I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
This Bill is identical to the Bill to which this House gave a Third Reading on
The House of Lords did not complete its proceedings on the Bill before the end of the previous Session, although it had the time to do so. The Government are now bringing the Bill back to enable this House, if it so chooses, to insist on the Bill and, if it is again rejected by the House of Lords, to pass it under the Parliament Act.
In the programme motion debate, the right hon. Gentleman made an observation on two or three occasions that he may wish to amplify: he invited the other place to engage seriously on the Bill. That can be interpreted in at least two ways. Will he help us as to what exactly he meant? Did he mean only that we should accept the amendment in his name on the motion to be debated hereafter? Alternatively, was he inviting the House of Lords to table those considered amendments to the Bill that it deems to be right?
I shall come to some of the things that the House of Lords might do in a moment. Throughout the proceedings on the last occasion, I consistently made the point that it was the job of the House of Lords, as a revising Chamber, to engage with the Bill that was sent to it by this place, to suggest amendments and to send it back. It is a matter of great regret that it failed to do that on the last occasion. It was wrong for it to do that, and it has provoked the likelihood, or the probability, of the use of the Parliament Act. It is no use trying to blame the majority in this House.
Does the Minister accept that there is another possible interpretation? Could it not be that their Lordships were so unhappy about the inadequacies of the Bill with which they had to deal that they sought to improve it? Surely, even if the Minister has a different view, he will accept that the upper House was entitled to suggest changes that it believed would make the Bill fairer and more workable. It was not a matter of principle on which the upper House offended the lower House; it was a matter of judgment involving the quality of a Bill that it was trying to improve.
The House of Lords was perfectly entitled to try to improve the Bill, but it did not do so. All that it did was delay it.
Does the Minister not accept that in the 12 hours for which the House of Lords was allowed to debate the Bill, and in the 28 amendments that it was allowed to debate out of 171 that had been tabled, its purpose was to turn the Bill back into something very similar to that originally proposed by him? That is what it was trying to do. It was trying to make the Minister's Bill come true, not the one wrecked by his hon. Friend Mr. Banks.
The hon. Gentleman is quite wrong. The House of Lords could have put back the provisions that this House had rejected. Indeed, numerous amendments were tabled that purported to return the clauses that were omitted when this House decided against the registration system and the tribunal system, but the Lords who tabled those amendments showed no sign of engaging with the real purpose of the registration provisions, let alone the clearly expressed concerns of a large majority in this House.
In the event, the House of Lords discussed the Bill for two full days in Committee. During that time, it crawled through eight of the 60-odd groups of amendments that had been tabled. In those debates, it voted to render the Bill completely toothless, made the main offence impossible to prove, introduced a bias in favour of permitting hunting to continue and completely removed all controls over hare-coursing events. It then proceeded not to use the time available, and to send those amendments, draconian as they were, back to this House.
It is not for me to decide; it is in the hands of the House of Commons. I simply say this: let us see the House of Lords behave democratically, and respond to the Bill that we sent it. Then we will take what it says seriously, and it will be for us to debate any proposition that it sends back to us.
If the House of Lords sends back amendments that make sense and help to create good legislation, I will look at them—as an individual. Let it do that, and then we shall see what it has done.
I want to make three points about the operation of the Parliament Act. First, it is a matter for this House and Mr. Speaker to determine. Secondly, the key, indeed the only, purpose of the Act is to ensure that, in the event of a dispute between the two Houses, the will of this House—the elected Chamber—prevails. That is a simple proposition. We have procedures allowing for delay, for improvement and for reconciliation between the views of the two Chambers, but in the end, especially if there is obstruction, the constitutional principle is clear: the will of this elected Chamber must prevail. The Acts do not place a limit on when this House shall insist on its will, or on the measures involved. That is the point of judgment that we have been debating today. It is worth noting, however, that the royal commission on reform of the House of Lords did not propose any such changes either.
My third point is that no Bill that has been subject to the Parliament Act in the past has been given a Committee stage the second time round. That did not even happen with the home rule and Welsh disestablishment Bills in 1913. Many of the red herrings that have been cast around in earlier debates should be put aside. What Members should do now is address the contents of the Bill itself, which is precisely the same as the Bill that was before the House last year.
Will the Minister give an undertaking that if the House of Lords does what he urges and addresses the contents of the Bill that this House will send it later today, we shall be given an opportunity to consider whatever changes the Lords will have made? Or is he taking unto himself the decision on whether that should happen, and saying that eventually the Government will effectively decide whether to Parliament-Act the Bill or not?
If the Lords amends the Bill and sends it back to us, I will approach their amendments with an open mind and consider whether they are serious ones. On the last occasion, their lordships passed amendments that were not serious but dissimulative, and they failed to send the Bill back to this House. It is they who, on the basis of the record, have to prove that they are behaving reasonably.
Let me make one thing clear at the outset: this is a matter on which Members have a free vote, so it is entirely a House of Commons decision. I will be making the Government's position on the Bill clear, but on hunting the Government have always allowed Members a free vote. I shall briefly remind the House how we reached the current position on an issue that has taken up an enormous amount of parliamentary time over the years.
The Joint Committee did not say that, as I have already made clear, and if the hon. Gentleman had been with us during an earlier debate he would have heard me deal with that point. He should read the Joint Committee's report rather than misrepresent it. I am sure that it was unintentional, but his comments were a misrepresentation.
As I said, an enormous amount of parliamentary time has been spent on this issue over the years. Labour's 2001 election manifesto stated:
"The House of Commons elected in 1997 made clear its wish to ban foxhunting. The House of Lords took a different view (and reform has been blocked). Such issues are rightly a matter for a free vote and we will give the new House of Commons an early opportunity to express its view. We will then enable Parliament to reach a conclusion on this issue. If the issue continues to be blocked we will look at how the issue can be resolved."
Of course, it is in an effort to resolve the issue that we are bringing the Bill back to the House today. It is important that we do so, as promised, during this Parliament.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The situation in Parliament square is getting out of control, people are being injured and things are very ugly indeed. The riot police are in action, police on horses are engaged, 2 ft police batons are drawn and are being brought down on people's heads and backs, and I have seen injured people. Can you approach the powers that be to see whether the House, even at this stage, can find a way to delay this debate to a better time—[Interruption.]
Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Would it not be outrageous if we allowed the democratic process to be disrupted by a handful of people who are unrepresentative of the people of this country?
As far as the disturbances taking place outside this House are concerned, I have no doubt that Mr. Speaker will in due course receive a report from the authorities on what exactly is happening. On the second point, I am bound by the Order of the House and this debate will proceed. We have limited time, so I hope that it will be spent discussing the Bill and its Second Reading.
I am grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I ask Opposition Members to think very carefully indeed about the words that they use in this Chamber. I have for a long time counselled the leaders of the Countryside Alliance to persuade its members to appreciate that it is for Parliament to take a decision on a matter such as this, and that the law should be obeyed. Parliament should be obeyed, and I urge all Opposition Members—some have made this point and agree with me—to make it clear that they in no way encourage or condone violence or illegal behaviour, however strong the feelings might be of people on either side of this debate.
I agree completely with the Minister and condemn without any hesitation any disgraceful actions that might be taken by anyone in Parliament square or anywhere else. Of course we must obey the law, and my party and I would be the first to condemn any such activities.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making his position so plain, especially as I know that when feelings run high—he himself has strong views—people can be tempted into other directions. He made an important point.
Before the point of order, I was in the process of giving way to Mr. Chidgey.
The Minister made the point that an inordinate amount of time had been spent debating this issue over the past few years. Perhaps he could help me, and many of my constituents who have raised this question. What important legislation, vital to this country's interests, has been delayed or abandoned because of the amount of time we have spent—in this Parliament alone—debating this issue?
We as a Government have been pulled both ways on this, because we think that the issue must be dealt with but we do not want other important measures to be delayed or interrupted. That is why we have taken this approach. Once the House of Commons had made up its mind, we sought to use the minimum of time today, to speed the legislation to the House of Lords and ask that House to take it seriously and amend it if their lordships wish. We need to get on with it—
—just as I need to get on with my speech to allow others to speak. However, I shall give way briefly to my hon. Friend.
On the importance of this issue and how long it is taking, there are lots of people out there, in cities as well as rural communities, who are deeply concerned. I had 300 letters in 1997 about this issue, and constituents across the political spectrum clearly care about animal cruelty, which is what we are talking about here today.
My hon. Friend is quite right. I, too, have had a great deal of correspondence, on both sides of the debate. I have had many long letters that started by saying that we should not be spending time on this issue and then expressed the writer's views at great length. There is no inconsistency in that. The fact is that this is a minor matter compared with most of the issues that we deal with for our constituents, but it is a divisive issue on which people feel strongly, so it needs to be resolved, and that is why we gave an undertaking in our election manifesto to enable Parliament to reach a conclusion.
I shall give way to the right hon. Gentleman before trying to gallop through the rest of my speech to allow others to contribute.
The Minister says that it is a minor matter, but he must bear it in mind that it is not minor to those whose livelihoods are affected and those who feel that their liberties are affected. It should not take up as much time as it has, but in their lives it is extremely important.
Yes, indeed, as it is for many people who are affronted by the cruelty involved. Both sides feel passionately, as I just said, and feelings run high. Those who say that we should not spend time on this then go on to fill the Chamber and debate it at great length on both sides.
I am sure that it was a slip of the tongue, but the Minister referred to the "cruelty" involved in hunting with dogs. That is at the core of the debate. To date, I have understood that he has accepted that there is room for discussion about that. Presumably, he will now assure us that simply because his Bill has been usurped his views have not. I hope that he will confirm that he still feels that there was a case for having the two reasonableness tests.
The hon. Gentleman should remember what I said in many of the debates that we have had together: I was convinced by all that I saw that most hunting, if not all, has little utility and involves more suffering than the alternative methods of dealing with the problem. There are exceptions, and I give the example of ratting, which we debated at great length in Committee. I proposed a system that would have allowed a tribunal to make a judgment on those cases in which people felt a case could be made. The House felt that that was not necessary because the matter was open and shut. I have to say that I think the number of cases that could have been made successfully was likely to have been extremely small, so the difference of opinion is a small one. That is the position that I have consistently set out since the Portcullis House hearings at which evidence was given.
In seeking a resolution of this matter, the Government have been very patient. The Burns inquiry looked objectively at the issues and I followed it up in this Parliament by bringing all parties together to look again at the scope for agreement. I launched a wide-ranging consultation process, which culminated in the public hearings held at Portcullis House in September 2002.
A lot of nonsense has been talked about the differences between the Bill that I introduced in December 2002 and the amended Bill passed by the House in July 2003. I have been able to deal with one of the alleged differences by responding to Lembit Öpik. This Bill, like the one I originally introduced, will make hunting a wild mammal with dogs an offence, subject to exceptions; and it will include exceptions for stalking and flushing out, ratting, rabbiting and a number of other items in schedule 1 to the current Bill. It will make it an offence knowingly to permit land or dogs to be used for hunting; it will make hare coursing events illegal and make the same provisions for penalties, search and seizure, forfeiture and application to the Crown.
The only difference is that my original Bill provided an additional provision that would have permitted hunting in strictly limited circumstances where the purpose was to meet a specific and real pest control need and where achieving that purpose would cause less suffering than other methods of pest control. A registration and tribunal system would have tested applications case by case.
In response, the House made its wishes very clear. New clause 11, moved by my hon. Friend Mr. Banks last June, was approved by 362 votes to 154—that is, 70 per cent. of those voting wanted a complete ban on fox hunting. Put another way, 55 per cent. of all Members of the House, taking account of all who abstained or were absent, voted for the Bill as it stands today.
I have compared that with the voting figures on the resolutions on
Let me turn to the history of last year's Bill in the House of Lords. The House of Lords is a revising Chamber. Peers have a legitimate role in asking this House to think again about proposed legislation, even where this House has voted by such a large majority. Knowing the strongly held views in this House, their lordships had an opportunity to come up with proposals that might have encouraged second thoughts— to look for a way towards a less polarised situation. I have already pointed out the record of failure to produce proper amendments in the other place.
It has been suggested that the Government did not allow the Lords sufficient time in which to debate the Bill, so let us look at the facts again. The Government made two full days available, which was generous for a controversial Bill of this size—with some 17 clauses. The Government offered more time if the Bill could be taken in Grand Committee. Ludicrously slow progress was made on amendments in Committee and the Lords voted to adjourn the debate when they knew that more time was available.
In summary, both Houses have made their views known on this Bill perfectly clearly during debates in the last Session. This House plainly wants this Bill; the other place plainly does not. I still hope that peers will engage with the Hunting Bill. They will have adequate time to do so. If they fail to do so, the only way in which the matter can properly be resolved is for the will of this House to prevail under the provisions of the Parliament Acts.
The Minister is explaining what happened in the other place, but does he agree that, in the light of what he has said, it would be wrong to say that their lordships sabotaged the previous Bill or acted out of kilter with what was expected of them? They did their best to try to improve the Bill and it is quite wrong to say that they sabotaged it.
It is the hon. Gentleman who used the word "sabotaged". I would not wish to be impolite to their lordships, but I have to say that that term lends itself to the description of events that took place on the last occasion. They did not seriously try to amend or improve the Bill before sending it back to us. They failed signally in their responsibility in that regard.
There have been some fairly abstruse legal arguments to the effect that the Parliament Act 1949 was improperly passed and that Acts passed under it are invalid. I would like to kill that one off as well. The Government's clear legal advice is that those arguments are incorrect. There is no question about the validity of the 1911 and the 1949 Acts and there is no reason for this House not to act in accordance with their terms. It is a matter for the House of Commons at the end of the day.
It was also alleged a few moments ago that the Bill is incompatible with the European convention on human rights. I have certified that it is compatible with the convention, on the basis of clear legal advice. Contrary to what has been claimed, during the last Session the Joint Committee on Human Rights did not take the view that the Bill generally raised questions of compatibility, but it rightly examined the effects of a ban on people's ability to carry out contracts that they had already entered into in respect of hunting. The Government have looked carefully at the technical legal arguments raised by the Committee, and take the view that there can be no enforceable contractual right to carry out hunting after it has been banned. In practice, therefore, there is no human rights issue.
It is therefore wrong to suggest that the Bill raises issues of human rights and the Government's view is clear—that any challenge to this bill on human rights grounds is likely to be unsuccessful. The fact that a challenge might be mounted in the courts is no reason not to use the Parliament Acts.
