HC Deb 20 May 2004 vol 421 cc1082-3
4. Mrs. Helen Clark (Peterborough) (Lab)

What progress has been made towards a ban on hunting with dogs. [174402]

The Minister for Rural Affairs and Local Environmental Quality (Alun Michael)

A clear commitment has been given to the House that the issue of hunting with dogs will be dealt with during the life of this Parliament.

Mrs. Clark

The Minister is of course aware that three quarters of the British public think hunting with dogs should be banned. Over the past seven years, the House has repeatedly shown the same determination. Will the Government introduce a Bill to ban hunting with dogs in time for it to become law during this Session? I will accept a one-word answer—yes or no.

Alun Michael

My hon. Friend knows that I am not going to give her a one-word answer. She also knows from the reaction of Opposition Members that there is a knee-jerk reaction in some quarters when the issue of hunting is mentioned. I have made it clear that a commitment has been given to the House by the Prime Minister, the Leader of the House and me that the issue will be dealt with during the life of this Parliament.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con)

What possible case is there for criminalising a large section of the most law-abiding members of the rural community?

Alun Michael

In view of the hon. Gentleman's long experience in the House, I should have thought that he would know that the House of Commons—the Houses of Parliament—frequently passes new laws, as a result of which certain actions become illegal. It is not a question of criminalising people; those who offend against laws passed by Parliament are offenders. Therefore, the hon. Gentleman should put his question in a rather more neutral manner.

Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley) (Lab)

I know that my right hon. Friend gave his answer in good faith, and I am sure that he intends to deliver on it, but does he accept that many people who are currently writing to many MPs believe that this House has overwhelmingly voted in favour of the banning of hunting on many occasions and that it is wrong for the other House to block that? They want to see that ban as soon as possible.

Alun Michael

I understand the strength of view that is shared by a large number of right hon. and hon. Members. I should say gently to my hon. Friend that much concern is often expressed before things happen, and then silence when the Government deliver on what they have promised, as they have on so many issues.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con)

Does the right hon. Gentleman understand that such a Bill would be widely regarded as an unwarranted attack on the civil liberties of minorities, and would tend to bring parliamentary government into widespread disrepute?

Alun Michael

The right hon. and learned Gentleman voices an opinion that is shared by a narrow group of people. It is only fair to say that opinion on this issue is divided passionately among rural people, just as it is divided among urban dwellers. It is one of those issues on which there is a deep divide between those who hold strong and opposing views. I have tried to encourage people on both sides of that divide to listen to those on the other side, and I would encourage the right hon. and learned Gentleman to take that approach.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab)

Does the Minister recall that in the course of the past two or three weeks the Tories have laid claim to the notion that when we have introduced some decent legislation, they thought of it first? This is something that they have not thought of first. If the Minister wants to wipe that oily grin off the Tory party leader's face, this is the one thing that he should do—and do in this Session of Parliament.

Alun Michael

My hon. Friend makes his points in his usual, vigorous manner. I am not sure whether many of those claims to have thought of things first are justified, but I recall some of the things that the current leader of the Opposition thought of first when he was Home Secretary. I do not recall that he was very effective then in bearing down on crime and disorder in the way that this Government have been, but I hear what my hon. Friend says.

Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle) (Con)

In order to demonstrate that this is not a piece of malignant legislation left over from the old Labour class-war politics, will the Minister inform the House what the scientific basis is for introducing such a Bill? What scientific research has he seen that informs him that hunting with dogs has a greater adverse effect on the welfare of the fox than shooting, trapping, snaring or poisoning foxes, which will remain perfectly legal under his proposals?

Alun Michael

The hon. Gentleman always gives the impression that he has wandered in from some sort of parallel universe. I would urge him to do what both sides in the debate urged us to do: to start with the Burns report. That interesting, revealing report was produced with independence and great engagement from all sides. He should also carefully consider the hearings that took place in Portcullis House in September 2002. They were very interesting, because we looked at the facts and the science and gave everyone the opportunity to question those who gave evidence. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman stay in our universe for a few minutes, and do some reading and some homework.