HL Deb 12 June 2000 vol 613 cc1393-404
Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I should like to repeat a Statement which is being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary. The Statement is as follows:

"With permission I would like to make a statement on the report of the Committee of Inquiry into Hunting with Dogs in England and Wales, which I am publishing today. Copies are available in the Vote Office.

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

"The question of whether hunting is right or wrong is a matter for Parliament to decide. The committee was not therefore asked to recommend whether hunting should be banned nor was it asked to consider moral or ethical issues.

"The Burns report instead covers four key areas in relation to the activity of hunting. First, it considers the contribution hunting makes to employment and the rural economy as well as to social and cultural aspects of life in rural areas. Secondly, it deals with the animal-related aspects of hunting—that is, principally animal welfare and their population management. Thirdly, it considers whether drag hunting is a viable alternative to hunting. The final area covered by the report is an assessment of the consequences of any ban on hunting, and how a ban might be implemented. It also assesses how some people's concerns in regard to particular aspects of hunting might be addressed should hunting not be banned.

"The committee visited different parts of England and Wales to witness at first hand a number of hunting activities. Academics were commissioned to undertake research into various matters related to hunting activity. The inquiry attended seminars, organised by all sides of the debate. It also held a number of public meetings and ensured that working papers were placed on its website.

"This inquiry into hunting was the first official one since the Scott-Henderson inquiry reported to this House in June 1951. I have had the opportunity to read the report over the weekend. I thoroughly commend it to all Members of the House. I hope that when honourable and right honourable Members have had the same chance as have I to study the report they will share my view that it is a profoundly impressive study—cogent, and well argued, dispassionate and careful in its conclusions.

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

"On employment, the report says that, 'between 6,000 and 8,000 full-time equivalent jobs depend on hunting'. It says that most of the employment effects of a ban could be offset in the long term, say seven to 10 years. But in the short and medium term the individual and local effects might be more serious, as they would for a small number of local communities.

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

"In chapter 6 the committee considers animal welfare aspects of hunting and the relative effects on the welfare of foxes and other species of different methods currently used to kill them.

"A ban on hunting with dogs would not have any significant impact on the population of foxes in lowland areas, but could lead to an increase in numbers in upland areas.

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

"The purpose of the inquiry was to get to the facts and so better to inform the debate. I am sure that when right honourable and honourable Members have read the report they will see that it has achieved this objective.

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

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

"Last November, when I announced the establishment of the Burns inquiry, I therefore said that the Government would provide government time and assistance to allow this House to come to a proper legislative conclusion on a free vote on the matter. Our original plans were to take this forward with a Private Member's Bill in government time. I now however believe that it would be for the convenience of the House if there was a government Bill in government time which contained a series of legislative options on the merits on which there would be free votes. Such a Bill could, I believe, provide for a more structured debate and will better allow for consideration of a wider range of alternatives in the light of the report. The House will recall that this arrangement worked satisfactorily for the Sunday Trading Bill in 1994.

"Arrangements will meanwhile be made for the main interest groups to be consulted so that the options are set down as accurately as possible in the Bill to reflect the alternative legal regimes which could be put into force. The consultation will take place as soon as possible, and while the House will be aware it is not just a matter for me I anticipate a Bill will be introduced early in the next Session.

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

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

4.28 p.m.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, I am grateful, as I am sure is the whole House, to the Minister for repeating almost exactly the Statement which the right honourable gentleman the Home Secretary made in another place.

First, I want to make it clear that this matter will continue to be a free vote for our supporters in this House, as in another place. But I remain a consistent supporter of hunting and have supported it since long before I was a Member of another place and during the whole of the time that I was such a Member. Is the Minister aware that there is strong support for the freedom to hunt among many who have never hunted at all, and from many uncommitted people, such as those who belong to the Women's Institute?

I am sure that we are all grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Burns, my noble friend Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior and their colleagues on the committee who have produced this report. But is the Minister not ashamed of the discourtesy—I put it no stronger—to the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his colleagues, wherein Ministers leaked their decision to promote a government Bill before even reading the report that they themselves commissioned? This was, I think, disgracefully premature.

The Home Secretary said that Parliament should have the opportunity to come to a proper conclusion. He also said that in another place there would be a debate on the report, preferably before the Recess. Does this also apply to your Lordships' House?

