Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey) rose--

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) rose--

Mr. O'Brien: I shall give way once more and then I want to make some progress. I give way to the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes).

Mr. Hughes: On the Plaid Cymru amendments that would affect the right of the Welsh Assembly to trigger the legislation in Wales, will the Minister confirm that

17 Jan 2001 : Column 358

there is no Government Whip and that all Labour Back Benchers are free to express their own view? Will he also confirm that it is thus up to the Committee to decide today whether it wants to amend, in respect of hunting, the previous settlement on the powers of the Welsh Assembly?

Mr. O'Brien: I assure the hon. Gentleman that there is no Government Whip on any of the merits of the issues. It might be helpful to point out that, once we get past the decision on the schedule, I, as the Minister, will have to put the view of this Committee to the Standing Committee. I intend to do that by ensuring that, in Standing Committee, the Government will protect the will of the House--whichever schedule it determines to support. We shall ensure that there is good law in the measure and that it is protected from unnecessary or undue change. Although we shall listen to any technical debates, it is our aim to deliver the will of the House during the Standing Committee proceedings.

At that stage, we shall have to consider any technical issues about which we receive clear legal advice that they would undermine the quality of good law, and whether there may be an issue in relation to whipping. I am not giving an undertaking throughout the Committee stage, but there is no Government Whip on the merits of the issues before the House today.

4 pm

Let me conclude by setting out the Government's broad position. The Government made a manifesto commitment to hold a free vote on hunting with dogs. Unlike previous Conservative Governments, this Government believe in delivering on their promises. It became clear during the debate on the Wild Mammals (Hunting with Dogs) Bill, which was introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster), that, to some extent, the core of factual argument usually present during debates did not exist on the issue of hunting with dogs. We therefore decided to set up the Burns inquiry, which reported in due course.

It is a great tribute to Lord Burns that the Countryside Alliance, Deadline 2000 and the Middle Way Group were all able to say that they could work with the report. It established a core of facts around which the wider moral and political debate could revolve. I believe, therefore, that this debate should be more factual, less emotional and more coherent, and that we can reach a much fairer decision.

Sir Nicholas Lyell (North-East Bedfordshire): Will the Minister give way?

Mr. O'Brien: No, I have said that I shall not give way. I have been generous in giving way, and I shall not give way any further.

The Government's aim is to facilitate debate and decision. Some people have suggested that the House should not debate hunting at all. The Government's view is that hunting has been a matter of serious public debate for many years. It has been on the front pages of our newspapers and on our radio and television programmes. Acres of print have been devoted to it. It has also been the subject of controversy in social gatherings.

Mr. Hogg: On a point of order, Sir Alan. I am sorry to interrupt the Minister, but would it not be right to remind

17 Jan 2001 : Column 359

hon. Members that the House is in Committee, where it is customary to allow interventions more freely? [Interruption.]

The Chairman: Order. I think that I can manage to deal with that point of order. Irrespective of whether the House is in Committee, it is entirely a matter of discretion as to whether the hon. Member who has the Floor gives way.

Mr. O'Brien: I am grateful to you, Sir Alan, for that advice. My concern is that Back Benchers want to speak in the debate and if I were to spend all my time taking interventions--which I could, because some Opposition Members would wish to try to bait the Minister--I could probably continue to speak for the next hour or so. Other hon. Members have the right to have a say. Perhaps if I set out the Government's broad position, we shall find out what others have to say.

Clearly, there are concerns throughout the country, but it is nonsense to suggest, as was done on Second Reading, that Parliament should not debate the issue or that we should somehow abstain from taking a decision on it. Other issues are important to the Government, and the Government are acting on them. Some of them have required legislation and others are being pursued by the Government as a matter of policy. They will affect rural areas in the same way that foxhunting does, whatever decision we take on it.

The Government proposed 19 Bills during the Queen's Speech, one of which was on hunting. On crime, we have set out our policies to tackle loutish and rowdy behaviour in rural and urban areas and to give more power to the police. We have set out our policies on how we are increasing police recruits by 9,000 over and above those originally expected. There are other issues. On the national health service and education, we have given the biggest boost to those public services in a generation.

To those who say that the mere debating of foxhunting sows divisions between the countryside and the town, I say that the Government have set out clear policies in their rural White Paper to help rural areas and those who may be affected by the decisions that we reach today. The previous Government ignored rural areas, which is why more people in rural areas voted Labour at the last general election than voted for the Conservatives. The Conservative party ignored rural areas, but the Government--

The Chairman: Order. I am sorry to interrupt the Minister, but he is going wide even of the clause stand part debate.

Mr. O'Brien: You are obviously aware, Sir Alan, that people have legitimately argued that, instead of dealing with hunting, the Government should concentrate on issues that relate to crime, the health service and education. I certainly accept your ruling, and I shall move on. However, I want to make it clear that the Government have set out their policies on such issues, and we are dealing with them as they relate to rural areas, which the previous Government failed to do.

The issue of sowing divisions between rural and urban areas has been raised by Opposition Back Benchers throughout our debates on hunting. It has been a key

17 Jan 2001 : Column 360

argument of some people who would no doubt support clause 1. However, the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald is one of the people who best ditched that argument. She said:

I give her credit for putting it like that. She set out her arguments at greater length in her article in The Observer some months ago. Her deputies should not undermine her views when they put their case before the House.

As for the House being precluded from debating hunting, Parliament is the forum for debate on issues of public importance, and hunting with dogs is an issue on which the public have always shown interest, whether they are for or against it. Let that debate begin today. That is the purpose of moving the clause. Let us have a debate that is in the spirit of the Burns report and hear arguments that are based more on fact than on emotion, so that we consider the issues of liberty and the concerns about cruelty.

Sir Nicholas Lyell: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. O'Brien: The House has a great tradition of being a forum for the nation, and hunting with dogs should be debated here.

Sir Nicholas Lyell: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. O'Brien: How could I refuse the right hon. and learned Gentleman, who is so persistent?

Sir Nicholas Lyell: The Minister just said that the debate should be based on factual argument. Before the rights of hundreds of thousands of citizens are removed and their lawful activities are criminalised, does he agree that that should be objectively justifiable and that questions of cruelty should be a matter not, as he put, for our consciences, but for the courts to decide on objective reasons?

Mr. O'Brien: If the right hon. and learned Gentleman is saying that Parliament should abrogate its constitutional right to make law, then I disagree with him. That is not what his constituents elected him to do. I was elected to consider the issues that are before the nation, and to debate them in a proper and sensible way. That is why we produced the Burns report; that is why we want the debate to have a factual core; and that is why we have said that the issue should be debated on the ground of rationality rather than of mere emotion.

The House has a great tradition of being a forum for the nation. Hunting with dogs should be debated here. Whether hunting is to continue or not, it is a decision for Parliament. I look forward to the debate. It will be a focus of great national interest, and it is right that we should have it.

Next Section

IndexHome Page