HC Deb 21 March 2002 vol 382 cc457-70 1.49 pm
The Minister for Rural Affairs (Alun Michael)

Our manifesto gave a commitment on hunting with hounds, stating that: we will give the new House of Commons an early opportunity to express its view. We will then enable Parliament to reach a conclusion on this issue. I have been given the responsibility of leading that enabling process. In reaching my decision on how to proceed, I have listened carefully to what has been said in the debates. The votes this week leave the two Houses diametrically opposed—indeed, I have rarely seen an issue on which the divisions have been greater. It is precisely for that reason that it is right to see how it can be resolved with as much agreement as possible.

We want to respect all views, but that must start with respect for the strength with which the Commons made its views clear on Monday. I promise to engage with everyone who has an interest in this issue to make the legislation practical and robust. I promise to bring to the House of Commons a Bill that will deal with this issue effectively once and for all, and that will make good law. I earnestly hope that we can achieve that by finding as much common ground as possible. I propose a process of consultation on the practical issues of detail with a wide variety of interested parties. That consultation period will last no more than six months, including work on drafting a new Bill.

We promised in our manifesto that this issue would be resolved. Should there be no way through, and should the new Bill be frustrated in its passage rather than scrutinised and improved, the Government could not properly stand in the way of the application of the Parliament Act, which of course would be a matter for this House. [Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal)


Alun Michael

I ask Conservative Members to listen carefully to what is being said. The Government would prefer the Bill to proceed by debate and through a search for common ground wherever possible, with conflict tempered by tolerance.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

Where is the tolerance?

Alun Michael

The hon. Gentleman obviously does not understand the word "tolerance". I suggest that he listen.

If that process is frustrated and the Bill rejected, we would reintroduce the Bill as quickly as possible to this House. It would then be for this House and its procedures and for Mr. Speaker to determine whether the Parliament Act should apply. However, the reason for re-engaging in a process to try to achieve wider agreement is precisely that we recognise that there are legitimate concerns in the countryside about pest control, land management and other practicalities, and we want to address those issues in the Bill. Those concerns were raised both in this House and in the other place.

I reiterate our manifesto commitment that we have no intention whatsoever of placing restrictions on the sports of angling and shooting. I also want to stress to everyone in the countryside that hunting is at the margins of the real debate about the priorities that we set out in the rural White Paper, which are to ensure that people in the countryside get access to good public services, proper investment, sound environmental policies and sustainable development.

On the content of the Bill itself, I believe that some common ground can best he found by focusing on two general principles. The report by Lord Burns on hunting with dogs examined in great detail the principles of cruelty and utility. We propose to frame legislation that prohibits activity based on those two principles rather than simply setting out a list of activities to be banned.

The Burns report did not provide a route map, however. That is why further thought should be given in applying these principles, and that is what I shall be doing over the next few weeks.

I am sure that the House will have noted the very clear assurances that I have given today about timing and outcome, and about the engagement of those campaigning for a ban on hunting, of Members of this House, and of those involved in land management. I recognise that this is a difficult issue, especially as we all know that there are other pressing matters, such as legislation on crime, health and education, that also demand our attention. We must deliver on our central promises on reform and investment in our public services.

I ask the House to trust me to deliver, and to join me in a process that is guaranteed to achieve an outcome as soon as possible. I look forward to engaging with colleagues on both sides of the House and in the other place. The process that I am setting out today will ensure that we deliver on our manifesto commitment to resolve this issue during the lifetime of this Parliament.

Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton)

I thank the Minister for letting me have sight of his statement this afternoon. I had tremendous difficulties with my computer at the weekend, and I understand that he had similar difficulties today. I received the statement hot off the press only a few minutes ago, therefore. However, I am grateful at least for the attempt to get it to me in good time. The proposals that the Minister has announced today, which will be introduced in the next Session of Parliament by the use of the Parliament Act if necessary, say very little and shed very little light on how the Government see the way forward, especially after two full days of debate this week.

The proposals are most certainly not a middle way. However, in their small print, they show the way in which the Minister proposes to curtail the freedoms enjoyed by generations of British people. Can the Minister take powers, on a whim, to make regulations under the new "necessity" test, in the Burns report, of "cruelty and utility"—"vermin control"—which will, at a stroke, maim hunting as we have known it, except for a few foot packs in some upland areas? Hunting would then only be tolerated under licence, with rights of appeal given to anti-hunt organisations if a licence were granted.

