HL Deb 27 October 2004 vol 665 cc1320-5

(1) The Secretary of State shall appoint a person ("the registrar") to maintain a register for the purposes of this Act.

(2) The registrar shall hold and vacate office in accordance with the terms and conditions of his appointment.

(3) The registrar shall comply with—

  1. (a) regulations made by the Secretary of State under this Part, and
  2. (b) any direction given to the registrar by the Hunting Tribunal (established under section (The Hunting Tribunal)) in the course of or on the determination of proceedings under this Part.

(4) In exercising his functions the registrar shall have regard to any relevant decision of the Hunting Tribunal.

(5) The Secretary of State may—

  1. (a) pay remuneration and allowances to the registrar;
  2. (b) defray expenses of the registrar;
  3. (c) provide staff, equipment or other facilities for the registrar.

(6) Service as the registrar is employment in the civil service of the State."

The noble Lord said: Amendment No. 11 is part of a group of amendments to the registration process, mainly concerned with the registrar. I shall take Members of the Committee through them as rapidly as I can.

Amendment No. 11 gives the Secretary of State power to appoint a registrar for the purposes of maintaining a register for individual and group registrations. The registrar will also determine applications for individual and group registrations. I believe I am right in saying that this amendment is identical to what appeared in the Government's original Bill. For detailed purposes, the registrar will hold a salaried position, with provision of staff and relevant equipment.

The creation of this position limits the Secretary of State's involvement in the registration process and means that no further burden is added to the Secretary of State or the department. The registrar will have the power to make provisions on the handling of applications. Once the registrar has been appointed, individuals wishing to become registered under this Bill will send their applications to the registrar for consideration. Should an application be refused, the applicant may appeal to a tribunal, which noble Lords will discuss later. Should an application be permitted, a prescribed animal welfare body may appeal to a tribunal. The determination of the application is based on the requirements laid out in the proposed clause, on the tests of registration: utility and suffering. Unless Members of the Committee have any questions, that is the sum of the amendment. I beg to move.

[Amendment No. 12, as an amendment to Amendment No. 11, not moved.]

Lord Palmer moved, as an amendment to Amendment No. 11, Amendment No. 13:

Line 3, after "registrar")" insert "who is appropriately qualified in terms of subsection (1A) below.

(1A) "Appropriately qualified" means that the individual—

  1. (a) has good knowledge of hunting with dogs in the United Kingdom or Ireland, and
  2. (b) is entirely impartial as to hunting, and impartial means that he has no association with hunting or any organisation which directly or indirectly supports, opposes, or has supported or opposed, hunting."

The noble Lord said: Never before yesterday's extraordinary vote have I seen the Chamber so packed during the whole Committee stage. It was quite remarkable. At Second Reading I described the Bill as a "fiasco" and a "farce". Yesterday the Minister referred to the "gang of four" who were "in deep water". At Second Reading, the Minister talked about the "last-chance saloon". That emphasises the fact that we are in the most extraordinarily farcical situation: a gang of four, in deep water, in the last-chance saloon!

Following on from yesterday's vote, and now that registration is safely back on the face of the Bill, the effect of this amendment is that the registrar, under this legislation, will have to have sufficient knowledge and expertise if he is to be able to make any attempt at an objective judgment on whether to allow hunting to be registered. The amendment would ensure that the individual appointed had sufficient knowledge, as well as independence, to fulfil the role created by the legislation.

The role of the registrar and his team will be all-important to the registration process. On television on Sunday, Alun Michael mentioned his concerns for animal welfare. A profound understanding of the whole issue of hunting will be required, and a thorough understanding of local conditions will be paramount. The impartiality of the registrar will be essential, if the process is to command the confidence of all parties. Obviously, that is where the Burns report is so important.

The job of the registrar is made extraordinarily difficult by the sheer absence of any agreed opinion among experts on either the utility, which would be limited to a particular area, or on which method of culling is, in fact, preferable. The Government have provided no guidance, and each decision by the registrar could become, in its own right, a mini-Burns inquiry in the area where permission to hunt is being sought. That is why the amendment will, I hope, pave the way for an impartial registrar. I beg to move.

Lord Renton of Mount Harry

I support the amendment just moved by the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, and have added my name to it. As the noble Lord said, it is extremely important that the registrar, who will decide whether to give a licence, be seen as an independent, impartial character. It is important that the judgments made by the registrar should be made on the twin bases of cruelty and utility, as has already been discussed this afternoon.

I think that this is a probing amendment. It is possible to argue that it would be difficult to be appropriately qualified and have a good knowledge of hunting and, at the same time, have no association with hunting or any organisation that directly or indirectly supports or opposes hunting. However, I see the principle that the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, is getting at. The emphasis of the amendment is that we should amend the Bill in a way that stresses the impartiality, moderation and care that the registrar will bring to the issue of licensing.

I shall divert the Committee for a moment by suggesting that any noble Lords who have not yet been to see the play "Stuff Happens" at the National Theatre might go. As those of us who have seen it will know, the play is a documentary about the events surrounding how the decision was taken to go to war with Iraq without a second UN resolution. The characters in it are, obviously, George W Bush, Secretary of State Colin Powell, the Prime Minister, Jack Straw, Chirac, the French ambassador and others. In many ways, it is a serious play, but there comes a moment, early in 2003, when the Prime Minister flies over to see George W Bush. He says, "Look, I have helped you up until now. I am now in great trouble, and I need your help". That is repeated several times. Finally, the President says to the Prime Minister, "What's your trouble? Why do you need my help?". There is a long pause, and then the Prime Minister replies, "It's fox hunting". At no moment in the play was there more laughter than at that.

