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Lord Roberts of Conwy: The noble Baroness will, like me, have heard the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, say that neither he nor the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, intended to vote on the amendment. Does not the government abstention on the issue of registration suggest that at least a system of registration is within the parameters of a compromise which might be accepted by the Government?

Baroness Mallalieu: I very much hope that that is the case. I see the Minister's difficulty in voting against the provisions which were the work of his colleague,
 
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Alun Michael, in another place. I hope that the line he has taken indicates that we may have a more favourable reception.

Lord Richard: I have taken no part in any of the discussions on this or the previous hunting Bills. Hunting is not an issue that stirs my heart one way or the other. If people want to put on red coats and chase animals across a field, I am reasonably tolerant about that. I have heard the evidence, but I am not convinced that it is necessarily a cruel way of doing what we must do; that is, to control foxes. I have therefore previously abstained.

I have listened carefully to everything that has been said today and understand the great difficulty that the House is in. My noble friend talks about negotiations. So be it, but the trouble is that there are three parties to the negotiations; this House, the other place and the Government. It is important that before going into those negotiations this House should clearly express its view in principle of a registration scheme for the hunting of foxes by dogs.

Once the House has agreed the basic principle, the negotiations can legitimately start on the many details of the scheme; for instance, what should be contained in it and whether deer should be covered by it. One could negotiate about the form of the scheme, whether that proposed in the Bill is sensible or whether there should be another. However, we should first take a decision on whether in principle we are in favour of a registration scheme in respect of the hunting of foxes by dogs.

It is a simple question and we should take a simple decision on it. In a sense, it would mean degrouping the amendments and taking a vote on the first amendment. Thereafter, no doubt, discussions—sensible ones, one hopes—could take place between at least two of the parties to these tripartite negotiations; namely, the Government on the one hand and those who are passionately in favour of hunting on the other.

Lord Tebbit: I think that there is something in what the noble Lord has just said. It also reflects upon what the noble Lord, Lord Carter, who is not now in his place, said about the use of the Parliament Act. Although the War Crimes Bill—one of the Bills that he quoted—was the subject of a free vote, it was clearly the government's Bill. The executive wanted it and therefore it was probably not inappropriate that the Parliament Act should have been used.

We are now in a difficult situation because, as has been said, there are three parties to these negotiations. From what we have heard, we know that the Government would be very willing to find a compromise. We know that because, of course, the compromise which might arise would be a Bill very close to one that the Government themselves introduced.

The awkward squad in all this is the majority in the other place, which does not appear to be fully under the control of the Government. So it would be very strange—but we live in a strange world these days—were this House to oblige the Government by giving
 
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them a second chance to get their own legislation passed. In the event that the Government were able to persuade the majority in the Commons that that would be the right course, we could then forget the Parliament Act or anything of that kind and, with a little shuffling backwards and forwards, I am sure we would be able to find a compromise that would work.

So the question is: how will the Government deal with this legislation if we amend it so that it becomes the Bill that they really want? If I were the business manager in the other place or the Prime Minister, I would know that I had one weapon with which I could persuade the majority in the Commons to come into line—parliamentary time. If the Prime Minister were to let his majority know that, in the event that they did not compromise and accept what was basically the Government's Bill—the registration Bill—he would not allow time and the Bill would fall, then surely we could expect a compromise to be reached.

Therefore, it seems to me that, whatever else we do or do not do, we should at least provide the opportunity to find out whether, ultimately, the Government have the courage to stand by the Bill that they wanted or whether they will be pushed over by their own supporters in that place as opposed to, on this occasion, their supporters on both sides of this House.

I admit that it is a little odd for this place to support the executive against the majority in the other place, but I think that we should at least give it a fair chance. We should see whether the noises that have been coming from those informed sources and spin masters—that is, that the Government, and particularly the Prime Minister, would like to avoid a confrontation between the Government and the rural interest in this country—are true. The fact that the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, is not going to vote either way on this matter suggests that there is a feeling of compromise in the air, and we should give it a go.

Lord Mancroft: As the fifth member of the "gang of four", perhaps I may add my voice to those who have already spoken in support of these amendments, to which my name is attached. The noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, explained quite adequately to the Committee at the outset of this debate why the Bill before us today—we have discussed it before and do not need to do so again—is unworkable and unenforceable and why it is based on prejudice and bigotry.