When the Government put the proposed Bill before your Lordship's House, will the same options be available to this House as are available to the other House of Parliament, and, if so, how? Will the three options be fully costed as to the expense of enforcement, which is not covered as far as I can see in the few minutes I have had to look at the Burns report, particularly in terms of the heavily stretched police and the time that it will cost them? What is the position on compensation, which again the Burns committee was not asked to look into?

Will Members of another place who represent Scottish constituencies be able to vote on this matter, given that the Scottish Parliament is deciding the issue for Scotland, as is its right under the legislation that was passed, whereas the proposed Bill will apply only to England and Wales?

Lastly, will the Minster guarantee that this is not stage one, with stages two and three to cover fishing and shooting?

4.31 p.m.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

My Lords, from these Benches we too thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made in the other place. The Government commissioned the Burns inquiry, which we warmly welcomed, but it is regrettable that they made a decision to bring forward a Bill before we have had an opportunity to debate the report of the inquiry. We do not feel that that knee-jerk reaction will forward the debate in any constructive way. We shall have this debate, and indeed debates on the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill, before the rural White Paper. That is entirely the wrong way round. We should have had the medium and long-term strategy for our rural areas clearly laid out well before the Government began to impose changes that are bound to have a social and economic impact, whether or not we approve of those measures.

Initial feedback from the Burns inquiry suggests that some areas—albeit a few—will, indeed, be deeply affected. They are likely to be those areas already affected by the crisis in agriculture and by the strong pound affecting tourism. As it stands, people living in rural areas feel that they are the butt of other people's moral judgments. They have seen no plan for their futures and have had no opportunity to comment on them.

From this Front Bench I shall pass no personal opinion on hunting with hounds because we, too, will have a completely free vote on the issue. However, there are many of us who believe that this is another fundamentally authoritarian step from a Home Office that is intent on forming judgments on society without adequate consultation and debate.

I must ask the Minister to confirm that this House will be presented with a Bill for debate containing all the options, and not with a Bill as passed in the other place and on which we shall be able to debate all the options, bar one. Uncomfortable though it may be for the Government, this House must have the same opportunity to debate the Bill as the other place.

4.34 p.m.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Cope, and the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, for their observations. I am not sure that my thanks will extend further than that, but observations they were and I shall try to respond to them as best I can. I have noted that the noble Lord, Lord Cope, said that on his side the matter will be subject to a free vote. I congratulate the noble Lord on making that statement. I extend similar congratulations to the noble Baroness. The Government have made it plain from the beginning that we shall have a free vote on this matter. We made that matter clear at the outset when we discussed our manifesto. In fact, it was a manifesto commitment.

The noble Lord raised the question of leaks. There has been no leak, so far as I can determine, from the Home Office. There has been press speculation, but that of course is another matter. The noble Lord asked when there might be a debate. I should hope that there would be a debate before the Recess, but of course I cannot determine that. That is a matter to be agreed through the usual and proper channels and no doubt that will be properly processed, and the matter will be sorted out in the usual and efficient manner.

The noble Lord also asked whether the options would be fully considered in your Lordships' House. That is an interesting question. I think that probably we shall have to look at how this worked when there were options on Sunday trading. Probably Members of your Lordships' House will have a better memory of that than I. My understanding is that all the options on Sunday trading—there were very many in the end—were fully debated by your Lordships' House and were considered in the legislation. I think that that template, that model, is one which will work well in this situation.

The noble Lord made an interesting point about the position of Scottish MPs who are Members of the UK Parliament. No doubt they will express their views as Members of that Parliament. Of course, this is a matter which is devolved to the Scottish Parliament. The noble Lord also made the speculative point as to whether this was stage one of a process covering other matters relating to fishing, hunting and so on. This is an issue which stands on its own. It should be considered on its own. No doubt Members of your Lordships' House will have varying and different opinions on that issue, but that is how we see the matter.

