Hunting Bill

– in a Public Bill Committee on 18th January 2001.

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[Mr. Edward O'Hara in the Chair]

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office 2:00 pm, 18th January 2001

I beg to move,

That—

(1) the Standing Committee shall meet on Thursday 18th January at Two o'clock;

(2) after that date the Standing Committee shall meet on Tuesdays at half-past Ten o'clock and at half-past Four o'clock and on Thursdays at quarter-past Ten o'clock and at Two o'clock;

(3) proceedings shall be taken in the order shown in the Table below;

(4) proceedings shall be concluded at the time shown in the second column of the Table (unless concluded earlier).

TABLE
ProceedingsLatest time for conclusion
TOP">Proceedings on Clauses 5 and 6Fifteen minutes after the commencement of proceedings on Clause 5
Proceedings on Schedules 1 and 2 Fifteen minutes after the commencement of proceedings on Schedule 1
Proceedings on Schedule 3

New Schedules

5.50 p.m. on Thursday 8th February

6 p.m. on Thursday 8th February

It is a pleasure, Mr. O'Hara, to meet under your wise chairmanship. I have served under your chairmanship before and under that of Mrs. Roe. I know that both of you will keep us in order with your customary mix of authority and good humour and I hope that I, at least, will not try your patience too much in the weeks ahead. I cannot speak for other Committee members, but I trust that they will also stay in order throughout.

The resolution emerged from the Programming Sub-Committee, which met earlier today. It is straightforward and simple, so I hope that I can be brief. It requires us to meet twice a day on Tuesdays, following normal Committee hours. For the convenience of several members, including me, it proposes that we do not convene early on Thursday mornings, but at 10.15 am and for just over an hour. However, that will be followed by a long sitting on Thursday afternoons to ensure that we meet for at least five hours every Thursday, which is the length of two normal sittings.

The Committee will therefore have more than the 12 sittings that I promised in moving the programme motion before the 8 February deadline. Indeed, we should be able to have 13 sittings. The programme motion, which the House passed immediately after Second Reading, set the deadline.

The Committee has been mandated to consider a single schedule. The House as a whole decided which of the three options in the Bill should be retained. I appreciate that there are currently three schedules in the Bill; I will address that matter shortly.

Of course, not all members of the Committee agree with the choice that the House made yesterday, but our job is to give detailed consideration to schedule 3, and no more or less that. That is reflected in the resolution that the Programming Sub-Committee has produced, which allows us 15 minutes to consider clauses 5 and 6; although some members might consider that a generous allocation. A further 15 minutes are allowed to consider schedules 1 and 2; these are the schedules that the House as a whole has rejected, and we should not waste time by re-debating an issue on which the House has already given its view. The rest of our time is to be devoted to a full and proper consideration of schedule 3, apart from a few minutes at the end to consider new schedules—although it is hard to see what new schedules could sensibly be proposed.

The resolution does not seek to impose deadlines for reaching certain points in our deliberations. That will give the Committee substantial flexibility in making progress, but progress we hope to see. I hope that the Committee will use its time wisely, and I therefore invite the Committee to agree the resolution.

I also want to set out the stance that will be adopted during the Committee's proceedings by me and the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy), who I am delighted to say will be assisting me on the Bill. The Government are neutral on hunting with dogs and, as far as possible, we intend to preserve our neutrality by not taking sides on issues about which we do not take a view. However, we have a responsibility to ensure that any Act of Parliament is both workable and properly drafted and we shall, if necessary, oppose amendments that would be contrary to those requirements. We shall consider purely technical amendments in that light, consulting parliamentary counsel as appropriate.

We believe that we have a duty to safeguard the integrity of the option that the whole House has selected, and shall resist any attempt to undermine it or alter it fundamentally. I am grateful for your indulgence to make that point, Mr. O'Hara. I shall write to each of the three interest groups, setting out how the Government intend to proceed during the Committee so that they are properly and directly briefed by me about how we shall deal with each amendment.

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Shadow Attorney General

I join the Minister in welcoming you to the chairmanship of this Committee, Mr. O'Hara. I remember that you were in the Chair when the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster) was filibustering his Bill in Committee a couple of years ago. We had great fun then and I dare say that we shall do so during this Committee. There will be serious discussion and, no doubt, moments of high emotion, when tempers will have to be controlled. I am sure that both you and your colleague, Mrs. Roe, will ensure that our deliberations are conducted within the rules of the House.

