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Mr. Bercow: I accept my hon. Friend's point that there is a difference in scale between fur farming and hunting, and the compensation that might be required. However, does he agree that it would be outrageous and despicable if the Government were to take the view that they would pay for the principle of equity only if they thought that they could afford the price?
Precisely because the Minister is fair-minded, however, I think that there may be some hope of persuading him that if Parliament takes a decision affecting people employed full time in what has hitherto been a perfectly respectable and legal occupation, a moral injunction would be placed on the Government to provide some type of compensation. Who am I talking about? Very often, they are in very modest occupations, such as groom, farrier, saddler, kennel huntsman, or gamekeeper. They may find it very difficult to find another job.
Mr. Clifton-Brown: My hon. Friend has talked about the moral case for the Government to provide compensation, but has he considered that there may be a legal case for providing it? Has he considered the 1986 Lithgow v. United Kingdom case--which clarified the point not only that people may be deprived of their possessions only in exceptional circumstances, when it is in the public interest to do so, but that compensation should be paid except in exceptional circumstances? Does he think that if the Government were to proceed with the Bill without compensation provisions, it could give rise to a challenge in the European Court of Human Rights?
Mr. Leigh: I think that that is a very fair point. In his reply, the Minister--who is a Home Office Minister, not a MAFF Minister--could try to deal with it. I have no doubt that the Government are open to challenge on the matter in the European Court of Human Rights. Article 1 of protocol 1 of the European convention on human rights provides:
Mr. Mike O'Brien: I hesitate to intervene on the hon. Gentleman, who might pull out his Hansard on me, however, he will be aware that the European convention is now, of course, part of United Kingdom law. If the
Mr. Clifton-Brown: My hon. Friend will be aware that, under the European convention on human rights, which has now been incorporated into our own legislation, every Bill passed by Parliament has to have a certificate stating that the legislation conforms with that convention. If what he is saying is correct, does he think that the Minister might have difficulty issuing such a certificate for this Bill?
Mr. Leigh: That is precisely the point that I made a moment ago. When we raise issues in this type of debate, the Minister replying may say, "Of course that point has been dealt with; my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has issued a certificate", as if that were the end of the argument. Civil servants do not seem to brief Ministers to reply to the legal issues that have been raised.
I believe that a ban could be in breach of protocol 1 because it would interfere with the property rights of landowners who participate in hunts on their own land. In reply to the specific point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) that such a ban could be deemed by the courts as an interference with "substance of ownership" and with the "peaceful enjoyment" of those possessions, such a right is guaranteed in the first sentence of article 1.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold mentioned the case of Lithgow v. United Kingdom, which I do not want to deal with in detail. However, without trying to get into a long legal debate with the Minister, it would be very interesting if, with the help of those who advise him in these matters, he could tell us that Lithgow does not apply in this case. The European convention states that deprivation of possessions is acceptable only if it is in the public interest and conforms to international law or practice. Will the Minister say whether he believes that the European Court, or our courts, would interpret that to mean that a ban on hunting--which is a departure from existing practice--was in the public interest?
Mr. Gummer: Does my hon. Friend realise the seriousness of what he has just said? In the past, Britain has led the rest of Europe in matters of human rights and individual freedom. Although I very often disagree with my hon. Friend about matters European, it seems to me that we ought to be the leaders in that regard: we should not rely on the European Court to protect human rights that, historically, we have protected for ourselves. My hon. Friend is saying that the Government are doing something that no previous Government would have done, and that British citizens will have to appeal to the European Court for protection. Is he fully cognisant of how serious a matter that is?
The proposal to ban hunting represents a major step. Before they proceed, hon. Members must be aware of the legal arguments involved. Those arguments can be dismissed as mere lawyer's talk, but what is the law for? The law is something very precious, whose purpose is to protect freedom and traditional liberties. That is why we have it.
The Government may have shot themselves in the foot on this matter. They have made it even easier for people to appeal to the European convention and other authorities. If this Bill is enacted, it could well fall foul of that convention.
However, let us talk not of laws, lawyers, conventions and Europe, but concentrate instead on ordinary people and the English countryside. At present, struggling farmers receive a free service. I accept that that service is not available throughout the country, and that in certain circumstances a nominal charge may be made, but the service exists. The Bill will take away that service.
Mr. Soames: Does not my hon. Friend agree that the problem is not merely that the service will be taken away, but that it is irreplaceable? There is no other infrastructure in the countryside to cope with the problem of fallen stock. Are not the Government therefore shooting themselves in the foot in a major way?
Mr. Leigh: One Labour Member attended the debate for a short time and in a throwaway remark said that the knacker industry would take care of the problem. I wonder whether that hon. Gentleman knows what is happening to the knacker industry in rural areas, or to small rural abattoirs. I wonder whether he has tried to visit one recently--if he could find one that still exists. If the fallen stock service is removed, can the knacker industry cope?
I am prepared to accept that I do not have access to all the figures, but common sense suggests that removing the free service provided by hunts might mean that what remains of the knacker industry will promptly up its charges.
Mr. Paterson: The hon. Gentleman to which my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) refers represents a Scottish constituency. Was not that hon. Gentleman imposing his prejudice on my English constituents, and those of my hon. Friend, whereas we have no say about what goes on in regard to this matter north of the border?