The devil will, as ever, be in the detail. When will we see precisely what regulatory powers are planned? How will they be implemented, and by what means? With whom will the Minister consult? How will he reassure the countryside that he is not just buying time? Many believe that the decisions are already taken, as The Times today makes clear. Will he confirm that, in addition to the list of consultees on page 3, he will fully consult those who support field and country sports and foxhunting in particular? How will he ensure that the consultation focuses on other real issues such as species management, conservation and employment?

It is obvious to one and all in the House and elsewhere that the Government are caught between a rock and a hard place of their own making. They are caught by their own Back Benchers, who are deeply unhappy about the failure of Government policy, and by the fear of a countryside march of up to 1 million people joining together in comradeship and common purpose, as they did before. The issue is not animal cruelty; it never was. It is about the settling of old scores.

The message must go out the length and breadth of this land: we must fight for our country traditions and values. That fight for freedom and liberty begins today.

Alun Michael

It is very disappointing that the Conservative response has been so narrow and petty. It is clear that Opposition Front-Bench Members are determined to create division and not to help a process that will create good legislation. It is the process of creating good legislation that is important—[Interruption.] I invite Opposition Members to stop gnashing their teeth, and to listen to what I am saying in response to serious points made by the hon. Lady—her contribution included serious points among its scattering of prejudice.

We seek to introduce legislation based on principles. Legislation often bans things—frequently, it involves a curtailment of liberty—and the House must ensure that that is done carefully, judiciously and appropriately. Surely that is the purpose of writing good legislation. It is ludicrous of the hon. Lady to suggest, in her words, that I intend to take powers "on a whim". The House will decide exactly what legislation is passed. My responsibility is to help that process and to enable us to have good law.

The hon. Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton) is right to say that the devil is in the detail, which is why I have announced a process in which the detail and the practicalities will be discussed. She asked for the sort of information appropriate to a Second Reading debate, after the publication of a Bill. As I indicated, we are starting a process. I assure the hon. Lady that consultation will be open to anyone.

I am not sure what it says on page 3 of The Times, as I have not read it today—

Mrs. Winterton

I was referring to page 3 of the statement.

Alun Michael

I beg the hon. Lady's pardon. She was speaking about The Times, so I thought that that was the organ to which her pagination applied. I know what is in my statement; it is The Times that I have not read.

I can tell the hon. Member for Congleton that the consultation process will be very open. Certainly, people who engage in hunting will be part of the process, and they will be fully involved. Indeed, I met representatives from the campaign for hunting yesterday. My door has been kept open to that organisation, as it has to other bodies with an interest in the matter. I had friendly and useful exchanges with them, because I am engaged in a process of dialogue.

The hon. Member for Congleton spoke about marches. I do not recall any Conservative Government being swayed by marches of any sort, whereas this Government do take notice of strong opinion, regardless of whether it is expressed by demonstration or by the process of consultation. We respect people's freedom to protest, but I ask those who consider protesting about the issues involved in this matter to recognise that they are being invited to take part in a process. They will be listened to and they will have an opportunity to influence the legislative proposals that come before the House. That seems to be the biggest difference between Government and Opposition.

Several hon. Members


Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. Many hon. Members are trying to catch my eye. It would be extremely helpful. Therefore, if hon. Members raised only one point with the Minister.

Mr. Michael Foster (Worcester)

I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement today. My question will no doubt be put to him by people outside the House. If, after the process outlined today, the House of Commons once again votes to ban cruel and unnecessary sports such as lowland fox hunting, and if the House of Lords rejects that view, will my right hon. Friend ensure that the Government use the Parliament Act to allow this House to have its say?

Alun Michael

I thank my hon. Friend for his welcome for my statement. In essence, he asks whether the Government would apply the Parliament Act. However, use of the Parliament Act is a matter for the House. As I made clear, that process would be enabled by the Government if it became necessary, but we very much hope that the process will be one of engagement, and of improvement of any legislation that is brought forward. Our preference is that the Parliament Act will not be needed. I hope that that will be the case, but my hon. Friend is right to understand that the Government would enable use of the Parliament Act, if necessary. In that way, the House of Commons will be able to decide the matter.