I draw the House's attention to the serious point made by Mr. Beith. I believe that there are more hunts in my constituency than in any other. A substantial number of jobs will be lost in my area and elsewhere. This Bill will put people out of work, and other people will lose their property. Does the Minister consider it right that it offers no compensation? Is that compatible with human rights legislation, which ensures that people have the freedom to enjoy their property?
Yes, I do believe that it is right for this Bill not to offer compensation, and that there is no conflict with human rights legislation. Again, I have encouraged the Countryside Alliance to start thinking about the likelihood of legislation, and to prepare the ground with its members and with people involved in hunts. I have suggested that people should look at the business opportunities that will arise—for example, under the fallen stock scheme that the Government are introducing this autumn, and as a result of changing to drag hunting, among other things.
The Bill does not prevent people from using their property, but they will have to think sensibly about that. It is a pity that the leadership of the pro-hunting factions has been too narrow in its approach to this matter, and that it has failed to engage with the likelihood of legislation, even though the House has given sufficient warning. That is why, even at this stage, the Government are recommending further delay in commencement: we want to give time, after the Bill has reached the statute book, for common sense to be brought to bear. The pro-hunting leaders need to think about the employees to whom they have a responsibility.
I hope that Mr. Clifton-Brown will think again, as I am fed up with some of the unfounded allegations that are made. The Burns report and the evidence given in Portcullis House made it clear that the rural economy is generally vibrant, despite some weak points. There has been a greater increase in employment in rural areas than in urban areas.
As my hon. Friend says, there are labour shortages in many rural areas. We will use the normal channels—the employment agencies, the Small Business Service and the regional development agencies—to help people and to advise them about how to make sure that they are gainfully employed in other activities. We are willing to care for the small numbers of people who will be affected by a hunting ban, but the matter should not be exaggerated.
Finally, it has been suggested that if the Bill is passed under the Parliament Acts, many people who passionately oppose it will feel justified in continuing to hunt in defiance of the law because it has been passed unfairly or improperly. That argument turns democracy on its head. The rightness or wrongness of a piece of legislation is always the subject of argument, and our parliamentary processes are the means by which these issues are argued through. The Parliament Acts are part of that process, and of the structure of our democracy. Yes, they must be used sparingly and only under provocation, but it is axiomatic that the will of the elected Chamber must prevail in the end.
In the democratic process, the role of the Opposition is important. The Conservative website states, in one place, that we should not spend time on hunting in the Chamber, but elsewhere says that the Conservative party would use parliamentary time to overturn a ban. There is no great consistency there. When the Opposition respond, I hope that we shall hear where the Conservative party stands and what it will do—if and when it ever forms a Government. Will the Tories change the law? Will they overturn a ban, or will they not? Will they encourage their colleagues in the House of Lords to engage with the Bill this time, because they did not do so on the previous two occasions? Will they encourage supporters of hunting to respect the law? I pay tribute to Mr. Gray for making his own position clear on that point a few moments ago, and a united message needs to go out from the House.
We have had many requests from rural communities, and from the National Farmers Union, to tackle the pernicious activities associated with illegal hare coursing. That can be done only if we give the police the tools to do the job and change the basis of legal action from trespass, which is too limited to be able to deal with some of the people involved in this activity and in threats, intimidation and violence, to the activity of hare coursing itself. The Bill does both those things. We shall return to that point later, but it is not proposed that we delay commencement of that part of the Bill.
I see that some people have signed a declaration that they will defy the law if the Bill is passed. The leaders of the Countryside Alliance should stamp out such ideas. I understand the strong feelings that some people have about hunting, but I reject utterly any suggestion that defiance of the law would be justified because the law has been passed under the Parliament Acts. The passage of legislation through this House has to be respected. The Parliament Acts are an integral part of our constitutional arrangements, and the House is entitled to use them to pass the Hunting Bill, if that is the House's will.
Like many on my side of the House, I objected to a measure that really was unjust—the poll tax. I protested against it, but I disagreed passionately with those who advocated law-breaking or non-payment. Respect for the law and the decision of Parliament is bigger than any specific issue, including hunting. Indeed, it is bigger than any specific issue, even—perhaps especially—when feelings run as high as they do in this case. I commend the Hunting Bill to the House.
Before I start my substantive remarks, I must say that for the second time this afternoon I find myself agreeing with the Minister. I hunt. If this disgraceful little Bill is passed, I will not break the law, or hunt until such time as an incoming Conservative Government turn the law round, which, to clarify the point that the Minister raised, we are committed to do. We are committed to introducing a Government Bill in Government time to repeal this Bill, albeit, of course and as always, with a free vote on both the Front and Back Benches. One of the first things that we will do when we come into power next May will be to reverse this disgraceful little Bill. I am pleased to say that that will happen in good time for me to start hunting again the following season. Like the Minister, however, I would not condone the breaking of the law, in this context or in the context of protesting against the disgraceful activities that we are seeing in the House this afternoon.
The nation, and the world as a whole, will look at our procedures today with some amazement and horror. With the world in the state that it is in, with 1 million people waiting for treatment in the national health service, with Darfur—
I shall give way in a moment; I have just started making a few introductory remarks.
With the middle east and Iraq in turmoil, with Beslan and Darfur so much in our minds, people will not understand Labour's warped priorities and the Government's fixation with the sole issue of banning hunting with hounds. [Interruption.] Claire Ward is enthusiastic, so I shall happily give way to her.
I am grateful. The hon. Gentleman rightly identified lots of pressing issues, on not just the domestic but the international scene. I am surprised, then, that he can sit those remarks alongside his remark a moment before that the very first priority of an incoming Conservative Government would be to use Government parliamentary time to reverse a ban. Surely a Conservative Government would not, as their first priority, spend time on reversing a hunting ban when they would have lots more to do.
The hon. Lady misquotes me. I did not say that our first priority would be to reverse a hunting ban; one of our first priorities were the precise words I used. It seems to us that, since the Labour party is using such an extreme parliamentary procedure to have its will and impose its Islingtonian outlook on life on the people of Britain, we owe it to the countryside and the people of Britain to use similar tactics to reverse the ban. That is why we will do it. The Labour party is so fixated on banning hunting with hounds that it seems to us only reasonable and fair to give the House of Commons the opportunity to reverse the ban. It will, of course, be a free vote for both Front and Back Benchers, and it will therefore be dependent on us having a significant majority. I have every confidence that we will do so.
The hon. Gentleman and one or two others have sought to make what are, frankly, rather silly points. We are talking about the many hundreds of days that have been spent on the issue of fox hunting since the Labour party came to power seven years ago. We are talking about the hundreds of hours of police time that will be spent seeking to enforce the ban, if it comes in. The Home Secretary was reported in the newspapers on Sunday as saying that he would stick 30,000 CCTV cameras on trees to deal with the matter. That would be an astonishing waste of police time. All the time that the Labour party has forced us to spend on hunting with hounds has been a disgraceful waste of parliamentary time.
Will the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that the representative on this issue of the Association of Chief Police Officers has said clearly that his expectation is that the time taken in enforcing a ban on hunting would be roughly equivalent to the police time that currently has to be devoted to protests against hunting? The police will, of course, police fairly, as they do now when hunting is legal, if and when hunting becomes illegal.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. We have witnessed the most disgraceful act of hooliganism in years directed against Members of this Chamber. It was a breach of privilege first and foremost. What steps will be taken to hold an investigation, which there must be, into that breach? For those thugs actually to come through the Chamber, despite all the security safeguards, is unknown, I am sure, since you have been here and, I imagine, since any other hon. Member has been here—indeed, such a breach was probably unknown throughout the 20th century. What investigation will take place? Will a report be made to the House, hopefully on Thursday morning?
Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House condemn the activities that have just occurred. It is appalling that such an incident could occur and there will need to be the very fullest possible inquiry into it. A wide-ranging security review has been taking place in the House and there is great concern about security, yet despite that, six individuals were able to enter the Chamber. Will you ask Mr. Speaker to start a full inquiry immediately?
I understand hon. Members' concern in view of the serious incident that has taken place, but equally I am aware that we are still discussing a very important issue. I should like to respond to the points of order and hope for the tolerance and understanding of other hon. Members who might have wanted to contribute to them.
Hon. Members will be aware that a very serious incident has taken place. Mr. Speaker will be receiving reports of it from the Serjeant at Arms and security staff at the Palace. I can assure you that that investigation is under way.
Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. If, in fact, injury time were to be added, it would show that those vagabonds—thugs—had defeated Parliament and forced us to amend a procedural motion that we have passed.
May I, first, entirely endorse the remarks of my hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House and others about the disgraceful incident in the House earlier? It was an absolute scandal, and whoever they were and whatever argument they were trying to make, they lost it by making that protest. I lose no time in entirely condemning it. I have to say that in my time I have had some pretty sharp reactions to my speeches, but never one quite like that. I have to wonder whether it was something that I said. [Interruption.]
"In some of the big conversations in which I have taken part in rural areas, fox hunting has not come up as a major issue. People are concerned about big issues to do with employment, education, jobs and the economy."—[Hansard, 22 April 2004; Vol. 420, c. 431.]?
The Minister must be aware that, in a poll conducted by NOP in April, 99 per cent. of Labour voters told the Government that they should concentrate on issues other than hunting. Even Mr. Banks, who feels so passionately about these matters, last year admitted:
"It is not a matter of great significance in the great cosmos of events or indeed of great significance in animal welfare, but it has become totemic."
His point is that it has nothing to do with animal welfare; it has become totemic.
Only two weeks ago the Prime Minister identified seven key challenges facing Britain. He said, memorably, that he would put every policy to a test, and ask:
"Does it, in practical terms, advance and improve the lives of Britain's hard-working families?"
Will the Minister now tell us how a ban on hunting will help Britain's hard-working families? Is this not an astonishing Bill in the sense that, irrespective of which side of the argument one may be on, one has to admit that it will not significantly improve the life of a single human being? Not a citizen of the United Kingdom will benefit from the ban on fox hunting, and although, of course, some people would argue that foxes might benefit, I would not necessarily agree. This is a peripheral issue by anybody's standards. Most people would say that they do not care one way or the other. On the extremities of the argument, there are some passionately in favour and some passionately against, but most of our constituents are saying to us, "What on earth are you doing wasting time on an absurd and illiberal issue such as this?"
The leader in the Evening Standard, of all things, summed it up last week, when it said that the Prime Minister is using
"Labour's enormous Commons majority to torment a section of society—ordinary country folk—which they despise . . . There is something horrible, vindictive and cowardly about the Government's intolerant and ignorant attack on a small minority".
That is the Evening Standard—a London paper.
We ask ourselves why the Prime Minister, who is normally so good at dodging round issues, has chosen to stick his neck out on this one. Is he concerned about animal welfare? Is he concerned about foxes? No. He is concerned about one thing, and one thing only—party management. He is concerned about the fact that he has had a terminal split with his next-door neighbour, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and that he is facing what can only be described as an extremely difficult party conference season. To buy off his rabid Back Benchers, he has chosen to do something in which he has no particular interest.
I can probably help the hon. Gentleman with a clear answer on why we are trying to get this legislation through. The reason we have a large majority is that people voted for us, and many of those who voted Labour in 1997 and 2001 wanted fox hunting banned. We are doing what the people who voted for us want to be done, because the overwhelming majority of Labour supporters want fox hunting banned. That is the simple answer to his question.
That is the dictatorship of the majority. The purpose of this House and of Parliament is not necessarily to drive through the will of the majority—or what the hon. Lady believes to be the majority, as the figures do not concur: 59 per cent. of all people say that they do not want fox hunting banned. But even if 59 per cent. of people were in favour of banning fox hunting, is that necessarily a reason to do it? Is she saying that if one can prove that more than 50 per cent. of people want us to do X, Y or Z, it is terribly important that we should do it? Surely most of what we do in this place is defending the rights of minorities—looking after people who cannot speak for themselves, those who are eccentric, those who are different from Labour Members of Parliament, and those who are unusual or difficult. That, not doing what the majority want, is our primary task. [Interruption.]
Speaking on behalf of the difficult, to whom my hon. Friend referred, may I put it to him that, in addition to the civil libertarian and countryside management arguments against a ban, it would also be regressive and discriminatory? Can he confirm that the effect of such a ban would be that, whereas wealthy people would simply go to Ireland or travel to parts of the continent to hunt, people of modest means would not be able to do so? It is a measure calculatedly directed against the poor who enjoy hunting.
I shall finish my point first, if I may. Predominantly, it is ordinary people who go hunting and they will be unable to go to France or Ireland. One of the most bizarre things about the report into the re-homing of dogs that was recently produced by the all-party group on animal welfare was that it suggested that a possible solution to the 26,000 hounds that will be excess to our requirements is to export them to overseas hunts. Some of the rich people whom my hon. Friend describes would benefit from that, but very few of the ordinary people who go hunting.
My hon. Friend has continually asserted, as have others, that this is about suppressing minorities. I put it to him that being in a minority is not an absolute defence for anything. If we regard what that minority does as sufficiently cruel, it does not matter whether it is a majority or a minority—it is a fit subject for legislation.
I refer my right hon. Friend to Lord Burns, who said with great clarity that there is nothing cruel about fox hunting. She would be right were she talking about bear baiting or other demonstrably cruel activities, where there might be a reason for ignoring the interests of the minority and dealing with it.
Because of the disgraceful intervention earlier on, and because of my relative generosity in taking interventions during my speech, we are now extremely short of time to discuss the Second Reading of this very important Bill. I therefore give notice that I will seek to limit the number of interventions that I take, and that I may have to gallop through some of the important points that I want to make.
The Secretary of State made it plain that she believes that an outright ban on hunting is unworkable. We agree and we should make it clear that we would be content with a licensing regime along the lines of that, albeit greatly changed, that the Minister proposed before his Back Benchers wrecked it. The Minister, in a letter to the Deputy Prime Minister on
"A complete ban . . . would be perceived as pursuing prejudice rather than targeting cruelty."
On other occasions, he said that
"a measured view should be taken of this issue" and that
"The future of hunting with dogs should not be decided on personal taste, but on evidence; on the principles of whether or not it is more or less cruel than the alternative methods currently available."
Shooting is the main alternative method that is currently available. The Bill does not ban killing foxes, mink or deer. Most observers—including, I suspect, Labour observers—accept that at least the same number and probably more of those animals will be killed if hunting with dogs is banned. The debate is not therefore about whether they are killed or even how many are killed but about the means whereby they are killed.
Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that the best assessment of the number of foxes who die or are killed is approximately 250,000 and that 15,000—around 6 per cent.—are killed by the hunt? It cannot therefore be called an effective method of controlling the fox population. More foxes die in road accidents.
