There is a rural penalty that sees urban areas get 50% more per head in central Government funding than rural areas. That position is indefensible. If it is not indefensible, we would like the Government, who must have done the analysis, to explain to us why it is

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just and reasonable for people in rural areas, many of whom are elderly and on low incomes, to be so unfairly treated.

Sir James Paice: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. I know that I am not on your list, Mr Deputy Speaker, but I want to challenge my hon. Friend because he has rightly referred to the Department’s statistics and comparisons. Over the past few weeks since this has become a topic of such serious concern, there has been a lot of dispute between Ministers and sparse rural local authorities. Will my hon. Friend spare a minute or even half a minute of his speech to explain what that difference of opinion is and why those of us who represent rural local authorities differ seriously from the Department?

Mr Stuart: I thank my right hon. Friend. I will explain the position. A year ago, a delegation went to see the Prime Minister to deal with this issue. In the summer, the Department consulted on a new way of looking at things that recognised the increased cost of sparsity in the formula. It came out with a figure that looked very promising in respect of reducing the 50% rural penalty. It then damped 75% of the gain away so that there was a 2 percentage point closing of the gap from a 50% rural penalty to one of merely 48%.

When the December settlement came out, our first analysis showed that that 2 percentage point gain had been wiped out. In fact, it had been entirely reversed and we were looking at a 2 percentage point increase in the rural penalty. We met the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis), who is responding to this debate—he has been most helpful in having meetings—but we struggled to get the position of the officials on the numbers that the Rural Services Network had come up with. It turned out that 500,000 people had been added to the population of London. When that information is put in, the 2 percentage point increase per head turns into a 0.2 percentage point narrowing.

The good news, which I can share with the House, is that the Government’s settlement takes a 50% rural penalty and reduces it by 0.2 percentage points to 49.8%. As I understand it, that is why technically the Government can claim that there has been a narrowing of the gap. It is pretty minuscule and nothing like the closing of the gap that we were talking about in the summer, which even then was derisory. Ministers are right, if they are doing so, to hold their heads in shame at that situation. [Interruption.] Was that too harsh?

I say to those on the Front Benches that Members participating in this debate come from across the House. We are looking for a fairer settlement and we hoped and expected that the Government would look at the issue on an evidential basis. We are not seeing that and it is not good enough. There will be a vote on Wednesday, and I hope that those on the Front Benches will consider carefully the speeches made this evening. All Government Members support the need for austerity and strict control of the spending envelope, and we do not argue for greater Government spending. We are saying, however, that at a time of limited resources, the allocation of those resources is more, not less, important. It may be politically more difficult and challenging and take some courage, but if less resource is around, we cannot afford

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to punish further those who have already put up with too much. That is our message to those on the Front Benches, and I sincerely hope they will listen.

9.25 pm

Mr Geoffrey Cox (Torridge and West Devon) (Con): My hon. Friends who preceded me have expressed with elegance and precision the real points, and I hope that Ministers on the Front Bench—it is good to see the Secretary of State in his place today—will discover deep down a will to remedy this issue. My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger) set out the problem for West Somerset, and said that other districts in similar positions will face precisely the same predicaments just a year or two down the line.

I represent one or two such districts—Torridge district council and West Devon borough council are small, highly rural councils both facing an existential threat from the proposals in this settlement. Although West Devon council’s needs assessment was raised by 60%, the effect of damping is to reduce the overall funding settlement by 2.5%. Over the next three years it must take out £1.4 million from a budget of £7.5 million. It has already saved £1.5 million over the past three years, and the five years before that it saved £2.5 million by sharing back-office services with South Hams district council. My question to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is: where is the council to find the money?

West Devon council scrutinised with anxious care the “50 ways to save” document published by the Department which is, if I may say so, a practical manual full of common sense. There is one problem, however, because it has already implemented 47 of the 50 measures. Only three are left and they might have a marginal and peripheral effect. That is why West Devon council—which I use as a case study only— is facing over the next three years the need to take £1.4 million from a budget of £7.5 million. It has no serious revenue asset base; its council tax is already at a high level and it has been obliged to disobey the strictures of the Secretary of State by failing to freeze council tax.

Since the Secretary of State is present, let me say that I appreciate his robust style. Government Members love him; we think he is an asset to the Conservative party and to the Government. However, I plead with him: could he temper his language just a little? There are hundreds of good Conservative councillors up and down the length and breadth of the country who from time to time listen to his words and misunderstand. We know he does not mean it; we know it is just a joke. We know he is only teasing and that he is doing it in a loving way. The truth is, however, that those Conservative councillors—and other councillors—need to be loved and not always criticised. They are facing precisely the problem that my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset so eloquently set out, and a situation that is simply untenable over the next three or four years.