Norman Baker (Lewes)

I welcome the fact that the Minister has made an early statement to the House, following the debates in both Houses earlier this week. Since 1997, Parliament has spent more than 130 hours discussing hunting. The Minister is therefore right to say that we need to reach a conclusion "once and for all", to use the words in his statement. However, I notice that the process that he has set out will take another 12 months to complete.

Does not the Minister's statement take us back to square one, in that all options are open again? The Minister has changed the way in which matters will be dealt with. Rightly, he has moved away from discussing particular bans, and has proposed that we look at questions of cruelty and utility. Will he accept, however, that the definition of cruelty is subjective, and that hon. Members of all parties will reach different conclusions about it? How does he intend to reconcile subjective views of that nature?

Will the Minister accept that his statement could be interpreted by some as code for a sort of middle way solution, which will stop hare coursing but allow some foxhunting to continue? That would be in line with the briefings that senior people in Government gave to the press last weekend.

Finally, it may be admirable to try to bridge the unbridgeable—and I applaud the Minister's attempt—but I hope that he will clarify his intentions, in light of the question from the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster). Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the Bill will be subject to a free vote? Will he also ensure that, if the House of Commons votes for a form of legislation that bans all foxhunting and hunting with dogs, he will enable the Parliament Act to be used, and that the will of the Commons will triumph?

Alun Michael

I thank the hon. Gentleman for a series of interesting questions. The Government are promoting discussion and debate. We are taking a little time to try to seek agreement and to achieve as much common ground as possible.

I do not think that the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) is right to say that my statement takes us back to the beginning. I explained the process that will be undertaken, and the principles on which it is based, and I suggested that what we need to discuss are the practicalities. For those reasons, therefore, my statement moves matters forward.

The hon. Member for Lewes said that the definition of cruelty is subjective. I am sure that there will be much discussion of that when we come to scrutinise the legislation, but the law is already clear that cruelty is defined as that which causes unnecessary suffering. In practice, the concept is used in the courts in a variety of ways, so I do not think that there is the uncertainty about meaning that the hon. Gentleman suggests.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether the proposals did not look a little like the middle way. I assure him that this is not the middle way. He also referred to briefings from elsewhere in Government, but I know of no such briefings. I assure him that the only authoritative briefings on this issue come from me. If he has any doubts about anything that he hears and which is ascribed to someone else in Government, the hon. Gentleman should give me a call and I will put him right.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether the question of hunting will continue to be dealt with on a free vote. I can confirm that it will. His final question referred to the nature of the Bill. The Government have made it clear that the Parliament Act is enabled to allow the House of Commons to come to decisions. The use of the Parliament Act is a matter for the House of Commons. We will not stand in the way of that. We will enable the process if it is needed, but I again make it clear that I am dealing with that point now so that we can put it to one side and ensure that we do not spend ages discussing whether the Parliament Act will be used. We should prefer it if the Parliament Act were not used, as we want to deal with the matter by seeking common ground, through debate and through the normal processes of this House and the other place.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that I had hoped to receive from him today a precise statement that Monday's decision by the House of Commons that a full ban on all forms of hunting with dogs would be introduced as a substantive Bill as soon as possible? However, that is not what we heard.

My right hon. Friend asks us to trust him. I certainly trust him, as I have a high personal regard for him. In the end, however, the only thing that I will trust is a Bill. I hope that my right hon. Friend will give a very clear answer to the question that I am about to ask him. His answer will govern my approach to this matter and—for what it is worth—to other matters that arise in this House for the remainder of this Parliament.

Let us assume that, after the consultation period, the Government introduce a Bill that contains some exceptions, and that the House of Commons on a free vote decides to remove all those exceptions and to impose a complete ban on all forms of hunting with dogs. In those circumstances, will my right hon. Friend give me the clear assurance that that would be the Bill for which the Parliament Act would be invoked?

Alun Michael

First, I am aware of my right hon. Friend's preference. No one who has heard him speak on the matter could be in the slightest doubt about what he wants to happen. However, I hope that the promise that what he called a substantive Bill would be introduced as soon as possible will encourage him. I have suggested a specific time scale for that, and again I hope that he will accept that the intention is to provide certainty, for him and for the rest of the House.

I am absolutely clear that if the Government introduce a Bill that is amended in the House of Commons, our promise in relation to allowing the Parliament Act to obtain will apply. It would be a matter for the Commons. I think I cannot underline enough the important words "This would be a matter for the House of Commons".