The hon. Gentleman makes a relatively sensible point, albeit an inaccurate one from a statistical standpoint. The figures are approximately 140,000 foxes in total, with around 40,000 being killed by organised hunting and the use of dogs. However, he is right that a relatively small percentage is killed by hunts. I shall make a counter-point: of the 40,000-odd foxes that are killed in organised fox hunting every year, the vast bulk are elderly or ill. They are mainly aged dog foxes because foxhounds are slow-moving animals, foxes are fast moving and therefore only the ill, the aged and the weak are killed using hounds. By contrast, if one is shooting, one is lamping and shoots whichever fox appears in the headlights. Shooting is an unselective method of killing foxes; fox hunting using dogs is selective. I appreciate that it is a debatable point, but, in our view, shooting, snaring, gassing or poisoning are much crueller methods than a simple killing using dogs.
Further to the point about the number of foxes that will be killed before or after a ban, does the hon. Gentleman have any idea of how many more thousands of foxes will die following the ban? Anybody who knows the farming community will appreciate that if foxes are not controlled by hunts and the rural community, there will be a massive killing of foxes by shooting, snaring and many illegal methods.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. That happened when hunting was banned because of foot and mouth disease. Farmers had to kill an enormous number of foxes by shooting them. The National Farmers Union tells me that, last year, foxes killed 340,000 lambs. Surely a farmer will react to that by killing as many foxes as possible. We believe that the most humane and selective way of doing that is by using dogs.
I have genuine concerns about the Government's favoured method of fox control, which is lamping. Given the tragedies that have happened this week and in the preceding months, would not it be a better idea for the Government to defer consideration of the measure until they had some idea of the number of people who would be killed and severely injured as a result of the Bill?
The hon. Gentleman refers to two episodes in which, tragically, people have been seriously injured or killed during lamping. Lamping occurs at night and it is therefore impossible to tell what eyes one is seeing and tragic accidents can happen. I stress that those two accidents were the exception, not the rule. A great deal of lamping goes on and accidents rarely occur. However, he makes the good point that, if lamping and shooting became the norm in the countryside, accidents are much more likely to occur. We must be aware of that risk.
The Minister has acknowledged in the Bill the efficacy of using dogs for killing certain types of mammals. The Bill exempts the use of dogs for killing rats and rabbits and the Minister has said that the use of dogs in those circumstances is particularly useful. Will he answer one question on this point? If dogs are allowed to kill rabbits but, under the Bill, are not allowed to kill hares, by what means are they going to decide which is which? Are they going to have to stop for a moment and say to themselves, "Hang on! Is that a rabbit? Is it a hare? Let's not get the wrong one." In any event, by admitting that dogs are most efficacious for killing rats and rabbits, the Minister has acknowledged that, in some circumstances, the use of dogs might be the best way of dealing with vermin. Our contention is that they are the best means of dealing with foxes.
Will my hon. Friend consider this scenario? If the local pack of hounds in my constituency, the West Norfolk foxhounds, decided to rebrand itself as the West Norfolk rabbit hounds, it would be able to carry on hunting in a pack and killing rabbits. Is it any less cruel to kill a rabbit than to kill a hare or a fox? Can my hon. Friend explain this ridiculous contradiction?
My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. We have not had the opportunity to discuss in Committee the question of intention in regard to hunting. We do not know who will be found guilty of hunting. If my hon. Friend's pack goes out after rabbits and accidentally kills a hare, by what mechanism will a judge decide whether that pack is guilty? These issues should have been decided in this place. We should not be leaving it to the courts and the judges to make up their minds on them.
Some people oppose all forms of killing, and I rather respect that. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals probably represents a good body of them, and I think that I am right in saying that the hon. Member for West Ham is a vegetarian who does not approve of leather shoes and does not like the killing of animals in any circumstances. He is very strongly opposed to shooting, and I suspect that he is opposed to fishing—
Perhaps not fishing. If he is not against fishing, he is different from his friends in the RSPCA, who have acknowledged that, in addition to hunting, they now intend to deal with shooting and fishing as well. Its chief executive, Jackie Ballard, memorably stated recently:
"Game shooting is horrid and nasty . . . the RSPCA will get around to try to end this."
I recently sent out a consultation paper on field sports to the RSPCA, among others, and its response stated:
"The RSPCA policy states that it is opposed to shooting for sport. Consequently, as an animal welfare organisation whose charitable objects include 'promoting kindness', that ethical viewpoint should be considered."
On fishing, it stated:
"The RSPCA believes that current practices in angling involve the infliction of pain"—
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Could you advise us whether the hon. Gentleman's speech has deviated from the topic under discussion? He is going on about shooting and fishing, which are not covered by the Bill.
The point that I was making—clearly, I hope—was that the issue before us is not how animals are killed or how many are killed; it is about freedom and liberty. The truth is that, if the RSPCA can do this to us hunters, it can also do it to the shooters and fishers. It has made it absolutely plain that it is going to do so. It is dealing with hunting now; who comes next?
All that we country people want is to live and let live. The preservation of tolerance and freedom should be one of the most fundamental duties of this Parliament, and that is all we ask. The Prime Minister recently said that justice, freedom and tolerance—[Interruption.]
Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but the House really should listen to this debate in silence. A great many members of the public are expecting us to deal with this matter with dignity, however great the passions involved, and we should do that.
I fear that some hon. Members do not like what they are hearing.
All that the people of the countryside are seeking is to live and let live. All that we want is tolerance and freedom. We want to make up our own minds as to whether the use of dogs in the countryside is reasonable. We are grown-ups; we can decide these things for ourselves, according to our own conscience. We do not need the Labour party to lay down the law on the use of dogs, or on shooting, fishing, smoking in public places and a whole variety of other things. We want the ability to make up our own mind on these matters, using our conscience and our knowledge of the countryside.
I am seeking to wind up, if I may. I hope that my hon. Friend will forgive me.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition made it clear last week that we shall seek to repeal this legislation when we come to power, albeit with a free vote for both Front Benchers and Back Benchers. That will give lovers of freedom and tolerance and lovers of the countryside, of whatever political persuasion, a very clear message: if they want to save hunting, they can do that by using every ounce of muscle, straining every sinew and spending every pound that may be necessary to hound this illiberal and hated Labour Government from office.
The Minister is seeking to rush through this House a Bill that he has attacked in the most scathing terms, a Bill created by rebellious Back Benchers, which is neither a manifesto commitment nor mentioned in the Queen's Speech, nor compliant with the Human Rights Act. It is a Bill for which there is little real demand in the country, and its claimed animal welfare benefits are illusory to say the least. It is a legal mess, and will need huge amendment, which I hope that the other place will give it.
The threatened use of the Parliament Act under those conditions is a constitutional scandal of the worst kind, which brings Parliament into disrepute and makes the Minister and his party look both desperate and a laughing stock in the eyes of the public. This is an intolerant, ignorant and prejudiced Bill. It is an affront to liberal democracy. It will stir the heart of every citizen who values liberty. The people of this country, and of the countryside, will neither tolerate nor forget it.
Order. I must remind hon. Members of what is painfully obvious: little time is left. An eight-minute limit will apply to Back-Bench speeches from now on.
I was interested to hear Mr. Gray telling the Minister that it was his Bill. That is the most significant aspect of the legislation that we are debating this evening: 34 years after I came into the House, with a succession of private Members' Bills seeking to ban hunting with dogs, we have for the first time—this is an historic moment—a Government Bill to ban hunting with dogs.
The hon. Member for North Wiltshire completely misunderstands the Parliament Act. To us, it is a very important sign of advance that this is a Government Bill, but the Parliament Act has nothing to do with whether a Bill is sponsored by the Government. Put simply, it is a measure that says that, in the end, the will of the House of Commons must prevail. Were it still a private Member's Bill, as introduced by my hon. Friend Mr. Foster, the Parliament Act would have the right to prevail.
I offer the House two explanations, one of which relates to amendment (b), which I have tabled to the Government's suggested amendments. If the amendment in the name of my hon. Friend Mr. Banks is carried, my amendment would fall anyway. In any case, I would not move it, as I believe that what is important about today is that the majority of the House of Commons comes together in favour of an outright ban on hunting with dogs.
The other personal explanation is that at sundown tonight—7.3 pm—the Jewish new year begins, so I shall take part in proceedings up to the time when I must get to the synagogue, but I must leave in time to do that. I hope that the House of Commons will accept that. That means, of course, that I shall be able to vote for the Second Reading of the Bill.
We have had all sorts of arguments over these 34 years and longer—my hon. Friend Mr. McNamara was a pioneer with the attempt to ban hare coursing, and this must be a great day for him. What is clear, and what belies the hon. Member for North Wiltshire's argument, is that during all the 34 years in which I have attempted to bring about this ban, there has never been a campaign to ban shooting or fishing. Therefore, the idea that this is the thin end of some wedge is not accurate, and it is wrong, false and misleading to propagate it.
Time is limited and I would prefer to proceed.
This campaign is comparable to a campaign that took up the first 35 years of the 19th century: the campaign to ban bull baiting. It took this House 35 years to achieve that, and it will have taken 34 years of my parliamentary experience to achieve this. For that, I am willing to accept a slight delay, much though I would have preferred it not to happen.
Throughout the progress of this legislation, we have heard all kinds of bogus arguments about its effects. While I respect Opposition Members who support the Bill, predominantly the Labour party wants it and a number of Conservatives do not. I find it extraordinary that a party that threw a quarter of a million miners out of work—with no Countryside Alliance to march in support of them, and with none of the compensation for which Members ask now—can say that some kind of vengeful act is involved in legislation that will deprive just a few hundred people of direct employment at a time when the country has the highest employment and the lowest unemployment for 30 years. That is absurd, as is the argument about the dogs.
Everyone who knows about hunting knows that any dog in a hunting pack has a limited life. As soon as that dog no longer serves its purpose as part of a hunting pack, it is shot dead by these animal-loving huntsmen and huntswomen. The idea that somehow the Bill will produce a kind of canine carnage is ridiculous. It is the huntspeople who breed these dogs for one purpose and one purpose only, and who, when that purpose has been fulfilled, dispose of them in an utterly callous way—so let us not hear the animal welfare argument.
What we are approaching today is the fulfilment of two Labour party manifesto pledges, which will have been fulfilled only after two Parliaments and—if this amendment is accepted—another half-Parliament. No one can say that Parliament has been rushed into this. No one can say that this ban will have been implemented without the fullest, most elongated debate that I can remember taking place on any issue during the 34 years for which I have served the House.
For me, this is a great day. This is a vote against cruelty, callousness and the hunting and, literally, hounding of animals for sport and pleasure. That is wrong, and at last we are going to stop it.
I am aware of the time and will do my best to keep my remarks short.
I am sorry that we have to be back here again to rehearse arguments that we have already had. In this debate, however, we need to consider whether any additional, indisputable wisdom has emanated from another place—whether we have been advised that we may have missed something in a previous debate that might be helpful to us.
"Sometimes I have seen foxes in the prime of life being chased with what looked to me like a grin on their face."
I thought it was just the anti-hunters who were supposed to be anthropomorphic. Lord Renton went on:
"I do not think that they minded being chased."—[Hansard, House of Lords, 28 October 2003; Vol. 654, c. 149.]
There is one justification from their lordships.
Here is another justification, from Baroness Strange:
"I went coursing often as a child. Unlike my noble Friend Lord Faulkner, I have never been unlucky enough to see a hare killed. However, I admired how the hares ran and very much admired the dogs."—[Hansard, House of Lords, 28 October 2003; Vol. 654, c. 203.]
I can imagine how admirable that is. Look at that hare running. How admirable—it is running for its life.
In addition to looking for justification for hunting from their lordships, I have tried to establish whether they understand our primary motivation in reaching the conclusions that we have reached. They say that
"all . . . scientific evidence has been abandoned in a capitulation to zealotry and class prejudice."
Apparently, we believe
"the fantasy that the fox is a cuddly and harmless little furry animal".
We are also told:
"We know all too well that for many Members in the other place, it is primarily a manifestation of class envy and dislike of toffs dressed up and on horseback."—[Hansard, House of Lords, 16 September 2003; Vol. 652, c. 783–825.]
And a bishop offered a rather un-Christian view when he accused MPs who support a ban of having a mental disorder. That was the nature of the debate in the other place.
The issue of liberty has been raised on a number of occasions. I come from the countryside and I have to question the position of those who say that they are on a march representing the countryside, and that the countryside supports hunting. In some areas, perhaps a majority do; in others, perhaps that is the minority view. It is not for me to judge, but I have listened to the arguments.
We have heard about the problems, challenges and pressures that this Bill will clearly create for the minority who enjoy hunting, but there are other minorities in rural areas, one of which is displeased by hunting. The Lords have told us that, as many have said today, liberty is the primary concern, but it is not just those who enjoy hunting who have the right to liberty—yet one gets the impression from reading their lordships' views that no one else matters.
Sometimes, liberties clash. There is the clash between those who derive pleasure from hunting and those who derive displeasure. What about the liberties of those who were born and brought up in the countryside, who know country ways—who know about foxes and other wildlife—and are proud of their parish and landscape, but who are offended by fox hunting whenever hunts come to their area? Are their liberties also taken into account? Of course, it is not just a question of liberties in relation to land. Often, those who own the land feel that it is up to them to decide what happens on it. Many of those who live in the countryside do not own much land, but they are entitled to have a view and to have their feelings about how the countryside should be managed taken into account. [Interruption.] Despite what Members might say from a sedentary position, those who own the land are merely custodians of it in the longer run.
The hon. Gentleman talks about liberty. Would he care to comment on the constituent of mine who feels that he is helping liberty to flourish in Iraq by serving with 40 Commando? This gentleman has served our country valiantly trying to safeguard liberty, but when he returns he will discover that he is unable to participate in the hunting that he has pursued all his life. Does the hon. Gentleman think that fair?
Regardless of whether someone serving their country supports hunting, the fact is that the House—democracy—will ultimately decide whether the Bill should be enacted. I am sure that many who serve our country do not support fox hunting. Are we to listen only to the hon. Gentleman's constituent or to others who want to defend the liberties of those who are displeased by hunting in their parish?
As a Liberal, I am a bit worried by my hon. Friend's use of the word "displeased". I am displeased by lots of things, but I do not feel morally entitled to use the law to ban them. I need a stronger argument. I need to be convinced that there is serious cruelty that would be avoided by a ban. I am certainly not convinced by any of the alternative methods. Surely he is not erecting displeasure as a reason for sending other people to prison.
