HC Deb 08 September 2004 vol 424 cc1247-9W
Paddy Tipping

To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, if she will make a statement on the Hunting Bill. [188252]

Alun Michael

The Government intends to fulfil its manifesto commitment to enable Parliament to deal with the issue of hunting with dogs.

Some opponents of hunting want this issue to be dealt with as a matter of great urgency, while supporters of hunting want nothing to change and many other people regard it as being less important than many other policies.

The Government has made it clear that the issue does not have as high a priority as issues like jobs and schools and hospitals and transport, to name a few. But it is an issue that has absorbed an enormous amount of valuable Parliamentary time, over several years, and before the last election we acknowledged that it was time to enable Parliament to reach a conclusion.

The Government has made efforts to find a constructive way forward, based on the evidence, through the Burns Committee Report and my own work which culminated in public hearings in Portcullis House in 2002. The proposals put to the House last year would have banned hunting except where a particular activity could be proved—to the satisfaction of an independent tribunal—to be necessary for pest control and to involve less suffering than available alternatives. The House decided by a substantial majority on a free vote to go further and require a complete ban apart from a few very restricted statutory exceptions.

The Other Place then considered the Bill but failed to return it to this House before the end of the Session last November. That was disappointing and the only way the Government can be sure to fulfil its manifesto commitment is now to reintroduce the Bill in the form it left this House last year. I am therefore giving notice of the Bill's re-introduction in this House.

It will be a matter for this House to decide, but the Government believes that the provisions of the Parliament Acts will be available if an unaltered Bill is sent to the Other Place.

In addition to the Bill, I shall ask the House to agree a motion to commence the Bill's provisions in relation to hunting, but not hare-coursing events, two years after its enactment. Special procedures exist under the Parliament Act 1911 for changes to be made if agreed to by both Houses. This period will give those involved in hunting more than adequate time to cease the activities which are to be banned, for humane arrangements like the dispersal or re-homing of dogs, and for re-focusing any business activities on alternatives like drag-hunting or disposal of fallen stock if they wish to do so.

These welfare considerations do not apply to hare coursing events. Violence and intimidation associated with illegal coursing events is a real and pressing problem in many areas of the countryside today. We have received many representations asking us to take firm and speedy action to enable the police to tackle these associated evils. That can only be done if the nature of the relevant offences is changed from that of trespassing to the activity of hare-coursing itself, which is a clear provision of the Bill. There can be no justification for delaying further in giving the police the powers they need to crack down on the criminals involved. So the offences in the Bill banning hare-coursing events should continue to come into force three months after the Bill is passed.

The Government has condemned threats of illegal action by some supporters of hunting and believes that most people involved are law-abiding people who are prepared to respect the will of Parliament. Extra time for implementation will make it even clearer that illegal actions and threats or intimidation are totally unjustified. If people wish to continue their opposition to legislation, they have the option of the ballot box through which to express their views.

Animal welfare is also a major consideration for the Government—in terms of dogs and horses as well as the wild animals which are hunted. Dogs used for hunting are normally shot when they are no longer needed but the extra time for implementation will mean that there is even less reason for any suffering to be caused to them because of the ban. The RSPCA has offered to help with re-homing hounds—an offer for which I am very grateful—based on its experience of re-homing a considerable number of greyhounds each year. Drag-hunting offers alternative activities for those who have to give up hunting. And the horse industry in this country is buoyant, with increasing activity in a variety of leisure and sporting activities.

As has consistently been the case, right hon. and hon. Members on this side of the House will have a free vote on the Hunting Bill. That free vote will apply to Ministers and Whips as well as to back-benchers. While this legislation is not a Government priority, it is an issue on which hon. Members have expressed strong and consistent views over many years.

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will address the handling of the Bill in the Business Statement.