Mr. John Maples (Stratford-on-Avon)

I am sure that when the Minister first entered the House he, like me, considered protecting the rights and freedoms of minorities one of its most important functions. On that basis, we in the House have for many years continued to tolerate things of which, individually or collectively, we disapprove. Is it not a very sad day for the Minister and the House when he invites us to abandon that long-established principle?

Alun Michael

There are many minorities whose freedom of action is curtailed in a variety of ways because the House has decided through history that a particular thing should be banned. That applies whether the hon. Gentleman is referring to bear-baiting, cockfighting or similar activities relating to animals, or to various other activities that are regarded as offences because one person's ability to exercise his or her freedom of action impinges on the rights and obligations of others. I am afraid that, by simply referring to the freedom of the individual, the hon. Gentleman is not helping us to arrive at appropriate and robust legislation.

Yes, I believe entirely that it is the responsibility of a majority to protect the rights and, freedoms of individuals; but it must be done in a manner that also ensures that where there is a principle that should not be offended against, that principle is upheld.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South)

My right hon. Friend is a very reasonable man. He has talked a good deal about the need for discussion and debate. May I express the hope that there will not be too much discussion and debate? After all, we have had rather a lot of that already. What we seek is a watertight Bill, and what I seek from the Minister today is an assurance that what will result at the end of this is not a Bill leading to years of litigation, with judges driving a coach and horses through the various definitions in the Bill, followed by demands for yet another Bill. We must bring this matter to an end; the will of Parliament must prevail.

Alun Michael

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that it is important to produce a Bill that is effective and watertight, and will not lead to a mass of litigation. I assure him that I am not in the business of increasing the incomes of lawyers, or the amount of activity in the courts. I will seek to apply the principle that he has put to us to the drafting of the legislation.

My hon. Friend says that there has been enough discussion and debate. I suspect that in embarking on this process the person I am condemning to the greatest quantity of discussion and debate is myself, in listening mode but also in discussion mode, trying to tease out the best way of implementing the legislation. I shall try to live up to the term that my hon. Friend used in his vicious attack, and continue to be a reasonable man.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

Does the Minister accept that by himself voting against the middle way the other night, he demonstrated that he was not prepared to listen? Does he also accept that to millions in the country at large, and to all who love hunting and the countryside, the Government's sense of priorities is astonishing and impossible to understand? Finally, let me tell him this: the countryside will fight for liberty, livelihood and freedom. What he proposes does indeed mark a black day for freedom in this country.

Alun Michael

The hon. Gentleman makes a rather populist point. Most people whom I meet in the countryside would set as priorities for action by the Government the very actions to which we have given priority—the revival of the economy in rural areas, encouraging communities in rural areas, looking at the future of food and farming and promoting tourism in rural areas. They would expect us to give priority to issues that affect people's everyday lives in rural areas, such as education, health and transport, in which we have invested massively more than the Conservative Government.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether the way in which I voted on Monday had somehow compromised my role. This issue has been before the House on a free vote on numerous occasions. It would be a very odd Member of Parliament who had not reached a conclusion on questions such as those that were before us on Monday; it would be a very odd Member of Parliament who failed to vote on them.

I have always been absolutely straight and honest with people I have met—including members of the campaign for hunting—to ensure that they know which way I have voted on the matter over the years. I have also made it absolutely clear to them, and to every group, that I have been given a separate role by the Prime Minister, which is to enable Parliament to reach a conclusion. I shall do the job as objectively as I can: having personal opinions takes away none of my responsibility for enabling that process.

Mr. Mike O'Brien (North Warwickshire)

I welcome the preparedness to invoke the Parliament Act, should that be needed, but will my right hon. Friend confirm that it could not be invoked in the next Session with a new Bill, and that the process would therefore probably take a further year? Will he also confirm that the Government have moved from a position of neutrality—of merely facilitating Parliament's arrival at a conclusion based on one of the three options—to the undertaking of a new process to secure a Bill based on common ground? Has he any idea what that common ground would be?

Alun Michael

My hon. Friend is right: the process will take a little longer by the means I have proposed today than by the means of applying the Parliament Act to the previous Bill. That, however, is a price that we consider worth paying to try to avoid the continuing danger of a stalemate between the two Houses, and to find as much common ground as possible between us and those who feel strongly about these issues, both in this House and outside.