Some people who live in the countryside take pleasure from hunting and others are offended by it. A message is being sent out about how their community is represented, and suggesting to young people that this is a proper and acceptable way of behaving. My right hon. Friend is perfectly right to say that there is an argument for defending the liberties of one group over those of another, and I am not saying that a person's wish not to have hunting in their area is a pre-eminent freedom over that of those who want to have their pleasure from hunting, but we have to make the judgment on the arguments here.
It has been said that those who go hunting will be criminalised by the Bill. Many speakers in another place supported that argument. The fact is not that the Bill will criminalise people who enjoy hunting, but that those people who choose to break the law will criminalise themselves. Many of the 50,000 or so people who have signed a petition saying that they will break the law and continue hunting are responsible people—some of those in another place implied that they might be prepared to go so far—but what message does that send to animal rights activists? Does it not offer support for all those who wish to break the law in their own cause?
We have to weigh up the issues and come to our own conclusions, but the House has already spent hundreds of hours on this and come to its decision, with clear majorities, and it is time to send a clear message to the other place that it must accept the democratic will of the democratic and pre-eminent Chamber.
I declare an interest, in that I have for many years been a vice-president and patron of the League Against Cruel Sports, which I congratulate on having protested against the cruelty of hunting with dogs and many other barbarities long before many other organisations. I welcome on board the RSPCA, which did not support us when we first started our campaign, as well as the International Fund for Animal Welfare and others.
This is the end of my parliamentary career. When I started it in the 1960s, we began our campaign against hunting, and I am pleased that the matter will now be resolved once and for all. I take this opportunity to pay a compliment to those colleagues, some dead, some in the House of Lords—perhaps it is the same thing—who played a part, including Eric Heffer, John Ellis, Lord Corbett and others. In very difficult times, they first pushed on hare coursing and then got the whole country behind them in opposing hunting with dogs in any shape or form.
It has been said that all this has been done to appease Back Benchers. If so, I am glad that the Government are doing it and I hope that it will be regarded as a precedent that they will follow on many future occasions. Far more important is the fact that passing the Bill will help to restore people's faith in Parliament. When the Bill presented by my hon. Friend Mr. Foster was not given extra time by the Government, people said that Parliament had a chance and that the Government funked it. People did not understand the subtleties of the Government's argument. They felt that they had supported the Government on this issue in the important election of 1997 and had been betrayed. Since the intention to bring in the Parliament Act to pass this measure was announced, many of the phone calls and letters that I have received have posed the question, "Do they really mean it?" Let us hope that the Government really mean it, because that will help to restore the country's faith in the work of Parliament.
I want to make two fairly brief points. First, it is often said that we do not understand what is going on. Those who have attended hare coursing meetings, as I did in the east of England with my late colleague Arnold Shaw more than 30 years ago, have seen hares torn to pieces by hounds and heard them screaming. "Collateral damage", I understand, is the phrase used for the points earned by the greyhounds—it is cruel, harsh and evil.
Secondly, I want to draw a contrast. In that particular case, hounds are trained for their speed, whereas in fox hunting, as we have heard today, they are trained for their stamina. It is not a question of quick and easy pest control or getting rid of the fox by a sharp swift hound going in and carrying out its job. It is a question of the sport entailed. That is the distinction. It is not a class distinction between town and countryside; it is a question of understanding how we use or abuse animals.
Unlike my hon. Friend Mr. Banks, I am not a vegetarian. I am not opposed to using some animals in experiments, if necessary, to develop drugs to protect and enhance the life of humankind, though I have severe reservations about the way in which some drug companies go about it. As a principle, I am not against that, but I am against gratuitous cruelty, the ending of which is what the Bill is all about. I congratulate the Government on doing a very good job on this matter this time.
Let me start by saying that I wholly condemn violence from wherever and whomever it comes. I also condemn anyone who seeks to disrupt the proceedings in this Chamber. I want to make it absolutely clear that my party and I take that view. I do not believe that those who have disrupted our proceedings this afternoon are any more representative of hunt supporters than the violent end of those who seek to oppose hunting are representative of hunt opponents.
I believe that this is a sad day for this country, not just because of hunting, but because of issues that are more fundamental. I refer to the fundamental and historic virtues of tolerance and respect for minorities. The debate is the consequence of the Government's determination to contradict the clear evidence of their own advisers through the Burns inquiry and the Portcullis House hearings.
For generations, Labour MPs have urged us in this place, often quite rightly, to respect the rights, freedoms, cultures and even sexual practices of different races and religions. Here, however, they want to go much further. We are a tolerant country. We accept in our society people with many conflicting views who carry out different activities, some of which we may not like. It is not a crime to live in Britain and to plot the overthrow of the Government of another country. We allow the freedom of speech of those who try to overthrow even our own democracy. We permit peaceful demonstrations by countless minorities, however much they disrupt the normal life of other people. Those are all features of a just, tolerant and pluralistic society, of which we should be proud and which we should seek to maintain. However, this Bill is totally contrary to those values. It will criminalise the activities of a small number of people who, in every other aspect of life, are valued members of our community. They include doctors, nurses, teachers, firemen, business people, farmers and many others.
Whatever public opinion may be, in the history of this House there have been many occasions when hon. Members quite rightly have stood back and viewed an issue objectively, and when they have said that the House must not necessarily respond to public opinion and be pressurised by it. One of the starkest examples of that was the question of capital punishment. For decades after its abolition, there was no doubt about where public opinion lay, despite repeated votes in the House that such punishment should not take place.
The consequences of this Bill are quite clear. In numerical terms, it will not save the life of a single animal, and that brings me to a crucial point: the distinction between the welfare of an individual animal and that of the species. The desire to protect one animal from one form of death is understandable, but the Bill will damage the welfare of the species. That was demonstrated over and again in the evidence given to the Burns inquiry, and in the conclusions that the inquiry reached.
I come now to what I believe is the fundamental point to be made about this debate. Many people, both in the House and outside it, oppose hunting, and I readily accept that their number includes many of my constituents. As Mr. McNamara said a few moments ago, those people believe hunting to be cruel, and they consider it wrong for people to gain pleasure from what is perceived to be cruel.
That is a perfectly honourable position, but I want to make two points to counter it. First, if it is the alleged cruelty of hunting that attracts its followers, they will often be sorely disappointed, because the reality is that few hunt followers ever see the kill, and the vast majority of those involved in a hunt are hundreds of yards behind when the hounds catch up with the fox.
Secondly, and more importantly, the evidence given to the Government and the conclusions of the Burns inquiry make it clear that there will be no overall reduction in animal suffering, nor in the cruelty that some people believe takes place. That brings us to the fundamental question: should this House decide what may give people pleasure, if that does no damage to others and if it is not to their detriment? Should we decide what is good for people's souls? I believe that we should not.
If there were clear evidence that banning hunting would markedly reduce animal suffering, the Bill would be justified, but there is no such evidence. No animal will be saved and no human being will gain from a ban. We will be sacrificing the fundamental values of freedom, choice, liberty and tolerance that generations of our predecessors in this House have nurtured and cherished.
If we diminish those values on this issue, who knows what will be next? Whose freedoms will next be diminished? I urge the House to pause before it turns against a minority just because it disagrees with it.
I begin by welcoming the very firm comments that Opposition Members have made about the need to respect the rule of law and the democratic process, including the democratic processes of this House. Andrew George made some important points about people who think that they can pick and choose when it comes to obeying the law.
In the debate, hon. Members have said that there are more pressing issues on which to legislate, and that this is not an issue for Parliament. It has been stated that a ban would set supporters of the sport against its opponents, that sufficient laws already exist to prevent abuse and that minority rights must be considered along with the sport's social value. It was even stated that hunted animals derive pleasure from the activity—although similar remarks were made when the abolition of bull baiting was debated in this House in the 1800s. It seems that the arguments about blood sports have been aired not just in the lifetime of this Parliament, but for nearly 200 years.
If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I shall not as I have agreed to cut my reply to just five minutes to allow maximum participation for hon. Members.
I want to make points on two important issues: minorities and democracy. I concede that the rights of minorities are important, and that majority views are not always correct. I would still oppose hunting with hounds if I were in a minority, but I do not believe that I am in this country. As Miss Widdecombe said, it is not rational always to take into account minority views, whatever they are, without being able to override them depending on the situation at the time, the views of society and attitudes that change over time. On occasion, a judgment must be made. This is a moral issue, as is reflected in the fact that we have a free vote.
It is nonsense to suggest that this is an attack on rural society, or that every single person who lives in the country cares passionately for hunting or supports it. We need to take into account the fact that there are people in the countryside who have raised strong views against it, as my hon. Friends have stated. As far as democracy is concerned, this was a manifesto commitment, and it reflects the will of the House in a number of votes with very substantial majorities. The issue has, of course, been debated since 1945.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) and for Worcester (Mr. Foster), and my right hon. Friend Mr. McFall, who have campaigned for a long time on the issue. Not least, I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Minister for the countryside, who has been incredibly patient and has tried to bring both sides together to ensure that everybody had the opportunity to make their points.
It is nonsense to say of this debate that views have not been taken into account on the many issues. When we talk about minorities, I should say that there are people such as Eric Ashby, who suffered terribly in relation to the activities of fox hunts, and who was a minority in the area. He was awarded an MBE for his work with wildlife, and I am only sorry that he is not alive today to see this moment, for which he campaigned all his life.
This issue has been debated many times. Nothing new has been raised today. This is about the kind of society we live in. What we have seen outside the House as people have attacked and abused the police and abused the democratic history of this House demonstrates that it is true that a minority of people—I would not claim that they speak for all hunt supporters—care little for animals and little for people today.
We have heard about affronts. If there has been an affront, it is the affront that the Parliament Acts have had to be used because an unrepresentative, unelected and unaccountable House of Lords is clearly prepared to ignore the results of a free vote of the elected House on a manifesto commitment by an elected Government. If there is an affront, it is an affront that it has taken until four years into the 21st century to end an activity that comes down to inflicting prolonged pain and stress on animals for no other reason than the entertainment of their tormentors.
This debate has gone on long enough. The people have spoken. Now is the time to act.
I am gravely concerned about the situation, as indeed the whole House is. Immediately I received word that the incident had happened, I instructed the Serjeant at Arms to bring extra security into the House. Unfortunately, the Public Gallery has had to be cleared. What I intend to do is this: immediately after leaving the Chair, which will be at about quarter-past 6, I will have a meeting with Sir Michael Cummins, our Serjeant at Arms, and I will report back to the House as soon as I can.
It saddens me that no one is in the Public Gallery—I feel as strongly about that as the right hon. and learned Gentleman—but the safety of Members and the security of the House must be uppermost in my mind.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I share your concern about security in the House, but I wonder whether you and the authorities will consider the fact that the House has returned while much of it is like a building site and whether that was a wise decision, as that may well have played a part in the lapse of security this afternoon.
The hon. Lady asks me to speculate. As I told her, I will have a meeting with the Serjeant at Arms as soon as I leave the Chair. I add that I have already had a meeting with him, and I will therefore report back to the House as soon as I can.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am sorry to delay proceedings, but may I put to you what I think is in the minds of a considerable number of hon. Members on both sides of the House? First, I trust that, in dealing with the people who got on to the Floor of the House, it will not be treated as some trivial incident for which they can be interviewed and released. It is much more serious than that. Secondly, I take it that, during your investigation, you will seek to ascertain whether any staff of hon. Members or others—I am sure not staff of the House or Members—were involved in assisting those people in gaining entry.
This is not a trivial matter, and I will not speculate on any connection with members of staff. After all, I am seeking a report from the Officer who is responsible for security, and my first priority then is to come back to the House.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it not a fact that the great difficulty that you, Sir, and Members have is in seeking to balance security needs with free and open access to the Palace of Westminster for our constituents and our citizens? Will you confirm that there is a deep review of security with the Metropolitan police and the security services? When the recommendations from that review are made, the House should speedily implement them and vote for the appropriate expenditure.
I will not make mention of any security review, particularly at this stage.
Commons' suggested amendments, considered.
I have imposed a limit of eight minutes per Back Bencher for the following business.
I beg to move,
Leave out Clause 15 and insert the following new Clause—
(1) The following provisions of this Act shall come into force at the end of the period of two years beginning with the date on which it is passed—
(a) sections 1 to 4,
(b) Part 2 in so far as it relates to sections 1 to 4,
(c) sections 11 to 14 in so far as they relate to sections 1 to 4,
(d) Schedule 1, and
(e) Schedules 2 and 3, except in so far as they change the law in relation to an activity to which section 5 applies.
(2) The following provisions of this Act shall come into force at the end of the period of three months beginning with the date on which it is passed—
(a) section 5,
(b) Part 2 in so far as it relates to section 5,
(c) sections 11 to 13 in so far as they relate to section 5, and
(d) Schedules 2 and 3 in so far as they change the law in relation to an activity to which section 5 applies.
It may be helpful if I indicate that I am happy to accept the sensible amendment that will be moved by my hon. Friend Mr. Banks, and I encourage right hon. and hon. Members to vote for it and the substantive motion.
The motion will defer the commencement of the ban on hunting with dogs from the three months after Royal Assent currently in the Bill. The amendment would provide the specific date of
There are many persuasive reasons for deferring the commencement of the ban on hunting. In particular, it will give more time for those engaged in hunting to adjust to life after it. There are important animal welfare considerations for dogs and horses, as well as the wild animals that are hunted. The amendment would help by allowing time for hunters to put in place humane arrangements, such as dispersal and re-homing, for the dogs used in hunting. Such dogs are usually shot when they are no longer needed, but the extra time for implementation will ensure that there is even less reason for any suffering to be caused to them because of the ban. The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has offered 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 every year.
The Burns committee estimated that, at the most, perhaps 6,000 to 8,000 jobs across England and Wales were linked to hunting, directly or indirectly, and that that was "almost invisible" in national economic terms, but the delay will have a number of consequences. It will allow businesses that are reliant on hunting more time to refocus and diversify, for example, into drag hunting or dealing with fallen stock. The horse industry in general is buoyant and provides many business opportunities. The delay will allow hunt employees more time to find new jobs. Given the success of the Government's economic strategy generally, jobs in most rural areas are readily available, as are opportunities for retraining. The delay will allow those who regard hunting as a method of pest control more time to put in place other pest control methods.
