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Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): I had not intended to speak until I heard what the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) said. It would not be right for the House to allow a Bill that would restrict freedom of expression and free speech to pass unchallenged.

I accept that many people are offended when they see the burning—or what they describe as the desecration—of the national flag, and I agree with the hon. Lady that using and supporting the flag should not be seen as politically incorrect, whether that is in the context of sporting occasions or supporting the nation. I also accept that a flag is the emblem of a national state and that it belongs not to the Government but to all of us. However, she paid no attention to the requirement that the House and country should have to recognise that freedom of speech and expression should be allowed as long as other people are not damaged. People in this country must accept that others will have opinions and ways of expressing those opinions that may insult them, so it is wrong to use words such as "desecration" and to consider things to be sacred in such a way as to criminalise freedom of expression.

There is a tradition of burning flags as an expression of disgust—sometimes outright disgust—at something that is done in one's name by one's country. I would not use that method because I appreciate how insulting it can be, but nevertheless other people choose to. Short of covering the act under considerations of public order and burning in general, it should not be made a criminal offence, so I urge the House to oppose the Bill.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 23 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of public business), and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mrs. Angela Browning, Mr. Christopher Chope, Michael Fabricant, Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger, Dame Marion Roe, Mr. Andrew Rosindell and Angela Watkinson.

Desecration Of National Flags

Mrs. Angela Browning accordingly presented a Bill to establish a criminal offence of desecrating national flags; to establish penalties in relation to the offence; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 15 October, and to be printed [Bill 156].

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Hunting Bill (Procedure)

12.39 pm

The Minister for Rural Affairs and Local Environmental Quality (Alun Michael): I beg to move,

I shall be extremely brief because I am sure that right hon. and hon. Members will want to use the time available to discuss the substantive issues. The procedure motion gives reasonable time for debate on an issue that has been before the House many, many times. Indeed, one is tempted to say that everything that could be said has been said on many occasions. It is, in addition, the same Bill that came before the House last year, when it was debated extensively. Later in the process, there will be a debate on the sensible proposition on commencement.
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Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): The Minister will know that under section 2 of the Parliament Act 1911 it is possible to suggest amendments to improve the Bill. No time is allowed for any such suggestion motions, except for the Minister's suggested amendments. Is not it wrong in those circumstances to say that there is adequate time for debate?

Alun Michael: Not at all. There was plenty of opportunity for positive acts of amendment in two places—first, in this House, when it was last before us and, secondly, in another place, when it had the opportunity, which it did not fully take, to amend, debate and improve the Bill and return it to this House. I am absolutely clear that there has been plenty of opportunity to consider all the issues and plenty of opportunity for hon. Members on both sides of the House to produce amendments and suggest improvements. I reject entirely the hon. Gentleman's implication.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that the House of Lords did not complete its consideration of the Bill because it was effectively withdrawn by the Government before all the amendments could be discussed?

Alun Michael: I am sorry but the hon. Gentleman is absolutely and completely wrong. The House of Lords failed to complete its consideration of the Bill. It failed to use the time that the Government made available and to take advantage of a series of options for additional time. Debate on the Bill ceased as a result of an Opposition Chief Whip—I believe it was the Liberal Democrat Chief Whip—moving that the debate should end. The Government were prepared to give more time for debate, but the forces that wish to prevent the Bill's progress unfortunately did not take the time available to them in the House of Lords. This House, in contrast, has been quick to make full use of every minute of time made available to it on many occasions, and this motion deals with the timing of debates in this House.

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): At the end of an interesting week in Parliament, it seems that the British people will be able to beat their children but not chase a fox. Does the Minister think that the Government have got the balance right?

Alun Michael: The hon. Gentleman's flippant approach to both issues is rather sad. He will know as well as I do that issues such as education, getting young people into jobs and strengthening the economy, and large issues of health and the environment, which the Prime Minister addressed in an excellent speech yesterday, are the Government's priorities. This issue has been taking up parliamentary time year after year, and it must be brought to a conclusion. At the time of the last general election, we undertook to enable Parliament to reach a conclusion on it. We have also made it clear that we would prefer those on the Opposition Benches and in another place to address the legislation before them, to seek to improve it and to
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argue the issues rather than to frustrate the will of this House, which has been reinforced on occasion after occasion.

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