The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, I think perhaps somewhat unkindly, accused the Government of being authoritarian on the issue. I find it hard to believe that we are being authoritarian when we have provided an opportunity for a full debate on many of the background issues that lie behind the understandable controversy over this issue. To call us authoritarian suggests in some way that we are skewing the debate when we are providing the opportunity for debate and then proper consideration of a Bill with options. That is very strange indeed. I think that is a very strange judgment for the noble Baroness to have formed. I understand her concerns, coming from the political background that she does, and representing an interest with large rural areas and constituencies, and they are not to be dismissed lightly. I reject the suggestion that we have been authoritarian. As I said in the Statement, we intend to provide for full consultation. We intend to provide as many opportunities as can be reasonably managed within the proper processes of your Lordships' House for reasoned debate on this issue. That will make a very important contribution indeed.

Those were the points raised at the outset. I look forward to other comments and observations by Members of your Lordships' House in the next few minutes.

4.39 p.m.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, perhaps the noble Lord could first, particularly arising out of the last part of his answer, tell the House how it will be possible to provide the amount of time that this House could reasonably request, both to debate the report and indeed to consider properly a Bill, given the enormous backlog of legislation we already have. Therefore, could the noble Lord undertake to ensure that this House is not blamed if there are delays in the consideration of this Bill when we are already overcrowded with business?

Secondly, could the noble Lord cast his mind back to the great Countryside Alliance march a couple of years ago which ended in Hyde Park and the remarkable fact that the guardians of Hyde Park did not have occasion to pick up one single bit of litter, that the law was obeyed throughout and that the guidance of the police was not only sought but followed? Would he therefore care to contrast the behaviour of those demonstrators with that of the rather more recent demonstrators round the Cenotaph and Parliament Square? Also, could he and other Members of the Government consider how sensible it is for them at this time of their remarkable popularity to alienate a section of the population which, perhaps more than any other, instinctively wants to obey the law?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Viscount for his question. I understand his point about the legislative backlog but of course we are not planning to legislate in this current Session but in the next Session, providing that we can fit in all the pieces of legislation that we want to have. I make the point that I made at the outset: agreement about debate is best decided upon and worked through the usual channels. That is the most sensible way to proceed: it usually works extremely well. Members of your Lordships' House have debated many issues with opportunities being given through the usual channels.

The noble Viscount makes comparisons between the members of the Countryside Alliance and those demonstrators who defaced the Cenotaph and insulted the intelligence of all of us by their poor and ill-judged behaviour, their violence and their general unpleasantness. The point is simply this: with all these things, however strongly held our views may be and however passionate our feelings on issues of the day, it is for all of us to make sure that we have a reasoned, fair-minded and open-minded debate. That is an encouragement I would offer, particularly on a subject like this which, I think we must all acknowledge, stirs up very strong feelings all round on all its different aspects. These debates are best conducted in a fair and open-minded way.

Lord Palmer

My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord the Minister whether he happened to see his honourable friend, Kate Hoey, yesterday on television, when she said that surely there are more important things facing this Government than a Bill to ban hunting with dogs?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I did not actually catch that particular interview, but I understand the sentiments. This is an issue which has been around for a very long time and it is not unreasonable for us to try, as a Parliament, to resolve it one way or the other. I do not pretend that it is a straightforward issue: I do not think that anybody would say that. It is a complex matter and I believe that the report will help us to get to the heart of some of the issues involved and deal with the complexities.

Lord Hoyle

My Lords, perhaps I may say to my noble friend that I agree with him that there will be many views expressed in this House. I hope that reasoned views will be expressed but may I say, as someone who has always lived in the countryside and who lives in the uplands, that, if we had to rely on fox hunting to control foxes in our area we would have been overrun long ago? May I ask him whether he has seen reports that certain hunts are breeding foxes, which seems to me to be a contradiction if they are supposed to be exercising pest control? May I ask him, if a Bill comes forward containing the various options, would it also apply to stag hunting and hare coursing? Finally, is my noble friend, like me, expressing some surprise that the party opposite now, in relation to Scottish Members, appear to be against the Union?

4.45 p.m.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the noble Lord speaks with a longer parliamentary experience than I do on these matters, and he also speaks with great wisdom. I am somewhat surprised by some of the observations made by Members of the party opposite. As I said earlier, this issue is one which needs to be carefully thought through and resolved. The report provides us with that opportunity and I think that we should try to concentrate our minds on that issue. As to whether foxes, deer, mink and hares will be covered, I think the answer is yes.