My hon. Friend asked whether the Government had moved. The Government have not moved from being neutral on the issue, but we have accepted a responsibility that we gave ourselves in our manifesto before the general election—a responsibility for enabling Parliament to reach a conclusion. That is the responsibility I have taken on in trying to find the best possible legislation in order to reach the best possible conclusion. I see that as a role for enabling Parliament.

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald)

Does the right hon. Gentleman share my regret that discussions on this important issue should be couched in terms of class warfare? Does he accept that many of us who have been involved in this and other campaigns have a long record of fighting for the welfare of animals? Does he find it remotely likely that when the hon. Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks) mounted a campaign to protect tortured bears in China, he was declaring class warfare on the communist regime there?

In every free vote since 1987, has it not been standard practice for the Minister and the Opposition spokesman to give their personal views and then to make clear that they nevertheless have a duty to the House? Finally, is not the method of resolving the problem that the right hon. Gentleman has announced just a recipe for yet more delay, and for allowing the issue to run up and down the parliamentary system when we should be discussing other issues? Should the matter not now be brought to a firm conclusion? The House has shown its view; we are the democratically elected body.

Alun Michael

I can agree with a great deal of what the right hon. Lady said. I certainly share her regret that the issue should be debated in terms of class warfare, and I am sure that members of her own Front Bench will have heard her injunction. I will leave it to her to debate issues with my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks), but I am sure that any debate of that kind would be worth listening to, given two such robust participants.

I endorse the right hon. Lady's point about the difference between a personal view and a Minister's responsibility to the House. As a shadow Minister, I always took the view that a similar need exists to distinguish between personal responsibilities and one's responsibility to the House in trying to enable good legislation. On several occasions when I was in opposition, contributions and discussions—sometimes in the House, sometimes outside it—helped the Government to improve legislation. I hope that the hon. Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton) has listened to this exchange.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall)

May I welcome the fact that the Minister has not introduced a Bill today to ban hunting with dogs? That shows that the many people in the countryside who think that we should not spend huge amounts of time on this issue are being listened to, and that a way exists to satisfy most sensible people. Do the Government have a view on cruelty, and does the Minister have a view on what Lord Burns himself said in the House of Lords? He said: Naturally, people ask whether we were implying"— in the Burns report— that hunting is cruel …The short answer to that question is no."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 12 March 2001; Vol. 623, c. 533.] What is the Government's view on the Burns report?

Alun Michael

My hon. Friend refers to comments made in another place, rather than to the report itself. One problem is that many people pick out a particular paragraph from the Burns report and use it to justify the position that they adopted before reading it. I take the view that it is important for this House to be able to deal with cruelty in respect of hunting with dogs—that is what the issue is all about. We should do so by referring to the useful work undertaken by Lord Burns, and to the practicalities that I referred to in my statement. That is the subject for consultation in the next few weeks, and that process will certainly be interesting. However, it will be informed by the contents of the Burns report.

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton)

Was not the Parliament Act designed to allow the House of Commons to get its way only when the House of Lords thwarts a specific and detailed legislative commitment in a general election manifesto? The Labour party's last manifesto makes no such specific commitment to a ban; instead, deliberately chosen, mealy-mouthed, ambiguous words are used. Is it not a complete abuse of the Parliament Act, therefore, to try to invoke it in this case, or can the Minister cite a precedent for its being used for a non-manifesto or non-budgetary issue?

Alun Michael

The hon. Gentleman hangs together several errors and imprecisions. The point is that, should the two Houses reach an impasse, we will enable the Commons to have its way, but I have made it clear time and again that we hope that the process will avoid that outcome. A very precise manifesto commitment was made to enable Parliament to reach a conclusion on the legislation. The hon. Gentleman should examine that precise commitment and recognise that it is on that authority that the House of Commons is able to proceed. However, if possible we want to achieve maximum common ground for all who engage in the debate. That is as much an offer—as it were—to the House of Lords as an illustration of what would happen should such an impasse arise.

Mr. Tony Banks (West Ham)

The comments of the hon. Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton) have already made clear to my right hon. Friend the impossibility of securing consensus in any form. He pointed out in his statement that the two Houses are diametrically opposed. Where can common ground be found? There is no common ground. I do not know why he wants to spend six months chasing shadows. A clash is obviously coming between this House and the House of Lords, so he ought to face up to that fact. To use some of the hon. Lady's rhetoric, he might as well cry havoc and let loose the dogs of war.