The Government should consider carefully the thought that, if they push the Bill through the Commons and send it back to us with the Parliament Act attached, that would be one of the crassest, most stupid actions that any government in my 30 years in Westminster have taken. They will deserve all the laughter and scorn that they will get. If that is the decision of 200 or so extreme Labour Back-Benchers, led by the likes of Tony Banks and Gerald Kaufman, who have precisely no knowledge of the countryside, history will never forgive the Government and will take a long time to forget. The Government should remember the laughter from "Stuff Happens".

The small amendment that the noble Lord has moved is another example of how we are trying to make the Bill as reasonable and sensible as possible.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

The noble Lord has just referred to 200 extreme Back-Benchers in the other place. That is a slur on the integrity of Members of the other place. Those 200 people whom he alleges to be extreme were elected by people who listened to their views on a range of things. A majority of rural seats have Labour MPs. They were elected in 1997, and they were re-elected in 2001.

By all means, we should have an argument on the merits of the case, but we should not descend to the depths of using such language. It is a slur, and it is unworthy of the noble Lord.

Lord Renton of Mount Harry

The noble Lord amuses me: we were both in the House of Commons for a long time, and we both know that there are extreme Members on both sides of the House of Commons—there always have been, and there always will be. That is, perhaps, one of the features of the House of Commons.

If the Bill is pushed through by the use of the Parliament Act by a bunch of extreme Labour Back-Benchers who know nothing about the countryside, it will hang round the neck of the Labour Government for a very long time.

5.15 p.m.

Viscount Bledisloe

May I ask the Minister where we are on the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft? I think that the noble Lord will agree that, as the Committee has voted for registration, there must be a registrar and so on.

The proposals made by the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, are, I understand, straight from the Alun Michael Bill. Can the Minister tell us that, as I assume, he does not oppose that amendment and that the only thing that we are discussing at the moment is the amendment to the amendment, which was moved by the noble Lord, Lord Palmer? Is the Minister content at this stage to see all the amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, passed, even if he does not love them?

Lord Whitty

As the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, said, most of the amendments in the group are a straight lift from the Alun Michael Bill. There are two exceptions. One is Clause 17, which reflects a minor amendment made in Committee. It goes with the strain of the rest of the amendments, although it indicates that there is a bit of a pick-and-choose approach to the amendments that were made in Committee in another place. However, it does not clash with the other amendments. Given that we have, as the noble Viscount just said, adopted a registration structure, it is sensible that the bulk of the amendments be accepted.

I understand the motivation behind the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, and supported by the noble Lord, Lord Renton of Mount Harry, who went somewhat wider in his remarks. If we had a registration system, it would be the Government's view that we would have to seek someone impartial to be the registrar. However, the definition of impartial here seems to restrict substantially the choice of registrar.

The amendment refers to somebody who is knowledgeable about hunting but has no association with any organisation which directly or indirectly supports or opposes hunting. I suspect that the shortlist for the post would be very short. Most people who are knowledgeable about hunting have, at various times, taken a view—maybe a different one—or at least had an association with somebody who takes a view. It would rule out any member of the Conservative Party or the Labour Party. That may, of course, be a good thing; it certainly is in the mind of the noble Lord. Lord Palmer.

It is too restrictive an approach. The registrar would be appointed through the normal public appointments system, so he or she would have to meet the recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life and of the Civil Service Commissioners, who would have to take into account the need to find somebody impartial. Restricting the list in the way suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, would be over the top.

Apart from that, there is now a logic in this group of amendments, following from the general principle of registration. Therefore, I do not have the same warnings that I had for the previous group of amendments. It is in line with that decision and with what the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, has said that he is trying to do.

Baroness Byford

I accept the Minister's comment. I am grateful to him for accepting the bulk of the amendments, which I think is what he has indicated to the Committee. As regards the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, does the noble Lord see any merit in giving a steer or does he just feel that it should be left to the appointments committee? That would be helpful to my noble friend.

Lord Whitty

I do not think that the appointments committee would need a steer; certainly not one as tightly defined as that proposed by the noble Lord.

I am neither accepting nor rejecting these amendments. I am saying that, given where the Committee is on the principle of registration, the hulk of the amendments are a logical extension of that and therefore help us get to a Bill that is a sensible overall package. I have indicated that I am not voting or even recommending people to vote on that. It is a free vote. I am just pointing out where we are.

Lord Mancroft

If I heard the noble Lord correctly, he seemed to indicate an issue about Amendment No. 17, which I did not think was in this group. Perhaps I misheard him or he meant something else.

Lord Whitty

I apologise. I am ahead of myself: it is in the next group. Therefore, I withdraw that view.

Perhaps I may clarify that. I have misread my brief. Amendment No. 25, which refers to Clause 17, was marginally amended in Committee in another place. So my remarks stand, but with that correction.

Lord Palmer

It is rather difficult to understand exactly what the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, said. Part of him seemed to accept this amendment and part of him seemed to not accept it. Perhaps I may be able to reserve the right to look again very carefully in Hansard at what he said and bring it back at a later stage. Meanwhile, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment No. 13, as an amendment to Amendment No. 11, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 14 and 15, as amendments to Amendment No. 11, not moved]

On Question, Amendment No. 11 agreed to.

Lord Mancroft moved Amendment No. 16:

After Clause 5, insert the following new clause—