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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Whitty): My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made by my right honourable friend the Minister of State for Rural Affairs in another place. The Statement is as follows:
'We will give the new House of Commons an early opportunity to express its view. We will then enable Parliament to reach a conclusion on this issue'.
"The votes this week leave the two Houses diametrically opposed. Indeed I have rarely seen an issue where greater divisions exist. It is precisely for that reason that it is right to see how it can be resolved with as much agreement as possible.
"I promise to engage with everyone who has an interest in this issue in order to make the legislation practical and robust. I promise to bring to the House of Commons a Bill that will deal with this issue effectively once and for all and make good law; and I earnestly hope that we can do so on the basis of as much common ground as possible.
"But we promised in the manifesto that it will be resolved. Should there be no way through and should the new Bill be frustrated in its passage rather than scrutinised and improved, the Government could not properly stand in the way of the application of the Parliament Act, which again of course would be a matter for this House.
"So the Government would prefer for the Bill to proceed by debate and a search for common ground wherever possible, with conflict tempered by tolerance. If that process is frustrated and the Bill rejected, we would reintroduce the Bill as quickly as possible to this House. It will then be for this House and its proceduresand indeed for Mr Speakerto determine whether the Parliament Act applies.
"However, the reason for re-engaging in a process to try to achieve wider agreement is precisely because we recognise that there are legitimate concerns in the countryside about pest control, about land management and about other practicalities and we want to address these issues in the Bill. These concerns were raised both in this House and in another place.
'We have no intention whatsoever of placing restrictions on the sports of angling and shooting'.
"On the content of the Bill itself, I believe that some common ground can be achieved best by focusing on two general principles. The report by Lord Burns on hunting with dogs examined in great detail the principles of cruelty and utility. We propose to frame legislation that prohibits activity based on those two principles rather than simply setting out a list of activities to be banned.
"I am sure the House will have noted the very clear assurances I have given today about timing and outcome, as well as engagement which will involve those campaigning for a ban on hunting, and Members of this House, as well as those involved in land management.
"Inevitably, I recognise that this is a difficult issue, especially as we all know that there are pressing issues of legislation that also demand our attention on crime, health and education. We must deliver on our central promises to deliver reform and investment in our public services.
"Mr Speaker, I ask the House to trust me to deliver and to join me in a process which is guaranteed to achieve an outcome as soon as possible. I look forward to engaging with colleagues on all sides of this House and in another place.
We congratulate the Government on recognising the need to make good law and on their determination not to place restrictions on angling and shooting. I recommend the Government wholeheartedly on this point of good law because it is at the heart of the issue. As many of your Lordships commented during our debate, it would be wrong to distract our police forces, to whom I pay tribute for the job of stemming the rising tide of crime. This is one aspect of a wider issue. The Government's continuing determination to give a ban on hunting the highest priority when so much else is clamouring for attention is a disgrace.
The Statement requests this House to trust the Minister to deliver. Does this mean that the Prime Minister has given him carte blanche to achieve a solution? Although the Statement declares that the two Houses are diametrically opposed, will the Minister accept that on a free vote in this House and in another place earlier this week the two Houses declared themselves to be in favour of a middle way?
We do not accept that this is a black and white issue. It is a wide continuum, with many people sitting in the middle; and that fact tends to go overlooked. Is the Minister not willing to concede that the Statement he has given us today, while seeking views, also carries an uncanny unveiled threat that the Government will use the Parliament Act, and that even prior to us knowing what is going to be in the consultation document?
I turn now to the consultation period. Are these consultation papers ready? If not, how long will it be before they are issued? Mindful of Easter and the Jubilee celebrations coming, will there be time for the Minister to fulfil his promise to engage with everyone who has an interest in this issue?
Earlier this afternoon in another place the Minister seemed to suggest that the noble Lord, Lord Burns, had had his shout and that further interpretations by him of his report would not be considered. Are we to understand that the new round of consultation that is proposed will involve only those interests which have not already been expressed? Are we also to understand that the noble Lord, Lord Burns, will have no further input into the definition of "cruelty" and of the other word used in the Statement, "utility". Can the Minister explain to the House a little more about what is meant by "utility"?
I point out to the Minister that while the rural White Paper might be highly valued by the Government, as indeed they keep telling us, it was produced back in November 2000. It has not even been debated in this House and its implementation seems to be entrusted to many of the regional development agencies. Those have only one rural member on each board. Is it any wonder that the Government have had to use the Statement to point out to us and to the wider world that hunting is not a central issue in the countryside?
While the Minister is pressing the issues for legislation referred to in the Statement we are still awaiting the Government's response to the Curry report and indeed to the reports that have been produced by the noble Lord, Lord Haskins, who I do not think is in his place today, on better regulation and on the response to the FMD prices in Cumbria. These are just a few. There are many other reports waiting in the wings.
Finally, I ask the Minister where the newspapers obtained their most authoritative articles published today in advance of the Statement, which rather suggests insider knowledge. Were there any briefings and did they take place before the Minister rose to speak in another place?
Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, I would not pretend to speak for all voices in my party because in my party too we have diametrically opposed views. However, following the Statement, which I am glad the Minister has been able to make this afternoon, we can be certain of one thing, which is that we are not entirely clear what it means.
