HC Deb 12 June 2000 vol 351 cc639-52 3.30 pm
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw)

With permission, I shall make a statement on the report of the committee of inquiry into hunting with dogs in England and Wales, which I am publishing today. Copies of the report are available in the Vote Office.

The House will recall that, last November, I announced that there would be an inquiry into hunting and that Lord Burns had accepted my invitation to be the chairman. The other members of the inquiry were appointed for their expertise in agricultural and rural economics, and in veterinary science. I am most grateful to Lord Burns, and to the members of his committee, for their hard work and for the fact that the report has come in on time.

The committee was not asked to recommend whether hunting should be banned, for that is a matter for Parliament to decide. Nor was it asked to consider moral or ethical issues. The Burns report instead covers four key areas in relation to hunting. First, it considers the contribution that hunting makes to employment and the rural economy as well as to social and cultural aspects of life in rural areas. Secondly, it deals with animal welfare issues and matters of population management. Thirdly, it considers whether drag hunting is a viable alternative to hunting with hounds. The final area covered by the report is an assessment of the consequences of any ban on hunting, and how a ban might be implemented. The report also assesses how some people's concerns in regard to particular aspects of hunting might be addressed should hunting not be banned.

The committee visited different parts of England and Wales to witness at first hand a number of hunting activities. Academics were commissioned to undertake research. The inquiry organised a number of seminars, which were attended by all sides of the debate. It also held public meetings and ensured that working papers were publicly available on its website. This inquiry into hunting was the first official one since the Scott-Henderson inquiry reported to the House in June 1951.

I have had the opportunity to read the Burns report over the weekend. I thoroughly commend it to all right hon. and hon. Members. I hope that when they have had the same chance as I have had to study the report, they will share my view that it is a profoundly impressive study, cogent and well argued, dispassionate and careful in its conclusions.

The report needs to be read and considered as a whole, and it is hard to do justice to its views in a few paragraphs. None the less, the House would, I think, wish me to summarise some of its key observations.

On employment, the report states that between 6,000 and 8,000 full-time equivalent jobs … depend on hunting. It states that most of the employment effects of a ban could be offset in the long term, which it describes as between seven and 10 years. However, in the short and medium term, the individual and local effects might be more serious, as they would be for a number of local communities.

The report contains details of research commissioned in four specific rural communities where hunting is actively pursued, and says that this research suggests higher levels of support for hunting in such areas than previous surveys have indicated.

In chapter 6, the committee considers animal welfare aspects of hunting and the relative effects on the welfare of foxes and other species of different methods that are currently used to control their population. It concludes—I quote paragraph 6.49— There is a lack of firm scientific evidence about the effect on the welfare of a fox of being closely pursued, caught and killed above ground by hounds. We are satisfied, nevertheless, that this experience seriously compromises the welfare of the fox. The report says that a ban on hunting with dogs would have no significant impact on the population of foxes in lowland areas, but could lead to an increase in the number in upland areas.

Several recommendations are made about the regulation and licensing of hunting if a ban were not imposed, and the committee also concludes that, generally, any ban should apply nationwide, without different legislative provisions in different regions of the country.

The purpose of the inquiry was to get to the facts, in order better to inform the debate. I am sure that when right hon. and hon. Members have read the report they will see that it has achieved that objective.

Let me now turn to the arrangements that I propose to the House for it to consider the report and reach conclusions on it. Right hon. and hon. Members will first want the chance to study the report. Then, subject to the agreement of business managers, I would like the House to have an opportunity, before the recess if at all possible, to debate the report itself, on a motion for the Adjournment.

I want now to say what I propose should follow that debate. In our manifesto, we said that there would be a free vote on hunting with hounds. The Government are, and remain, neutral on the merits of whether hunting with hounds should be banned, but, in the light of that commitment, we have an obligation to ensure that the decisions of the House can have effect.

