Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Nicholas Winterton: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. O'Brien: With that reassurance, the Government are alive to concerns about the disposal of fallen stock, which go much wider than the possible consequences of the Bill. I invite the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) to consider withdrawing the new clause.

Mr. Baker rose--

Mr. O'Brien: I promised to give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Baker: I welcome the assurance that the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is addressing the issue,

27 Feb 2001 : Column 783

and that needs to be done. Can the hon. Gentleman give the House an assurance that whatever scheme is produced by the Minister will, first, not increase costs to farmers and, secondly, will not increase the dangers of animal health problems or dangers to the environment?

Mr. O'Brien: I wish that, off the top of my head, I could give those categoric assurances. Unfortunately, I am not in a position to do so. These matters must be discussed between the industry and the Ministry. In the past, we have normally taken the view that where an industry produces--I am not sure whether this is the right word--a by-product, which is in this instance fallen stock, it is the responsibility of those who produce the by-product to ensure that it is properly and environmentally sensitively disposed of. I am sure that the Liberal Democrat party would support the "polluter pays" principle. We would apply that sort of approach.

We are aware of and sensitive to the serious problems that are facing agriculture, not just over the past few weeks but over a much longer period. The Government will be much more sympathetic to the problems of the industry and will not merely apply a broad-based principle. I have talked to the farmers in my constituency, and they are concerned about what would happen if the hunt were to go. It is a real issue for them, and one that the Government need to consider in a wider context.

The Bill forms part of the wider issue. If people think that by keeping hunting they will somehow deal with the issues involving fallen stock, they are much mistaken. In considering the European regulations and the wider interest, we can see that the matter needs to be dealt with as a whole.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine): Can the Minister clarify a point for me? In the debate two weeks ago on the BSE crisis, there was much talk of joined-up Government and Departments working together. Have his Department and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food co-ordinated effort with regard to the impact of the Bill? Will solutions be in place before the problems are created?

8 pm

Mr. O'Brien: MAFF has been very much involved in the Bill. The Bill was presented in such a way as to ensure that the House had an opportunity to debate three options. MAFF has considered the options and their implications. If--still an "if"--the House were to pass the Bill, it would still have to go to the other place, and we are all aware of other issues that might affect it. It may be that we shall have to consider it within the broader context of what we shall do generally about fallen stock. The Bill and other issues will affect farmers with respect to fallen stock. Considering the Bill in isolation would not resolve the problem. The suggestion from some Opposition Members that the Bill represents the whole fallen stock issue is simply nonsense. The issue goes wider, and the farming community deserves a better answer.

I shall give way once more, but I want to make some progress after that.

Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow): Will the Minister give us one good reason why he cannot answer the basic

27 Feb 2001 : Column 784

question of what he will do about fallen stock after the Bill has been passed? Who will pay for it? Will he assure us that the farming industry, which he has admitted is on its knees, cannot pay?

Mr. O'Brien: If the hon. Gentleman had listened to what I said, he would realise that I have dealt with that issue. [Interruption.] Even if he does not accept that, I am going to move on. This matter of fallen stock and farming goes far wider than the Bill. The problems of the farming industry face my constituents every day. The Government seek serious answers to serious problems, but the hon. Gentleman seeks flip solutions. If that is his approach, he is not doing justice to his own constituents.

Amendments Nos. 36 and 40 raise another important issue: compensation. The Government take seriously the job losses that may arise in the event of a ban on hunting. The details of such losses were set out in the Burns report, and I need not cite them. No hon. Member wants anyone to lose a job. All those who voted for a ban on hunting will have taken account of the employment implications before they decided how to vote. I certainly weighed that factor before deciding how to cast my vote. I concluded that the House needs to make judgments, as we did on handguns and other issues.

We must consider the wider good of the whole of society. Enactment of a ban must be seen in that context. Whatever passions have been aroused by legislation that has resulted in lost jobs in years gone by, the House has, by and large, sought to do the right thing. The House has considered job losses seriously; that issue was a key factor on Second Reading.

Both amendments would offer compensation at a level set by the Secretary of State, which would be paid to those whose paid employment depended on hunting with dogs. Who are those people? Apart from those directly employed by hunts--even Burns was unable to set an exact number of those people, which suggests some ambiguity--many others might claim to be in that position, particularly if generous compensation were on offer.

What about a farrier who depended on a hunt for 30 per cent. of his business? The business would probably continue, though perhaps with a reduced turnover. Would the owner, or the employees of the business, qualify for compensation? What would happen if a hunt decided, once the ban had come into force, to convert itself into a drag hunt? Why should an employee of that hunt, whose job description and conditions of service might change only slightly, be eligible for compensation?

Amendment No. 36 was tabled by the Middle Way Group and suggests that compensation should be paid in respect of damage caused by species of animals that had previously been hunted by dogs. I do not want to be too unkind about that well-intentioned suggestion, but it is not close to common sense. Foxes and other predators damage crops and livestock. From Burns, we know that in the event of a ban on hunting, other methods of fox control would be used. How it would be possible to say that damage had been caused by a fox that would have been controlled if hunting had still been legal I simply do not know.

Amendment No. 40 was tabled by Opposition Members and seeks to provide compensation for anyone deprived of any service previously provided by hunts. Leaving

27 Feb 2001 : Column 785

aside the possibility of a claim on the public purse for any service unrelated to hunting that a huntsman may once have provided to the population as a whole, where on earth would the line be drawn? As Burns made clear, hunts provide a wide range of services, including voluntary assistance. It would be a bureaucratic nightmare to try to assess every claim.

On grounds of practicality alone, I would not recommend that the House make either of the amendments. The Government, as guardians of the public purse--the taxpayer's money--could not, as a matter of principle, support them. The commitments in them would be completely open and would not allow the kind of controls on the public purse that I expect.

In the past, compensation has been paid to those who, as a consequence of legislation, have been deprived of their property. The most notable recent example was firearms compensation, following the tragedy at Dunblane. However, as I have already pointed out, certain dealers in firearms were not compensated for the loss of their profit. We generally have not paid compensation from public funds to those who may have lost their livelihoods as a result of legislation. To go down that route would set a precedent that might have unpredictable consequences if it were done in the way that the amendments propose.

The right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) mentioned the compensation scheme for the fur farming industry, which was shut down as a result of the prohibition on fur farming. That case is hardly analogous. The Fur Farming (Prohibition) Act 2000 closed down an entire industry. The Bill, by contrast, simply restricts certain activities. Those who own hounds will still be able to use them for drag hunts, while those who own horses will be able to ride as part of an organised hunt or otherwise. Those who serve such people, such as the blacksmiths who shoe horses or the grooms, will still be required.

Hunt employees are precisely that--employees of individual hunts. It is open to those hunts, if they decide not to go in for drag hunting or some similar activity, to offer their staff appropriate payment. Before anyone tells me that hunts do not have resources, I can say that the hon. Member for Gainsborough said in Committee that hunting

I shall make one further point, having been on my feet for long enough. It has been suggested that the absence of provision for compensation renders the Bill incompatible with the European convention on human rights. Our legal advice is that that is not the case. We are not dealing with deprivation of property, but with control of the use of property. There is a requirement in all but exceptional cases to pay compensation for deprivation of property, but there is no such requirement in relation to measures constituting the control of the use of property. We are satisfied that the Bill, without any provision for compensation, is fully in accordance with article 1, protocol 1 of the convention.

Next Section

IndexHome Page