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Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Viscount for his question. I understand his point about the legislative backlog but of course we are not planning to legislate in this current Session but in the next Session, providing that we can fit in all the pieces of legislation that we want to have. I make the point that I made at the outset: agreement about debate is best decided upon and worked through the usual channels. That is the most sensible way to proceed: it usually works extremely well. Members of your Lordships' House have debated many issues with opportunities being given through the usual channels.

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The noble Viscount makes comparisons between the members of the Countryside Alliance and those demonstrators who defaced the Cenotaph and insulted the intelligence of all of us by their poor and ill-judged behaviour, their violence and their general unpleasantness. The point is simply this: with all these things, however strongly held our views may be and however passionate our feelings on issues of the day, it is for all of us to make sure that we have a reasoned, fair-minded and open-minded debate. That is an encouragement I would offer, particularly on a subject like this which, I think we must all acknowledge, stirs up very strong feelings all round on all its different aspects. These debates are best conducted in a fair and open-minded way.

Lord Palmer: My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord the Minister whether he happened to see his honourable friend, Kate Hoey, yesterday on television, when she said that surely there are more important things facing this Government than a Bill to ban hunting with dogs?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I did not actually catch that particular interview, but I understand the sentiments. This is an issue which has been around for a very long time and it is not unreasonable for us to try, as a Parliament, to resolve it one way or the other. I do not pretend that it is a straightforward issue: I do not think that anybody would say that. It is a complex matter and I believe that the report will help us to get to the heart of some of the issues involved and deal with the complexities.

Lord Hoyle: My Lords, perhaps I may say to my noble friend that I agree with him that there will be many views expressed in this House. I hope that reasoned views will be expressed but may I say, as someone who has always lived in the countryside and who lives in the uplands, that, if we had to rely on fox hunting to control foxes in our area we would have been overrun long ago? May I ask him whether he has seen reports that certain hunts are breeding foxes, which seems to me to be a contradiction if they are supposed to be exercising pest control? May I ask him, if a Bill comes forward containing the various options, would it also apply to stag hunting and hare coursing? Finally, is my noble friend, like me, expressing some surprise that the party opposite now, in relation to Scottish Members, appear to be against the Union?

4.45 p.m.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the noble Lord speaks with a longer parliamentary experience than I do on these matters, and he also speaks with great wisdom. I am somewhat surprised by some of the observations made by Members of the party opposite. As I said earlier, this issue is one which needs to be carefully thought through and resolved. The report provides us with that opportunity and I think that we

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should try to concentrate our minds on that issue. As to whether foxes, deer, mink and hares will be covered, I think the answer is yes.

Lord Elton: My Lords, some of us are becoming increasingly puzzled by the mechanics of this. The noble Lord said a moment ago that we would have the Bill if it could be fitted in among all the other pieces of legislation that the Government wanted to bring in. Can he tell us whether there is actually a firm commitment by the Government to bring a Bill in? Also, can he answer more precisely the question that has been asked from both Front Benches as to what sort of Bill it will be? Is it going to be a "No. 2" Bill, in which we see exactly the choices to be faced by the other place and make our decision on those, or are we merely to pick up whatever the other place have decided we should have, after having made their own amendments to whatever sort of Bill it is?

It is difficult to believe that a government who were actually ready to announce the introduction of a Bill before the report on which we thought the Bill would be based have not thought through the mechanics of how it would be handled in Parliament. I presume that the noble Lord has the answer to hand.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I thought I had made it reasonably clear. One can never be absolutely precise about how many Bills there will be in any parliamentary Session this far in advance: it would be unwise. A Bill with options will come to this House—that is to say, with the options preferred by the other place. That procedure worked for the Sunday Trading Bill, as I recall—I think my recollection is right—but that does not mean that this House will not have the quite proper opportunity to look at, debate and discuss all those options.