That is why, when I announced the establishment of the Burns inquiry last November, I said that the Government would provide Government time and assistance to allow the House to come to a proper legislative conclusion on a free vote. Our original plan was to do that by means of a private Member's Bill, drafted with Government assistance, and in Government time, but I now believe that it would be better for the convenience of the House to have a Government Bill, in Government time, containing a series of legislative options on the merits on which there can be free votes. Such a Bill would, I believe, provide for a more structured debate and better allow for consideration of a wider range of alternatives in the light of the report. The House will recall that such an arrangement worked satisfactorily for the Sunday Trading Bill six years ago, in 1994.

In the meantime, arrangements are being made for the main interest groups, and for the police and other relevant public authorities, to be consulted so that the options in the Bill reflect the alternative legal regimes that could properly be put into force. The consultation will take place as soon as possible, and I anticipate that a Bill will be introduced early in the next Session.

I well recognise—all too well—the strength of feeling on this matter. It is only right that all sides of the debate should be given the opportunity to have their point of view considered fairly and that Parliament should then have the chance to come to a proper conclusion. I hope that the House will agree that a procedure of the kind that I have outlined provides that opportunity. Meanwhile, I repeat my thanks to Lord Burns and his committee, and I commend his report to the House.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury)

First, I thank the Home Secretary for his customary courtesy in—[Interruption.]

Madam Speaker

Order. The Home Secretary was heard in silence and Mr. Lidington must be, too.

Mr. Lidington

I thank the Home Secretary for his customary courtesy in giving me early sight of both the Burns report and his statement.

On behalf of the Opposition, regardless of our individual opinions, I express our appreciation for the work that Lord Burns and his team have done. In the short time that I have had to acquaint myself with the findings of the report, it has become clear to me that it is a thorough and painstaking piece of work and that all Members of Parliament, on all sides of the argument, would do well to study it in detail.

The fact remains that the Government's introduction of a Bill on hunting is a distraction from the issues that really matter to the people whom we represent. The Government appointed Lord Burns and his committee six months ago. They waited for half a year while that committee examined in meticulous detail the evidence on the subject and consulted individuals and organisations representing all sides of the argument. Astonishingly, however, they could not be bothered even to wait for the report to be delivered to the Home Secretary's desk before they started to brief selected journalists that, regardless of the report's conclusions, they would press forward with their own Bill, in Government time.

The Home Secretary reminded the House that decisions on the options that he proposes will take place on a free vote. However, he will be responsible for introducing a Bill that may create new criminal offences. I have three questions about his responsibilities, and those of his Department, as that Bill is prepared.

First, Lord Burns states that a ban on hunting would be open to challenge under the European convention on human rights. Will the Home Secretary confirm that, over the next few months, he will carry out and make publicly available an analysis by his Department and the Law Officers of the convention's potential impact on the Bill?

Secondly, the Home Secretary's plans involve the creation of new criminal offences. Does the right hon. Gentleman intend to include in the Bill a detailed description of the new offences, so that people know exactly where they stand, or does he propose to frame the Bill in more general terms? He will know that Lord Burns drew attention to the importance of that decision.

Thirdly, will the right hon. Gentleman make a detailed assessment of the demands on the police service of enforcing the law if a ban is eventually enacted? Has he consulted the Association of Chief Police Officers on the matter? Does he really regard enforcing laws such as would be involved in a ban on hunting as a priority for our police service, which is especially hard-pressed in rural areas? [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker

Order. The House must come to order.

Mr. Lidington

It is clear from the Burns report that more jobs would be at stake from the Government's proposed Bill than were stake in the recent crisis at Longbridge. Are the Government planning to consider a form of direct compensation, or some other arrangements, to help people whose livelihoods may be taken away from them by an Act of Parliament?

The Home Secretary will know that Lord Burns draws attention to the role that hunts play in respect of dealing with fallen stock, and to the importance of that for the farming community. Are the Government starting to think about alternative arrangements for disposal if the hunts were no longer available to deal with carcases?