Alun Michael

I am not sure that I should take much notice of that encouragement. As my hon. Friend knows, by nature I am an optimist. He will also know that I am a Labour and Co-operative MP, so I seek wherever possible to co-operate and work with others. I am even open to co-operating with Opposition Front Benchers and other Conservative Members—if they will engage in the process, rather than simply writing it off at the outset. Similarly, many in the other place—some of whom disagree passionately with the views of people such as my hon. Friend—nevertheless say, "Let us talk. Jaw-jaw is better than war-war, so let us examine the options and see where they take us. Let us discuss the practicalities." I very much hope that matters will proceed in that way.

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion)

May I give a cautious welcome to what the Minister said today, particularly on the process and the new twin principles of utility and cruelty? I hope that he will introduce a Bill that is genuinely based on those twin principles and will not approach countryside activities in a prejudiced way. Does he acknowledge that the difference in votes cast in this House and in the other place reflects a wider disagreement in society about the way in which the issue needs to be addressed? Within the six-month period he has granted himself, he needs to engage in that wider public debate. We are not the only people who have something to say on hunting and cruelty.

In that context, he will have received a letter from Glyn Davies, Chairman of the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee in the National Assembly for Wales. It asks him specifically to take into account more than 900 submissions to the committee on hunting in Wales, and further to take into account in the legislative process the Committee's deliberations on the best way forward for hunting in Wales, which is characterised by upland areas. Will he undertake to do that?

Alun Michael

I am happy to respond positively to each of those three points. First, the hon. Gentleman is right to say that we are seeking to legislate through the application of principles. I have outlined those principles, it is clear that he understood my comments, and that is the way forward. Secondly, he is also right to say it is not just a question of views in this House and the other place. There is wider disagreement in society—and in the countryside—and it is right that we engage with people outside this House. He will know that I have met a wide variety of groups in England and Wales that wish to make representations on the issue, and I shall continue to do so. Thirdly, it is certainly right to take into account views from Wales, including views expressed by the National Assembly for Wales and its Members. I have not seen the letter to which he refers, but I would expect to be able to respond positively to it.

Paddy Tipping (Sherwood)

My right hon. Friend is right to establish a short period of consultation, but he is fundamentally wrong if he believes that consensus can be achieved for a Bill with a framework of utility and cruelty. Will he stick to a closely defined timetable, so that those of us who live in, and represent, rural areas can get on with the real issues that affect the countryside?

Alun Michael

My hon. Friend says that I would be wrong to believe that consensus can be achieved, but I have not used that word—I used the term "common ground". We want to achieve as much common ground as possible, and in that regard I am being realistic. I am not hoping that somebody will suddenly wave a magic wand and achieve consensus across the piece on this difficult issue.

As I said, the timetable for consultation on the practical matters to which I referred, and for the drafting of legislation, will be very tight. The answer to his question is therefore a simple yes.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough)

The Minister properly suggests that there should be a six-month period of consultation, and he tells us that he is a co-operative person and Member of Parliament. In the interests of informing himself over the next six months, will he come to Harborough in Leicestershire, where five hunts operate, the better to learn about the utility of hunting and the absence of cruelty? I appreciate that he takes a different view, but will he please take the opportunity to meet the people in Leicestershire with an interest in the subject? I invite him to come and stay with me. In Committee, I invited the hon. Member for Basildon (Angela Smith) to do so, and she would be very welcome. The right hon. Gentleman could bring his wife and his private office staff, but I urge him to come to hear at first hand the worries of my constituents. He could then come back to Parliament after the six-month consultation period better informed for that visit.

Alun Michael

I am grateful to the hon. and learned Gentleman for his invitation. I referred to a period of six months of consulting and drafting in order to get the legislation right, and we want to stay within that time scale. He generously invites me to Leicestershire—I am very popular; I am being invited to visit many parts of the country—but his underlying question is whether I will listen to people involved in hunting, consider the practicalities and listen to their experience. Yes I will, which is why I visited a hunt a few weeks ago at the invitation of the campaign for hunting and devoted as much time as I could to listening to people's views. I did so partly to hear those views and partly to engage with the practicalities, which is one of the reasons why it is important to have the process that I have introduced today. I make no specific promise about where I will spend my time in the next few months.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

I trust my right hon. Friend and we all know of his deep personal commitment to an outright ban. The House will know my view that this is a wasted opportunity and that, even with this timetable, we might still be discussing the issue right up to 2004. Who wants that? The Minister talked about consultation—endless consultation. What will we learn from six months of consultation that we do not already know?

