Hunting Bill

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The Chairman: Before I call the next speaker, I remind the Committee that debate on the motion is limited to half an hour from 4.15 pm.

Mr. Maples: There are two interpretations of why the Government have proposed the extra day: one is cynical and probably correct; the other is charitable and probably naive. The cynic in me says that the proposal is connected to managing perceptions in the other place. Given that we have only got through half the amendments, the impression could be created that the Bill was rushed through Committee. However, the Government will get their way, so I might as well put a charitable interpretation on it, even if that is a little na—ve. My charitable interpretation of the extra day is that there are things that the Government want to do with the Bill.

4.30 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary said that areas of the Bill could be improved. Those were not her exact words, but that is what she thought. Therefore, by delaying consideration of the amendments, we are delaying the point at which the Government could improve the Bill. If the Parliamentary Secretary or the Under-Secretary were to indicate those areas, my hon. Friends and I would be prepared to move speedily towards them.

There are four clear days between now and next Tuesday. During that time, I hope the Parliamentary Secretary, the Under-Secretary and their officials will make it their business to discuss the anomalies in the drafting with Deadline 2000, so we do not repeat the farce of Ministers washing their hands of their own Bill. They and their civil servants have plenty of time—and God knows there are enough of them—to consult with Deadline 2000. They should examine future amendments, consider them in relation to anomalies in the drafting and be prepared to answer the points. I hope that that will happen on Tuesday, but if it does not the cynic in me will once again have been proved right, in which case the extra day will be about managing perceptions, not improving legislation.

Mr. Leigh: I shall speak briefly because I want to give the Parliamentary Secretary a chance to reply before the guillotine falls.

I am genuinely interested to know how the new system works. When the Government and the Whips Office deal with a Bill, is there a genuine attempt to work out how long it is, how complex it is and how many amendments are being tabled? How did they come up with the view that 8 February was the right day to finish? What happens if all the amendments have not been dealt with? We are at an early stage of these proceedings and I do not know how matters have been dealt with in other Bills. However, I understand that the Criminal Justice and Police Bill, which has just started, is making slow progress and is unlikely, under its present timetable, to deal with all the amendments in Standing Committee before the guillotine falls.

Will this Bill set a precedent? Like my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon, I am trying not to take a cynical view. Are the Government saying, ``We have had a reasonable debate, but this is an important Bill. Serious issues have been raised on both sides and we have only got through a few amendments. Therefore, we shall have another day''? If that were the answer, we would welcome it. Alternatively, are the Government treating this Bill differently from other Bills? In other Bills, despite all the amendments having not been dealt with, the guillotine still falls. They say, ``That is up to the Opposition. We allowed until 8 February. The Opposition have wasted time; we want to get this business through.'' I am genuinely interested whether we are setting a precedent. In future, if all the amendments to a Bill have not been dealt with by the deadline, will the Government allow extra days? I suspect that they will not.

It could be, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon suggested, that the Government are worried about the Bill's reception in the other place. They may be worried that people in the other place will draw attention to the fact that only certain amendments have been considered. An even more cynical interpretation, which I am sure the Parliamentary Secretary will want to blow out of the water in her reply, is that the Bill is being treated differently from any other Bill in the Government's legislative programme.

Mr. Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South): Far be it from me to stand in the way of my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary blowing the hon. Gentleman out of the water. For the record, will the hon. Gentleman confirm that Conservative Members were in fact offered two days of further time for the Bill and said that they only required one?

Mr. Leigh: I am not a member of the usual channels, and have never been invited. I wonder why? Some of my friends who are members of the usual channels may shake their heads.

Mr. Keith Simpson: I would like to put on record that we were never offered two days, only one.

Mr. Mike Hall: We went over this ground in the Programming Sub-Committee. I told the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) that I was prepared to consider the possibility of extending Standing Committee time and asked how much time he would like for the following week. I did not offer him one day or two. I can say for the record that if he had asked for two days, I would have given him two days.