When the Bill comes before the House in the next Session, will the Home Secretary confirm that it will apply to England and Wales only, and that any decisions in respect of Scotland will be devolved to the Edinburgh Parliament? If so, will he therefore urge all hon. Members representing Scottish constituencies at Westminster to refrain from taking part in debates and votes on the Bill? Will not this be the first important test of the principle that laws that affect England and Wales should be made by the representatives of England and Wales?

May I conclude on a note of agreement with the Home Secretary? I agreed completely with his statement to The Times in March 1998, when, talking of hunting, he said: I am well aware there are strong opinions on this matter, but it is not uppermost in the minds of the majority of the population. What they want are decent schools, a decent health service, and to be able to walk down their streets safely. Has not the Home Secretary's statement today demonstrated, once and for all, that the priorities of this Government are no longer the priorities of the British people?

Mr. Straw

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) for the appreciation that he expressed to the noble Lord Burns and to members of his committee.

The hon. Gentleman says that bringing forward a Bill on hunting is a "distraction". There is at stake quite an important constitutional issue, which arose in exactly the same way in respect of shops legislation a dozen years or more ago. It was perfectly plain that the House wished to come to a conclusion on the issue. As it turned out, I was on the losing side, because I was against an extension of Sunday trading. Be that as it may, as a private Member, I strongly believed that the House needed to come to a conclusion. Given that a large number of private Members' Bills and motions had failed to reach a conclusion, the Government of the day took the view that the public expected that there should be a legislative conclusion. They sensibly arranged for a Bill containing a series of options to be introduced, on the merits of which right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the argument would be able to come to a conclusion and exercise their own vote. I think that that is a sensible way to proceed.

The hon. Gentleman asks whether I agree that a ban is open to challenge under the European convention on human rights. He was right to read out paragraph 10.17 of the report, which says: Legislation to ban hunting might be open to challenge under Article 1 Protocol 1 … and, possibly, Article 8 … of the European Convention on Human Rights. Of course, any Bill that is presented to the House by a Minister is subject to a section 19 statement by the Minister presenting it as to whether or not it is compatible with the convention. That will happen in this case. I am glad that Conservative Members have now discovered the merits of our incorporating the European convention on human rights in legislation. Conservative Members keep forgetting this, but they wished the Human Rights Bill well on its Third Reading.

The framing of any Bill will, of course, take careful account of the importance of drafting the criminal offences so that they are comprehensible to the law enforcement authorities, the courts, the police and any potential offenders. I understand that the Association of Chief Police Officers offered evidence to the Burns inquiry. As I made clear in my statement, we shall, of course, be consulting ACPO and the other police associations in the consultations that are about to take place.

The hon. Gentleman then made a series of comments about whether this was a distraction. His view is obviously not shared by the person who normally takes his role, namely the shadow Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe). After all, she said under the heading "Widdecombe backs Blair over hunting": Foxhunting is rightly doomed. It is time for the last "tally ho! That is the right hon. Lady's opinion. She has been banished from the House under the freedoms that the Leader of the Opposition offers his members of the shadow Cabinet, and she obviously does not take the view that any difficulties would arise so far on the framing of criminal offences. That is her view. Of course, I shall go into those matters in much greater detail.

Finally, the hon. Gentleman raised the absurd point as to whether Members of Parliament who represent Scottish constituencies—[HON. MEMBERS: "Rubbish!"] It is absurd for members of the Conservative party; I thought that, above all, they supported the Union. The change that we introduced was to give a degree of devolution to Scotland in order to bind the Union. It is most interesting that Conservative Members now say that they want to break the Union.

Mr. Michael J. Foster (Worcester)

I congratulate the Home Secretary on his statement, which brings with it the real prospect of an end to the cruel and unnecessary practice of hunting with dogs. I look forward to reading the Burns report, as I urge all Members to do. Will my right hon. Friend confirm what was said way back in November 1999—that, on this matter, after the free vote has been taken, the guillotine may be used and the Parliament Act may be invoked to ensure that the will of the House prevails?

Mr. Straw

My hon. Friend is right to look forward to reading the report. I emphasise again that I am the only person in the House who has had the opportunity to do so and that it should be read before people come to a final conclusion, whatever side of the argument they take—or none.