Lord Elton

My Lords, some of us are becoming increasingly puzzled by the mechanics of this. The noble Lord said a moment ago that we would have the Bill if it could be fitted in among all the other pieces of legislation that the Government wanted to bring in. Can he tell us whether there is actually a firm commitment by the Government to bring Bill in? Also, can he answer more precisely the question that has been asked from both Front Benches as to what sort of Bill it will be? Is it going to be a "No. 2" Bill, in which we see exactly the choices to be faced by the other place and make our decision on those, or are we merely to pick up whatever the other place have decided we should have, after having made their own amendments to whatever sort of Bill it is?

It is difficult to believe that a government who were actually ready to announce the introduction of a Bill before the report on which we thought the Bill would be based have not thought through the mechanics of how it would be handled in Parliament. I presume that the noble Lord has the answer to hand.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I thought I had made it reasonably clear. One can never be absolutely precise about how many Bills there will be in any parliamentary Session this far in advance: it would be unwise. A Bill with options will come to this House— that is to say, with the options preferred by the other place. That procedure worked for the Sunday Trading Bill, as I recall—I think my recollection is right— but that does not mean that this House will not have the quite proper opportunity to look at, debate and discuss all those options.

To make it crystal clear once again, we will provide in another place—and it is my hope and expectation that we shall have that opportunity here as well—the opportunity for a full debate on this report. We did not say at the outset that this report would somehow be the legislation. We said that the report would be there to provide the background and the framework for a debate about key issues which have been raised. This would lead to a better informed debate. I think that is a very sensible way forward, and we will make sure that arrangements are made for this House to look at all the options which have been considered by the other place.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, would the Minister inform us whether there is any possible objection to drag hunting? My father was a master of foxhounds and I was brought up to believe that was a noble sport. That still leaves a human point of view. Later, the cruelty to the fox has rather overwhelmed me so that I do not favour fox hunting but I do favour drag hunting. Is there any possible objection to drag hunting? Everything is fine about hunting except that it is cruel to the fox.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I think it is worth putting on the record that this is an issue which was considered very carefully by the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his committee. The report looks at drag hunting and I would simply commend the report to the noble Earl so that he can read it carefully. It goes at length into that subject. Of course, drag hunting is a popular pastime and sport and it is one of the things the report encourages us to look at more closely. It is obviously something which many people enjoy.

Lord Waddington

My Lords, do not the Government understand that there are many on this side of the House who have never hunted but who nevertheless believe that to criminalise hunting would be a gross interference with individual freedom? Have not the Government themselves said on many occasions that a tolerant society is one that respects the strongly held views of minorities, particularly minorities who are not inflicting their views on other people but who merely want to be left alone to pursue an occupation which has been part of country life for generations? Will the noble Lord please recognise that there are many like me who have actually joined their local hunt to demonstrate how much they resent the idea that a majority in another place should inflict their views on people who want to continue to follow a perfectly proper recreation?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I respect and understand the noble Lord's view. The Government have no great desire to criminalise people who seek pleasure—

Noble Lords


Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, if I may conclude my point, we have no great desire to criminalise people. I understand entirely the strength of feeling held by Opposition Members. It is best to look dispassionately at the issue. The purpose of the report was to have more informed debate, which is an entirely sensible way to proceed.

As I said at the outset, the Government are neutral and it is a matter for Parliament to decide on a free vote. That is an entirely sensible and logical way through a complex issue on which there are many strongly held views.

Several noble Lords


Noble Lords


The Attorney-General (Lord Williams of Mostyn)

My Lords, I sense that your Lordships wish to hear from my noble friend Lady Mallalieu.

Baroness Mallalieu

My Lords, I speak with a keen interest on this matter because, if one of the Bill's proposed options were adopted, myself, my husband, children and neighbours, together with many of my best friends, would be imprisoned if they continued to behave as they do now—which we believe to be perfectly lawful.

I ask my noble friend the Minister to convey to the Home Secretary the gratitude of many people for the establishment of the inquiry, which for the first time gave many the opportunity to have their say to someone they felt was listening. I pass on the thanks of all those on both sides of the argument to the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his team. Nobody could have spent more time, taken more trouble or shown more patience in seeing for themselves and listening.