Having said that, I welcome the fact that it makes clear that the Burns inquiry is to be taken seriously. I welcome also the fact that the Government, having commissioned an inquiry, are going to take notice of it. I would certainly interpret the cruelty and utility part as exploring the balance between pest control and sport. That is a very important balance which should be thoroughly explored.
I, too, should like to know more about the timescale for the consultation and also whether local views will be taken into account on a locality basis or a regional basis; and, if so, what bodies will be consulted locally. That is particularly important because of the practical issuesif the Government are thinking of restricting hunting to certain areas, for example, uplands. The over-use of those upland areas is a matter which bodies concerned with them will no doubt want to consider as well. It would be reassuring if the Minister could, at some stage, give us an indication of how the consultation document will dovetail into the recommendations made in the food and farming report. Indeed, as the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, observed, we have not yet received any response to that report.
Further, it is important to ensure that the sort of turn-out that we saw in this House last Tuesday will be repeated and exercised on other issues in the future. One way or another, it would be pleasant if the hunting debate could be put to bed once and for all in a satisfactory manner.
Lord Whitty: My Lords, I appreciate the response to the Statement and the questions that have been raised. I believe that some of those questions seemed to suggest that the way we do these things is slightly misleading. The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, seemed to think that I have been empowered by the Prime Minister to carry through the process. However, I am the mere representative in this House of my right honourable friend Alun Michael whothank goodness!is the person who will have that responsibility. Nevertheless, I shall be responsible for processing the matter through this House.
In his Statement, my right honourable friend made it clear that he would wish to engage with Members of this House, those who expressed views in the debate in another place on Monday, and, more widely, with the interest groups involved. It is not a question of the views already expressed being taken as written, including those of the noble Lord, Lord Burns. We shall facilitate the process so that anyone else who wishes to do so may participate in the consultation. I cannot give an answer on precisely when the consultation documentation will be produced, but, following the Easter Recess, we shall start engaging in the process of consultation.
In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, I should point out that this matter needs to be very much separated from other consultations that will take place in terms of how we proceed with the Curry report, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, also referred. The initial response to that report will be available shortly. However, as I have already indicated to the House, we wish to engage in a programme of regional discussion over the spring and summer. The final response to the report will be produced in the autumn, by which time we shall have the advantageif I may put it that wayof finalising the spending review and other decisions of government. We are, therefore, aiming to produce a White Paper in the autumn.
The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, made a few aspersions in relation to some reports in today's newspapers. I can assure the noble Baroness that there was no such briefing; indeed, when I left my department at 1 o'clock this lunch-time, the Statement had not been finalised. Therefore, it would be impossible for anyone to have received it before that time. I believe that we can ignore that aspect of the matter.
However, the more important accusation that the noble Baroness made related to fact that, by this Statement, we are threatening further action. Everyone has known the potential constitutional position both on the previous, and on any new, legislation. The noble Baroness introduced the rather novel constitutional precept that I have heard repeated quite widely around the House over the past 48 hours; namely, that we would add up the scores of this House and those of another place. As noble Lords well know, that is not the way that the procedure works. Both Houses have to reach their conclusion, and it is to be hoped that we reach a conclusion that is at least acceptable, even if it is not entirely what either wants. However, if that process fails, the Governmentor, more accurately, the House of Commons, as it will be on a free votewould have the option of invoking the Parliament Act.
We believe that this issue has been around for long enough. We have had a sufficient number of debates on the subject, in which everyone has expressed his or her point of view. If, following the consultationand, it is to be hoped, the taking on board of many of the points raisedthe Bill then produced is adopted by the House of Commons, we are indicating that we would not stand in the way of the other place using the Parliament Act finally to resolve the issue, and thus meet our manifesto commitment that we would solve the matter in this Parliament.
Mention was made of the definition of "utility". Clearly, the prime reason for hunting tends to be pest control. However, there are other potential benefits from hunting, including economic considerations, that will need to be taken into the balance. The main concern among those who wish to promote a restriction or a ban on hunting is, of course, cruelty. When the noble Lord, Lord Burns, referred to "cruelty", I believe that he did so in the context that we already have a definition in existing legislation. The issue is whether the consideration of other factors means that the definition of the word has at least to be modified in the light of aspects of utility. We are not balancing one against the other, but we must also take issues of utility into account. That is the basis of the approach to drafting the new Bill.
The response to the Statement indicates that we still have a long way to go in the consultation process, in the re-engagement of the various partiesboth parliamentary and otherwiseand in the drafting of the Bill. We have given an indication of the time-scale on which the Bill will be producednamely, six monthsand of the process that will ensue if, regrettably, we still end up in a deadlock. That is simply a statement as to the reality of the situation. I hope that we can move to more of a consensus on the issue. However, if we cannot, the use of the Parliament Act is, therefore, promised.
Lord Hurd of Westwell: My Lords, it seems to me that the Minister has not fully understood the point made by my noble friend on the Front Bench about the leak of information. She was not suggesting that the
When repeating the Statement, the noble Lord talked about certain principles and a process of consultation after which time a Bill will be produced. However, it is quite evident that someone connected with government has been reassuring those in favour of a total ban that their wishes90 per cent according to one reportwill be met. That reflects quite a different, divisive and belligerent approach, and, indeed, one quite contrary to what the Minister has been trying to convey to the House this afternoon. Can he clarify the position?
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