Alun Michael

If one does not take part in a discussion, one does not discover what one would learn by having the discussion. My hon. Friend asks me to jump ahead of a process that, I suggest, makes sense. I have proposed not endless consultation but a limited period of consultation and drafting—the serious work of enabling the process of bringing legislation before the House at the earliest possible date.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire)

Will the Minister accept that the two principles of cruelty and utility offer a serious chance for discussion of the best alternative means of adhering to those principles? An unwillingness to engage by those who take an extreme view can be interpreted only as an unwillingness to listen to alternative ways to achieve those two principles. Does he agree that if the Middle Way Group, Countdown to the Ban and the Countryside Alliance wish to be involved in the process, the best thing that he can do is to ensure that they listen without prejudice to the reasons why they have reached different views? The best legislation will be achieved by listening generously, even to views that one does not hold at the beginning, in the hope that we will find something better than anything on the table at the moment, in the interests of animal welfare.

Alun Michael

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's comments and for his underlining the issue of animal welfare. I assure him that all three groups will be welcome to take part in the process of considering the practicalities, as will a variety of other organisations that have an interest, such as the farming organisations and others that are not part of the three groups. I underline the point that this will be an open process, not a closed one. An unwillingness to engage in discussion looks not like strength but like weakness.

Mr. John McFall (Dumbarton)

I commend the Minister for his patience in renegotiation, but may I remind him that in 1994, when the House passed my anti-fox hunting Bill—the Wild Mammals (Protection) Bill—by a majority of 253 to zero, I engaged for six months with those in the other place but not one inch was given on foxhunting? Let us face the fact that this is no longer about foxhunting but is now a constitutional issue. [Interruption.] If the will of the House prevails, as expressed year after year in massive majorities—[Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. Let the hon. Gentleman put his question.

Mr. McFall

Will the House's will prevail, and within a year will foxhunting be totally and utterly banned?

Alun Michael

My hon. Friend refers to his own history in these matters, and I remember the frustration that he experienced in being unable to enact a Bill that had been passed by this House. Above all, we do not want this issue to become a constitutional issue. If there is a will in the House of Lords and this place to avoid that, it can be avoided. However, I have made it clear—and my remarks are intended to assist this House and the other place in terms of the confidence that they may have in the process—that were the other place to frustrate legislation, the Government would not stand in the way of the Parliament Act being used as the result of the reintroduction of a Bill. I hope that I have been clear—not because I wish to provoke confrontation with the House of Lords but because I wish to avoid it.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

Will the right hon. Gentleman take time to reflect on the fact that in a democracy majorities—even elected majorities—can be as tyrannical as individual dictators? 'When he frames the legislation, will he bear it in mind that his fellow citizens should be as free to go foxhunting as they are to go fishing and shooting—as do many Labour Members? If he does not allow those principles, lie will have to accept that his legislation will be perceived to be but a form of mob rule.

Alun Michael

I take it that the right hon. and learned Gentleman says that majorities can be tyrannical in the light of personal experience during his political career. We certainly saw many tyrannical actions during the years of Conservative government that damaged people's lives and communities up and down the country. I welcome his conversion to generosity towards those who are not in the majority, but I would have thought that he would understand what I am doing today. He might have said that we were being tyrannical if we had reintroduced the previous Bill and pushed it through by allowing the application of the Parliament Act; instead, we have invited all concerned to enter into a process. We are showing the generosity of a majority that is confident rather than one that is being tyrannical.

Mr. Colin Pickthall (West Lancashire)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Conservatives' reactions to his statement—with the notable exception of the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe)—are reassuring to many of us, because they make us think that he is closer to getting it right than we had feared? Does he agree that the crucial issue is the timing? Other hon. Friends have made the point, but can he state categorically that six months from today the consultation will have ended and the Bill will be drafted? Is he worried that any slippage in the timetable that lengthens the process will create more cynicism outside the House, especially among those who support what he is trying to do, and that the Government could end up pleasing no one?

Alun Michael

I certainly accept what my hon. Friend says about the need to stick to a timetable once it has been given as an indication of the period within which we intend to complete the job. I shall do everything I can to ensure that there will be no such damage to the reputation of Government, and no delay.

Several hon. Members


Madam Deputy Speaker


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