HC Deb 03 December 2002 vol 395 cc755-70 3.30 pm
The Minister for Rural Affairs (Alun Michael)

It is an honour and a privilege to outline to the House my proposals for legislation to enable Parliament to reach a conclusion on the issue of hunting with dogs. Few people would regard that as the most important issue for Parliament and Government to resolve, but it is a serious issue on which many Members of this House and members of the public have very strong and polarised views. That is why we must return to the matter again.

The last time that Parliament considered a Bill on hunting with dogs, no agreement was reached between the House of Commons and the House of Lords. That is why our manifesto promised to enable Parliament to reach a conclusion on the issue of hunting with dogs". That is why the Prime Minister gave me the job of fulfilling our manifesto commitment by designing legislation to command the support of Parliament and to make good law—legislation that will stand the test of time.

At the request of the Campaign for the Protection of the Hunted Animal and the Countryside Alliance, I took the conclusions of the Burns inquiry as my starting point. The terms of reference required Lord Burns to look at all aspects of hunting with dogs, and the authority of his report is acknowledged on all sides. The key issues emerging from the Burns report were cruelty and utility. Those two principles have run like a golden thread through the consultation process. Everything has been tested against them. Are we preventing cruelty? Are we recognising what farmers and others need to do to eradicate vermin or to protect livestock, crops or the biodiversity of an area? My Bill is based on the answers to those two questions.

After my statement in March, I started a wide-ranging consultation process involving all interested parties, Members of Parliament and the public. Initially, the response generated more heat than light: some 7,000 people wrote asking me to leave everything unchanged. That matched some 7,000 who asked me to "just ban everything". Others wrote detailed contributions, however, which were based on evidence and on their personal experience. In May, I asked for detailed evidence to be submitted against a set of questions and criteria, which were based on looking at the issues of cruelty and utility and other questions raised by the evidence that I had received by that time. The amount of serious engagement increased greatly.

In September, I chaired a series of public hearings in Portcullis House. The three main campaigning groups participated fully. Together, we heard expert witnesses from all sides of the argument who debated the merit of applying the principles of cruelty and utility to the activity of hunting mammals with dogs. I want to pay tribute to the leaders of those groups—the Countryside Alliance, the Campaign for the Protection of the Hunted Animal and the middle way group—who fully engaged in a mature and intelligent manner on an issue on which each of them feels passionately and deeply.

During the consultation, both sides welcomed and praised a process that has been fair, open and transparent. The two principles of cruelty and utility provide the golden thread that runs from the start to the finish of the process and through the drafting of the Bill. That golden thread is strengthened by the integrity of the process, the basis of principle and the strong focus on evidence that has led me to conclusions that I hope will command the support of this House.

I will publish a Bill this afternoon but, in advance of that, let me take this opportunity to outline my reasoning behind those conclusions. There has been support from all the organisations involved for the idea of drafting legislation on the basis of evidence and the two principles of cruelty and utility. That in itself is very significant and should be noted by Opposition Members.

On a number of occasions, John Jackson, chairman of the Countryside Alliance, said, "If something is cruel, we shouldn't be doing it", and animal welfare organisations have acknowledged "utility"—the things that need to be done for such purposes as eradicating vermin or to protect livestock. Indeed, they included a list of exemptions in the deadline 2000 option that we debated in the last Parliament. The middle way group has also acknowledged the validity of these two principles.

The Bill is designed to recognise utility and prevent cruelty. Let me briefly spell out what that means. The utility test involves asking what is necessary to prevent serious damage to livestock, crops and other property or biological diversity. The cruelty test involves asking which effective methods of achieving that purpose cause the least suffering. All activities will be judged on the evidence available about whether they meet both the tests. Where an activity has no utility and involves cruelty, it will not be allowed to continue. Incontrovertible evidence shows that the activities of hare coursing and deer hunting cannot meet the two tests, so these activities will be banned. Where an activity with dogs has general utility and there is no generally less cruel method, it will be allowed. Again, incontrovertible evidence has shown that such activities as ratting and rabbiting should be allowed to continue, and they will be dealt with in the Bill.

For some activities, the evidence is less clear-cut, so I propose to set up an independent process to consider on a case-by-case basis whether particular activities involving dogs meet the two tests. That is consistent with the Burns findings. The procedure will require an application to an independent registrar showing why there is a need to undertake the proposed activity and to show that the cruelty test is satisfied. The procedure will then allow a prescribed animal welfare organisation to provide evidence as well. If the registrar is satisfied that both tests are met, he will grant registration; if not, he will refuse. In considering applications, the registrar will also have to consider whether the applicant will be able to comply with standard conditions, such as requiring hunted animals to be killed quickly and humanely when caught. Applicants may also specify conditions to which their hunting will be subject.

