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8 pm

Mr. Livsey: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Forestry Commission and private interests have imposed on our countryside a mono-culture of softwood forests that harbour thousands of foxes and have altered the ecology of our rural areas?

Mr. Thomas: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. He demonstrates how we have changed the countryside for our economic purposes. That has side effects on the fox population and on other creatures. For example, in my constituency, a huge effort has been made to boost the population of red kite during the past few years. In one sense, that has been too successful, because conservation organisations have observed that there are too many red kite in mid-Wales--the birds are having an effect on farming.

It will be difficult to square the circle on conservation issues. Mostly, we ask farmers to do that. In Wales, we pay farmers agri-money through the Tir Glas and Tir Mynydd schemes and ask them to look after the land in a sustainable way. I am concerned that the ban option would take away from farmers one of the tools that they use on our behalf to maintain the countryside which we all say we love and want preserved.

The real question posed by the Bill is not whether or not we want to kill, because the killing takes place already: it is how we do it and where and when it should be allowed. It has been put to the Committee that the Bill contains only two options--to ban or not to ban.

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Philosophically, however, even the ban option is not really a ban, because it allows certain types of hunting with hounds and dogs to continue.

I agree with supporters of a ban that what we are talking about in this debate is where we draw the line. Where is the best place to put that line? Should it be at the edge of strict control, so that hunting with hounds is almost impossible? Should it be somewhere in the middle? It is acknowledged that the detail of that option will have to be worked out in another Committee. Should the matter be relaxed and free and easy? Over the past few years, we have been made aware of how the public feel about that option.

The point at which we draw that line will reflect deeply on our approach to this issue. Is our approach based on conservation, on pragmatism, on making it work or on allowing a viable and sustainable countryside, especially in marginal farming areas?

Mr. Öpik: The Middle Way Group is satisfied that the provisions of the schedule associated with clause 2 are workable in their present format, but if that option were accepted, we could have a constructive discussion in the Standing Committee about those aspects that have proved to be bones of contention in this place.

Mr. Thomas: I accept that point, but there is a line to be drawn in relation to the Middle Way Group option, too--and to say that is not to criticise its workings but to note that it could move either way along the spectrum.

As the Minister pointed out, the measure is a Home Office Bill. It thus broadly deals with non-devolved matters. However, it would have a huge effect on agriculture in Wales and on the social life of rural communities. It says to the citizens of Wales, "That which you were once doing shall be a criminal offence". Unlike some Members, I do not deny the House its role in that matter; under the present settlement, it is for the House to decide whether a particular activity is any longer acceptable to the majority of public opinion. I appreciate that.

There is no immutable right to hunt in all circumstances. There is a right to hunt only as long as the rest of society allows the practice to continue. That is what we are debating this evening. Nevertheless, I hope that members of society who are not involved in hunting--I am one--will think deeply about what will happen in certain areas. Do we want to create a situation in which farming in areas that we like to visit, that are biodiverse and sustainable, is further undermined by the removal from farmers of a particular option? I strongly advocate that we consider that point.

I feel strongly that, as the Minister said, the 40 Welsh constituency MPs--I hope that they are all in this place this evening--can and should be able to express the views of Wales. In his concluding remarks, will he tell us whether they will have a free vote on the amendments? He was rather circumspect when asked about that by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes).

Mr. Mike O'Brien: It is a free vote.

Mr. Thomas: I am grateful to the Minister for that information. In that case, my remaining question is to

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Opposition Front-Bench Members: will Opposition Members have a free vote too? Plaid Cymru Members will of course have a free vote--[Interruption.] --I understand from informal remarks that, free vote or not, some Liberal Members will vote with us on this matter. I am glad to receive that confirmation.

Only one year ago, I stood on an election platform and made a clear statement of my stance on this matter and explained what I should be trying to do. This evening, I have had the opportunity to advance my views. I hope that hon. Members, no matter how they feel, will listen to some of the views and concerns expressed in a particular, peripheral farming area and will consider how the hunting ban will affect that area. If we have a further opportunity to debate the measure when it comes back from another place, perhaps we can consider a compromise that would allow certain practices to support farming interests in Wales.

Mr. Gordon Prentice: I have only a few points to make because we have debated this issue to death. We have been around the course so many times that the arguments are extremely familiar.

I support option 3--a total ban--and reject the other two options. Some people say that a total ban is unenforceable. The right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) entered the Chamber a few moments ago, but then disappeared. As he is a former Home Office Minister whose e-mail has been plastered across the newspapers over recent days, I am disappointed that he is not listening to the debate.

I tried to intervene on the former Home Secretary, the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), but unfortunately he would not allow me to do so. I wanted to ask him whether it is right for a former Home Office Minister to make the statement published in The Observer on 14 January. The right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border stated:

Can hon. Members believe that?

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough): The hon. Gentleman may be surprised to learn that I tend to agree with the consequence of what he says. This weekend, the master of a hunt told me that hunts are big business; it costs £50,000 a year to run them. Once the ban comes into effect--if it does--hunts will not be able to survive in some underground way; 18 in 20 hounds will have to be put down, as well as some of the horses. The hon. Gentleman is right. There will not be massive civil disobedience and the hunts will vanish. Of course, I regret that--he may not.

Mr. Prentice: We hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but I am making the point that it is inappropriate for a former Home Office Minister to talk about stirring up the police so that they are terrified of implementing the law. Let me tell the putative law breakers on the Opposition Benches that, when the Bill has become an Act, they must take the consequences if they or those who support them break the law.

Mr. Hayes: The hon. Gentleman is most generous in giving way. As I said earlier, every weekend in the east

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of England, people go hare coursing illegally. The police tell me that it is too difficult to control. He and I care about the fact that the brown hare population is declining, and brown hares survive where regulated, legal hare coursing takes place. Where hare shoots and illegal coursing take place, they are being wiped out, and farmers and landowners are being intimidated into the bargain.

Mr. Prentice: I take the point, but all I would say is that the Home Office has been in touch with the Association of Chief Police Officers to find out whether there would be any particular difficulties about enforcing such a Bill if it were to reach the statute book. The Minister will want to comment on this in winding up the debate, but I understand that the chief police officers do not envisage any unusual, particular problems in enforcing the proposal if it becomes law, as I am sure it will. On the spring hare population in the east of England, it is up to the police to do what we pay them to do--enforce the law.

Mr. Mike O'Brien: As the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) said, ACPO's view is that much the same resources are likely to be involved in enforcing any of the schedules, because substantial resources are currently involved in ensuring that hunts can take place and in dealing with protests and the other issues associated with hunts. The other two schedules may involve resource issues.

Mr. Prentice: A survey has been conducted on how much police forces spend on policing the hunts. We have replies from about half the police forces in England. The average annual sum is about £500,000, so police forces already spend considerable amounts on such policing.

I do not want to labour this point, but it is important because Opposition Members talk about the criminalisation of law-abiding people. When the Bill goes on to the statute book, it will not involve criminalising law-abiding people, but taking action against law breakers. People outside the House do not make the law. We are elected to make the law and, if people reject our views, they can vote us out. The members of the Pendle Forest and Craven hunt, which is based in my constituency, can vote me out; they can put up a candidate if they like, and they can circulate leaflets. I am happy to have that debate because I am convinced that my views would prevail if we were to do so.

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