We have already been through that, but an important point was the contribution to the debate made by the noble Lord, Lord Burns, at Second Reading. Towards the end of his speech, he made a very important point, which has not been focused on as much as it might be. It was in the context of the phrase "good and robust law", which is what the Government were seeking in resolving this very difficult issue.

The noble Lord, Lord Burns, told us that using the Parliament Act or a similar device to settle this issue in a way which those most involved—the rural
 
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community—would regard as unfair and unjust would, in fact, not settle the matter; it would mean that it would fester on in the countryside for years and years until a future government came back and resolved it properly. Regardless of any noble Lord's views on this issue, that is another incentive and another reason to find a more equitable way to settle the issue.

Whatever the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle, and others think or, indeed, whatever I may think, the noble Lord, Lord Burns, who has considered this matter independently, believes that cruelty is not proven and that there is no evidence of cruelty to justify a ban or such a draconian step. That, in itself, is another reason that we should seek a better way forward.

The noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, and the rest of the gang of four are proposing an alternative. The alternative, the principle of which is enshrined in this first amendment and which we shall go on to discuss in detail as the amendments proceed, is, as your Lordships are aware, entirely consistent with the Government's original proposal. That proposal was based on the evidence and the principle that the Government promised to everyone, including the rural community. It is what we now know that the Government apparently want and, in particular, it is what the Prime Minister appears to want.

In his opening remarks, which, while they may have been Delphic, I found extremely helpful, the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, made it clear that changes have been proposed to the Bill through amendments which we have tabled and which we are to discuss this evening and tomorrow. That is right. When we attempted, via amendments, to move from the present Bill back to the original government proposal, we were, if I may put it this way, shooting at a moving target because the Bill changed during its progress from First Reading to Second Reading and through the Committee stage in the House of Commons. We tabled those amendments not as a deliberate attempt to deceive your Lordships or to hide issues but in an effort to find the most equitable and reasonable way to proceed, bearing in mind that, as your Lordships will know, if something is changed early in the proceedings on a Bill, it frequently affects the Bill further along the line. This was, and is, a long and complex Bill but it is in a form to which we hope your Lordships will agree.

I believe there are very few matters of principle in the changes that we have made, but we would welcome comments from either the Government Front Bench or elsewhere if it is felt that we have it wrong. There are two major changes to the Bill introduced by Mr Alun Michael, and we shall reach them in due course. They are not, I think, matters to be dealt with at present. At the moment, we need consider only the principle of registration.

Of the two changes that we are proposing, one is to do with coursing and stag hunting and the other is the second test of registration—the test of utility. We shall discuss those as and when we reach them. The Minister suggested that we had changed in some way the test of least suffering. I think that, on reflection, he will find that we have not or, if we have changed it, that we have
 
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done so inadvertently, but I believe that it remains the original test of least suffering. However, again, we shall come to that in due course.

What we have produced here is a compromise. There is no doubt about that. We have compromised considerably in going down this route, and that was our intention. We would like to find a compromise solution. We have made considerable concessions. I shall not go through them in detail now, but as we go through the later amendments, which take us stage by stage through the registration process, the concessions that we have made, and are prepared to put on the table in a gesture of goodwill to solve this very difficult issue, will become clear. On the other hand, I point out—without, I hope, any inflection in my voice—that I have yet to detect one single concession that has come from the other side. It takes two to tango.

I hope that we have produced what the Government wanted: a registration Bill—their registration Bill. We have produced exactly what was recommended by the Government's independent report under the noble Lord, Lord Burns; and we have produced exactly what the Prime Minister appeared to be talking about at lunch time this very day. Therefore, we hope that your Lordships will look on it favourably and work with us as we go through this somewhat complicated process over the next day or two to try to produce the compromise that we hope the Government will accept.

My last point is that in listening to the Minister speaking from the Front Bench—I do not make this comment in a judgmental way—from time to time I found it difficult to work out his position. My understanding was that Ministers on the Front Bench represent the government of the day, not the House of Commons. The House of Commons must represent itself. So, when the Minister speaks at the end of the debate, it would be immensely helpful if he could explain not the position of the House of Commons—we all know that—but the position of the Government. That is the key to the issue. We are giving back to the Government the Government's Bill; we are supporting the Government and we hope to find a compromise. I hope that at this late hour the Government, for once, will support the same compromise.


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