If either side wishes to appeal against the decision, it can do so to an independent tribunal. The tribunal will be a national body with a president at its head appointed by the Lord Chancellor. A panel will have a legally qualified chair, normally sitting with two other members—one with land management experience and the other with animal welfare experience. This is similar to the fair and effective way in which housing law and employment law have been dealt with to a high standard over many years. Let me stress that we will not be establishing local tribunals.

At every stage, there will be balance, fairness, clear principles, transparency and an emphasis on evidence within a process that is based on clear tests and that enables hunters and those concerned with animal welfare to present their evidence. The onus is now on the people who want to undertake any activity to show that they can meet the tests of utility and cruelty. They might find ways of changing their activity to meet the two tests. That will be a matter for them, and I am not going to prejudge the independent registrar. What is clear is that if they cannot meet the tests, the activity cannot continue. It is simple. If the activity cannot meet the tests, the activity will not happen; if it can, it will.

A number of commentators have tried to suggest that there is an intention to go beyond the issue of hunting to other country sports. I want to make it clear that there is no such intention. It is spelled out in our manifesto commitment: We have no intention whatsoever of placing restrictions on the sports of angling and shooting. I am also convinced by the evidence that there is no need to control falconry within the provisions of the Bill. In falconry, dogs are used to flush out quarry, so for the avoidance of doubt the Bill will specify such activities as exempted activities.

It may be argued that the two principles of utility and cruelty, on which I am basing my proposals, do not go wide enough. The social and economic contribution of hunting will be mentioned, or the argument that ancient freedoms should not be interfered with will be made. Those are serious points and I do not take them lightly, but the key point is that no one has a right, nor should have a right, to inflict unnecessary suffering on animals. Of course we want to keep to a minimum the constraints on people's behaviour and activity, but to ask for the liberty to be cruel would be absurd. Parliament has the right to set limits and has done so in the past. That is what the Bill does. It seeks to prevent cruelty associated with hunting with dogs. Even if someone is registered, that does not allow that individual to undertake activities in such a way as to cause avoidable or unnecessary suffering. People will be registered to hunt certain species with dogs in a specific area; they will not have licence to he cruel.

Let us not forget that we have to address the issue and bring it to a sensible resolution in a way that will stand the test of time rather than being a quick fix or a temporary solution that cannot be implemented. My conclusions are based on evidence and principle, not prejudice on either side of the argument. I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House will see the merit of the proposals because they are fair and reasonable. They balance principle and evidence and can be enforced.

Most people want to see cruelty prevented. They also want farmers, gamekeepers and others who have to manage the land to be able to do so. There is no magic wand. There is no quick win. The basis of principle and evidence provides a golden thread that runs through the whole process and provides authority for the proposals themselves. I believe that my proposals will stand the test of time and are right. I commend them to the House.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury)

May I begin by thanking the right hon. Gentleman sincerely for his courtesy in letting me and my Front-Bench team have an advance copy of the statement? That was much appreciated.

When the Government's Bill comes before the House, Conservative Members, Front and Back Bench alike, will have a completely free vote, as they have in the past. When the right hon. Gentleman commends the proposals, is he expressing the collective view of Her Majesty's Government? Will all members of the Government support the Bill as it has been described by the right hon. Gentleman? Can he even vouch for the support of fellow Ministers in his Department? Do the Government intend to use the Parliament Act to force through a Bill in whatever form it leaves the House of Commons? Is not it the truth that Labour Members of Parliament are not going to let the Minister get away—golden thread or no golden thread—with anything short of the complete ban that they have been calling for over so many years?

I have questions on specific aspects of the package. Let me begin with the licensing procedure. On whom does the Minister propose that the burden of proof should rest? Will it be for the applicant to prove—if so, to what standard?—that hunting meets the two tests, or will it be for the objector to prove that there are good reasons why the licence ought not to be granted? Once the licence has been granted, will it be permanent? If not, why not? Will there be a time limit? If so, on what grounds?

The Minister made much of the two tests. Does not he accept that both terms—cruelty and utility—must inevitably involve a subjective judgment?

Will the test of utility allow arguments to be heard about the importance of hunting in supporting conservation and about the impact that a ban would have on employment, especially in remote rural areas? Who will appoint the new registrar? How will the impartiality of that Solomon-type figure be assured?

The Minister proposes major restrictions on the individual liberty of our fellow citizens, yet the one omission from his statement was any mention of the new criminal offences that I presume he intends the Bill to create. What offences does he plan to create, and which people does he intend to criminalise? Is it the Government's intention that landowners and dog owners or dog keepers should face criminal penalties as well as people who might continue to hunt in defiance of a refusal of a licence? Is that sort of new criminal law a sensible priority for a hard-pressed and overstretched police service that is having great difficulty responding to reasonable public expectations at the moment?