I am delighted that the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department is on the Committee. We did battle on the Human Rights Act 1998, we have travelled abroad on the armed forces parliamentary scheme and we have learned never to turn our backs on each other. I have never wanted to turn my back on the other Minister involved, the Parliamentary Secretary of State, Lord Chancellor's Department. The whole Committee is delighted that her legal expertise, and all the inestimably valuable authority of the Lord Chancellor's Department, will be fully deployed at all stages of the proceedings. The Committee may not know, but she and I certainly do, that she owes me one. When she was a Whip—

Photo of Jane Kennedy Jane Kennedy Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department

Oh, the hon. and learned Gentleman is not going to tell that story.

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Shadow Attorney General

The hon. Lady is right. I am not going to tell that story; I just wanted to remind her that I may do.

To move from a jocular note to a serious one, my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) should be facing the Minister. However, his child was taken seriously ill this morning and had to be taken to hospital so, understandably, he cannot be here this afternoon. He sends his apologies both to you, Mr. O'Hara, and to the Committee as a whole. We hope that his child recovers speedily, so that he can be present when we meet on Tuesday.

The Minister candidly, as always, admitted that the Government's position on this Bill is one of neutrality. I am a history graduate and I understand the concept of armed neutrality. When the time comes, the Minister will no doubt display the same neutrality that I shall in representing the official Opposition. Like the Government, as a matter of parliamentary procedure, we take a position of strict neutrality. As he admitted yesterday in his winding-up speech, I make no bones about the fact that I find the Bill thoroughly objectionable for a host of reasons as, I dare say, do a vast number of people. We shall discuss our differences as we progress.

I shall refer to one or two of the paragraphs of the programme resolution, the new procedure that the Government have dreamed up to curtail debate. It was called a sittings motion in the days when Parliament was free to discuss legislation. It seems a pity—although it is understandable—that proceedings on schedules 1 and 2 are to be limited to 15 minutes. I appreciate that the House spent several hours discussing those schedules yesterday, but a great deal more could have been said about them, and we are all the poorer for having such restrictions in this Committee.

Equally, although I can see the force of the Minister's arguments that the wording of clauses 5 and 6 is of short compass, the implications of the clauses go much further. I suggest that hon. Members read those clauses if they have not yet done so. They deal with the title and the geographical jurisdiction of the Bill. The issues concerning them that were raised yesterday by, for example, the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) were not adequately discussed in the Chamber. Limiting to 15 minutes our discussion on the geographical jurisdiction of the Bill is deeply regrettable.

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Shadow Attorney General

I will give way to the right hon. Gentleman, who has retired from the Front Bench to muck around with us in Committee.

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Labour/Co-operative, Cardiff South and Penarth

The hon. and learned Gentleman may intend to muck around in the Committee, but I intend to take it seriously, just as I take seriously the process of devolution. That process has settled the matter of the geographical jurisdiction in the UK; it extends to England and Wales. The arguments that were raised by the hon. Member for Ceredigion, a representative of the Welsh nationalist party, which the hon. and learned Gentleman thinks were not properly debated, were entirely a diversion.

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Shadow Attorney General

I can see that I have already touched a sore nerve. I know that the Labour party and the people of Wales have told us what they think of the right hon. Gentleman, but no doubt we will have time to discuss that matter.

I return to the remainder of the programme resolution. We need to move on to the meat of the Bill in as short as possible a compass, but I regret that we are prohibited from discussing it beyond Thursday 8 February. I expect that many hon. Members will want to contribute between then and now, and that it will become apparent that both those who do and those who do not support the contents of the Bill will feel restricted by the programme resolution. That is not only regrettable, but a denial of democracy—in fact I think that the whole Bill is a denial of democracy.

Photo of Norman Baker Norman Baker Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I welcome you to the chair, Mr. O'Hara, and I also extend my sympathy, and that of my colleagues, to the shadow Home Office spokesman, the hon. Member for Aylesbury. I hope that the situation soon resolves itself to his satisfaction.

The Liberal Democrat presence on the Committee is designed to represent all three strands of the Bill. Two Liberal Democrats are retentionists, so we are not all in agreement.

