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Viscount Astor: My Lords, before the noble Lord winds up, perhaps he could explain why, if he feel so strongly about the subject, he was unable to be here except for the last 10 minutes, and did not show the usual courtesy of hearing any of the opening speeches.
Lord Laird: My Lords, perhaps I could point out that while I am grateful for the noble Viscount's intervention, I have been here for the best part of an hour and I propose to be here for the rest of the debate.
Viscount Astor: My Lords, if the noble Lord looks at the list of speakers, he will see that it clearly says that it is discourteous for a noble Lord not to be here for the opening speeches if he is going to speak in the debate.
I realise that it is unlikely that the Bill will pass through this House in anything like the form it is in today. That is why the Government must stick to their promises and reintroduce the Bill in the next Session. We now have a chance to be part of a huge leap forward for animal welfare in England and Wales, and I hope that your Lordships will take that chance to make history and that the provisions will soon be extended to Northern Ireland.
Lord Mancroft: My Lords, I start by declaring my interest as a member of the board of the Countryside Alliance, as a former Master of Hounds and a regular and passionate fox hunteruntil my nerve finally gives out.
The purpose of the Bill is not to fulfil the Labour Party manifesto but, as we know, to enable Parliament to reach a conclusion on the issue, which is rather different. That commitment followed the publication of the Burns report, which did not conclude that hunting was cruel. Mr Alun Michael, the Minister appointed to deal with the issue, then embarked on a six-month consultation process involving the general public and the three main interested groups. Only 14 of the public submissions of evidence supported a ban. That process culminated in the three days of public hearings at Portcullis House. That was an extraordinary exercise in open democracy and, although little consensus was achieved, there was no evidence that would lead a reasonable person to conclude that a case for banning hunting had been made.
Three areas of agreement were reached, however. First, it was agreed that all four quarry species need to be controlled, and will continue to be, whether or not there is hunting; that all methods of control inevitably cause a degree of suffering, which it is impossible to measure; and that all animals should, in principle, be treated the same way.
That was the basis on which the Minister drafted his Bill. The significant difference between that and earlier Bills is that it did not ban hunting but provided for a system of registration and regulation. Not only the Minister but the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and a number of others who had previously voted for a ban put their names to the Bill as sponsors. The evidence on which the Bill was drafted simply did not, and does not, justify a ban.
As my noble friend Lord Peel said earlier, the Bill was far from perfect. The definition of "utility" excluded both conservation and wildlife management, both of which were included in the consultation process. The definition of "least suffering" required the registrar to measure suffering in a way that the experts at Portcullis House had unanimously agreed was impossible. In addition, applicants for registration faced the reverse burden of proof test. Therefore, the key tests were loaded against hunting for political reasons.
Putting aside those rather childish and obvious flaws, the architecture of the Bill and the system that it envisaged could, with a little amendment and a degree of good will, have produced a solution to this intractable political problem. It is important to remember that this is a political problem. This is not an animal welfare Bill, but an attempt to resolve a political problemalthough it is not a problem in your Lordships' House or in the country as a whole, where polls now show that 90 per cent of voters do not give a hoot about hunting. Contrary to what the Minister told us in his opening speech, the polls also show that a significant majority now opposes a ban.
The only place where this problem exists is on the Back Benches of the government party in the House of Commons. That is why we are here today, wasting valuable parliamentary time. That is why, as the Session draws to a close, we shall have to spend day after day going through a Bill that nobody wants, at the expense of other important Bills and issues facing our country. That having been said, we could have done it, as your Lordships always do.
Unfortunately, that was not to be. As everyone now knows, during its Report stage in another place, the Government lost control of their Bill. Despite the best efforts and pleading of the Minister, who extraordinarily left the Chamber of the House of Commons for over an hour during the debate to negotiate with his opponents, and of the Secretary of State who spent the entire evening sidling round the Back Benches, in full view, trying to cobble a deal together, the Bill they introduced was hijacked and wrecked.
I suggest that all is not lost. I and my many friends in the hunting community would indeed like to see this issue resolved, as the Government pledged. We are prepared to accept a system of registration and regulation, along
In his opening remarks this afternoon, the Minister said that the Government would not be easily swayed by our amendments and that the Bill now represented the Government's approach. That is a slightly different view from that which the Minister for Rural Affairs wrote in his letter dated 11th September, only five days ago. He wrote:
We are prepared to work with the Government to produce such a Bill, with your Lordships' assistance of course, based on the Bill that the Government originally introduced. However, we need the Government's active and constructive co-operation if we are to achieve that. This Bill entered the House of Commons 10 months ago, in December, and was subjected to almost 100 hours of debate. It is not very helpful that the Bill arrives in this House in the dying weeks of the Session, when the timetable is under pressure, and when, before we have even seen the Bill once, let alone twice, we are already threatened with the Parliament Act, before we have tried to improve a Bill described by its sponsor as "wrecked".
We are lucky to enjoy government by consent and policing by consent in this country, precisely because Parliament has taken the trouble to enact just law. But with the weight of evidence that the Burns report and the Government's consultation process produced, it is clear that a ban on hunting would be completely unjustified and would be a severe and unprecedented restriction of the liberties of a significant minority of demonstrably law-abiding citizens. Several thousand people have now made it clear that they are deeply distressed and appalled at the prospect of this, but that they neither can nor will accept such an unjust law. Indeed, as my noble friend Lord Kimball told us earlier, it is highly probable that, despite the certificate on the face of the Bill, as currently drafted it is in breach of Article 1 First Protocol, Article 6 and Article 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights. My understanding is that the Joint Select Committee will consider that in due course. We look forward to its report.