What lessons has the right hon. Gentleman drawn from the experience of our neighbours north of the border? He proposes that hounds should continue to be used in falconry to flush out prey. He will know that in the previous Bill on this subject the use of dogs to flush out deer from woodlands and coverts was extensively debated, so will this Bill include a similar exemption for flushing out deer, as well as foxes, mink and other species?

The point at which I found myself in greatest agreement with the Minister was when he said at the outset that this is hardly a subject that comes high on the list of priorities for people in this country. Does not the Government's decision to give such a high priority to this statement and the proposed legislation indicate what an absurd sense of priority is possessing Ministers? Let us contemplate this afternoon's business: surely it is crazy that the Government should place a statement on hunting with hounds ahead of a statement on the crisis in our public examinations system. We know from the Government that—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman should not refer to the next statement. We will deal with that when we come to it.

Mr. Lidington

I accept your correction, Mr. Speaker. The Government, including the right hon. Gentleman's Department, have made it clear that they can find no time in their programme for a Bill to strengthen controls on illegal meat imports or to debate today's compelling report on rural poverty from the Countryside Agency, yet they can spare scarce parliamentary and ministerial time to debate a Bill on hunting at a time when our public services are in crisis. The Minister may hope that, for a while, his statement will distract the attention of his Back-Bench colleagues, but one thing is certain: this statement and this Bill have nothing whatever to do with the genuine priorities of the British people.

Alun Michael

May I start by dealing with one of the most absurd elements in the hon. Gentleman's comments? The Bill will come before the House because Members have voted time and again to introduce legislation, and I point out also that Members have turned up in large numbers to vote against legislation, so those on both sides of the House have engaged with the issue and made it a priority. This is a Government Bill, introduced to help Parliament to resolve the issue.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the issue of the Parliament Act. I dealt with that in March, and made the point that we hope that it will not be necessary for that Act to be applied, as we hope that people will engage with sensible proposals that will command the support of the House and, indeed, of another place. I hope to be able to persuade Labour Members, about whose views the hon. Gentleman asked, of the effectiveness of the legislation in dealing with the issue of cruelty associated with hunting.

The hon. Gentleman asked a number of specific questions. It will be for the applicant to show that he has satisfied the two tests before registering for any activity, and a designated animal welfare organisation will have the opportunity to show evidence to the contrary. We envisage that permission will he granted for three years, after which a renewal can be applied for. The whole point of the two tests will be set out clearly and defined in the Bill, which I look forward to debating on Second Reading and subsequently. The two tests will be applied to the evidence that is offered, and utility will be carefully defined in the Bill, as I suggested in my statement.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the effect on employment. The evidence is that generally it would be minimal, but of course there could be an effect on individuals who, as in any question of employment, would have the sympathy and support of the Government and the House.

The hon. Gentleman asked about appointments. There are procedures for making sure that people appointed to any body with a regulatory function are appropriate and able to deal with the questions independently. The tribunal will be dealt with under the powers of the Lord Chancellor.

The hon. Gentleman asked about liberty. Surely he is not asking for the liberty to be cruel; people would be criminalised only if they broke the law.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that there should be simple tests. We will put simple tests in place to establish whether the law has been broken. We have been told that these are law-abiding people. In that case, I am sure that they will obey the law, as decided by Parliament. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I have discussed enforcement with police at the most senior level, and my proposals are clearly workable.

There is one mischief about which many Opposition Members write to me—the problems that arise from illegal hare coursing. The Bill will tackle that by giving powers to the police to enable them to deal with illegal hare coursing, which they are currently unable to do.

On some of the particulars, I suggest that the hon. Gentleman wait to see the details of the Bill. There will be an opportunity to debate them on Second Reading and subsequently, so I do not want take up too much of the House's time now. However, as I said at the outset, we are taking the time to deal with this issue because, year after year, hon. Members have demonstrated that they believe that it has to be dealt with. In our manifesto, the Government indicated that we would enable Parliament to reach a conclusion on the issue. I hope that the Bill that I will publish later today will indeed enable Parliament to do so on the basis of principle and evidence.

Andrew George (St. Ives)

I, too, am grateful to the Minister for his usual courtesy in providing an advance copy of his statement.

The Minister will be aware that the Liberal Democrats have a party policy on the issue that favours a ban, but of course we would allow a free vote, to satisfy a range of views within the parliamentary party, all of which are cherished. On the basis of his statement, I can give the proposed legislation a cautious welcome, but much will depend on the Bill's capacity to set utility and cruelty thresholds at a meaningful, rather than synthetically low, level.