I want to support the programme resolution and the suggested way of proceeding. We intend to operate in a constructive way to try to improve the Bill where necessary and to support those parts of it that make sense. I look forward to moving on to the real issues of the Bill as soon as possible.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

It was kind of the Minister to introduce the programme resolution—the new way of proceeding—but the advantage of the old sittings motion was that it was decided in Committee, with everybody present. It is regrettable that we do not know what happened at this morning's Sub-Committee, at which we were not present and of which no minutes were taken.

At first sight, the programme resolution may look perfectly sensible, but it is a pity that, staggeringly, only 15 minutes will be allowed for schedules 1 and 2. The Government's obvious defence will be that they have already been debated on the Floor of the House. [Hon. Members: ``Yes.''] I admit that, but the schedules are the heart of the Bill. Only one day was allowed on the Floor of the House and hon. Members were still trying to speak at the end of the debate.

The advantage of the old way of doing things, when there were not such rigid programme resolutions, was that ways could be found in Committee for debating some issues in detail. There was no harm in that. The time that we can devote to matters on the Floor of the House is limited, those who serve on a Committee tend to be committed to the subject and there are many issues that a Committee could usefully discuss.

Some issues were discussed yesterday, but we could have gone into so much more detail. For example, we could have examined the economic, social and ecological effects on the countryside of the ban; found out how many hounds might have to be put down; debated the effect of criminalising an activity that has been legal and popular for several hundred years; and considered the erosion of the values of freedom. Under the old system, people could have a reasoned debate, table amendments and discuss such huge issues.

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Labour/Co-operative, Cardiff South and Penarth 2:15 pm, 18th January 2001

It is nice of the hon. Gentleman to give notice of the subjects on which he would like to filibuster, if given the opportunity, but his points should relate to schedule 3 rather than schedule 1 or 2. Will he explain what the problem is? The programme resolution is too generous to schedules 1 and 2; they have been dealt with on the Floor of the House. He might recall that, when his party were in government, and Bills such as the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill were going through the House, some issues were dealt with on the Floor and not in Committee because the same decision was made. I cannot understand why he thinks that the resolution is ungenerous.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

The resolution is ungenerous because we have only until Thursday 8 February to discuss matters that many in the countryside think are of enormous importance. As I understand it, the thinking behind the programme resolution was the myth that all Standing Committees were a complete farce. The Opposition used to spend 100 hours discussing clause 1—

Mr. Michael indicated assent.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

The right hon. Gentleman is nodding.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

I agree. When we were in power, the Labour Opposition, understandably from their point of view, often wanted to force the Government to introduce a guillotine. However, things have been done by agreement in Standing Committees on which I have served under this Government, including those led by the right hon. Gentleman when he was a Home Office Minister. That was under the old system, by consensus, and we had full discussion. I am sure that he accepts that we went through those Bills from beginning to end, that everybody had their say and that we came out with a Bill at the end of it.

I recognise that the House has spoken and that there is a majority for the Bill on the Floor of the House. Whether or not it is a Government Bill, the majority has the right to get its Bill. We are not arguing with that, we are simply saying that we want to return to our supporters in the countryside and convince them that we put their arguments fully. That may not be possible in a curtailed debate on the Floor of the House. Many hon. Members cannot get in to speak and, if they do, they are under pressure to sit down after 12 or 15 minutes because others are waiting. It would have been an option to continue the debate here.

As soon as one moves from consensus to a rule-based system, it becomes difficult to achieve all that is necessary because the Opposition will always find ways of getting around rules. I am sure that that is not going to happen in this Committee, but were the Opposition ruthless, the programme resolution would achieve nothing. It would be possible for someone to speak at inordinate length on the first group of amendments that my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury has tabled—Nos. 6 to 11, 16 to 23 and 26 to 29—and take up the entire time until 5.50 pm on 8 February. That would achieve nothing. If we wanted to play it that way, we might say that it proved that too little time was allocated to the Bill and that we managed to get through only one set of amendments, and ask what the Government achieved with the programme resolution. That will not happen because, as on other occasions, we want to debate properly and get through business. However, the questions remain: why the rush? Why 8 February?