As for the procedures of the House, as the Bill will be a Government one in Government time, it follows that the normal procedural arrangements could apply to any such measure.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)

As the other shadow Home Secretary has not been sent to earth today, I shall tell the Home Secretary that we welcome the report and the use of such a process. Furthermore, we welcome the Government's clarification that they will adopt the Bill in Government time, after a reasonable period has been allowed for people to read and understand the report. The idea of a Bill with options, which has a precedent, seems to us an entirely appropriate way to proceed.

On a practical matter, will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that a report selling at £32.50 is made fully available to people throughout the country on a website and in other ways, so that everyone who wants to do so can read it?

In relation to the hunting of foxes, deer, mink and hares, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the big issue is whether the country wants to decide that hunting with hounds is the only acceptable or civilised way of dealing with the problems caused by those animals and that, if it is not, the country is entitled to decide that, in a civilised society, we might want to move on and to deal with those animals in other ways? Does he agree that dealing with animal welfare issues is just as much a priority as how we manage the public services? Does he agree that the loss of some jobs and the reordering of the rural economy is of course important, but that it should not be an absolute issue? If jobs that support a particular activity are inappropriate, they may have to change.

On the very proper question of whether the measure might be in breach of the European convention—so that there can be no argument in future—may we have not only the Government's assurance as to the compatibility of such a Bill, but, if necessary, a declaration from the courts in advance that the draft Bill would be compatible with European law? Could a decision about Wales be taken separately from one about England?

Mr. Straw

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his welcome for the report and for the procedure that I have outlined. When I saw the price of the report, I, too, thought that it was rather steep. However, the report is available on a website, which is important. I will not respond to the arguments that the hon. Gentleman used to support his opinions; my job today is to deal with issues of process.

On the point about the European convention, the same procedures will have to apply to the proposed Bill to determine whether it is compatible with the convention as apply to any other legislation. That point is laid down in section 19. I am afraid that there is no procedure by which it is possible to gain a pre-emptive declaration by the courts in advance of legislation in respect of a convention point any more than it is in respect of any other point that might be taken before our courts or before the court in Strasbourg. I emphasise that, even were the convention not incorporated into British domestic law before the Bill comes before the House, it is still possible that convention points could have found their way to Strasbourg.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

I have not said this before, but let me say it now: my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is a hero. The Bill is not a distraction because Labour Members speak for the vast majority of people, and that rabble in Parliament square speak for no one but themselves. Is it not the case that the real distinction is not between town and country, but between the people who relish the idea of killing for fun and those who, like me, are repelled by that? The legislation is long overdue. Is my right hon. Friend relieved to hear that, in view of what I have said, I shall withdraw new clause 5 to the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill?

Mr. Straw

I thank my hon. Friend for his compliment. In my job they are few and far between, so I will savour it. His views are very strongly held and I respect that. However, as with the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes), I hope that my hon. Friend will forgive me if I do not follow up those views. I am grateful to learn—as I am sure my hon. and right hon. Friends in the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions will be—that my hon. Friend regards the proposed Bill as an appropriate legislative vehicle for the issue of hunting with hounds.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

To paraphrase Lord Burns, in what I am sure is an excellent report, legislation to ban fox hunting will seriously compromise the welfare of the Government. Has the right hon. Gentleman seen anything in the Burns report or in any of the evidence that has been placed before him that shows him that there is either the necessity or the evidence to justify a ban on fox hunting?

Mr. Straw

Everybody in the House will have to make his or her own judgment about whether fox hunting should or should not be banned. That is a matter for a free vote by individuals. I remind the hon. Gentleman that many Conservative Members—not a majority, I accept—support a ban on hunting with hounds and some Labour Members support a continuation of hunting with hounds. This is quintessentially an issue for a free vote, but I have already explained why I and the Government think that it is important now to bring this matter to a conclusion.

Whether there are arguments in the Burns report that support the views of all sides—there are more than two sides to this argument—is a matter for the readers of the report. Again, I urge hon. Members to read the report before they come to conclusions about it.

Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington)

May I commend my right hon. Friend on the calm and sensible manner with which he has responded to the views of the overwhelming majority of Members of the House? Did he happen to see photographs on BBC's "Newsnight" of the Beaufort hunt terrier man, Thomas Burton, feeding foxes in man-made dens? Does that not give a lie to claims that this barbaric pastime has anything to do with pest control?

Mr. Straw

Unusually, I did not see "Newsnight" that night, but I have seen newspaper reports subsequently. There is considerable discussion in the Burns report of some of the current practices in relation to hunting. As right hon. and hon. Members will see when they read it, the report is categorical that certain practices—including, although I speak only from recollection, those identified in the "Newsnight" report—should be prohibited, whether or not hunting with hounds continues.

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet)

Nobody in the House will be surprised to know that I welcome any move from any quarter that hastens the day when the hunting of wild animals with hounds is brought to an end. However, I find the Home Secretary's position, with one leg on each side of the barbed wire, a little inelegant. Notwithstanding the Prime Minister's selective amnesia and his continued assertion that the previous fox hunting Bill was killed in the House of Lords, when everybody knows that it did not even reach there, it is a fact that he made a clear commitment on television that fox hunting would be brought to an end by the conclusion of this Parliament. I fail to see how that squares with the Home Secretary's statement of agnosticism on the part of the Government. Will he make himself plain—do the Government intend to bring fox hunting to an end within the life of this Parliament or not?

Mr. Straw

I have made myself as plain as possible. Our commitment is to ensure that the House can come to a conclusion about the matter on a free vote. It has always been known—there is no dubiety about it—that the Government, as the Government, are neutral on the matter. What we are doing, as I have already explained, is to ensure that Parliament can come to a sensible conclusion. I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman seeks to resile from that, given the position he takes overall. As for whether there is time to do it in the lifetime of this Parliament, I remind the House that that does not necessarily expire until late May 2002.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

As a Member of Parliament who became involved in putting forward legislation to end hunting with dogs from the moment I was first elected to the House 30 years ago this month, I thank my right hon. Friend for at long last introducing legislation to deal with that odious pursuit. The junior spokesman for the Conservative party—the unspeakable in pursuit of the unbeatable—said that the Bill is a distraction, so can my right hon. Friend explain why there are three times as many Conservatives here this afternoon as there were for their pension debate last Thursday? I hope that I do not have to wait another 30 years for other of my pet causes to be fulfilled—but I am ready to hang around to make sure.

Mr. Straw

I take this opportunity to congratulate my right hon. Friend on his 30 years, and I look forward to the celebration in his constituency, which I shall attend, next month. He slightly, and uncharacteristically, understates the position on Conservative attendance, because there may now be three times as many present for this statement as there were for the Opposition day debate on pensions, but there are 10 times as many Conservative Members present as there were for what was flagged up as a major, headline debate on crime, organised by the Conservatives just two weeks ago.

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton)

In terms of his party's policy and its purported principles, will the Home Secretary take a moment to explain to the House the basis on which he thinks it is ever right for a majority to constrain the rights of a minority?

Mr. Straw

The hon. Gentleman touches on a central issue of how liberal democracies, in the best sense of the phrase, should operate. He is, of course, right to ask that question, which has been consuming political philosophers since political philosophy first developed. Having said that, I have to say that there are many opinions on both sides as to precisely the point at which the criminal law should be imposed by the majority on the minority.

If the hon. Gentleman reads the Scott-Henderson report, published 50 years ago, he will find that it considers that issue. The committee concluded that, at that time, certain practices of hunting generally were sufficiently cruel that they should be banned, but that, at that stage, fox hunting did not come into that category. That was the test that the committee and, subsequently, the House chose to use. As the hon. Gentleman knows, those who support the ban, who include many Labour Members as well as quite a few Opposition Members, take the view that there is sufficient and unnecessary cruelty in fox hunting to warrant a ban. Others take a different view, and the Government, as I have said repeatedly, are neutral on the issue. What is clear, not least from the intense interest generated today, is that the issue can no longer be allowed to fester. Parliament needs to come to a conclusion.