Livestock farmers want to be reassured that the Government have considered the impact of the proposed legislation on their current arrangements for the efficient removal of fallen livestock from farmsteads. The Government must take account of the need for an efficient method of fallen livestock removal, especially in view of their intention to ban on-farm burial in February.

Farmers will not want to find their activities outlawed by a Bill, especially when efficient and humane methods of on-farm pest control exist. I gave the Minister an example of one of my cousins who has a poultry farm and found an ingenious and humane method of dealing with pests.

The Minister said that he favours a ban on hare coursing and deer hunting, but will he ensure that, before the Bill is enacted, a proper deer management and culling plan is in place on Exmoor to avoid the predictable mayhem that would ensue in the area? If he favours banning hare coursing and deer hunting, what conclusion has he reached on the utility and cruelty case for pre-season cub hunting, which is undertaken mainly on the basis of dog training?

If the Minister favours the least cruel method, what is his view of the use of dogs that are not capable of efficient pursuit but are bred to prolong the chase? Above all, does he agree that there are many more important matters that affect country folk—for example, the future of farming and rural housing—than hunting and that the Government are concentrating a disproportionate amount of parliamentary time on those who happen to get their kicks out of chasing wild animals around the countryside?

Alun Michael

To take the last point first, I agree that many more important issues affect the countryside. It is a pity that the hon. Gentleman did not mention post offices, about which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made an announcement yesterday. She outlined the investment that the Government are making in preserving rural post offices. We are also taking steps to strengthen the rural economy, and to deal with rural housing and many other issues that are far more important than the subject of the statement. However, the matter must be tackled. It is important and hon. Members have made it clear that they want it to be resolved.

I am glad that the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) acknowledged that all views exist in his party and that the Liberal Democrats, like Labour Members and Conservative Members, will have a free vote.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned fallen livestock. There is a need to end on-farm burial because of its environmental impact and the European regulations. The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), continues to hold discussions with the industry on the best way to deal with that.

The hon. Gentleman referred to Exmoor, and I acknowledge that there is a specific culture that relates to deer on Exmoor. I have spent time there and met all the groups to understand the reasoning behind their defence of hunting. The evidence is conclusive and that is why I believe it must be banned. However, I am prepared to spend time considering the consequences for the health and continuation of the deer herd on Exmoor, and to engage with those of all parties who have an interest in that as well as those who represent people in the Exmoor area.

Mr. Michael Foster (Worcester)

From the evidence that my right hon. Friend has read, does he envisage that foxhunting in traditional areas such as Worcestershire and Gloucestershire will pass the utility and cruelty test? For hon. Members with short-term memory lapses, will he restate the commitment that he made to my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) about the possible use of the Parliament Act?

Alun Michael

I confirm that I made the position clear on the Parliament Act in March. I made two points. I said that the Government are committed to enabling Parliament to reach a conclusion on the subject and that the Parliament Act would be available in the event of conflict between the two Houses.

I also made it clear that we want to get legislation before the House and the other place that will command support on all sides because it is fair, objective and based on principles, and because it deals with the issue of cruelty in relation to hunting with dogs. It is our preference that, in considering legislation that comes from this House, the other place should support it and seek to improve it, rather than seeking to obstruct it. I hope that such legislation will be dealt with in that way.

Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells)

These proposals, with all their fatuous bureaucracy, truly represent the low point of Labour's third way. What representations has the Minister received from police organisations about whether the proposals are workable and enforceable? If they are thought not to be, will not they discredit the rule of law and divert scarce police resources from the real war on crime that his Government make so much of, while doing absolutely nothing for animal welfare?

Alun Michael

It is an odd suggestion that we have reached a low point by basing legislation on principle. The Bill is based on two clear principles: that of eradicating cruelty and that of allowing the utility necessary for land managers to undertake their work. I said in response to an earlier question that I had consulted the police at the highest level. I am satisfied that the measures will not only be enforceable but will make life easier for the police—for example, in enforcing the law in respect of illegal hare coursing, which causes a massive nuisance in some parts of the country. Indeed, many Conservative Members have asked me to take action on it. I am satisfied that the Bill will improve the situation and that it will be simple and straightforward to enforce.

David Winnick (Walsall, North)

I recognise the amount of work that my right hon. Friend has done on this issue, but does he not realise that it should not be the subject of a compromise? Those of us who believe strongly that hunting with dogs is totally inappropriate and should be banned hope that—with our majority in the House of Commons—that can now be done, and many of us believe that it should have been done in the last Parliament.