The Bill is likely to receive Royal Assent in November this year, so under the motion the ban on hunting will come into force during November 2006. My hon. Friend's amendment would substitute that with
As someone who feels passionately about the welfare of greyhounds, I have listened as calmly and patiently as possible to the lengthy explanation of why the implementation of the ban on hunting will be delayed. However, the Minister made it clear that the ban on hare coursing will be immediate. What provisions and assistance—financial or otherwise—will be given to the owners of greyhounds that might have participated in hare coursing?
I made it clear earlier, although the hon. Lady might not have heard that part of our discussions, that we do not believe that the same animal welfare concerns arise for dogs involved in hare coursing as for packs of hounds that are held by hunts, so the same considerations do not apply. I also strongly and clearly made the point that this country faces major problems due to illegal hare coursing and the fact that there is a need to change the basis of the prosecution of people who are involved in that activity, and its associated intimidation, violence and vandalism, from trespass to the activity of hare coursing itself. The trespass option does not give the police the tools to do their job, and we have made it clear that the measure is an important part of the Bill. That explains why the suggested amendment will not defer the commencement of the ban on hare coursing events, which will continue to come into effect three months after enactment.
Although hunting with dogs might make a contribution—however small—to pest control, hare coursing events have no such justification. Although some hares are killed, the purpose of the activity is to bet on the competitive performance of dogs. There is no suggestion whatever that a ban on hare coursing events will mean that any dogs will have to be destroyed or re-homed, and I do not know of any significant evidence that many rural people or businesses are economically reliant on hare coursing events.
Yet again, one must go back to questions that have been answered in the past. The number of foxes killed is irrelevant. The fact of the matter is that foxes are killed as pests. A fairly small number are killed by hunts, but more are killed by lamping and other methods. Additionally, a minute number of deer are killed by hunts while large numbers are killed by stalking and shooting, so deer hunting is a completely unnecessary activity. Whether the number of foxes killed goes up or down is irrelevant to the Bill.
An even more important consideration about hare coursing is the fact that the violence and intimidation associated with illegal coursing events causes a real and pressing problem in many parts of the countryside. We have received many representations asking us to take firm and speedy action to enable the police to tackle the evils associated with such activities. That can be done only if the nature of the relevant offences is changed from trespassing to the activity of hare coursing itself, which clause 5 will achieve. There can be no justification for any further delay to giving police the powers that they need to crack down on the criminals involved.
Today's events outside, and even inside, the Chamber have raised serious questions of law and order, so I repeat a plea to leaders of the Countryside Alliance and any other organisations concerned with these issues that I have made on many occasions. They should start preparing their supporters to obey the law and to consider alternatives, such as drag hunting and fallen stock dispersal. They should show the respect for the law that, in fairness, was displayed by Mr. Gray when he said that although he would seek to overturn any hunting ban that became law, he would do so while obeying the law and try to achieve that using the ballot box and the House's processes. I was pleased that he said that because he showed respect for the House. I challenge people such as the leaders of the Countryside Alliance to show that same respect for the law. They do no favours to their supporters by failing to give a similar lead or by appearing to encourage illegal activities, although I hope that they do not intend to do that.
I entirely endorse what my right hon. Friend says. All of us—certainly me—have been involved in peaceful protest over the years, which is part of parliamentary democracy. Is he aware that some of the more hooligan elements of the demonstration are shouting out remarks such as, "We know where you live," while referring to him? Such intimidation is totally unacceptable, as is trying to deny the House of Commons the right to debate the matter and reach a conclusion. Surely we should expect the Countryside Alliance to dissociate itself from such hooligan and fascist elements.
Indeed, I hope that the Countryside Alliance will do that because I know that decent people are involved in it, such as its chairman, John Jackson, whom I have known for a long time—he is an extremely decent men. I hope that other leading members will give him the assistance to dissociate the Countryside Alliance from such activities and to encourage its supporters to understand the strength of feeling on the other side of the debate as well as their strong views.
I cannot speak for the Countryside Alliance because it is a private organisation, although I am a member of it. It has made it clear many times in written submissions and through other forms that it entirely decries any activities that are not legal, lawful, peaceful or sensible. I hope that I can speak for its leaders by saying that they would certainly abhor the disgraceful scene in the Chamber earlier today and the small number of scuffles, which the police tell me are minor, involving people outside Parliament. I hope that the Countryside Alliance and I can speak together in saying that we entirely decry such behaviour.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I respect what he said and the tone in which he made his point.
While we are on the subject of intimidation, the Minister will have seen from this morning's newspapers that Oxford university is asking for more help to combat the ever increasing problem of so-called animal rights activists. When will the Government take that problem more seriously? People throughout the country who work for Huntingdon Life Sciences and other organisations have been intimidated for years and their houses have been picketed, but the Government have yet to respond.
The hon. Gentleman is right about the importance of tackling those people, but wrong that the Government have done nothing. As a former Home Office Minister, I know that the Government have taken the matter increasingly seriously. We have made it absolutely clear that such intimidation is unacceptable and that it represents nasty lawbreaking. People are trying to interfere with the processes that should be dealt with by the House rather than through such activities, as several people have said. There are ways in which people may make their protest known within the law and without undue intimidation, as many of us have done over the years. That is right in a democratic society, but such a society must make it clear that there is a limit to such activity.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is perhaps not surprising that we are witnessing such scenes given that last week the parliamentary sketch writer of the Daily Mail, who holds a pass for the House of Commons, recommended in his column that the homes and offices of hon. Members should be attacked?
My hon. Friend makes a valid point. Journalists, too, must take responsibility for saying things that could appear to encourage or condone illegal activities, especially in comment columns. We must all be careful about what we say when we encourage people on matters that are associated with strong views.
In respect of the commencement date and the reassuring comments by Mr. Gray, is the Minister aware that on
"Fifty thousand people have signed a petition saying they would be prepared to break the law if a ban was introduced and they would be prepared to face the consequences"?
I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman dissociated himself from such action and it would help to have that clarified.
It is not for me, any more than it is for the hon. Member for North Wiltshire, to clarify the views of the Countryside Alliance, but Andrew George makes an important point. By going for the delay in commencement, the motion provides, beyond all doubt, extra time for people to behave reasonably in accepting the will of the House. It is not an unimportant consideration. I regret the threats of illegal action and protest by some hunt supporters. I understand that some people have dissociated themselves from those views. The Government have condemned such threats and believe that most people involved are law abiding and are prepared to respect the will of Parliament. The extra time for implementation provided by the suggested amendment will make it even clearer that illegal actions and threats or intimidation are totally unjustified. If people want to continue their opposition to the Bill, they have the option of expressing their views through the ballot box. I hope that the leaders of the Countryside Alliance will make their position clear.
It would not be right to extend the debate into philosophical issues of whether such action can ever be justified. I can say, however, that there is no such justification in relation to this Bill, especially if we allow the additional time suggested. I hope that the House of Lords will also give the suggestion serious consideration.
My hon. Friend does not want a delay, but I accept that there is a persuasive case for one. However, there are two ways of approaching an 18-month delay. One is to use that time to re-home hounds, run down the activities and so on. The other is simply to treat it as a period of grace and to put off the day. What monitoring will be in place?
The right hon. Lady makes an important point. I am asking people to prepare for the Bill's implementation during the period of delay. They should not, as she rightly points out, take it as an opportunity to put off the evil day and not to think about it. The Government would be prepared to engage with those who are willing to consider a more constructive future.
The right hon. Gentleman advocates a delay, but that also gives the Government an opportunity to introduce a fully funded compensation scheme. Why will he not do that?
I explained earlier when the right hon. Gentleman was not in the Chamber why we do not think a compensation scheme is necessary in any sense or in any way.
I said that I would comment further on the workings of this unusual procedure, by which the House may suggest an amendment to the other place. The Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949 enable the will of this House to prevail in the face of disagreement between the two Houses. The procedure is available only if a reintroduced Bill is substantially unaltered, but section 2(4) of the 1911 Act provides that the Commons may suggest an amendment, which can be incorporated in a Bill, if it is accepted by the other place. If, in the face of the readiness of this House to use the Parliament Acts, the other place then agrees to the amended Bill, or agrees to amend the Bill, it can be enacted accordingly with the inclusion of the suggested amendment.
The procedure for proposing suggested amendments has been on the statute book for more than 90 years, but as far as I am aware, it has not previously been used. It is a matter for you, Mr. Speaker, to interpret the Parliament Acts and to determine when they apply to any measure.
I am pleased that 90-year-old procedures can be used and look forward to an impeachment debate before too long.
On the period of commencement, we are likely to vote for 18 months. I accept how the figures stack up, but the other place will know that the Government originally had two years in mind. The Minister explained why he wants to accept 18 months. What he has not told us is why the Government initially wanted two years. What was their thinking behind that? It could not have been plucked out of thin air because that is not possible, is it? Why is 18 months better than two years?
Very simply, two years seemed a reasonable period, but, having looked at the practicalities, it became clear that going to the shorter period would take us beyond the latest possible date for the next general election. That makes it clear that the ballot box and not some other means is the way to deal with objections. It also means that the ban comes in before the start of a new hunting season. So 18 months makes sense on a number of grounds. I have made it clear that we accepted the argument, after some discussion, and that I support the proposal.
I have also been asked what would happen if the other place accepts the suggested amendment but fails to pass the Bill or passes it with amendments that this House is unable to accept. My understanding from reading the 1911 Act is that the House could present the Bill for Royal Assent under the Parliament Act, but only with the existing three-month commencement provision. I would certainly defer to the ruling of Mr. Speaker, but that is my understanding in order to inform the thinking of the House. The only other way to change the date of commencement would be to introduce a one-clause Bill to that effect.
On this matter, as on so much else, I simply hope that common sense will triumph so that a hunting Bill, which this House has sought consistently over a number of years, will be put in place in an orderly way and democracy will prevail and be respected, even by those who did not want a ban enacted.
I beg to move amendment (d), in line 5, leave out from "force" to end of line 6 and insert "on 31st July 2006".
With this, it will be convenient to consider the following amendments: (e), in line 6, leave out "two" and insert "four".
(f), in line 6, leave out "two" and insert "five".
(b), in line 6, leave out "two years" and insert "one year".
I declare my interest as a vice-president of the League Against Cruel Sports and pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Minister for his work on the issue and his understanding of it. He has taken a load on himself. It is something of a poisoned chalice, but he has acquitted himself well.
I asked myself two questions in relation to amendment (d). First, is the issue important? Last week, we debated the proposed European constitution, which I think is vital. There were 20 Members in the Chamber and there was virtually nary a word about it in the media. Today, the House is packed to the rafters and the debate is running live in the media, with blanket coverage—so the facts seem to say that it is important.
Secondly, is it a class issue? Well, yes it is. It is a middle class, middle England issue. The profile of the average passionate anti-hunter is a white, middle class woman, living in the home counties or in a county town or village, who reads the Daily Mail. I have had more letters on this subject than any other hon. Member. It is not a case of urban guerrillas versus toffs. Some of my best friends are toffs. Indeed, I hope to become a toff myself one day.
I tabled amendment (d), and I realise that not all my colleagues who support the Bill are happy with it. I understand and share their feelings, so perhaps I can explain my motives and reasoning. I want a ban in place as much as anyone in the House, but I also want to guarantee that it will happen. The Government wanted a commencement date beyond any possible date for a general election and so tabled a two-year delay in implementation. In discussions with Ministers, as my right hon. Friend said, they decided to move their position.
None. I am explaining an issue that we have to resolve in the House, and I am asking the House to listen to my tactical reasons for tabling the amendment.
Ministers have now shifted their position. Their arguments, as I perceive them, are that a delay will lower the political temperature and allow the election to be used by those who are pro-hunting to express their views through their vote. That seems perfectly reasonable. If the electorate want a ban to remain in place, assuming that the Bill is passed, they should vote Labour or, indeed, Liberal Democrat. If they want a Government pledge to overturn the ban, they can work and vote for the Conservatives. It is as simple and straightforward as that, and on that I think Mr. Gray and I are in total agreement. Personally, I do not believe that hunting would, could or should determine the outcome of a general election one way or the other, but trust could, and regrettably the issue of hunting has been caught up as one of those "trust in the Government" cases.
The problem of trust, it seems to me, is that many people in the countryside simply do not trust the Government commitment to the countryside, hunting being one small part of that. Has the hon. Gentleman, at any stage in his capacity as vice-president of the League Against Cruel Sports, had discussions with anyone in the organisation about what will happen if hunting is banned? Will there be a move towards other sports, namely reared shooting and, in turn, fishing?
I have not had discussions about that because we are concentrating on this issue. [Interruption.] There will be organisations outside that want to ban fishing and shooting. It is their right to hold that view, and it is our right to have this debate and vote on the issue, if necessary. However, I can tell the hon. Gentleman that there is virtually no support in this House for a ban on shooting or angling. That being so, why do Conservative Members keep throwing the issue into the debate, as though somehow a ban on hunting is the thin end of the wedge? Organisations outside the House may think that it is; inside, I can tell them, there is no majority in favour of such a ban. Personally, I would support a ban on shooting—let me make that quite clear.
The Prime Minister wanted a two-year delay, and most Labour Members want the Bill as it stands or would, perhaps, accept a one-year delay, but we have compromised, so the Government cannot now say that those of us who want a ban have been unreasonable. Therefore, they cannot even think about delaying Third Reading or, for example, moving a motion on the Floor of the House that the Parliament Act not be used. The Parliament Act is not in the gift of the Government to use, but they certainly have a right, if they wish, to table for debate a motion to the effect that we do not use it. In that case, I would like to listen to the arguments and watch the outcome, but I know that Ministers are not even thinking about that.
If, as expected, the Lords rejects the Bill, we should ask it to consider the delaying proposal. If the House supports my amendment, we will lock the Government into an agreement and they will then willingly see the measure through. The political dilemma then becomes one for the Lords, not this House. The effect of my amendment on hunting would be to allow two more fox hunting seasons, two more deer hunting seasons, one more mink hunting season and two more hare hunting seasons. Hare coursing, of course, would finish early in 2005. I must say that the litany of slaughter that the delay implies does not fill me with joy, nor am I wholly satisfied, but I can just about live with my conscience knowing that a ban will be on the statute book, albeit later than we really wanted.
For what it is worth, my prediction is that even if we carry the Bill and amendment (d) today, the Lords will throw both out, and thus three months after the Bill receives Royal Assent a ban will come into effect—in February or March 2005. I say this seriously: any problems that arise from that will be the responsibility of the Lords alone. If, on the other hand—I doubt that this will happen but I hope that it does—this House and the Lords agree to amendment (d), the hunts will, as my right hon. Friend the Minister has said, have ample time to deal with their animals and change to other pursuits such as drag hunting. It will also mean that although the two Houses did not agree on the principle of the ban, they will have agreed on its implementation date.
