HC Deb 12 July 1999 vol 335 cc12-5
9. Mr. David Watts (St. Helens, North)

If he will bring forward proposals for legislation on hunting with dogs. [89218]

11. Dr. Howard Stoate (Dartford)

If he will bring forward legislation on hunting with dogs. [89220]

14. Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East)

If he will bring forward legislation on hunting with dogs. [89224]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. George Howarth)

As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made clear, we are actively considering how to take this issue forward.

The House voted overwhelmingly in favour of a ban on hunting in a free vote in 1997. Since then, we have been discussing ways of bringing this issue to a conclusion. We hope to make an announcement of our specific proposals soon.

Mr. Watts

I thank my hon. Friend for that response, which will be warmly welcomed by the vast majority of the public. However, does he agree that any legislation must ban hunting with dogs totally, and that no opt-out should be introduced under any further legislation?

Mr. Howarth

My hon. Friend will be aware of the words of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister last week. Obviously, we will bring forward our proposals in due course, and I am sure that my hon. Friend and many others will welcome them very warmly when they appear.

Dr. Stoate

On behalf of my constituents in Dartford, who are overwhelmingly in favour of a ban, I thank my hon. Friend for his reply. Is my hon. Friend aware of the latest MORI opinion poll, which puts 72 per cent. of people against hunting with dogs? Is he further aware that the survey shows that Conservative supporters are three to one against hunting, dwellers in rural communities are four to one in favour of a ban and readers of The Daily Telegraph are two to one in favour? In view of that, will he be able to produce legislation at the earliest possible opportunity—hopefully, before the end of this Parliament?

Mr. Howarth

If the opportunity permits, that is exactly what we hope to achieve. Of course, my hon. Friend is right. A large proportion of the public have repeatedly shown in polls that they favour legislation of that sort. Indeed, a majority of hon. Members have shown that they favour such legislation. For Labour Members, there will be a free vote and I hope that all the other parties will take a similar position.

Dr. Iddon

My hon. Friend knows that strong feelings run in all quarters of the House on this issue. I hear what he says about a free vote. Has he or have the Government had discussions with Opposition Members to ensure that there will be a free vote across the House, especially bearing in mind some of the press reports today? Furthermore, will he agree that all hon. Members ought to be welcome to express their opinions freely without being gagged?

Mr. Howarth

I can speak only for the Government when I say that the intention is that we will have a free vote. There are certainly compelling reasons why the Opposition may be persuaded that a free vote would be appropriate.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

So that hon. Members on both sides of the House and on both sides of this free vote issue will know how things stand, can we be clear whether this will be a Home Office Bill in Government time, introduced by Home Office Ministers? Will the Minister be publishing—at the time that the Bill is published, or before—the work done by the Home Office on the policing of a hunt ban and the memorandum in which he appeared to say that the International Fund for Animal Welfare would switch its attention from the issue to the Government if it were not resolved quickly?

Mr. Howarth

The right hon. Gentleman will not be surprised to learn that I will not comment on leaked documents—

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)

What about the money?

Madam Speaker

Order. Questions must not be asked from a sedentary position. I reprimand the hon. Gentleman. He must ask questions only when I call him.

Mr. Howarth

I am grateful for your guidance, Madam Speaker.

To answer the question asked by the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), there are three options, all of which are under consideration. The first is a Government Bill, the second the possibility of a private Member's Bill and the third the possibility of an amendment to a Government Bill. At this stage, we have not adopted a particular position, but we shall in due course make our position clear.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

Has the hon. Gentleman ever been to the Lincolnshire agricultural show? Is he aware that, at last month's show, there was a display of the five local hunts, which was by far the most popular display at the show? Does he understand the dismay, bewilderment and extreme anger that would be felt by those who were at that show at the suggestion that the pastime that they so vigorously support should be made criminal? Does he not realise that would be an outrageous infringement of civil rights? Will he understand that this Government will long be remembered as the Government who released killers, but threatened with imprisonment those who have long supported the traditional country sports?

Mr. Howarth

The right hon. and learned Gentleman will probably not be surprised to learn that I did not attend that particular agricultural affair, but I acknowledge that there are strong feelings on both sides of the argument. Indeed, there are strong feelings on both sides of the House and they are not universally shared by members of particular parties. The truth of the matter is that the House expressed its view on the issue in this Parliament and the public have expressed their view in many opinion polls. The balance of the argument must be to move the issue further forward. The right hon. and learned Gentleman does not help his cause by using arguments that simply do not stand up to close scrutiny.

Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey)

Is the Minister aware that the country likes Government policy to be consistent, and that we like Ministers to be consistent too, even though they may occasionally be wrong? Is it consistent to change the law so as to put in prison people who hunt vermin with hounds and, at the same time, to release terrorists from prison?

Mr. Howarth

I have to point out that the Opposition supported the principles behind the Good Friday agreement, and it is, frankly, wrong for the hon. Gentleman to condense both that issue and hunting. I am sure that he, like the rest of us, wants to see peace in Northern Ireland, and I should not have expected the hon. Gentleman to raise this issue along with that of Northern Ireland.

Mr. Eddie O'Hara (Knowsley, South)

When considering the issue, will my hon. Friend reflect, as I have, on the fact that those who demonstrate outside the House and on the Opposition Benches, saying, "Hands off our country sports," answer themselves out of their own mouths when they reveal that they make a sport out of pursuing, terrorising, torturing and killing high-order sentient creatures?

Mr. Howarth

My hon. Friend and constituency neighbour makes his own point. I simply repeat what I said a few moments ago: there are strong feelings on both sides of the argument, but I hope that those who want to express strong views will do so in a non-violent and civilised way. The House is eager to debate the issue and, if we do so on those terms, we will not exercise ourselves wrongly.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury)

Given the honourable and long-held difference of opinion on this issue among hon. Members on the Government Benches as well as those on the Opposition Benches, will the Minister say whether the free vote among Labour Members will, as with Conservative Members, include members of the Front Bench and apply to all stages of any legislation?

Does the Minister accept that Home Office Ministers regarded such legislation as the very last thing that they wanted dumped on their desks at this time? They have been landed with it by the desperation of spin doctors at No. 10, who are in a panic about how to distract media attention away from the public slanging match between the Prime Minister and his deputy, and by their fears of a hostile advertising campaign operated by one of the Labour party's £1 million paymasters.

Mr. Howarth

The hon. Gentleman raises the question of a sum of money that was paid to the Labour party before the previous general election. Perhaps he and his hon. Friends would like to explain why a large sum from the same organisation was paid to the Conservative party and the Liberal Democrats.

In his remarks last week, the Prime Minister was reflecting the will of the House and the view of the people of this country. Perhaps it is about time that the hon. Gentleman and his party started to make similar reflections. They could not be more wrong about how we arrived at this position, and they could not be more wrong about who they think they will become popular with by taking the line that they have taken.