I am sure that the Government are convinced, perhaps rightly, that, given the strength of opinion on the issue, the Committee could last for a very long time if there were no programming motion. I agree that that could happen, but that argument could be used for any Bill. All Bills that I have debated in Parliament have reached a satisfactory conclusion. If the Opposition were silly enough to spend 100 hours on the first group of amendments, or 30 hours on the sittings motion, and the Government were convinced that there was ludicrous time wasting, they could order a guillotine. What is magic about 8 February?

Why are we not given greater detail about the programme by the Minister? He introduces the issue in a semi-jocular manner, makes some polite comments and is jolly nice. However, people care passionately about the Bill. They would like to know what was said this morning, why the discussion is being curtailed and why issues that are vital to the countryside will not be discussed. It is a shame that they will not know. Today's debate is allowed only 30 minutes. After 15 minutes, the axe falls on schedules 1 and 2, and on 8 February the axe falls on the rest. We all then go home, apparently having done our duty, but people outside the House will feel that Parliament has not done so.

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

I begin by offering my best wishes to the daughter of the hon. Member for Aylesbury; I hope that she recovers quickly.

There is ample time to debate the schedule. I understand from the usual channels that the Conservatives wanted 16 sittings. We will have 13 sittings in Committee, and we have had a day on the Floor of the House. The Government have therefore been receptive to the requests from the Conservative party. We have very nearly given the time requested. The hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) says that the Sub-Committee this morning was informal so no detailed record was taken by Hansard; however, he can also see that no amendments were on the record, so the Conservatives were not opposing the motion. Although I know that there are free votes on the issue and that the hon. Gentleman's hon. Friends may have differing views, he knows that his party was represented this morning and could have expressed its views.

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Labour/Co-operative, Cardiff South and Penarth

Conservative Members are making great play of the idea that the new procedures are not democratic. As they are new, none of us knows all their ramifications. Do I understand from my hon. Friend that a number of sittings, very close to that for which the Conservative party asked, has been conceded? Conservatives participated in the Programming Sub-Committee and had the chance to raise objections then, rather than take up time in Standing Committee. They have already had two bites of the cherry and enjoyed the good humour and grace of my hon. Friend in seeking to meet their requirements. Is not what we have heard from them therefore massive hype, as they failed to object to the proposed programme resolution?

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

My right hon. Friend is right; we have heard a bit of bluster. People in the countryside want Opposition members of the Committee to set out their case. The way to do that is through discussion of the schedule, rather than blustering on the programme resolution, to which they did not object when they had the opportunity to do so. [Interruption.]

Photo of Edward O'Hara Edward O'Hara Labour, Knowsley South

Order. Some members of the Committee are blessed with deep, booming voices that sometimes cause more noise off the record than the gently spoken Minister can on the record.

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

Thank you, Mr. O'Hara. I give way to the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer).

Photo of John Gummer John Gummer Conservative, Suffolk Coastal

I apologise to the Minister for not being here earlier. I have listened to every word of his response to the debate. I wish to point out one simple matter, which is different from that mentioned by the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael). Everything that the Committee receives is by permission and pleasure of the Government. All that the Minister gives us, by his grace, is crumbs from his table. That is our problem. Historically, those who disagree with the Government have held at least some power in their hands, but the new system means that we have no powers at all. The Opposition no longer have the power of time.

Photo of Mike O'Brien Mike O'Brien Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

The right hon. Gentleman is wrong. The process of modernising our proceedings means that there is a much more sensible division of time and that there is no opportunity—or at least no need—for those who want to prolong proceedings to make drawn-out, windy speeches of no relevance. The aim of modernisation is to ensure that we focus on the issues. Those of his constituents who agree with him—there may well be many who do not—want him to be able to put his point. I suggest that the time to do that is in discussion of schedule 3, which is the main schedule. The resolution allows plenty of time for a full discussion.

The Government have listened to representations, in particular from the Conservative party. We responded to them positively, and it is wrong for the right hon. Gentleman to say that the Government are in any way seeking deliberately to curtail the opportunity of any right hon. or hon. Members to put forward their views. There is ample time, and I hope that the Committee will agree the resolution.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved

Further consideration adjourned.—[Mr. Mike Hall.]

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes past Two o'clock till Tuesday 23 January at half-past Ten o'clock.