On this amendment and on this issue I am asking the House, including some of my colleagues who have been a bit critical of me for tabling the amendment, to trust me—and, after all, why not? I am a Member of Parliament.
The stark, profound and terrible sense of betrayal felt by people in the countryside today will in no sense be assuaged by the Prime Minister's cynical, grubby attempt to bribe them by offering this 18-month stay of execution. The Minister is saying, "You're going to be executed, but don't worry, we'll put it off until next week." People in the countryside will pay no attention to that; nor will their hatred, sadness and anger be in any way assuaged by the grubby little political deal that the right hon. Gentleman is offering us.
We know why the Minister is offering the deal. It has nothing to do with animal welfare, with allowing hunts to wind down or with the 8,000 families who will be thrown into penury as a result of this disgraceful Bill. [Laughter.] Labour Members laugh. They think that it is funny that 8,000 employees will be thrown out of work as a result of the Bill. The countryside does not think that it is funny, and if Labour Members laugh at their plight, that will make people's anger and sadness worse, not better. I appeal to Labour Members' better side: they have won the debate and they are putting 8,000 people out of work. I ask them not to laugh about it and at least to have some sympathy for those people.
I do not think that hon. Members are laughing about the issue of people's employment. It does not help to exaggerate the situation, and if the hon. Gentleman reads the Burns report, which contains a good evaluation of the number of full-time equivalents employed by hunts, he will find that 8,000 is a gross exaggeration.
On the procedures for winding down hunts, I should say that there are many decent people involved in hunting who are already thinking about switching to drag hunting and other alternatives. At the moment, every obstacle is being put in their way. Miss Widdecombe made the good point that now the House has taken its decision, people should focus on the changes that can be made and the help that they can receive in making them.
The hon. Gentleman has not been involved in the debate over the past few years and he has not read the Burns report, so understandably he is unaware that Burns makes two very clear points. First, on the figure of full-time equivalents—
The hon. Gentleman is chuntering from a sedentary position, but I allowed him to make a long intervention. From memory, I think that the figure given by Burns is 6,724 full and part-time jobs, equivalent to 8,000 full-time jobs. [Interruption.] Having won the argument and banned hunting, Labour Members might at least do us the decency of displaying sympathy for people who will be thrown on to the streets, whether there are 6,000 of them or 8,000. The Minister seeks to make a political point and to say that I have got my figures wrong, but many thousands of people will be put into penury as a result of the Bill, and surely a Labour Government could at least show some sympathy for them.
The Minister is also quite wrong about drag hunting. Almost the only clear conclusion that Lord Burns comes to is that in no circumstances could drag hunting be a substitute for fox hunting. He makes that 100 per cent. plain. This constant cry that somehow or other we will convert the 26,000 hounds that currently hunt foxes, deer and mink into drag hounds is a nonsense. I shall return to that point in a moment.
We believe this to be a political deal, and we want no part of it. We are certainly not going to be fooled by it. I also believe that if it was in the Prime Minister's mind to strike a political deal, he has made a significant political miscalculation. Although I entirely decry the scenes that we have seen today—I do not necessarily believe that pro-hunting people were responsible—I believe that the fury and anger of hunting people and their determination to overturn this disgraceful Bill will have a significant effect in marginal Labour seats in the forthcoming general election. Mr. Banks is right that hunting will not be an issue in the general election—there are not many votes on either side, because most antis vote Labour and most pros vote Conservative. However, about 1 million people feel incredibly strongly about this issue, and they will target Labour seats with majorities of less than 3,000. I believe that what the Government have done today will have a very significant effect indeed on the general election for that reason. Many Members here will find that their constituencies are canvassed six, eight or 10 times by supporters of hunting, irrespective of what their political allegiances may be.
Almost to a person, Labour Members in marginal rural constituencies and with hunts in their constituencies want a ban at the earliest possible time. With regard to voting, the Countryside Alliance and those that generally support it would not vote for my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister or the Labour party if we brought back witch burning and public executions and handed out free cider while they were watching.
I am delighted for the hon. Gentleman and hope that his hon. Friends are as confident as he sounds. If he is right, that is fine. However, the picture will be extremely plain in the forthcoming general election: this Government have banned hunting; a Conservative Government will be committed to reintroduce hunting with a free vote on both sides of the House. The 1 million people who care passionately about hunting will not necessarily wish to discuss it during the general election campaign, but one thing is for sure—they will put their shoulders to the Conservative wheel to ensure that we throw out this illiberal Labour Government and bring in a free Conservative Government.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The whole House knows that we shall rise tomorrow. In the past 24 hours some very alarming news has reached Members concerning the future and security of the motor industry in the west Midlands. Will you use your good offices to ask the Secretary of State to come to the Dispatch Box before the House rises so that Members with an interest in the midlands motor industry can put questions to her?
There is still time for the hon. Gentleman to use the procedures available to him to seek to raise that matter. He could submit an application to Mr. Speaker that will no doubt receive his serious consideration.
I agree with that point of order.
Does Mr. Gray agree that if Members of Parliament refused to vote for what they believe in because they were frightened of losing their seats that would reflect very badly on the House as a whole? If my hon. Friends and I trembled at his words, we would have no integrity and would be abandoning what we believe to be right.
The hon. Gentleman speaks for himself. I suspect that listening carefully to what voters in one's constituency are thinking and doing is an extremely important part of democracy. He is right that some Members of Parliament will ignore their constituents and do something that they do not like, but they will have to face the consequences.
It is important to examine very carefully the precise justification that the Minister advanced for the 18-month delay. Of course, we welcome that as far as it goes, because we would rather have a ban in 18 months than in 12 months. However, it shows a complete ignorance of the way in which hunting works. The average hound has a working life of at least seven years, sometimes much longer—some can hunt until they are 10 or 15. The Minister said that it is disgraceful that some of these animals are destroyed at the end of their working lives. All large working dogs, including police alsatians, have a working life of about seven years. Many are rehomed, but by no means all. A great many large working dogs of all kinds, including farm dogs and police dogs, are put down humanely at the end of their working lives.
The rather bizarre report produced by the all-party group on animal welfare suggests that there are alternative uses for these dogs, of which there may be 30,000, 40,000 or 50,000 across England—26,000 fox hounds and a large number of other working dogs. What is going to happen to them? In the report, the RSPCA suggests that it might be possible to rehome them. Some of these dogs are extremely large—perhaps the height of the Table—and extremely powerful. They are used to living in kennels in the company of 80, 100 or 120 other hounds. The idea that they could be removed individually and rehomed in domestic circumstances is ludicrous, as anyone who has ever encountered a working fox hound from a kennel will know. It would be cruel to take it away and put it in someone's front lounge, and it is not a sensible option.
The report also suggests retraining the hounds for drag hunting. If a pack of hounds has been trained to chase the scent of a fox, a deer or a mink, it is impossible to imagine their somehow being retrained to hunt a bag of aniseed. Even if it were possible, what would happen when they were out on their day's drag hunting and came across a fox? Under the Bill, we do not know whether intent to kill a fox is the crime; indeed, we do not know what the offence of hunting is. One of the scandals of the way in which it has been handled is that there has been no definition of hunting or of who is doing it—is it the master, the whippers-in, people two fields away, or a passing tourist who happens to see what is going on? We do not know and the Bill does not tell us: the courts will have to examine that.
If, as the report suggests, fox hounds are to be reused, let us imagine that all 26,000 were reused as drag hounds—a ludicrous suggestion, but let us imagine it nevertheless. If they accidentally kill a fox, a deer or a mink in the course of their normal day's drag hunting, is that an offence? The Minister might like to enlighten us, because it is not clear from the Bill.
It is odd that the report ignores the submission by the British Veterinary Association, which knows what it is talking about and which concludes that it would not be possible to rehome or to retrain these animals and that the only way to deal with such a substantial number would be humanely to kill them at the end of their working lives.
There is no question but that the Bill will result in the deaths of perhaps 30,000, 40,000 or 50,000 dogs as soon as it comes in. I welcome the 18-month delay in the sense that action can be taken with regard to breeding, and it may be wound down. However, a great many young puppies—the new entry, as we call it—will have come in this summer and may have seven or 10 years ahead of them. When I was out autumn hunting last week, a 13-year-old hound was hunting. Those young hounds may have 13 years ahead of them, and the 18-month delay will have no effect on them.
The same applies to many horses. They can more easily be reused for hacking, but many lower-grade horses are kept exclusively for hunting. Almost certainly, the capital value of hunters will collapse as a result of the ban; that in itself has some welfare consequences.
Does my hon. Friend agree that not only low-grade horses but many thoroughbreds are unsuitable for hacking? I have a thoroughbred—a retired racehorse—[Laughter.] I do not know why that is funny. I happen to love horses—obviously Labour Members do not. I am lucky to have a retired racehorse, with which I hunt. He would not make a comfortable hack. When there is no use for horses like that, there may be no permanent use for them in riding schools.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. The Horse and Pony Taxation Committee, which I chaired until recently, and several other horse organisations that have no position on hunting, made it plain that a collapse in the value of horses will occur as a result of a ban. That will have some welfare consequences, although fewer than those for hounds.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way on that point, although he declined to do so earlier when he turned 6,700 full and part-time people into the equivalent of 8,000 full-time people. Perhaps he can explain the arithmetic of that to me in the bar afterwards.
On the economics that he is currently considering, does he accept that most assessors suggest that when equestrian activity is detached from the taint of hunting, more people will want to ride and be involved, and the number of jobs will therefore grow by more than the 600 or 700 direct jobs that may be lost when the hunts disappear?
The hon. Gentleman suggests that there is some value in delaying the Bill's implementation because that will benefit the 6,000 to 8,000 people who will lose their jobs. He argues that that is somehow progressive. For clarity, I shall quote paragraph 18 of the Burns report, which states:
"We estimate that somewhere between 6,000 and 8,000 full-time equivalent jobs presently depend on hunting, although the number of people involved may be significantly higher."
I do not intend to get into a backwards-and-forwards discussion with the hon. Gentleman, because even if the figure were 50 people or 10 people it would be a matter of concern to the House. Many people will lose their livelihoods as a result of what has happened today.
David Taylor argued that the horse industry would somehow grow as a result of a ban on hunting. No evidence exists to suggest that that would happen. The most recent DEFRA-commissioned report—the Henley report—mentioned the deleterious effect that the ban on hunting would have on the horse industry. There is no suggestion that a ban would increase the amount of horse riding for other purposes.
Before the Minister intervenes, I want to make it plain that, although I am happy to take a brief intervention on the number of jobs, the significant point is that it will be a large number. If he stands up, cites some other paragraph in the Burns report and says that the figure is "only 5,700", that would be an irrelevant intervention. Whatever the figure—5,700, 6,700, 10,000 or 300—the number of people is significant. With that caveat, I am happy to give way.
The hon. Gentleman has pre-empted me; I have the figures. According to Burns's figures, hunts directly employ 710 people—I refer the hon. Gentleman to paragraph 3.37. Followers directly employ 1,497 people. I do not know how many of those people do other things. Of course, there are others—up to 5,000 is the figure provided—who have some connection with the hunt. That does not necessarily mean that all those people will lose their jobs. I do not play down the matter. There is an employment issue, and we should face up to it. However, it does not help to exaggerate the position. Far more people than those mentioned in the Burns report lost their jobs in the steel industry in my constituency alone.
I warned the Minister that I did not intend to enter into a backwards-and-forwards discussion on numbers because the figures are plain: many people will lose their livelihoods as a result of the Bill. However, the end of the Minister's intervention was interesting. He sought to make fun of my comments about numbers—we could argue about that; it is an interesting academic subject—but he finished by saying, "Anyhow, lots of jobs were lost in the steel industry." One or two other hon. Members said earlier, "You never said that about the miners when Thatcher threw them out." Revenge is therefore all right. I do not accept that.
We are discussing implementation of the measure and whether an 18-month delay will be useful. The many thousands of people—I suspect that it will be tens of thousands if we include saddlers, farriers and others who are involved—that the Bill affects will not be helped by the 18-month delay. That is the substantive point.
In some senses, the Minister's intervention helps the hon. Gentleman and me to make the case, which the Government previously rejected, for compensation. Both he and I believe that, if the measure is to be implemented, those who are affected should be compensated, just as other communities were helped through regeneration funds when there was a decline in the steel industry.
We were prevented from discussing compensation because of the House's inability to consider the measure in detail. We spoke about it at some length during the previous Bill's passage. The Government ignored it and the Minister for Rural Affairs and Local Environmental Quality told me across the Dispatch Box that those who lost their jobs could go to the jobcentre the same as anybody else. However, when the Government abolished fur farming—about which the Labour party took a similar principled stance to that on hunting—they introduced compensation for the fur farmers who lost their jobs. They should do the same in the case that we are considering, which we do not have an opportunity to discuss.
Order. We have moved further and further away from the amendment. I encourage hon. Members to come back to the terms of the motion and amendment; otherwise, there will certainly be no time to discuss all the matters that they wish to raise.
The measure affects not only the people who will lose their jobs but the farmers who will have 500,000 carcases, most of which currently go to hunts, a year to dispose of, the hunts, who will have the problem of what to do with their hounds, the fox population, which will explode as a direct result of the ban, and game shooting, poultry and sheep farming. It is interesting that, under the Bill as drafted, people are allowed to use terriers underground to save game shooting. That is considered acceptable. However, someone who uses terriers underground to save the 380,000 lambs a year that foxes kill will go to prison. Someone who uses terriers underground to save poultry farming, which suffers terrible depredations from foxes, will go to prison. Terriers may be used underground only to save game shooting. I welcome that, but it shows the absurdity of the detail of the Bill. The 18-month delay will not help.
The consequences of implementation in three months or 12 months—and immediate implementation for hare coursing, on which I shall not expand except to say that I do not agree with the Government's argument—are too horrible to contemplate from almost every perspective.
The Government's cynical offer of a delay is an insult to the intelligence of country people. We know why the Minister made the offer: to avoid too bad a backlash in the approaching general election. It has nothing to do with animal welfare. It will assuage neither our fury nor our determination by one whit. I urge hon. Members to accept the proposal for a delay of 18 months, but it would have been better to accept our five-year proposal, which would have taken good account of the animal welfare consequences of the delay.
Those who believe in freedom and tolerance and love the countryside will devote every ounce of their strength to removing the illiberal Labour Government who have ruined their lives in the sure and certain knowledge that an incoming Conservative Government will introduce a Bill to repeal the damaging, illiberal and disgraceful measure.