Alun Michael

I have not put forward a compromise—or a fudge, as it has been described by some. I have put forward proposals, as my hon. Friend will see when the Bill is published, that are based on principles and on evidential tests, and I hope that they will command the support of the House. There is a tendency for people to say either that we should leave things as they are, or that we should have a complete ban. That approach is too simplistic. [Interruption.]I ask my hon. Friends to listen to this point. The Bill that was introduced on the last occasion, which was drafted by Deadline 2000, did not propose a simple blanket ban. It recognised utility, and listed some activities that could continue. We should be careful not to ban activities unless they fail the two tests of utility and cruelty. I promise my hon. Friend that the Bill that I will publish this afternoon deals with the issue of cruelty.

Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon)

Cannot the Minister see that even his statement is biased and prejudicial? Surely the burden of proof in any licensing system should be with the licensor in turning down an application, rather than with hunting people having to justify their requirement for a licence every time they apply for one.

Alun Michael

Clearly, I disagree with that. If people want to undertake these activities with dogs, they will have to show that there is utility, that they have a reason for doing it and that no cruelty is involved. They will have to show that any suffering involved will be kept to a minimum unless there are no alternatives for dealing with land management issues. That is a simple and straightforward matter of principle.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that this botched attempt to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds is unacceptable to many Members of the House of Commons? Will he make it clear to me that the Bill that he is publishing has been drafted in such a way as to allow hon. Members to amend it to bring about a complete ban? Will he also reiterate his assurance to me that, if the House votes in that way, a complete ban will be forced through Parliament—if need be, under the Parliament Act?

Alun Michael

I shall not repeat what I said to my right hon. Friend in March because that stands, but I ask him to consider whether he wants to outlaw ratting, for example, which seems to be the implication of his remarks. He has not seen the Bill as yet. When he reads it, he will see that it deals with the issue of cruelty. Surely cruelty should be foremost in the minds of Members of the House, and I shall seek to persuade my right hon. and hon. Friends that what I have drafted and introduced will indeed deal with that issue.

Mr. Edward Gamier (Harborough)

What is the substance of the evidence that the Minister saw and which Lord Burns and his inquiry team did not?

Alun Michael

First, the conclusions of the Burns report and the evidence available to Lord Burns were available to me as my starting point. Secondly, the evidence that I saw will be available in the Library. Thirdly, I hope that the hon. and learned Gentleman, before asking his question, took the trouble to consider the videos of the evidence and the discussions from the three days of public hearings in Portcullis House, which involved all three main campaigning organisations. I wrote to every Member of the House to point out their availability to all. That information is in the public domain and it is transparent. The process, I suggest, should be respected, as it is clearly respected by all three main organisations.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall)

I thank the Minister for the time that he has put into this very divisive issue; I know that the job has been difficult for him. I welcome the fact that he has clearly changed his mind to accept what some of us—at least one or two of us—on this side of the House have said about a complete ban on hunting being wrong and unacceptable. Will he clarify this for me: if the Bill that he is introducing is a Government Bill, on which there will be a free vote, how can he possibly allow the Parliament Act to be used if it is amended?

Alun Michael: I do not think that I understand the final point. The Bill is a Government Bill, and I am acting on the Government's behalf in making proposals to enable Parliament to reach a conclusion on the issue. Of course, if a Bill were passed by the House and blocked by another place, it would be reintroduced, as we have indicated. It would be not for us but for Parliament to decide whether the Parliament Act applied. Indeed, it is a matter for you, Mr. Speaker, to decide whether the Parliament Act applies in any particular circumstances.

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire)

I have reservations about banning any of the activities covered by the Minister's statement, but does he understand that, because he put animal welfare at the centre of his remarks, the middle way group will have to give his proposals a cautious welcome? Does he also understand, however, that many will be concerned that, used improperly, those powers could lead to the banning of hunting through the back door? Is he open to suggestions on how the utility test could be modified to ensure that that does not happen?

Alun Michael

The question will be straightforward for any aspect of hunting that is not either accepted or banned outright—that is, it can take place only if it satisfies the two tests. First, there must be a genuine utility in it and it must be useful. Of course, that is the ground on which hunting has been defended over time. Secondly, it must satisfy the cruelty test. In other words, if it is cruel, it cannot be undertaken. So, the two tests are very clear and I believe that they will be applied clearly and successfully.

Mr. Tony Banks (West Ham)

May I commend my right hon. Friend for his political adroitness and unfailing courtesy during a process that many would consider to be the political equivalent of getting the black spot from Blind Pew? I say to him in all friendliness that he will be caught like piggy in the middle and I suspect that Parliament will indulge in a bit of pig sticking, which is a revolting pursuit when it involves either pigs or Ministers. Will he give the House an absolute assurance that the Bill is amendable—I assume it must be—and that there will be a free vote at every stage of its consideration?

