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Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 15 (Exempted business),

Question agreed to.

27 Feb 2001 : Column 825

Hunting Bill

Order for Third Reading read.

10.39 pm

Mr. Mike O'Brien: I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

Mr. Hogg: On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. As you will know, 11 groups of amendments were before the House and it debated only two of them, which means that nine groups were either largely undiscussed or not discussed at all. Under the programme motion, I know that you, Mr. Speaker, must proceed to Third Reading, but it is within your discretion formally to inform the Lord Chancellor that this House has not properly or fully debated the Bill. I respectfully ask you to do that.

Mr. Speaker: I have no responsibility to do that, and I will not be doing so.

Mr. Michael: On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. It should be pointed out for the record and for the benefit of their lordships that, in the debates in Committee and in the House today, those who are opposed to the Bill in principle have sought to talk at great length and with minimal content rather than debate the Bill properly. The Bill's opponents are entirely responsible for ensuring that the debates have not been as full as they might have been.

Mr. Speaker: We have Hansard as a record of our proceedings, and the other place can draw its own conclusions.

Mr. O'Brien: In commending the Bill to the House for its Third Reading, I am pleased to say that the Government have achieved their objective in promoting it. By that, I do not mean that we, as a Government, are necessarily pleased that the House has decided to adopt the option that would ban most hunting. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary might have his own views on that. However, as he explained when he opened the Second Reading debate just before Christmas, our aim was to enable the issue of hunting with dogs to be resolved. The House has now taken a clear view on how it wants to proceed, and I expect that view to be strongly endorsed once more if anyone decides to divide the House at the end of this debate. We have moved closer to a resolution of this long drawn out and contentious matter.

It has always been clear to us as a Government that it would be difficult to resolve the issue of hunting through the private Member's route. Private Members' Bills work best when there is general agreement that the policy to which they give effect is broadly supported and desirable. The only way the issue of hunting could be resolved was by making Government time available, and that is what we have done. We introduced a multi-option Bill and left it to hon. Members to decide which of the options they wished to adopt.

Overall, I think that our deliberations have been very productive and surprisingly good natured. It comes as no surprise to anyone that there have been strong and at times diametrically opposed views on this issue--there have even been middle-way views on them. Nevertheless, the debates have been broadly constructive.

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The fact that earlier today we made a number of changes to the option that the House had earlier endorsed bears witness to the fact that those on both sides of the House felt that it was possible to engage in a genuine attempt to ensure that we passed the best possible law.

I would like to thank those who helped to draft the Bill. In particular, I thank the Countryside Alliance. It did not want the Bill, but it engaged in the process of policy making in a way that deserves great praise. I extend to it my personal appreciation of the courteous and commonsense approach that it adopted in the discussions that have been undertaken. I wish, in particular, to thank John Jackson for the way in which he has managed to guide the policy development of the Countryside Alliance.

I also want to compliment the Middle Way Group. Without resources or large numbers, it fought a sterling battle for its views to be heard, whether or not we agreed with them. The hon. Members for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik) and for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) and my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) did the House a great service by promoting such views. They are a credit to us and I thank them for their contributions.

I extend my thanks to Deadline 2000, which prefers to be called the Campaign for the Protection of Hunted Animals. In particular, I thank John Rolls of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Douglas Bachelor of the League Against Cruel Sports, Mike Baker of the International Fund for Animal Welfare and Bill Swan, the veterinary consultant who, with supporters throughout the country, provided a great deal of information on the option that was supported.

Those people and organisations engaged in a sensible parliamentary approach and showed that they could get results. They faced up to the policy issues and demonstrated leadership. People on the extreme wing of the animal rights movement--some of whom have engaged in the most appalling thuggery and violence--have said that the parliamentary system cannot work. I must tell them that the recent attack on the managing director of Huntingdon Life Sciences was appalling and should be condemned by all hon. Members. I know that most people who support animal welfare condemn it.

The way the Bill has been handled and the constructive debate on it have shown that the parliamentary system can indeed work. Whether we agree or disagree with the outcome, hon. Members can be proud that they have demonstrated that the system allows them to listen to the debate that is taking place in the country. They have proved that Parliament is a forum for the discussion of strongly felt issues, where issues are properly debated, and that a resolution can be achieved.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East): Will the Minister help those people who believe in democracy by saying whether the Government would proceed with the Bill, in the likelihood that it does not become law, if they are re-elected? Although I accept that their re-election is a possibility, it is not something that I would want.

Mr. O'Brien: I have made it clear that it is for the House to determine the way in which the Bill is handled. I am not going to jump ahead, which the hon. Gentleman--no doubt for good reasons--invites me to

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do. We will listen to the debates as they proceed in another place. We have set out our neutral position, which is to facilitate debate. When the Bill goes to another place, we will take the earliest opportunity to table amendments to restore the ability to debate the three options that were placed before this House. Members of another place will be able to discuss those and form a view. The Government will facilitate that, as was done in relation to legislation on Sunday trading. We said from the start that we intended to proceed on that basis. We have tried to play as straight a bat as possible by ensuring that people know about our approach.

Mr. Soames: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. O'Brien: Perhaps in a moment; I want to make some progress.

Today's changes have improved the Bill. They bear witness to the fact that hon. Members have listened. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington), who led for the Opposition. Like most--although certainly not all--members of his party, he is opposed to restrictions on hunting with dogs. He has advanced the view of people who favour the retention of hunting. I accept that he is at odds with the central purpose of the option on which the House decided, but he approached consideration of the Bill in Committee with a positive attitude and sought to improve it during its passage. I commend him for that. Some Opposition Members' speeches could have been much shorter, and there were suspicions that there was an attempt to delay progress, but I do not want to go into that. It is important that we recognise that the issue was debated sensibly and constructively.

Mr. Soames: The Minister says that he is proud of the way in which the House has handled the issue. Does he mean that he is proud that the majority in this place has been used to crush the rights of an entirely legal minority which has enjoyed its sport and way of life for thousands of years? Does he believe that that is something to be proud of?

Mr. O'Brien: The right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), who speaks from the Opposition Front Bench, has voted consistently for a ban on hunting. On Second Reading, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary expressed his views in relation to these matters. Members have been able to put forward their views as constituency representatives. The outcome may not suit the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames), but that is democracy.

The debate throughout the country has been reflected in many ways in the outcome in the House. It is good that we have been able to have a sensible debate about these matters. I know that the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex is angry about the outcome, but he has contributed in a sensible and reasoned way on many occasions and added to our knowledge of the issues. The improvements that we have seen to the Bill, and the way in which the House has contributed to making it better law, are thanks also to him. I am sure that making good law is important to the hon. Gentleman.

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I pay tribute to the Middle Way Group, to other organisations, to the Opposition and to the Liberal Democrats--we have heard four different views from them, and three in Committee. I thank all concerned.

I should pay a final and important tribute. The House will join me in thanking Lord Burns and the members of his team. The fact that the committee's report was cited so often by all sides who participated in the debate demonstrates what an invaluable and objective document it is. I am grateful to those who were responsible for it.

We have had private Members' Bills on this issue almost year upon year. I am delighted that on this occasion the House has been given the opportunity to consider it again collectively and reach a collective view. The vote in Committee of the whole House was decisive. Even those who do not agree with the outcome must accept that. The Bill is before the House for Third Reading, and I commend it to the House. The House should be able to endorse the Bill because it reflects its will on a free vote on a matter of conscience. It has been a good debate. It is a good Bill, and I commend it to the House.

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