I am delighted that, once again, the House of Commons has voted by an overwhelming majority in favour of a Bill to ban hunting. I have been a lifelong opponent of hunting and my opposition was reinforced before Christmas last year when I saw a fox being torn apart by hounds of the Beaufort hunt just off the public highway.
I want to refer particularly to the human rights aspects of the commencement date, in support of the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend Mr. Banks. Hon. Members will know that I chair the Joint Committee on Human Rights. As part of its scrutiny process, the Committee—which does not have a Government majority—has to put aside political views and be guided solely by legal advice on the compatibility of provisions proposed in legislation with the European convention on human rights and other international instruments.
In this regard, it is important to remember that article 1 of protocol No. 1 of the European convention, which we have incorporated into domestic law, states:
"Every natural or legal person is entitled to the quiet enjoyment of his possessions. No one shall be deprived of his possessions except in the public interest and subject to the conditions provided for by law and by the general principles of international law."
Let us face it—banning hunting does interfere with property rights, in terms of the use of private land and the ownership and management of hounds, for example. In the Government's correspondence with the Committee, the Government advanced two propositions. One was that a total prohibition of hunting amounted only to a control on property, rather than a deprivation of it. The Joint Committee on Human Rights agreed with that.
The Government went on to assert that a prohibition would result only in a control on the benefit of contracts relating to hunting. Such contracts include the employment contracts to which several hon. Members have referred, and contracts undertaken by people who provide goods and services. The Joint Committee on Human Rights disagreed with that proposition on contracts that had already been entered into, for a number of reasons. The first was that there was no history of progressive legislative restriction of hunting with dogs over a long period in this country. The second was that there had been no announcement by the Government that they intended to legislate in a particular way. The third was that a legitimate expectation cannot be lost because the Government are consulting on possible future legislation. After all, the first Bill offered three options, only one of which involved a complete ban. Fourthly, there was no certainty about the content of any future Bill, and, fifthly, there was no certainty that the Parliament Acts would be used if necessary.
One does not have to be an aficionado of "The Archers" to know that the people involved in hunting never believed that this day would come; one has only to go outside the House today. The Joint Committee on Human Rights therefore concluded that the Government had not publicly advanced such a clear policy of banning hunting that people should automatically lose the legitimate expectation that their contracts would be effective and enforceable. In short, we need to give notice. The question is: how long should that notice period be, and to what purposes should it be put?
I am listening to the right hon. Lady's argument with great care. She mentioned earlier that one of the considerations involved was the public interest. Will she tell us how the public interest will be served by making criminals of ordinary, decent, law-abiding folk who wish quietly to participate in their country pursuits?
There is nothing in this Bill that will turn anyone into a criminal. People will become criminals if they decide to disobey the law.
What would be a reasonable commencement date? What would be a reasonable period for people with contracts related to hunting to make alternative arrangements? The hunting season has started, and it is evident that people have made financial and employment commitments to cover this season. I would suggest that it would be reasonable to allow this season to proceed and to allow one further hunting season. That would enable people—if they wish, and if they are sensible—to consider alternatives such as drag hunting. It would also enable the people employed in hunting, whatever their numbers, to look for other work, and enable those who provide goods and services to find other markets, as we are urging them to do.
No, I am sorry, I will not.
Whatever happens, there will be an election before 31 July 2006, which is the date referred to in the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham. The Countryside Alliance has said that 59 per cent. of people support hunting, but I have never accepted or believed that figure. The important thing is, however, that if the alliance thinks that the British people feel that it has right on its side, it will have the opportunity, as part of the democratic process at the general election, to advance that argument. It might succeed, although I doubt it very much. We shall see. It is up to the people outside today, the people who are used always to having the law on their side, to recognise the will of Parliament.
No, I will not.
In my opinion, and according to most opinion polls, the majority of people in this country are opposed to hunting. Even if they were not, I am opposed to it—if the majority of people in this country were in favour of capital punishment, I would still be opposed to it—and I have to say what I think is right. I do not think that what I saw the Beaufort hunt hounds doing to that fox before Christmas last year has any place in a civilised society.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am sorry to raise a matter that is slightly outside the scope of this debate, but it touches directly on the rights and duties of Members of Parliament. There is, as you know, a demonstration going on outside. Members of Parliament have a right to observe what is going on, partly to ensure that disproportionate force is not being used by the police and also to ensure that their constituents can be apprised of the facts.
I was seeking to walk from St. Stephen's entrance to Carriage Gates when I was stopped by a police sergeant. I asked him by what authority he had stopped me, and a discussion followed. He then cited the Sessional Orders and the commissioner's regulations. I do not believe that either of those entitles a policeman to stop a member of the public or a Member for Parliament proceeding along that highway. The police have no right to do anything that is not authorised by statute, by common law or by the regulations of this House. I was therefore prevented from doing something that I feel is my duty. I ask you to ask Mr. Speaker whether he will raise this matter directly with the commissioner. This has happened to me twice today, as well as on previous occasions. It is wrong in principle, and I believe that the police are overusing their powers. I hope that the Chair will look into this matter.
Incidentally, the sergeant in question was courteous. I took his name and he has mine, and I shall be writing to the commissioner, but I make no complaint about the way in which the sergeant handled himself. I am merely concerned that the way in which the rules are being interpreted is wrong.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. May I also put on record the fact that I, too, had some difficulty with the police when seeking to get back here to vote during one of the earlier Divisions today? Furthermore, a number of other hon. Members, including Mr. Mitchell, have had difficulties with police officers today. I sent an e-mail to the Serjeant at Arms yesterday asking him to ensure that the Metropolitan Police Commissioner made it clear to his officers that Members of Parliament should have access to the protesters outside and be able to get back to the House. I am sorry to say that, despite the Serjeant at Arms's reassurances that the police had been alerted to my request, it appears that, in too many instances, they had not. This is not a satisfactory state of affairs.
Order. I think that sufficient has been said on this matter, bearing in mind the overall time situation. Mr. Hogg and Mr. Howarth have raised a serious matter, and I am sure that Mr. Speaker will seek to find out exactly what happened. On the one hand, this House obviously places extreme importance on its Sessional Orders and on freedom of access. At the same time, however, there was clearly a very difficult situation outside. The interpretation of our rights might, therefore, have been dealt with more narrowly than right hon. and hon. Members would find ideal, although I do not know the exact circumstances. The matter has been put on record, and Mr. Speaker will discuss it with the Serjeant at Arms and, if necessary, further afield, to check exactly what the situation is.
I intend to be brief. On the date for the commencement of this legislation, Mr. Banks knows well that I have signed his amendment and I encourage and support the principle that the Government have ultimately adopted in proposing to delay the implementation of this Bill. Clearly, that amendment recognises that it would be most appropriate for implementation of the Bill to be introduced during the close season for fox hunting. It would be inappropriate to implement it not long after cubbing has been completed and the winter season for fox hunting commenced, which would otherwise be the case.
I want to make two other points on the commencement date. The first, to which Mr. Gray referred obliquely, is in respect of the animal by-products order and the responsibility of Government and the agricultural sector to ensure that all fallen stock are disposed of within the regulation. As the Minister knows well, the Government have been wrestling with this issue for far longer than they would wish before finally announcing the establishment of a national fallen stock collection scheme. I know that an announcement has been made, but many farmers are concerned about its effective implementation.
As the hon. Member for North Wiltshire pointed out correctly, a large number of those fallen stock are taken to hunt kennels, which provide a valuable service to the Government through the services that they provide to the agricultural sector. When the Minister winds up, or at some later stage of the debate, it would be helpful if he would clarify that the Government have a further 18 months in which to find alternatives or—
The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. I was not planning to wind up in order to allow Members more time, but I will answer his point directly. A number of hunts have contracted within the fallen stock collection scheme. It is a contractual arrangement—a business—about which we are very relaxed. Whatever future decisions hunts make, if they wish to continue with that contract and provide that service, which provides employment now for hunt workers, they are free to do so.
I am grateful to the Minister for that clarification. He must anticipate that, as a result of the passing of this Bill, further adjustment will be needed among a large number of hunts if they do not intend to continue with kennels either through drag hunting or other means. I hope that the Government will work closely with those who currently provide that service through hunts to ensure that the agricultural sector is given that support.
The second point on the date of commencement, which was raised on Report and Third Reading last year by me and many other Members from all parties, is that a precipitous decision to implement such a measure would have a significant impact on small rural communities, even if it is on only a few of them. The case was therefore made for a compensation package, which was supported by Members on both sides of the House. That was refused, and although it has been debated obliquely today, I hope that the Minister and his Department, as they negotiate on how this measure is to be implemented, will reflect on whether their decision not to provide compensation is appropriate. If the Minister is right, and the numbers affected are small, the overall cost to taxpayers is also likely to be low. I therefore hope that careful consideration will be given to resolving those issues over the next 18 months, and that the decision not to apply a compensation package will be reviewed.
My right hon. Friend Jean Corston said that she thought that the Countryside Alliance believed that it would never see this day. I understand that—there were times during the past 12 to 18 months when I thought that I, and those who wish to see hunting with dogs come to an end, would never see this day, too. There were times—I say this without hesitation—when it seemed that the Government were not going to act. That was the greatest fear in my mind. Obviously, Opposition Members, who take the opposite view, wish that that were the case.
My concern was that the Government considered that such a Bill would cause too much controversy, which to some extent it has, and that it would be an obstacle before the general election. That is why I and my hon. Friends, at business questions, Prime Minister's questions and Upstairs—giving no secrets away—at meetings of the parliamentary Labour party, urged that the Parliament Act should be used. If it is said that I was one of those whom the Prime Minister would want to please because of the stance on Iraq, that cannot apply to me because I fully supported him on that issue. Likewise, as I have indicated in an intervention, none of my hon. Friends who took an opposite view on Iraq will change their mind because of what is being done. Therefore, the conspiracy theories are just damn silly.
I could argue that there should be no further delay. Nevertheless, I support the amendment of my hon. Friend Mr. Banks. Indeed, when it was known that the Government were going to delay implementation for two years and there were arguments as to whether we should press for one year, in those private conversations—which are not so private now that I mention them—I took the view that we should be more accommodating. When my hon. Friend proposed the amendment giving the date of
Surely, the important point is that the country will have an opportunity to express its view. Were this being debated some two or three years before a general election, it could be argued that the public would not have such an opportunity for many years ahead. However, even if the election is in 2006—it is likely to be before that—the electorate will have an opportunity. If the Opposition are correct and there is such a feeling among people, apart from those who are protesting, that what we are doing is unreasonable and wrong, clearly we will suffer electorally. We live in a democracy. I do not know how many Members believe that we will suffer at the next election because of what we are doing today. Who knows? I do not happen to believe that we will.
There may well be those opposite who do not believe what I am about to say. I am very keen to be re-elected, but even if I thought that I would suffer at the next election I would take the same view. The same applied to my views on capital punishment and my support for legislation to outlaw discrimination on grounds of race and colour. That was not very popular, even among a number of people who normally voted Labour, but I took a stance—along with others; I am not just praising myself—and accepted the consequences at the general election.
Does the hon. Gentleman understand that good democracy is not simply the tyranny of a majority? If the principle that he expounds had been applied to Northern Ireland, we would never have seen the progress that we have seen over the past few years. That has been due to a recognition that certain things must be based on a broadly consensual mood. Steps cannot be taken just because a certain section of the population is in the ascendant.
You would take me to task, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if I pursued the subject of Northern Ireland, in which I take a close interest. I see no possibility of comparison between the position of the majority and minority communities in Northern Ireland and what we are debating today. I think that that is totally irrelevant.
The issue, as I see it, is clear. Either the will of the elected Chamber will be upheld, or there will be a permanent veto by the House of Lords. There is no middle way: even the Prime Minister would not argue that there is a third way in this case. I see democracy as the right of a majority in the House of Commons to make decisions. Those decisions might be wrong. During my party's 18 years in opposition, I considered most of the decisions that were made to be wrong. It was, however, the right of the majority in the House to make them, and the electorate's right to decide accordingly at the appropriate time. It was not for the House of Lords to have a permanent veto.
Those who argue today that they are acting from the point of view of parliamentary democracy are, in effect, saying that we have no right to uphold a decision that was carried in the last and the present Parliaments, on a free vote by a substantial majority, if the House of Lords repeatedly says no. I do not agree with that interpretation of democracy. We have a right to have our decisions upheld. It is commendable that the Government have had the courage—or will have the courage, if the House of Lords refuses to change its mind—to invoke the Parliament Act. I think that that is the right decision and that most, if not all, Labour Members are very pleased about what the Government have done.
Today is 15 September. In our annual calendar, that is Battle of Britain day, held to celebrate the fleet of Royal Air Force pilots who stood between us and tyranny. If they fought for liberty 64 years ago we are fighting for liberty today, and against the tyranny of the majority. It is a squalid Bill, made even more squalid by the manner in which the Government have sought to introduce the timetable.
The Prime Minister clearly wanted a two-year delay because otherwise he would face the prospect of opposition in the countryside next year. That would have spoilt his plans for the general election. I am afraid that I have no time for the Minister. He has given in to his hon. Friend Mr. Banks, not because his hon. Friend has found a unique point in the calendar that would be better than the precise date of two years hence, but because he knows that if his hon. Friend's amendment were put to the vote it would be carried. Once again, he has given in supinely to the mob force on the other side who wish to tyrannise a small group of people, to whom I shall refer again shortly.
I do not believe that this is an issue about employment. I used to represent a coal mining constituency not far from that of David Winnick, and I well know that people have lost their jobs in other areas of our national life. That is to be regretted. I believe, though, that this is an issue simply of liberty—of people's entitlement to pursue activities that they believe they should be able to pursue in a free society.
Last weekend, when I visited the constituency of Mr. Beith in Northumberland, I met members of the College Valley hunt. Some of them had been down to Trimdon to have words with the Prime Minister and give him some advice about this. The Prime Minister apparently told them that he was sympathetic, but could do nothing about it because he had to listen to his Back Benchers. What a pathetic cop-out by the Prime Minister. Does it not reveal what a weak man he is? This is a man who has got to listen to his Back Benchers on the important issue of hunting, but did he listen to his Back Benchers on the issue of Iraq? He certainly did not—he overrode them.
This Bill is the raw meat that the Prime Minister is giving to his Back Benchers The people who are to be sacrificed on the altar of Labour party unity to defend him against an increasingly disenchanted party are those in the most remote rural communities.