Alun Michael

I can confirm both those points. The Bill, of course, is amendable and it will be dealt with on a free vote. That does not mean that I am relaxed about whether it should be amended, and I shall seek to persuade colleagues that it is correctly judged and that it deals precisely with the issues, not least that of cruelty, which is the one that concerns my hon. Friend.

I invite colleagues to read the Bill in the light of this question: what is the concern and why has hunting been such an issue for Parliament over many years? The answer, I suggest, is that Members of the House are not happy with the cruelty that is associated with hunting. If they read the legislation and see that it deals with cruelty, but does so in a way that allows land managers to do what they need to do to continue with their livelihood and activities, I suggest that we will have the balance right. If I get shouted at from both sides for trying to get it right, I shall take that as a slightly curious form of support.

Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle)

Earlier this morning I was able to talk to hunt followers at a meet in my constituency, and to discuss the Minister's comments, which had already been leaked ahead of his statement. They considered those comments draconian, unnecessary and intrusive. Nevertheless, if the Minister genuinely proposes to introduce legislation that is based on "cruelty and utility" and if those criteria are fairly and objectively met, they will have no problem with it because, in so many parts of the country, hunting is not cruel and does serve a utilitarian purpose.

Is the Minister aware, however, that it is not just hunting that is on the line, but his integrity and the integrity of the Government in pursuing those two requirements and ensuring that they are fairly met?

Alun Michael

That was another absurd contribution. The hon. Gentleman has listened to people's comments on a Bill that they have not seen and he has not seen. I suggest that he was indulging in an exercise in prejudice this morning.

The hon. Gentleman should not believe claims that there have been leaks in advance. The fact is that we have engaged in an open and transparent process. I set out the principles of the Bill—the principles of utility and cruelty—in my statement to the House on 21 March. The evidence we have heard has been available on a website, on video and in transcripts throughout. It is not surprising that people may have looked at the evidence and reached conclusions on the nature of the proposals I would present; but I have presented my proposals in a statement to the House first, and will subsequently present them to the House in a Bill.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle)

I welcome the statement and I welcome the Bill, to the extent that it can be amended. In an earlier statement, however, my right hon. Friend said that Ministers would be given a free vote on this issue. Is that still the case?

Alun Michael

It is a free-vote issue. A Government Bill is being presented to enable Parliament to reach a conclusion on the issue. I will seek to persuade colleagues to support the Bill, because I believe it to be right. I am happy to talk to them long into the night if necessary to explain why it will work, why it will be fair and why it will be right.

Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster)

I am curious about whether the register system will work. Surely one side or the other will inevitably appeal. I am also curious about how the Minister will deal with someone out rabbiting whose greyhound chases a hare. How will he handle such enforcement issues?

Alun Michael

Such casual incidents would certainly not be caught by the Act. If the hon. Gentleman reads the report of the Committee stage of the previous Bill, he will see that spurious points of that kind were raised fairly repetitiously then.

The point is that the registrar and the tribunal will have to deal with the evidence that comes before them in the light of criteria established in legislation by the House. Those principles will be very clear. An applicant will have to demonstrate utility, and show that he or she could not have reached the same end without causing suffering. Applicants will have to satisfy those two criteria: it is as simple as that. If they satisfy the criteria, they will be able to undertake the activity; if they cannot satisfy them, they will not.

Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate)

I regret to tell my right hon. Friend that most of my constituents who have been campaigning for a total ban on hunting with dogs well before the issue came before the House would have regarded his golden thread as somewhat pinchbeck if there had been no opportunity for the Bill to be amended so that the House could yet again debate the issue of a total ban. May I say that I am grateful to him for reiterating that if the House does return the result it has returned so many times in the past, he will exercise the Parliament Act?

Alun Michael

I ask my hon. Friend to consider this question: did she believe that she was voting for a total ban when she voted for the Deadline 2000 option—as I believe she did—in the previous Parliament? In fact, that option did not constitute a total ban. Some activities were allowed to continue because it was felt that they had utility and should not be banned. The Bill that I have introduced is not some form of shopping list. It enshrines the principles of utility and of eradicating cruelty. I hope that those two principles will command my hon. Friend's support, and that the Bill, which I shall publish later today, will do the same.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

Does not the right hon. Gentleman understand that there is no distinction of principle between shooting, hunting and angling? They are, in substance, the same, and in a free society individuals should be entitled to participate in all of them. Furthermore, it is the business of this House to protect minorities, not to trample on their rights. In a free society, the golden thread should be the liberty of the individual, not the tyranny of the majority.

