one thing: there have been two voices from the Government. First, there was a Bill that would have allowed hunting to continue under licence, and then there was a Government Bill to ban all hunting. That is what has exasperated my constituents. Given that they will lose their livelihood through this wretched measure, surely they should be permitted, without interference from the Government, to pursue all their entitlements through the courts in the proper way.
Alun Michael: The hon. Gentleman ought to explain to his constituents how reasonable the Government have been in trying to find a less divisive way through this most divisive of issues. That is why I brought proposals to the House, with the support of the Prime Minister, as has been made clear on many occasions. The House voted for a different piece of legislation. It amended the Bill that I introduced and voted in the same way as it has on 10 occasions over 10 years. I respect that; so should the hon. Gentleman, and so should his constituents.
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