Mr. Simpson: I was offered one day. I know, Mr. O'Hara, that you do not wish to get involved in this sort of activity, but there is obviously a disagreement between the hon. Gentleman and myself. What this proves is that the current system is not working and unfortunately it is the Government's fault.

Mr. Leigh: I feel like a little rabbit with two rather fierce creatures running around me who might eat me at any moment. I am grateful for those distinguished interventions, which prove to me—someone who was not invited to be a member of that Sub-Committee—how nice it would be to have a transcript; or, perhaps, we could all be part of this discussion. However, that does not affect the point that I was making.

I am sure that the Government Whip, the hon. Member for Weaver Vale, was trying to make a devastating intervention, but he has intimated something serious and his hon. Friends should be worried. Is he now saying that, despite everything that has happened on other Bills—where the Government have ruthlessly ensured that the deadline falls and that the Bill goes straight back to the House, even if there are amendments tabled that have not been fully considered—uniquely, with this Bill, they prepared to offered one, two, three or four days? How determined are the Government to make progress on this Bill? I am sure that the Parliamentary Secretary will not respond to this point.

We all know what is going on. The Government are very happy for the Opposition to have one, two, three or four days. They are not worried if this Bill does not progress. All the big campaigners such as the hon. Members for Pendle, for West Ham (Mr. Banks) and for Nottingham, South (Mr. Simpson) should be complaining not about us, but about their own Government, who, apparently, and contrary to their own programmers, are prepared to be so dilatory that the Bill is delayed.

When I was a Member of Parliament in 1987 and just before I was elected in 1983, the then Governments called the general election in June and many of the Bills that they had introduced in November were chopped. This Government have been quite clever. They had a very narrow legislative programme and put through a few fairly uncontroversial Bills very quickly. They will put those to the other place so that they will be able to become law or go to the Queen for Royal Assent by the beginning of April.

The Chairman: Order. We are concerned about the programme resolution for the Hunting Bill.

Mr. Leigh: And so am I. The Government have the votes. If they were serious about the Bill, they could push it through, but they are not. What is going on? I suspect that they are very happy for the Bill to get to the Lords at such a late date that there is no way in which their Lordships can process it by the early part of April. Therefore, it will not become law.

Labour Members should be worried about what is happening in Scotland, where the Scottish Parliament is apparently now favouring the licensing of hunting. If I wanted to abolish hunting, I would be worried about what was going on in the high recesses of the Home Office at the moment. I would be worried that my own Ministers were paying lip service to progressing the Bill, while by the back door they were trying to bring in licensing of hunting.

Mr. Rendel: I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman that the Labour party does not want the Bill to make progress at present, but I think that it is for a different reason. I suspect that Labour believes, quite rightly, that it will make an extremely good issue during the general election and that it will gain many votes if there is still uncertainty about whether hunting will be banned or not. That is why the Government are hoping to keep the matter open until after the election.

Mr. Leigh: That is a rather a cynical point of view. I am sure that the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to tell me that I am wrong and that the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) is wrong, and she will be able to explain in five minutes what is going on.

Mr. Michael: I find the contributions that we have heard during the past few minutes intensely irritating. It is clear that Conservative Members do not know what they are doing. They should not refer only to Scotland, but should consider what happened in Wales yesterday when a Conservative Member said, ``We don't want to hear both sides on hunting. We only want to hear the side that justifies our view.''

Opponents of hunting on the Conservative Benches have struggled to stay in order during the past few sittings and have just about managed that, but they have wasted an inordinate amount of time with the cynical ploy of being able to say, ``We haven't had enough time.'' Now that the offer of extra time has been provided and the opportunity of even more than what is in the programme resolution was available had they bothered to ask for it, they are clearly seeking to avoid debate on the whole Bill and being cynical in their approach. I remind them, as they are being so unpleasant, that there is a free vote on the matter. Are they tempting us to vote against the resolution so that we can finish today?

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Prepared 8 February 2001