Alun Michael

I am tempted to ask whether there is a doctor in the House. The right hon. and learned Gentleman should try to keep his temper, because then he would be able to deal coolly and objectively with the principles that I am putting to this House. He is one of those who pressed me to deal with illegal hare coursing. This Bill will do that, and will do so according to the criteria that he suggested in a letter to me. The right hon. and learned Gentleman has made himself absurd.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

My right hon. Friend said that his proposition would settle the matter, but on reflection he must admit that, if there is a shabby compromise or a golden fudge, this issue will return time and again. This Parliament has a Labour majority of 160-odd. Some 400 Labour Members stood firm before, and if the third way is introduced, they will do so again. Let us get on with it and settle the matter.

Alun Michael

I do not expect that a statement from me will be sufficient to satisfy Labour Members; they will have to look at the legislation. I believe that they—that includes my hon. Friend—are reasonable and sensible people who will ask—[Interruption.] Well, Conservative Members may not agree, but I believe that to be true. I believe that my hon. Friend and other Labour Members will do me the favour of looking at the Bill and asking whether it deals with the issue of cruelty. I can assure them that it does, and that there is no fudge in it, be it golden fudge or dark fudge. My hon. Friend will have to visit those parts of the country where fudge is produced because he will not find it in my statement or in the Bill.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

Nowhere in the admirable Burns report, nor in the excellently conducted hearings in Portcullis House—I pay tribute to the Minister for the way in which he chaired them—was any cruelty proved. It is therefore a mystery to us why the Bill should be predicated on such a basis. A total of 407,000 people marched peacefully in London to express their anxieties about the havoc wreaked on the countryside by this Government. I want the Minister to know that hunting will fight this provision, and hunting will be right.

Alun Michael

We treated with courtesy the people who marched through London a few weeks ago. They sent a variety of messages about the needs of the countryside, however, and there was a degree of muddle in that regard. Nevertheless, we responded to them with respect. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman acknowledges the value of the Burns report. It provided not a conclusion on recommendations for legislation, but a strong basis of evidence, on which I have built through the evidence that I have taken.

On cruelty, the activity of hare coursing has no utility. The intention is to test the speed and agility of the dogs, not to protect livestock or anything like that. That is why it can be concluded that that activity cannot be allowed, as it does not pass the cruelty test.

I have looked carefully at all the evidence in connection with the hunting of deer. It does not satisfy either the utility or the cruelty test, and that is why it is banned. The proposed process will allow us to test whether cruelty occurs, and that is surely fair and reasonable. If the hon. Gentleman agrees that we should not do things that are cruel, he must be prepared to allow hunting to be tested against the evidence.

Mr. Ian Cawsey (Brigg and Goole)

I thank my right hon. Friend for his efforts to find a way forward on this matter, and for the early opportunity that the House will have to decide how it should be resolved. The Bill will be the starting point, but will he explain whether it will contain a presumption against the use of dogs to cull foxes? If not, will not the Bill be just another version of the middle way proposal? A BBC online poll this morning showed that 75 per cent. of respondents were against that option.

Alun Michael

There is a significant difference between the Bill and the middle way proposal, which I could not accept because it licensed cruelty—that is, it would have allowed cruelty on the part of those licensed to undertake the activity. I do not believe that to be right.

The starting point is that people wishing to undertake an activity with dogs will first have to show utility—that there is a reason, purpose or outcome worth pursuing, against the tests that my hon. Friend will see in the Bill when it is published later today. Secondly, they will have to show that the activity is not cruel—that there is no other way of dealing with the mischief that is less likely to cause suffering. I think that that proposal gets the balance right, as it will be for the applicant to show that both those tests are met.

There is a third reason why the Bill is not another version of the middle way. Even if an activity is allowed, it will have to be undertaken in a way that is not cruel. An automatic condition of any registration is that any activity undertaken as a result of the registration will have to be undertaken in a way that is not cruel. That is a very important principle, and it is built into the Bill.

Hywel Williams (Caernarfon)

Does the Minister accept that there are particular issues associated with hunting in Wales? They have to do with the continued viability of upland farming, and with the difficulties that the regulation of hunting on foot—and especially its possible abolition by the back door—could cause rural communities. The hunting issue in Scotland is to be decided by the Scottish Assembly, and I am informed that hunting in Northern Ireland will be dealt with by the Northern Ireland Assembly. Will the Minister say why the Welsh Assembly is not looking at the matter?

In addition, will the independent tribunal be a national Welsh body or a national English body, or is the Minister suggesting that it will be a supranational body covering both England and Wales?