Ms Chris McCafferty (Calder Valley)

May I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend on his historic statement? I should like to pass on the gratitude of the vast majority of my constituents in Calder Valley, who believe that fox hunting is an astonishingly cruel and outmoded activity that has no place in a modern society.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that drag hunting provides a popular and viable alternative to fox hunting that can help to sustain similar jobs in the rural economy? When, in 1997, I visited one of the two manufacturers of riding habits in my constituency, I was surprised and delighted to find that staff expressed more concern about whether the Chancellor would put VAT on children's clothing and how soon we would enter the euro than about fox hunting. The other manufacturer exports 95 per cent. of the clothing it makes to Europe and has won the Queen's award for export to countries that do not have the fox.

Madam Speaker

Order. Hon. Members are getting into the Adjournment debate that has been half-promised by the Home Secretary, in that they are debating the issue, not asking questions. I shall take a few, but only a few, more questions, and I hope that they will be both questions and pertinent. Would the Home Secretary care to respond to the hon. Lady?

Mr. Straw

Very briefly, Madam Speaker. I thank my hon. Friend for her comments. There is an interesting discussion of drag hunting in chapter 8 of the report.

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire)

May I assure the Home Secretary that the people of Worcestershire, including the city of Worcester, will regard today's announcement as a massive distraction from the real issues facing their county and the country? However, given the Home Secretary's determination to distract the House and the country in this way, will he give an assurance that one of the options contained in the Bill will be the middle way group's proposal for the licensing of hunting, which is a compromise on the issue that satisfies most sensible people?

Mr. Straw

The answer is yes, albeit not directly the middle way group's proposal. As I have said, there are more choices available than simply the one between an outright ban and the continuation of current practice. The committee of inquiry was specifically asked to consider the question of regulation and I do not doubt that the Bill will contain two or three options in addition to what would result from the Bill being negatived, which is the continuation of the status quo.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on introducing the Bill, and express the hope that we will all read the report? Can my right hon. Friend give me an assurance that one of the options that he will set out in the Bill will provide for an exemption for the fell packs in the national parks? It is utterly inconceivable that people should be allowed to roam the fells—which tourists visit—shooting foxes and endangering the general public.

Mr. Straw

As my hon. Friend will see when he reads the report, different conclusions are reached about the effect of hunting with dogs on the welfare of the foxes hunted, and the effect of a ban in upland areas, compared with other areas of the country. I stated, accurately, the report's conclusion that generally there should be no geographical distinction between the regime that should apply in one area or another. However, the report went on to state that that should be the case unless there were objective reasons for differences—in other words, for a ban not to apply to one part of the midlands, say, rather than another. We shall certainly take my hon. Friend's point into account in framing the alternatives, so that they can be put before the House.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)

Does the right hon. Gentleman recall telling The Times the following on 6 March 1998? We do not have a mandate for a hunt ban… But you ask me what is my opinion, Jack Straw? The answer is I do not see a role for Government in bringing in any such ban. Why has the right hon. Gentleman changed his view on that? If he covers himself by saying that the Bill will offer a number of options, may I ask him a specific and detailed questions about those options? Will the option that secures the largest number of votes win the day, or will it be an overall majority that wins the day? If the vote in this place is different from the vote in the other place, will the Parliament Act apply?

Mr. Straw

The Government do not have a mandate for bringing in a ban on hunting, and we, as a Government, are not bringing in a ban on hunting. We are seeking to respond to the clear view on both sides of the House that the matter should be brought to a conclusion. I do not make predictions about the conclusion that will follow, except to say, as I explained, that it is a matter on which the House needs to conclude its opinion.

This has been a wonderful afternoon for some further insights into the Conservative party. We have discovered that Conservative Members are fully in favour of the incorporation of the European convention on human rights, which is a good thing. We have also discovered, from what I understand the hon. Gentleman to say, that a number of hon. Members of his opinion want a different voting system, a kind of proportional representation system, on the issue to ensure that the minority vote becomes the majority. Personally, on a free vote, I regard that as a bad thing.

