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Alun Michael: The hon. Gentleman makes a rather populist point. Most people whom I meet in the countryside would set as priorities for action by the Government the very actions to which we have given priority—the revival of the economy in rural areas, encouraging communities in rural areas, looking at the future of food and farming and promoting tourism in rural areas. They would expect us to give priority to issues that affect people's everyday lives in rural areas, such as education, health and transport, in which we have invested massively more than the Conservative Government.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether the way in which I voted on Monday had somehow compromised my role. This issue has been before the House on a free vote on numerous occasions. It would be a very odd Member of Parliament who had not reached a conclusion on questions such as those that were before us on Monday; it would be a very odd Member of Parliament who failed to vote on them.

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I have always been absolutely straight and honest with people I have met—including members of the campaign for hunting—to ensure that they know which way I have voted on the matter over the years. I have also made it absolutely clear to them, and to every group, that I have been given a separate role by the Prime Minister, which is to enable Parliament to reach a conclusion. I shall do the job as objectively as I can: having personal opinions takes away none of my responsibility for enabling that process.

Mr. Mike O'Brien (North Warwickshire): I welcome the preparedness to invoke the Parliament Act, should that be needed, but will my right hon. Friend confirm that it could not be invoked in the next Session with a new Bill, and that the process would therefore probably take a further year? Will he also confirm that the Government have moved from a position of neutrality—of merely facilitating Parliament's arrival at a conclusion based on one of the three options—to the undertaking of a new process to secure a Bill based on common ground? Has he any idea what that common ground would be?

Alun Michael: My hon. Friend is right: the process will take a little longer by the means I have proposed today than by the means of applying the Parliament Act to the previous Bill. That, however, is a price that we consider worth paying to try to avoid the continuing danger of a stalemate between the two Houses, and to find as much common ground as possible between us and those who feel strongly about these issues, both in this House and outside.

My hon. Friend asked whether the Government had moved. The Government have not moved from being neutral on the issue, but we have accepted a responsibility that we gave ourselves in our manifesto before the general election—a responsibility for enabling Parliament to reach a conclusion. That is the responsibility I have taken on in trying to find the best possible legislation in order to reach the best possible conclusion. I see that as a role for enabling Parliament.

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald): Does the right hon. Gentleman share my regret that discussions on this important issue should be couched in terms of class warfare? Does he accept that many of us who have been involved in this and other campaigns have a long record of fighting for the welfare of animals? Does he find it remotely likely that when the hon. Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks) mounted a campaign to protect tortured bears in China, he was declaring class warfare on the communist regime there?

In every free vote since 1987, has it not been standard practice for the Minister and the Opposition spokesman to give their personal views and then to make clear that they nevertheless have a duty to the House? Finally, is not the method of resolving the problem that the right hon. Gentleman has announced just a recipe for yet more delay, and for allowing the issue to run up and down the parliamentary system when we should be discussing other issues? Should the matter not now be brought to a firm conclusion? The House has shown its view; we are the democratically elected body.

Alun Michael: I can agree with a great deal of what the right hon. Lady said. I certainly share her regret that

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the issue should be debated in terms of class warfare, and I am sure that members of her own Front Bench will have heard her injunction. I will leave it to her to debate issues with my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks), but I am sure that any debate of that kind would be worth listening to, given two such robust participants.

I endorse the right hon. Lady's point about the difference between a personal view and a Minister's responsibility to the House. As a shadow Minister, I always took the view that a similar need exists to distinguish between personal responsibilities and one's responsibility to the House in trying to enable good legislation. On several occasions when I was in opposition, contributions and discussions—sometimes in the House, sometimes outside it—helped the Government to improve legislation. I hope that the hon. Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton) has listened to this exchange.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall): May I welcome the fact that the Minister has not introduced a Bill today to ban hunting with dogs? That shows that the many people in the countryside who think that we should not spend huge amounts of time on this issue are being listened to, and that a way exists to satisfy most sensible people. Do the Government have a view on cruelty, and does the Minister have a view on what Lord Burns himself said in the House of Lords? He said:

in the Burns report—

What is the Government's view on the Burns report?

Alun Michael: My hon. Friend refers to comments made in another place, rather than to the report itself. One problem is that many people pick out a particular paragraph from the Burns report and use it to justify the position that they adopted before reading it. I take the view that it is important for this House to be able to deal with cruelty in respect of hunting with dogs—that is what the issue is all about. We should do so by referring to the useful work undertaken by Lord Burns, and to the practicalities that I referred to in my statement. That is the subject for consultation in the next few weeks, and that process will certainly be interesting. However, it will be informed by the contents of the Burns report.

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton): Was not the Parliament Act designed to allow the House of Commons to get its way only when the House of Lords thwarts a specific and detailed legislative commitment in a general election manifesto? The Labour party's last manifesto makes no such specific commitment to a ban; instead, deliberately chosen, mealy-mouthed, ambiguous words are used. Is it not a complete abuse of the Parliament Act, therefore, to try to invoke it in this case, or can the Minister cite a precedent for its being used for a non-manifesto or non-budgetary issue?

Alun Michael: The hon. Gentleman hangs together several errors and imprecisions. The point is that, should the two Houses reach an impasse, we will enable the Commons to have its way, but I have made it clear time

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and again that we hope that the process will avoid that outcome. A very precise manifesto commitment was made to enable Parliament to reach a conclusion on the legislation. The hon. Gentleman should examine that precise commitment and recognise that it is on that authority that the House of Commons is able to proceed. However, if possible we want to achieve maximum common ground for all who engage in the debate. That is as much an offer—as it were—to the House of Lords as an illustration of what would happen should such an impasse arise.

Mr. Tony Banks (West Ham): The comments of the hon. Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton) have already made clear to my right hon. Friend the impossibility of securing consensus in any form. He pointed out in his statement that the two Houses are diametrically opposed. Where can common ground be found? There is no common ground. I do not know why he wants to spend six months chasing shadows. A clash is obviously coming between this House and the House of Lords, so he ought to face up to that fact. To use some of the hon. Lady's rhetoric, he might as well cry havoc and let loose the dogs of war.

Alun Michael: I am not sure that I should take much notice of that encouragement. As my hon. Friend knows, by nature I am an optimist. He will also know that I am a Labour and Co-operative MP, so I seek wherever possible to co-operate and work with others. I am even open to co-operating with Opposition Front Benchers and other Conservative Members—if they will engage in the process, rather than simply writing it off at the outset. Similarly, many in the other place—some of whom disagree passionately with the views of people such as my hon. Friend—nevertheless say, "Let us talk. Jaw-jaw is better than war-war, so let us examine the options and see where they take us. Let us discuss the practicalities." I very much hope that matters will proceed in that way.

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