Alun Michael

The Welsh Assembly has had an opportunity to consider the matter and one of its Committees undertook some hearings before providing its views. I wrote to all members of the Assembly, as well to everyone in this House and another place, inviting them to provide evidence and their views on the matter before I considered the legislation that I would bring forward. If there are circumstances that justify activity in a particular area, as the hon. Gentleman has described, it will be for the registrar and the tribunal to be satisfied that the tests of utility and cruelty have been met. I can confirm that the registrar and tribunal will be national and will deal with the matter in England and Wales.

Mr. Mike Hall (Weaver Vale)

My right hon. Friend served on the Standing Committee considering the Bill brought forward in 2000. He will therefore know that that Bill, had it reached the statute book, would have banned the hunting with dogs of foxes, deer, mink and hare. My constituents will not be able to understand why, if the Bill is to ban hunting with dogs of hare and deer, it cannot also ban the hunting of foxes? I want the decision to be taken not by tribunal but by the House of Commons.

Alun Michael

I have said that the previous legislation was designed in a different way, listing activities that could not be undertaken. I have sought to put in the Bill the basic principles of utility and cruelty that we debated at great length in Committee and on the Floor of the House on the previous occasion. The purpose is to eradicate cruelty. That is the mischief that we should be addressing, and the Bill will address it.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East)

Is the Minister aware that the small minority on this side of the House who deplore hunting with hounds have been appalled at the way in which a Government who claim to be a Government of principle have used every device and trick for the past five years to prevent the House of Commons from coming to a decision on the matter. What is the point of having a democratic Parliament if Members are not allowed to come to a decision on an issue that they believe to be fundamental to a civilised society?

Alun Michael: I have made it clear that the first point about the Bill is that it deals with the principles. It starts from the point of principle. The hon. Gentleman is quite right that the Government pride themselves on applying principles. Secondly, it is for the House to take a decision. I have a responsibility to bring forward proposals to enable Parliament to reach a conclusion on the issue. I have sought to do that and I shall also seek to persuade the hon. Gentleman as well as other right hon. and hon. Members that I have got it right.

Mr. Kevin Hughes (Doncaster, North)

Is it not usually the case that he who tries to ride two horses with one golden thread falls through the middle and gets trampled by both sides? Will not the Bill be seen outside for what it really is—a sell-out on the main question of banning the hunting of foxes with dogs?

Alun Michael

The Bill will be seen in that way only if it is misrepresented, and I hope that it will not be misrepresented by anyone in the House. The Bill is based on principle rather than prejudice. It provides a framework that allows those principles to be applied in any particular circumstances. I know that my hon. Friend is concerned about cruelty. I invite him to look at the Bill once it is published and I hope that he will be satisfied that it deals with the problem of cruelty.

Mr. Adrian Flook (Taunton)

The Minister has labelled thousands of my constituents as cruel, as they follow a hunt—the Devon and Somerset stag hounds or the Quantock stag hounds. He will not be thanked or respected for that. Thousands of my constituents will lose their liberty and many hundreds of them will lose their livelihood. Given the social and economic impact of the Minister's decision to ban stag hunting, what action will he take to ensure that those in my constituency are helped?

Alun Michael

The hon. Gentleman needs to ask himself whether he considers it right for people to have the liberty to be cruel. Surely not. The House has previously said that that is not a liberty that it can support. I invite the hon. Gentleman to look at the evidence and at the Bill. He will see that it tests any activity against the two principles of whether there is good reason for undertaking the activity and whether cruelty is involved. It is against those two tests that I have looked at the evidence on deer hunting and stag hunting and reached a conclusion that I believe to be grounded firmly in the evidence.

Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West)

Will my right hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to Britain's 2 million-plus coarse anglers who have steadfastly refused to be conned or hoodwinked by the hunt lobby and their supporters on the Opposition Benches into supporting the doomed cause of hunting with hounds? Will he confirm that not only are field sports such as angling and shooting safe with the Government but they are being enhanced and supported as never before?

Alun Michael

I am happy, as always, to support my hon. Friend in his passionate support for angling and the country sport of shooting.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire)

I speak in a personal capacity and as joint chair of the all-party middle way group. Does the Minister accept that the rhetoric about a ban ignores the fact that the Scottish Parliament proved the impracticality of legislating for a ban? Does he agree that a regulatory solution would provide us with the best chance of balancing animal welfare considerations with civil liberties as long as people stick to the facts from the three-day hearing, where the Countryside Alliance, Countdown to a Ban and the middle way group found much common ground?

Alun Michael

The hon. Gentleman is right to suggest that more common ground than might have been expected emerged from the hearings. When people who feel passionately about different views get into a room together, a lot can be learned if they are intelligent and willing to listen to each other. We all learned a great deal from those hearings.

The most important thing about the proposals that I have announced is that they are based on principle, not on drawing a line arbitrarily. They are based on principle and on testing the evidence against those principles.