HL Deb 12 January 2005 vol 668 cc254-7

2.57 p.m.

Lord Lamont of Lerwickasked Her Majesty's Government

Why the Attorney-General has indicated that they will not oppose injunctions to delay the ban on hunting with dogs coming into force on its due date.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Whitty)

My Lords, my right honourable friend Alun Michael made a substantive Statement on this matter in another place yesterday.

The Government will vigorously oppose the Countryside Alliance's current challenge to the legality of the Parliament Act 1949 and hence the Hunting Act 2004. We expect its challenge to fail. The alliance has said that, having failed, it would seek leave to appeal to the Court of Appeal. Were that leave to be granted, it would apply also for an injunction to delay the commencement of the Act. The Government will neither support nor oppose that application, but all this is a matter for the courts, and nor does any of this set any precedent or commit the Government to act in any particular way in any subsequent case on this or any other issue.

Lord Lamont of Lerwick

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. If all this is just the legal process grinding on and nothing to do with politics or electoral considerations, why did the Government make an announcement about this matter before Boxing Day? If the Countryside Alliance fails at the first court hearing with its argument that the Parliament Act has been used improperly, are the Government really saying that the Attorney-General is going to stand up in court and say that he is not opposed to any injunction regardless of the time and the delay that will take place? Is it not extraordinary that the Government should have used the Parliament Act to ram this Act through both Houses and should then connive in steps to prevent it taking effect?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, on the first point, the Government did not make any announcement before Christmas; some discussions between lawyers somehow appeared in the media. It is not primarily in the Government's interest that that should happen, so one can conjecture why it did. The government announcement was made yesterday by my right honourable friend in another place.

On the substantive point, the challenge is not really about hunting but about the legality of the Parliament Act. In those circumstances, it is important that the constitution is clarified. If there are grounds for appeal, the Government would not feel it proper to oppose anything that stemmed from it. However, I emphasise that it would be a matter for the courts alone, and for neither the Government nor, with respect, this House.

Lord Goodhart

My Lords, is not this the political equivalent of Saint Augustine's Prayer: "Oh Lord, make me chaste but not until after the general election"? Having allowed themselves to be saddled with this wretched Bill, are not the Government simply looking for any excuse to delay its implementation?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I do not know about the noble Lord but unless there is a rather earlier date for the general election, I am not sure whether the Government would wish to exalt people to be chaste until after the general election. It is clear that there is an issue, but I do not believe that the courts will find favour with it. However, were there any doubt, clarity would be important.

The Government are relaxed about the date of commencement; after all, the House of Commons decided on a later date, but this House decided by a free vote to bring it forward.

Lord Campbell-Savours

My Lords, is not the short answer to the Question on the Order Paper that we were simply trying to be helpful to the hunting community?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I am not sure that I would go that far.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, further to that, I do not think that the Minister actually agreed. If the lawyers did not talk about the Hunting Act, what on earth did they talk about and why was the information leaked to the press in the first place?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I said that the information found its way into the press; I do not know how it happened. It was probably more in the interests of the Countryside Alliance than of the Government that it did. Nevertheless, the Government have clarified our position, as I have indicated. The challenge is to the validity of the Parliament Act and only consequentially in relation to the Hunting Act. On that constitutional issue it is right for us to defer to the courts.

Lord Archer of Sandwell

My Lords, if the Government had pressed ahead to implement the legislation before the legal issue had been resolved, does the Minister think that that would have won praise from the Opposition?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, in all contexts I fail to receive praise from the Opposition, despite my desperate attempts. On this, I cannot really expect it.

Lord Renton

My Lords, is it too late for the Government to realise that, if hunting is abolished, foxes will suffer terribly, compared with their being got rid of—as they have to be—by being shot or by other means? If foxes are hunted, they are dead within four seconds of hounds closing in. That is a much better way of getting rid of foxes than shooting them, as a result of which they may be wounded and subsequently die of gangrene.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, we have been over these arguments almost interminably. Parliament has made its position clear. I remind noble Lords, once again, that only 6 per cent of all foxes die as a result of hunting; therefore, other means, especially shooting, are the norm not the exception.

Lord Phillips of Sudbury

My Lords, earlier the Minister said that this issue was not about hunting but about the constitution. Is it not true that the issue is about liberty; that the great British public should surely have the chance at the next election to debate the issue of liberty in relation to this and other measures; and that that would be forwarded by allowing the normal timing of this legislation to proceed?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, it was this House that denied us that opportunity. When I was advocating the position taken in a free vote in the House of Commons for a later date, I said that one of its advantages would be to allow any residual opposition to be expressed through the ballot box. This House chose deliberately and, I am afraid, overwhelmingly, to reject that advice. Therefore, we are in the position whereby, unless the courts decide otherwise, we will implement the legislation on 18 February. This House has itself to blame for that position.

Lord Wedderburn of Charlton

My Lords, having properly pursued a commitment to outlaw hunting with dogs and use the Parliament Act, on which I lay great stress, is it not more proper for the Government to defend the validity of the Parliament Act, which matters a great deal to all Members of the House and particularly to my noble friends, and to do so in the courts if necessary rather than abstaining from appearing before the judicial process on that question?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I absolutely agree with my noble friend, but that is exactly what I said. We will vigorously oppose the Countryside Alliance's position in the courts on the substantive issue of the validity of the Parliament Act. If, however, at the end of that process, the Countryside Alliance requests an injunction having lost that challenge and the courts decide that there are grounds for appeal—all of which is in the courts' hands and not mine—some doubt may remain and clarity will be important. Therefore, the side issue of the date of commencement is less important than the question of the validity of the Parliament Act, as my noble friend Lord Wedderburn insists.