This issue has become incredibly divisive. It is not simply a matter of town against country, as it is sometimes billed. It is a case of people against people—sometimes in the same village or family. I suspect that the Government were elected by such a large majority in 1997 because people wanted to see a nation working together. It would be hard to find something more likely to destroy that feeling than a Bill of this type.

I hope that this matter will not drag on and on. If we spend the next Session on the Bill, the result is inconclusive and people stick to entrenched positions, the battle will be carried on after the next general election—possibly for some years beyond that.

I wonder why we were not allowed to see the report a little earlier today, so that we could have some idea of its content before the Statement. The report is incredibly detailed and complex and it is likely to take up a great deal of legislative time. I hope that within it are the seeds of solutions that all reasonable people on both sides of the debate can grasp and accept. If so, perhaps we can prevent a recurrence of today's sad spectacle of people having to come from all over England to appeal to Members of both Houses to defend their rights.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I commend my noble friend's general approach. She is absolutely right to say that we need sensible, rational and dispassionate debate. She is right also to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Burns, on his careful, detailed and thoughtful report. She is correct in saying that the Government seek to heal divisions. That is why we were elected. There is no getting away from the fact that this is a vexed issue. The report tries to provide useful background, to enable us to find a sensible way through. The concept of options and debate carefully constructed around them will allow us to do that. I am grateful to my noble friend for her kind comments and I will be more than happy to convey her gratitude to my right honourable Friend the Home Secretary.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, the Minister says that the Government are neutral but the Prime Minister said on television that he wanted to abolish fox hunting. Is the Prime Minister neutral towards his own Government? He said also that he does not have any disagreement with shooting or fishing, so he accepts that it is quite satisfactory and morally correct to kill for fun. What is the difference between the morality of shooting a pheasant and the morality of chasing a fox?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, perhaps the noble Earl is better at morals and the killing of animals than I am.

Earl of Onslow

My Lords, I want an answer.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the noble Earl is entitled to ask his question but he is in some danger of trivialising the report.

Noble Lords


Lord Bassam of Brighton

Your Lordships are entitled to disagree but that is my view. The noble Earl asked about the Government's position. I made it plain earlier that we are neutral. The noble Earl asked also about the Prime Minister's view. My right honourable friend is a Member of Parliament and clearly expressed his view. We are all entitled to express our view. The noble Earl is entitled to express his view. The noble Lord, Lord Cope, expressed his view cogently at the outset. No doubt he will continue to do so.

Lord Gilbert

My Lords, could not the arguments of the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, equally be applied to the maintenance of cock fighting or bear baiting? It is perfectly obvious that I am not a countryman but am I correct in thinking that most countrymen regard foxes as vermin? Does my noble friend know of any other vermin that is deliberately kept alive?

Lord Brighton of Bassam

My Lords, I may have been brought up in the countryside but do not claim to be a countryman. As to foxes being vermin, we seek to control them in different ways. Fox hunting is undertaken by some for pleasure and by some for fun. I draw no conclusion although it is not something that I particularly see as fun. The report clearly and fairly states that banning fox hunting would not make much difference to the size of the fox population. We would undoubtedly apply instead means that are commonly in use.

Lord Renton

My Lords, is the Minister aware that foxes are the most destructive vermin in this country? They are very damaging to poultry, game and other wildlife. Hunting is the most certain and least cruel way of keeping the number of foxes down. The alternative of shooting often results in the fox getting gangrene. Poisoning and trapping are in any event illegal. Will the Government bear those points in mind before doing anything to stop fox hunting?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, we have heard those views expressed before and will no doubt hear them again in the wide-ranging debate on the Bill. Some people see foxes as vermin and undoubtedly that is the case. The Burns report is helpful in some of its observations on that matter. The noble Lord asks the Government to consider his points. I have made it plain that this matter is for Parliament. All parties have openly and honestly said—and have repeated this afternoon—that the matter is one on which Parliament should decide, not Government, and that there should be a series of free votes on the options. That remains the case. From the tone of debate in your Lordships' House this afternoon, it seems that people are pleased that there will be free votes on all the options.

Several noble Lords


Lord Kimball

My Lords—

Lord Bach

My Lords, I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Kimball—whom I greatly respect—has not had the opportunity to contribute but we have had our 20 minutes of Back-Bench Questions. The rules of the House dictate that we should move on.