On the Sunday Trading Bill, a clear and logical hierarchy of alternatives was established. That is a matter that we shall have to consider, so that the House can properly exercise its opinion. That hierarchy worked to produce a logical opinion of the House, although, as I said, I happened not to agree with it, and that is what we shall seek to do in this Bill.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North)

May I declare an interest, as vice-president of the League Against Cruel Sports? That organisation has campaigned for many years for an end to hunting with dogs. I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the decision that he announced this afternoon. It will be warmly received in my constituency and by the majority of people in the area hunted by the Holderness hounds.

The compromise position of the fox is a matter that concerns us all, as foxes were not asked their opinion, but my right hon. Friend could get their opinion if he listened to recordings of foxes, and also hares, being torn to bits by dogs. He would then understand the pain and trauma that they experience. An autopsy is not necessary to discover that.

Mr. Straw

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's remarks. An important and interesting chapter—chapter 6—of the report deals with the definition of animal welfare that the committee followed, and its conclusion about the welfare of the relevant quarry species.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East)

We all know that many people voted Labour at the last election because they were given a firm pledge that time would be provided for early legislation on hunting. Does the Home Secretary realise that grave suspicion will exist in some quarters about the timing of the Government's announcement? Even with a guillotine, there will be no almost no chance of enacting the legislation before the next election. Does the Home Secretary accept that the only way in which he will overcome the feeling that the Government are trying to play politics with fox hunting is to give an assurance that they will enact the legislation before they call an election? Otherwise, the announcement will simply look like another dirty public relations trick.

Mr. Straw

I understand that the hon. Gentleman was expressing his support for a ban on fox hunting; many Conservative Members support such a ban. On a point of accuracy, we gave a clear pledge in our manifesto: we advocated a free vote on hunting with hounds. The implication was that such a vote would lead to a legislative conclusion. However, that did not happen; I have already explained the reasons for providing the same alternatives as for the Sunday trading legislation.

On enacting legislation, we intend to introduce the Bill early in the next Session, which will be in the autumn. Many examples exist of Bills that become law in six or seven months. That means that, even according to the most fevered speculation about the date of the general election, the Bill could become law.

Mr. Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement. Like many who have consistently supported a ban on hunting with hounds, I shall read the Burns report objectively and carefully as a fresh contribution to the debate. I am sure that the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) will do likewise, and that her substitute today will not.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that we would not have had to be diverted into using Government time had not so much energy been spent on frustrating the will of the House and defeating a private Member's Bill? My right hon. Friend has made it clear that the Government will be neutral. However, if, having considered the Burns report, the House clearly votes for a ban on hunting with hounds, will my right hon. Friend confirm that the Government will bend their best efforts towards enacting the Bill as quickly as the procedures of both Houses allow? Will he also invite the Opposition to treat the views of the House with similar respect?

Mr. Straw

It is a delight to respond to a question from my right hon. Friend, who is also an old and close friend. I do not regard the implementation of a manifesto commitment as a distraction for a Government. It is interesting that Conservative Members believe that manifesto pledges are there to be broken—they learned that trick when they were in government. We believe that manifesto pledges are there to be implemented. We are delivering on hospitals, schools, law and order and many other issues. The reasons why people vote for one party and not another is a matter for them. However, there is no doubt that when voters considered our manifesto and commitment to implementing it, they took all our pledges into account.

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden)

Will the Home Secretary establish a further inquiry to ascertain whether there is a consistent moral principle in banning hunting with hounds while permitting angling, shooting and other field sports which result in cruelty or pain to animals? In the absence of such a principle, must we not conclude that the measure is either motivated by class antagonism or is the thin end of the wedge?