In opening the debate the Minister dismissed those concerns rather flippantly with remarks about Eastern Europe and the right to pursue animals. I do not think that is the way to look at the European convention; and I do not think that the noble Lord's right honourable friend the Prime Minister would think that it was either. The Prime Minister's political triumph is that he has persuaded the British people that new Labour is a responsible party of government. This Bill is now a test of that. Responsible governments do not allow rogue elements in their ranks to hijack legislation for their own ends and to inflict their prejudices on one part of our community in breach of the European convention, backed by threats of a constitutional sledgehammer, when a sensible solution is within sight and people are prepared to work for it.
Lord Beaumont of Whitley: My Lords, I must start by making it clear that for once I do not speak for my party. The Green Party, I regret to say, like the majority of Members of another place, and like the noble Lord, Lord Laird, for instance in this place, but unlike, I am delighted to say, the Bench of Bishops, have got their moral theology in a twist.
There is a fundamental distinction we must make in our treatment of animals between those which are domesticated or farmed, and for whom we have therefore accepted a personal responsibility, and those which are wild and which we therefore meet species to species. In dealing with those that are domesticated or farmed we have a duty to see that they are treated as well as possible and spared unnecessary suffering, as I have tried to do in your Lordships' House, as your Lordships know. On the other hand, with those animals that are wild our duty lies in our handling of the biodiversity of the planet. We are responsible not for Basil Brush but for the fox population of this country as a whole.
Our primary duty is to see that the fox population is held in balance with that of its prey, competitors and predators. That control is needed we can see from the growth of the fox population. Many of your Lordships live in the country but I suspect that few of your Lordships have seen foxes copulating. Last year in
I am not suggesting the foundation of a Clapham hunt but it is as part of a very complex traditional control system that fox hunting has its place. I do not pretend for one instant that fox hunting is a major or efficient way of controlling foxesI know more about fox hunting than thatit is merely a valuable part of what, to use a useful cliche, one can call the rich tapestry of life and death in the countryside. It is for that reason that I vehemently oppose its abolition.
I hope that I have earned a reputation in your Lordships' House for short speeches. It is not a reputation I intend to jeopardise today, but there is one particular point arising from the voluminous correspondence we have all received which I should like to mention. I am very dubious, in spite of having carried the whip for two packs of beagles in my youth, about the need for hunting hares, and, incidentally, far from convinced about stag hunting, although I am open to persuasion on that. However, an exceptional case has been brought to my attention in one of the letters that I have received about basset hounds.
Having been a devotee of fox hunting all my life, if the anti-hunting lobby were, first, to take the trouble to find out exactly what does happen out hunting and then, if it still so wished, to say that even that was not acceptable in these modern times, I might not agree with it but I would respect its right to say so. What I am not prepared to accept is to be condemned for things that we do not do out hunting, that we never have done out hunting and that, if anyone tried to do them, the perpetrators would be sent home and never allowed to come out with our hounds again.
Thirdly, it is no good Her Majesty's Government trying to shelter behind the size and breadth of the majority in another place on this issue. It is they who have set the scene, provided the parliamentary time, drafted the Bill and amendments, and given encouragement all along the line. Like all governments, theirs is the responsibility not always to pander to the majority but, on occasion, for ensuring that a minority is not unjustly penalised by sheer force of numbers on the other side.
Finally, I come to my question. I have been lucky enough to have been able to hunt, shoot and fish for most of my life, and I would defend each of those occupations with total confidence. But they stand or fall together. Her Majesty's Government have declared that, although they support this Bill, they will never allow either shooting or fishing to be banned and, indeed, the right honourable gentleman the Prime Minister has given his personal guarantee to that effect.
I would therefore ask the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, if he will at last answer this one question which Her Majesty's Government have been asked, and vainly asked, over and again: what are the precise criteria that make killing with a shotgun or with a rod and line acceptable, and even admirable, where killing with a pack of hounds is not? It really is vital for his sake that he give the answer to that question now because, if he cannot, once the Bill reaches the statute book, the animal lobby, which has set no such limit to its ambitions, will put exactly the same question, but the other way round. "Now that 'hunting with dogs' has been declared by law to be so objectionable that it has had to be made a criminal offence, what is it about shooting and fishing that makes them still acceptable?"
If the Minister's right honourable friends in another place are unable to give a wholly convincing answer to that question, neither they nor the right honourable gentleman, the Prime Minister, will be able to honour their pledge.
Lord Livsey of Talgarth: My Lords, I have the privilege of summing up for my party, which is a very difficult task, as my noble friend Lord McNally pointed out, particularly as I have 24 pages of notes. I am sure that noble Lords will be glad to hear that I am not going to read them all out, but I will take a lead from some of them.
The issue before us is one of general principle and of conscience. Members are free to express their own opinions. We will have a free vote in Committee and we appreciate the differences of opinion as they are expressed on these Benches. In previous votes, the majority of my party has championed liberty on this issue. On the previous occasion, it did so by 25 to five. The champions of liberty in the debate today were my
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