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Norman Baker (Lewes): I welcome the fact that the Minister has made an early statement to the House, following the debates in both Houses earlier this week. Since 1997, Parliament has spent more than 130 hours discussing hunting. The Minister is therefore right to say that we need to reach a conclusion "once and for all", to use the words in his statement. However, I notice that the process that he has set out will take another 12 months to complete.

Does not the Minister's statement take us back to square one, in that all options are open again? The Minister has changed the way in which matters will be dealt with. Rightly, he has moved away from discussing particular bans, and has proposed that we look at questions of cruelty and utility. Will he accept, however, that the definition of cruelty is subjective, and that

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hon. Members of all parties will reach different conclusions about it? How does he intend to reconcile subjective views of that nature?

Will the Minister accept that his statement could be interpreted by some as code for a sort of middle way solution, which will stop hare coursing but allow some foxhunting to continue? That would be in line with the briefings that senior people in Government gave to the press last weekend.

Finally, it may be admirable to try to bridge the unbridgeable—and I applaud the Minister's attempt—but I hope that he will clarify his intentions, in light of the question from the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster). Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the Bill will be subject to a free vote? Will he also ensure that, if the House of Commons votes for a form of legislation that bans all foxhunting and hunting with dogs, he will enable the Parliament Act to be used, and that the will of the Commons will triumph?

Alun Michael: I thank the hon. Gentleman for a series of interesting questions. The Government are promoting discussion and debate. We are taking a little time to try to seek agreement and to achieve as much common ground as possible.

I do not think that the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) is right to say that my statement takes us back to the beginning. I explained the process that will be undertaken, and the principles on which it is based, and I suggested that what we need to discuss are the practicalities. For those reasons, therefore, my statement moves matters forward.

The hon. Member for Lewes said that the definition of cruelty is subjective. I am sure that there will be much discussion of that when we come to scrutinise the legislation, but the law is already clear that cruelty is defined as that which causes unnecessary suffering. In practice, the concept is used in the courts in a variety of ways, so I do not think that there is the uncertainty about meaning that the hon. Gentleman suggests.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether the proposals did not look a little like the middle way. I assure him that this is not the middle way. He also referred to briefings from elsewhere in Government, but I know of no such briefings. I assure him that the only authoritative briefings on this issue come from me. If he has any doubts about anything that he hears and which is ascribed to someone else in Government, the hon. Gentleman should give me a call and I will put him right.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether the question of hunting will continue to be dealt with on a free vote. I can confirm that it will. His final question referred to the nature of the Bill. The Government have made it clear that the Parliament Act is enabled to allow the House of Commons to come to decisions. The use of the Parliament Act is a matter for the House of Commons. We will not stand in the way of that. We will enable the process if it is needed, but I again make it clear that I am dealing with that point now so that we can put it to one side and ensure that we do not spend ages discussing whether the Parliament Act will be used. We should prefer it if the Parliament Act were not used, as we want to deal with

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the matter by seeking common ground, through debate and through the normal processes of this House and the other place.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton): Is my right hon. Friend aware that I had hoped to receive from him today a precise statement that Monday's decision by the House of Commons that a full ban on all forms of hunting with dogs would be introduced as a substantive Bill as soon as possible? However, that is not what we heard.

My right hon. Friend asks us to trust him. I certainly trust him, as I have a high personal regard for him. In the end, however, the only thing that I will trust is a Bill. I hope that my right hon. Friend will give a very clear answer to the question that I am about to ask him. His answer will govern my approach to this matter and—for what it is worth—to other matters that arise in this House for the remainder of this Parliament.

Let us assume that, after the consultation period, the Government introduce a Bill that contains some exceptions, and that the House of Commons on a free vote decides to remove all those exceptions and to impose a complete ban on all forms of hunting with dogs. In those circumstances, will my right hon. Friend give me the clear assurance that that would be the Bill for which the Parliament Act would be invoked?

Alun Michael: First, I am aware of my right hon. Friend's preference. No one who has heard him speak on the matter could be in the slightest doubt about what he wants to happen. However, I hope that the promise that what he called a substantive Bill would be introduced as soon as possible will encourage him. I have suggested a specific time scale for that, and again I hope that he will accept that the intention is to provide certainty, for him and for the rest of the House.

I am absolutely clear that if the Government introduce a Bill that is amended in the House of Commons, our promise in relation to allowing the Parliament Act to obtain will apply. It would be a matter for the Commons. I think I cannot underline enough the important words "This would be a matter for the House of Commons".

Mr. John Maples (Stratford-on-Avon): I am sure that when the Minister first entered the House he, like me, considered protecting the rights and freedoms of minorities one of its most important functions. On that basis, we in the House have for many years continued to tolerate things of which, individually or collectively, we disapprove. Is it not a very sad day for the Minister and the House when he invites us to abandon that long-established principle?

Alun Michael: There are many minorities whose freedom of action is curtailed in a variety of ways because the House has decided through history that a particular thing should be banned. That applies whether the hon. Gentleman is referring to bear-baiting, cockfighting or similar activities relating to animals, or to various other activities that are regarded as offences because one person's ability to exercise his or her freedom of action impinges on the rights and obligations of others. I am afraid that, by simply referring to the freedom of the individual, the hon. Gentleman is not helping us to arrive at appropriate and robust legislation.

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Yes, I believe entirely that it is the responsibility of a majority to protect the rights and freedoms of individuals; but it must be done in a manner that also ensures that where there is a principle that should not be offended against, that principle is upheld.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South): My right hon. Friend is a very reasonable man. He has talked a good deal about the need for discussion and debate. May I express the hope that there will not be too much discussion and debate? After all, we have had rather a lot of that already. What we seek is a watertight Bill, and what I seek from the Minister today is an assurance that what will result at the end of this is not a Bill leading to years of litigation, with judges driving a coach and horses through the various definitions in the Bill, followed by demands for yet another Bill. We must bring this matter to an end; the will of Parliament must prevail.

Alun Michael: My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that it is important to produce a Bill that is effective and watertight, and will not lead to a mass of litigation. I assure him that I am not in the business of increasing the incomes of lawyers, or the amount of activity in the courts. I will seek to apply the principle that he has put to us to the drafting of the legislation.

My hon. Friend says that there has been enough discussion and debate. I suspect that in embarking on this process the person I am condemning to the greatest quantity of discussion and debate is myself, in listening mode but also in discussion mode, trying to tease out the best way of implementing the legislation. I shall try to live up to the term that my hon. Friend used in his vicious attack, and continue to be a reasonable man.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex): Does the Minister accept that by himself voting against the middle way the other night, he demonstrated that he was not prepared to listen? Does he also accept that to millions in the country at large, and to all who love hunting and the countryside, the Government's sense of priorities is astonishing and impossible to understand? Finally, let me tell him this: the countryside will fight for liberty, livelihood and freedom. What he proposes does indeed mark a black day for freedom in this country.

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