Mr. Straw

Moral balance and principle must, ultimately, be a matter for hon. Members. We are elected to make such judgments. I personally thought that it would have been wrong to try to delegate responsibility for making those moral and ethical judgments to a committee, as we are here to make such judgments. As the committee of inquiry made clear, whether some sporting activities involving hunting or killing animals should or should not be banned must be seen as a relative matter. However, the right hon. Gentleman may be saying that all current measures against gratuitous cruelty to animals and their hunting—which, in the past, involved many kinds of so-called sports—which have been supported by members of his party and of mine should be abandoned.

Dr. David Clark (South Shields)

I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement and for his intention to ban the barbaric and cruel practice of hunting with hounds, which will be welcomed by the vast majority of people in the House and throughout the country. Will he confirm once and for all that, once the House has made its wish clear, the Bill will be a Government Bill subject to all the ramifications to which such a Bill is subject, including the Parliament Act 1949?

Mr. Straw

The Bill will be a Government Bill at all stages and will leave the House for the other place as a Government Bill, a clear view on its contents having been expressed by the House. As I have already made clear, all the procedural arrangements for Government Bills will apply to it, as to any other Government Bill.

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion)

I am sure that the report is excellent and makes a vital contribution to the debate. I am sure, too, that changes for rural areas are on the way. Nevertheless, the report contains a mistake, as Wales and England are not one country. Will the Home Secretary confirm that the Bill will include an option to allow the National Assembly for Wales to decide the issue of hunting for itself, as the Scottish Parliament can do?

Mr. Straw

Of course I accept that Wales and England are not one country. However, with respect, I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that Wales and England are one common law jurisdiction. Indeed, one Crown court circuit extends across the border and, historically, has always done so. The criminal law has always applied in the same way in England and Wales so, in my judgment, there would have to be strong arguments for seeking to impose a territorial distinction solely on the grounds of their being different countries, although that is a matter for the House as a whole to decide.

The report brings out a separate argument about whether there should be any objective differences between, for example, the regimes that should apply in upland and lowland areas. Finally, the issue is not devolved to the Welsh Assembly, but it would be open to the hon. Gentleman to table amendments suggesting that it should be during the passage of the Bill.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, given the vagaries of the private Members' Bill system, in the many years that we have been around in this place on a Friday, there was never a cat in hell's chance of getting a Bill banning hunting with dogs through the House of Commons? Will he also confirm that, at the election, the Labour party made a distinct promise to give the Government and its Members an opportunity to vote to ban hunting with dogs?

Governments must be seen to be carry out their promises: that is one of the most important things in today's politics. I can therefore only wish my right hon. Friend well in this endeavour and trust that we make sure that we get the Bill on the statute book, which is something that no other Labour Government have been able to achieve.

Mr. Straw

As ever, I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he has said and subscribe to his view that Governments should carry out their promises. We promised to provide a free vote, with the obvious implication that that vote would have a conclusion, as we are not just a debating society. We are doing that, and the merits of the case are a matter for free votes. As we have seen, opinions on the matter differ on both sides of the House.

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale)

Will the Home Secretary reflect carefully on the points made by the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) on the special circumstances in the Cumbrian fells? Is he aware that hunting there takes place not on horseback but exclusively on foot and that there is no drag-hunting alternative? Hill farmers, who have suffered enough in recent years, would feel that they had been stabbed in the back if their ability to protect their livestock were to be removed in this way. How does the Home Secretary reconcile the Government's declared wish to create one nation with the introduction of legislation that will arouse feelings of anger, bitterness and betrayal among many millions of our fellow citizens?

Mr. Straw

I do not think that the hon. Gentleman's last remark is particularly realistic. Many hon. Members in his party take the same view as us, including, famously, the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), who is not present in the House, even though—[Interruption.] The Minister for Sport, my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), is not the shadow Home Secretary or the Home Secretary, and she is not responsible for this issue; she is fully entitled to her view.

On the hon. Gentleman's main point, the report, which I commend to him, contains many interesting insights into hunting with dogs, but not on horseback, in upland areas such as those represented by the hon. Gentleman and by my hon. Friend the Member for Workington, as well as its effect on animal welfare and the effect of any ban. As the hon. Gentleman will see when he reads the report, its conclusions for upland areas are different from those for other areas.