My Lords, since 1979, 22 Private Members' Bills have been promoted in another place to ban hunting. Since the election, 100,000 letters have been received by the Home Secretary in relation to the hunting issue, some for and some against abolition. In those circumstances there cannot be any doubt that it is a significantly controversial issue in this country.
As my noble friend Lord Bassam of Brighton stated, there is absolutely no prospect of a Bill getting time for a full debate in both Houses of Parliament, unless government time is given to such a Bill. That is what the Government have decided to do. They are neutral on the issue of whether or not hunting should be abolished. The Bill contains three options: one has been drafted by the Middle Way Group, one by the Countryside Alliance, of which my noble friend Lady Mallalieu is the president, and a proposal to abolish drafted by Deadline 2000.
The approach of a multi-option Bill gives the House and the other place the option to consider what should happen to hunting in the long term. We believe it right for Parliament to decide what happens. In the light of the history of this matter, we feel that Parliament should have a proper opportunity to consider what should happen to hunting. It is well known in this House that there was a majority in excess of 200 in the other place to adopt the Deadline 2000 approach. No doubt noble Lords will bear that in mind in their consideration of this Bill and the options contained in it.
It is not for the Government, taking a neutral stance as they do, to answer the impressive issues raised in the course of this debate on both sides of the argument. We are facilitating Parliament making a decision on this controversial issue. Other members of the Government made clear that other issues have a higher priority than the issue of hunting--health, education and crime. But this is a controversial issue that has been around for a long time and it is right that Parliament should have a proper debate on it.
That is our approach to the matter. That approach was made clear in the last manifesto when we said that Parliament would have a free vote. It was made clear when the Bill was introduced in another place. That is the reason it was introduced. There is no sinister reason. It is perfectly clear and perfectly sensible. I note that the noble Earl, Lord Peel, welcomed the opportunity for this debate so that greater light could be shone on the issues relating to hunting. So the Government have taken a perfectly responsible stance.
Today in this House we have had a good and clear debate. On both sides of the issue views have been expressed with great clarity, passion and persuasiveness. There is obviously more to come.
Perhaps I may mention two specific points in relation to procedure and hunting generally. First, I was asked by the noble Lord, Lord Cope--sadly in my absence, but it was passed straight on to me--whether the Parliament Act will be used in relation to the Bill. It is much too early a stage, only half-way through the process, to give any indication in that regard. Let us get through the process before we start talking about the end game.
Secondly, the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, gave me notice before the debate that he intended to raise the issue of unlawful and criminal threats posed by animal rights extremists, both to people engaged in the hunting debate and also engaged in animal experimentation. Like the noble Earl, I utterly and unreservedly condemn such activity and join with all noble Lords who made that point. We utterly condemn anybody who resorts to that sort of action in relation to this issue.
The noble Earl asked what the Government are doing about it. We are doing four things. First, we included in a recent Bill police power to disperse protesters more easily than before; secondly, we increased the penalties for malicious communications; thirdly, we removed the obligation on directors of certain companies to provide their home addresses in publications to avoid their being attacked, as we all know one of the directors of Huntingdon Life Sciences was attacked. In addition, we made a special grant available to the Cambridgeshire Police Authority to meet the costs of policing at Huntingdon Life Sciences.
The noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, and a number of other noble Lords, raised the issue of a number of Labour MPs who had been threatened because of their opposition to a ban. They reported the matter to police who gave them certain advice in relation to how to deal with it. But it is an important issue and requires unreserved condemnation and proper support for those who are threatened by it. I know that the whole House will join me in that view.
I join with everyone in expressing the Government's gratitude for the depth of the study and the information contained in it. The report was entirely fit for its purpose; namely, providing the basis on which an informed debate could take place on this important issue. There is absolutely no doubt that the right course was taken in asking the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his team to make the report. It has made for a much more informed debate than it would otherwise have been.
Perhaps I may try to deal with only the important points. Like the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, it would be wrong to read out everybody's name. That would lead to my speech being longer, which would not be acceptable at twenty-five minutes to two in the morning.
An important issue was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Denham. In effect it was to ask what is the difference in the criteria that apply to shooting and fishing to that applying to hunting which require it to be banned. Fearful that I might forget the matter, the noble Lord handed me the question in writing after he delivered his speech, which was very helpful. I hope that I have accurately expressed the question. It has been expressed by others also throughout the debate.
We are putting this matter before Parliament for it to decide what it wishes to do. We have done that because of the constant interest in the hunting issue over the past 20 years and before. There is huge public interest in it. There is no such public interest or support in relation to any sort of ban on fishing or shooting. We have absolutely no intention of bringing forward a similar Bill in that regard. It is quite wrong to say that public interest in the hunting issue is the same as that in relation to angling and shooting. They are different and one should recognise that. That is why this Bill has been brought forward.
The distinction between shooting and fishing on the one hand and hunting on the other will no doubt inform the debate. What we have done as a government is allow Parliament to properly debate the issues.