The Question was as follows:
To ask Her Majesty's Government how they intend to take the views of Members of the House into account during the consultation process on hunting with dogs.
My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister for his Answer. Did he take on board the comments of the noble Lord, Lord McNally, from the Liberal Democrat Front Bench at the time he repeated the Statement announcing the consultation some two months ago that, in order to have any integrity at all, the consultation ought to be fair, open and transparent? Exactly what measures will the Government take to ensure that the consultation process and its conclusions are transparent and open so that the people who are affected by it—who at the moment, as the noble Lord will know well, are extremely angry and frustrated by the process—can have at least some feeling that the process has had the integrity and openness that it needs to have?
My Lords, I always, of course, give due weight to the views of the noble Lord, Lord McNally, who guides us all. The process is eminently open. The letter was sent to all organisations involved in hunting. Anyone else was entitled to contribute. We received 7,000 replies to the first stage of the consultation, including 30 or so individual replies from Members of your Lordships' House. They will be taken into consideration. My right honourable friend has written a further letter with some more detailed questions on cruelty and utility. Anyone can reply to that letter. As the noble Lord will know, my right honourable friend has also had a number of consultations with the main organisations involved on all sides of the argument.
My Lords, is the Minister aware that I was extremely impressed by the detailed nature of the letter of inquiry sent out by Alun Michael? I urge noble Lords to read it and to respond to it. However, as the Question asks how the Government will take into account the views of the Members of this House, will they also continue to take into account the views of another place whose Members, unlike Members of this House, have to put their opinions on the line at general elections?
My Lords, at this stage of the consultation Members of another place have exactly the same rights as Members of this House. However, of course, subsequent to that, any proposals which emerge at the end of the consultation process will proceed through the parliamentary process as announced by my right honourable friend when he announced the consultation.
My Lords, the noble Lord will be aware that his ministerial colleague has sent out yet another letter in which he asks for evidence and proof. He emphasises the word "proof" several times. Will the noble Lord help me and other noble Lords by giving some examples of what is meant by proof; for example, proof of utility or non-utility or proof of cruelty or non-cruelty? How is that to be defined?
My Lords, the point my right honourable friend makes is that the whole issue has been subject to a high degree of emotion and generalisation on all sides. He points out that, if people claim that utility should override issues of cruelty, or that cruelty is non-proven, they should indicate on what basis they are making those assertions. Likewise, those who argue the opposite case should indicate the basis for their assertions. If the noble Lord studies the letter in detail, he will identify where the appropriate proof and appropriate basis of fact are required to enable us to make a rather calmer assessment of the situation than is sometimes the case in your Lordships' House and elsewhere.
My Lords, the whole point of the process is that the merits will be considered and that both this House and another place will be able to consider the outcome. The final decision will be taken as described in the original Statement in another place, and this House will have the opportunity to consider the outcome. If there is still deadlock, as we have outlined the Government will be prepared to contemplate the use of the Parliament Act. That is not an indication of playing games; it is an indication that the issue needs to be resolved within the Palace of Westminster.
My Lords, the Burns report recommended that further research into a number of issues be taken forward by the Government. Has the Minister's department instigated any research projects? Furthermore, does the Minister agree with the Burns report that any legislation should cover England and Wales as a whole and that there should be no regional variations?
My Lords, we have taken into account the views of the Burns report as a starting point for discussions. Further research on the social and economic implications of the matter has been carried out. However, the Burns report is not the final stance on the matter. One of the reasons that we seek further evidence is in order to establish whether there are differential areas of application and whether different views may be taken in different parts of the country. That must be part of the total consideration without prejudice to the final outcome.