To make it crystal clear once again, we will provide in another place—and it is my hope and expectation that we shall have that opportunity here as well—the opportunity for a full debate on this report. We did not say at the outset that this report would somehow be the legislation. We said that the report would be there to provide the background and the framework for a debate about key issues which have been raised. This would lead to a better informed debate. I think that is a very sensible way forward, and we will make sure that arrangements are made for this House to look at all the options which have been considered by the other place.

The Earl of Longford: My Lords, would the Minister inform us whether there is any possible objection to drag hunting? My father was a master of foxhounds and I was brought up to believe that was a noble sport. That still leaves a human point of view. Later, the cruelty to the fox has rather overwhelmed me so that I do not favour fox hunting but I do favour drag hunting. Is there any possible objection to drag hunting? Everything is fine about hunting except that it is cruel to the fox.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I think it is worth putting on the record that this is an issue which

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was considered very carefully by the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his committee. The report looks at drag hunting and I would simply commend the report to the noble Earl so that he can read it carefully. It goes at length into that subject. Of course, drag hunting is a popular pastime and sport and it is one of the things the report encourages us to look at more closely. It is obviously something which many people enjoy.

Lord Waddington: My Lords, do not the Government understand that there are many on this side of the House who have never hunted but who nevertheless believe that to criminalise hunting would be a gross interference with individual freedom? Have not the Government themselves said on many occasions that a tolerant society is one that respects the strongly held views of minorities, particularly minorities who are not inflicting their views on other people but who merely want to be left alone to pursue an occupation which has been part of country life for generations? Will the noble Lord please recognise that there are many like me who have actually joined their local hunt to demonstrate how much they resent the idea that a majority in another place should inflict their views on people who want to continue to follow a perfectly proper recreation?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I respect and understand the noble Lord's view. The Government have no great desire to criminalise people who seek pleasure—

Noble Lords: Oh!

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, if I may conclude my point, we have no great desire to criminalise people. I understand entirely the strength of feeling held by Opposition Members. It is best to look dispassionately at the issue. The purpose of the report was to have more informed debate, which is an entirely sensible way to proceed.

As I said at the outset, the Government are neutral and it is a matter for Parliament to decide on a free vote. That is an entirely sensible and logical way through a complex issue on which there are many strongly held views.

Several noble Lords rose—

Noble Lords: Mallalieu.

The Attorney-General (Lord Williams of Mostyn): My Lords, I sense that your Lordships wish to hear from my noble friend Lady Mallalieu.

Baroness Mallalieu: My Lords, I speak with a keen interest on this matter because, if one of the Bill's proposed options were adopted, myself, my husband, children and neighbours, together with many of my best friends, would be imprisoned if they continued to behave as they do now—which we believe to be perfectly lawful.

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I ask my noble friend the Minister to convey to the Home Secretary the gratitude of many people for the establishment of the inquiry, which for the first time gave many the opportunity to have their say to someone they felt was listening. I pass on the thanks of all those on both sides of the argument to the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his team. Nobody could have spent more time, taken more trouble or shown more patience in seeing for themselves and listening.

This issue has become incredibly divisive. It is not simply a matter of town against country, as it is sometimes billed. It is a case of people against people—sometimes in the same village or family. I suspect that the Government were elected by such a large majority in 1997 because people wanted to see a nation working together. It would be hard to find something more likely to destroy that feeling than a Bill of this type.

I hope that this matter will not drag on and on. If we spend the next Session on the Bill, the result is inconclusive and people stick to entrenched positions, the battle will be carried on after the next general election—possibly for some years beyond that.

I wonder why we were not allowed to see the report a little earlier today, so that we could have some idea of its content before the Statement. The report is incredibly detailed and complex and it is likely to take up a great deal of legislative time. I hope that within it are the seeds of solutions that all reasonable people on both sides of the debate can grasp and accept. If so, perhaps we can prevent a recurrence of today's sad spectacle of people having to come from all over England to appeal to Members of both Houses to defend their rights.

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