The hon. Gentleman says that this is all about liberty. He has supported many measures in the House that have curbed certain people's freedoms, on which he and I might agree; but if the will of Parliament and Government so decides, in a civilised society the House of Commons must decide what people can and cannot do.
Of course there are occasions on which we have to decide between competing freedoms. My point is that this measure is not based on the public interest. I challenged Jean Corston to say where the public interest lay in this ban, but she could give no answer. I also believe that the motives for the Bill are ill founded, whereas in the case of other issues I think there can be genuine differences in the interpretation of how liberty should be exercised.
I believe that this should be the place where the interests of minorities are protected, and that those who now seek to impose their views on rural communities should examine their consciences very deeply. On what grounds do they assert a superior moral authority to turn into criminals some of the most decent and law-abiding people in these islands? Is it because their activity represents a danger to other members of society? Emphatically not. Is it because they inflict intolerable suffering on animals, as my right hon. Friend Miss Widdecombe seems so misguidedly to assert?
Hardly, as many of them are the same people who 365 days a year, day and night and in all weathers, look after the animals in their charge and tend the countryside to make it a place to be enjoyed by the remaining 95 per cent. of the population.
Many members of my family in Scotland are sheep farmers in the borders. My late uncle was master of the Jed Forest hunt. These are people who are the greatest animal lovers in the country. How dare my right hon. Friend suggest that my uncle's judgment was somehow inferior to hers? I think she needs to examine her conscience.
Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman. I have given him considerable latitude. I understand the frustration of Members on both sides of the House who were denied an opportunity to speak on Second Reading, but I must uphold order. We are now dealing with a motion and an amendment, rather than with the substance of the Bill.
As ever, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I am grateful for your guidance. I am merely trying to explain why I think it intolerable that the Government should behave in such an underhand fashion in seeking to extend the period of execution. In my view, that is not being done out of a desire to assist rural communities; it is being done out of a desire to minimise the disruption that might be caused during a period leading up to a general election next year. I think that the Government have failed to deal with the issue of cruelty, and I think it a shame that we have not had more opportunity to ask the hon. Member for West Ham whether he considers hunting with hounds more cruel than coarse fishing—which, on any scale of cruelty, I submit would appear to be more cruel.
The fact is that rural communities will be feeling tonight that they are under siege from a large majority, represented by Government Members, who have no feel for the countryside or their way of life. They have 18 months in which to prepare for a fundamental change. The hunt is part of the social glue that maintains the cohesion of communities in some of the most remote parts of England and Wales—communities for whom the hunt is the only social activity in dark winters. These people face the prospect of a central part of their way life being taken from them. It is grossly unfair that the majority should seek to inflict their views on the minority in this way.
We will all doubtless agree that the hallmark of a free society is tolerance towards those whose opinions one does not share. If this Bill goes through tonight, with or without this amendment, Britain will have surrendered its claim to be a bastion of the free society. The mob will have taken over and the Prime Minister will be party to the intolerable imposition of the tyranny of the majority on the minority.
You will be delighted to hear, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I shall confine my remarks entirely to the delay in implementation. I am not persuaded by the merits of an 18-month delay or the original two-year delay. I started off with a genuinely open mind. I listened very carefully to the Minister and initially I was impressed. The delay was about being kinder to the hounds, because it would provide more time to re-home them. It would also be fairer to organisations such as the RSPCA, which would have more time to re-home them.
Having listened very carefully to those arguments, I began to be persuaded. But when I asked the central question—which animal welfare organisations are in favour of such a delay?—Mr. Banks said, "None". If there truly were compelling reasons of animal welfare, which I was prepared to entertain, for a delay of 18 months, it is inconceivable that animal welfare organisations—I am not talking about animal rights organisations—would not support such a delay.
The second reason for my not being persuaded concerns the crucial question—I raised it earlier—of how to ensure that the period of delay is used to run down hunts and make an orderly transition, rather than as a period of grace. It was clear from the answer given that although the Minister was seized of the point, there would be no monitoring of the situation.
I am very grateful to the right hon. Lady for raising some serious points. I have discussed this issue with the animal welfare organisations. Understandably, bodies that have campaigned against hunting for many years cannot say that they are pleased with any delay, but they also pointed out that their main concern is that legislation be put in place. If MPs agree to such a delay, those organisations will accept it, move on and work with it, and emphasise the fact that legislation is coming.
On the second point, I have talked to organisations in areas in which there might be an impact on employment, for example. We are more than willing to meet people halfway and to help them—if they are willing to look at how they can re-order their activities for a period after a ban has come in. We are certainly willing to enter into that very positively.
I am sure that, where organisations are willing to make the change, the Government will be willing to help—at least, I sincerely hope so—but my question was rather different. It was: how do we ensure that the period is used to bring about change, and not simply as a prolongation of hunting? My hunch is that the first year of an 18-month delay will prove to be a period of grace. After all, if a hunt starts to run down—if kennel-hands find other jobs, horses are disposed of and hounds are not replaced—eventually, it will become a pretty ineffective hunt. I do not see hunts spinning that out over 18 months, so I am not entirely persuaded by that argument.
There is also the argument mounted by the hon. Member for West Ham and others, whereby a delay until July 2006 will take us beyond any possible date of an election, which will enable pro-hunting people to make their views known at the ballot box. However, we have had two elections at which the Labour party's position on this issue has been made extremely clear, so there have already been two opportunities to decide on that basis at the ballot box, if this issue was really considered the overriding one. I cannot see the sense in the Government's then saying, having got through two such elections and having implemented a manifesto promise to such an extent that even the Parliament Act is invoked, "Ah but—we'll have a referendum on the issue in the general election." That, too, is nonsense.
I suspect that the real reason in all this is that the Prime Minister does not want the embarrassment of this issue being high on the agenda, with hunts being run down and kennels being closed, just before he is likely to call—as opposed to being obliged to call—a general election.
I am sorry that I am picking on the hon. Member for West Ham today, because he has been a great comrade in arms during this battle, but I have to point out that I was finally unpersuaded of the argument for a delay when he said that, as a result of this pseudo-deal—he stopped just short of calling it a deal—we can guarantee that the Prime Minister and other Ministers will not suddenly move that the Parliament Act be not invoked after all. In fact, that is what this is all about. It is another deal between the Prime Minister and his Back Benchers. I see no reason why I should troop into the Lobby in support of that, so I remain deeply unpersuaded.
There are all sorts of characterisations that one can offer of political discussion within and outside parties. The point is that organisations such as the Countryside Alliance have almost encouraged their members to think that there will never be a ban on hunting, or that it is somehow okay to carry on with such activities, even if legislation is passed. The real challenge is for us—by "us" I mean the House and my party—to point out that we are being reasonable, but that they must come halfway. They must persuade their members to accept the fact that legislation is being passed in this House by a large majority, stop talking about how terrible it all is—some dreadful rhetoric has been used—and get their members to listen to the debates in this House. That is a reasonable approach, and I seek to re-persuade the right hon. Lady—
I am rather sorry that we will not be voting on the amendment standing in the name of Sir Gerald Kaufman, which proposed a year's delay. I could have accepted that as a reasonable period in which to do everything that the Minister is suggesting, such as demonstrating reasonableness and giving people time to adjust. A delay of 18 months is pretty cynical and politically driven, and I am not certain that I can vote in favour of it. That said, I shall listen carefully to any further arguments that are deployed.
The time has now come to bite the bullet. We have spent a very long time getting this ban, and it has been a long, hard fight. I had a great deal of sympathy for Mr. McNamara when he said today that he felt that in these, his last years in Parliament, he has brought something to fruition. I well remember, back in the days when we were in government, what was then called the "McNamara Bill". It was instrumental in testing parliamentary opinion, and in working towards the eventual commitment given by Labour Front Benchers.
Given that we have decided to do this, my wish is that we do it quickly. I could be persuaded that three months is too short a period, but 18 months is far too long.
We have a first tonight, in that I agree with something that my right hon. Friend Miss Widdecombe said on this issue. She was right to say that the 18-month delay is a cynical move to take us beyond the next general election and prevent demonstrations from happening during the campaign. Another bit of marvellous spin from the Government—the suggestion that the delay was to give the hunting fraternity the opportunity to express their view at the ballot box—absolutely defies belief.
I am remiss in not having declared my entry in the Register of Members' Interests.
Another thing that struck me about the 18 months is that one particular sport was left out of the equation. Why do foxhounds and beagles need that winding-up period, but not the sport of coursing? I know what the Minister has said about illegal coursing, but that is a fig leaf, because coursing has precisely the same contracts and arrangements as fox and stag hunting and beagling.
Jean Corston was right to refer to human rights legislation. The Minister is shaking his head, but he should listen. One reason why the delay was perceived to be necessary was that, as the Joint Committee on Human Rights said, it would be unreasonable to wrap up hunting in three months, because there are contracts and so on.
The Committee said no such thing, and I suggest that the hon. Gentleman look at what it did say. I have twice made the point—the trouble is that people are not here for the whole of the debate—that there is serious criminal activity associated with hare coursing. Illegal coursing is conducted simply on the basis of trespass, and we need to give the police the tools to do the job. None of the welfare and business considerations apply in relation to hare coursing. I have made that very clear.
The Minister makes it clear that he knows absolutely nothing about legal coursing. He is utterly wrong. Of course there is a problem with illegal coursing, but legal coursing is our oldest field sport and is organised and run under the rules of the National Coursing Club. To lump legal with illegal coursers is utterly wrong. The Government's proposals will be in breach of human rights legislation, and I sincerely hope that lawyers for the Countryside Alliance are poring over what the Minister said today.
Is my hon. Friend aware that there are coursing kennels in my constituency that employ about three people—large kennels—and all the people working there have contracts? Incidentally, because the coursing that takes place from those kennels is supervised and follows the rules, it prevents illegal coursing.
That is absolutely right. The whole point of organised coursing is that it is run carefully under the rules, and the estates and farms involved are protected from poaching. That is why the Game Conservancy Trust consistently finds that estates and farms where coursing take place have a higher hare population than others.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the technical points that he is making seem to have been lost on those who are imposing this time limit? Similar problems occur in areas where hunting with dogs is the primary fox control method, because not only will new materials have to be used to control foxes but there will have to be fresh training and adaptation. Lord Burns himself said that fox hunting with dogs was the primary method of control in some areas.
I am trying to follow the hon. Gentleman, and I think that I agree with him.
Illegal coursing has long been a problem. The current laws that apply to it are quite draconian, involving the confiscation of vehicles and so on. They are not always enforced, and they are difficult to police. That is not an excuse, though, for saying that the ancient sport of legal coursing will be wiped out in three months' time, and the contracts with trainers and with merchants for feed, and the capital put into the kennels to train the coursing dogs, will be totally disregarded. If anything will be against the human rights legislation, that will be it, and the Minister may well face a challenge on it.
Is not the point that people will give up working for hunts if they have this 18-month rundown, and they will then no longer have a claim for compensation against this ghastly and illiberal legislation?
Precisely. If they are working as kennel hands or in the coursing training yards, they will be out of work in three months without compensation.
The Minister spoke about the number of deer being killed by hounds. Once again, he perpetuates a myth that has long surrounded stag hunting, not recognising that the stag is shot at the end, and not killed by the hounds. I want to be sure, before he wipes out stag hunting, that he at least knows what goes on in the sport.
The other fig leaf produced tonight was drag hunting—as if that was a substitute for the hunting that goes on now. My constituency has seven packs of hounds—it is precisely the kind of upland area with a high livestock population that my hon. Friend Mr. Howarth mentioned. The proportion of people following those hounds on horseback is probably a third. Another third follow on foot or in vehicles, and the rest—largely farmers and their children—on quad bikes, which have become very popular. Drag hunting holds no interest for two thirds of the people who currently follow hounds.
Hunting is an equestrian sport, so it has to be laid out in a particular way. I have taken part in that, and I am sure that my hon. Friend Mr. Bellingham would also understand this. The drag must not run over crops. It is a difficult and complex job, and by no means could all those who currently hunt and the 26,000 hounds be accommodated. Normally, only a handful of hounds go on a drag hunt. Many of them are drafted from foxhound packs, which of course understand the scent of foxes, and they could well end up going after a fox. Drag hunting cannot replace the work of 26,000 hounds.
Even if we give them 18 months, it will be impossible for most hunts to acclimatise their hounds to living in a new, almost semi-domestic situation. Hounds have a strict pecking order, with lead hounds, like a wild pack of dogs. Hounds put in twos or threes become extremely disorientated and often do a lot of damage to their kennels through frustration, and they become extremely unhappy. That is why so many vets think that the kindest thing to do will be to hunt the hounds for the final 18 months and then have them put down—a point that my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald has made.
This is a cynical Bill, the last knockings of the old Labour class prejudice. Nowadays, new Labour tries to cloak this as an animal welfare issue, but it is nothing of the sort: it is good, old-fashioned class prejudice.
I am delighted to follow Mr. Atkinson and my general committee will be delighted to hear that I am now a member of old Labour. [Interruption.] I hear shouts of "Tory gain", but they were the same shouts that I heard before the 2001 election. I will face my electorate with a very clear conscience after taking this issue forward.
The hon. Gentleman referred to my right hon. Friend Jean Corston, who spoke about the European Court of Human Rights and whether the Bill could face a challenge. She made it clear that, if the Government have given notice of intent with respect to a Bill, there could be no recourse to human rights legislation because those rights would not have been breached. The hon. Gentleman will remember that a ban on hare coursing was in the original Bill of a couple of years ago. That sent out a clear signal to everyone that, regardless of what happened to fox hunting, stag hunting and hare hunting, the Government had a clear intent that the activity of hare coursing would be banned. Due notice would have been given, which perhaps explains the hon. Gentleman's misunderstanding.
I shall be brief because the House has spent enough time on this issue. Frankly, I believe that Members on both sides of the House would agree that Parliament has more pressing matters to deal with. Those people, however, who say that Parliament has those more pressing matters to contend with should not be the same people who argue for extra days to debate this issue. That is utterly wrong, and it is disingenuous of those people to make that argument.
I speak in favour of the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend Mr. Banks and others, but I do so with a degree of reluctance because I would have preferred the matter to have been dealt with, done and dusted back in 1998, when my original private Member's Bill was talked out on Report. It would have been great to see the issues dealt with then, making today's long discussions redundant. When hunting is finally banned, as it will be under today's plans, I do not believe for one moment that anyone would seriously want to bring it back. If we were starting afresh and had a problem with fox predation, we would never invent the sport of hunting with dogs.