It is no good producing £8.5 million from the back of the sofa for this year only; they will have to produce it over the next few years as well. I say to Ministers on the Front Bench that we cannot go on fudging and dodging the issue. These small district and borough councils are facing a serious threat, and I urge Ministers to take it as seriously as it deserves.

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9.29 pm

Annette Brooke (Mid Dorset and North Poole) (LD): I shall be brief. My constituency has four principal authorities, with a mix of urban and rural that makes life quite difficult. In any event, I see clearly the concerns of Purbeck district council, part of which lies in my constituency. It is obvious that rural councils will be subject to extra costs when delivering services, but the question is, “How much extra cost?”

I would like to make a plea for some work to be done on this question. Presumably, there was some work done on it, because originally the local government settlement was looking most promising, with some consideration given to increasing funding in relation to sparsity, which was excellent. But then along came damping, followed by the £8.5 million grant, which is positive, but for one year only. I want some transparency. What is the deficit? If we knew that, and we could all see what the position was, people would feel happier. Hearing about 1% and 2%, or that rural councils are really better off, is confusing. Why cannot we have a clear, pat answer —the position is this, because of that. I do not see that that should be beyond the bounds of possibility.

While the average awarded in Government grant per head of population last year was £487, or £324 for rural areas, Purbeck received only £215 per head. Average council tax in England is £398, but in Purbeck it is £594. Everything is exaggerated as we go through the figures. The pre-damping figure for Purbeck was £295,000, but post-damping it is £121,000. Surprise, surprise, when we get the share of the £8.5 million grant, it is a mere £6,879 for Purbeck, which will not give a great deal of scope for finding more efficiencies, if indeed there is any more to do.

We have a problem. We have reduced local government expenditure and they have implemented so many cuts. We have the battle between the councils, but we can only be sure that we are getting the best deal for our residents if we have total transparency and figures provided to us that actually explain the situation rather than blurring it.

9.32 pm

Caroline Nokes (Romsey and Southampton North) (Con): The stark contrast between rural and urban areas is clearly demonstrated in my constituency, part of which is drawn from the urban unitary area of Southampton and the rest from the rural area served by Test Valley borough council and Hampshire county council. They are good councils working hard to deliver top-quality services at the most economic cost. They are rightly proud of their combined record in that regard, but they face difficult challenges because of the very nature of the geography they must cover.

Hampshire is a county where town and country often meet, and where it is not unusual even within boroughs for there to be massive contrasts between the relatively highly populated urban centres and the vast rural areas where populations are much more spread out; where schools serve vast areas but comparatively fewer children; where refuse collection is much more challenging just because of the sheer miles to be covered; and where there are real problems in delivering adult social care because the distances for carers to travel between elderly residents in need of assistance are significant.

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Those of us representing rural areas can point to examples, and what we see as the challenges, but the difficulty is that there is little hard evidence. Instinctively, we may feel and see differences between rural and urban, but research by the Department is desperately needed to assess the extent of the disparity. Rural councils cannot demand comparative evidence from their urban neighbours in order to make a proper comparison, but such a comparison is desperately needed.

In Hampshire, a population of 1.3 million is spread over 1,400 square miles—it is the largest county in the south-east of England. But its size brings about very real challenges. The 5,000 miles of road not only need to be maintained properly, at a cost of £60 million a year, including Operation Resilience, which completely resurfaces Hampshire’s roads, but—as we can see today—those same roads need to be gritted and snow-ploughed.

Of course, we cannot guarantee that residents will live in the most accessible parts of the county. We cannot be assured that schools will be easy to access. In Hampshire, there are 500 schools varying in size from just 50 pupils up to 1,800. In small villages in particular, delivering education presents a challenge and prevents councils from achieving economies of scale. In the Southampton part of my constituency, primary schools have an average number on roll of nearly 250, whereas in some of my village schools the figure is only 50. That is not to say that provision is any harder or easier; it is just different.

Councils that have to provide services such as education and transport have become expert at doing so. However, in many instances it is more and more of a struggle to cut their cloth sufficiently sparingly to go around. As I said earlier, it is important to have comparators and that a reassessment be done, so that when we stand in this Chamber and make the case for rural areas we can do so from a base of knowledge and evidence.

9.35 pm

Dr Sarah Wollaston (Totnes) (Con): Today we have seen a welcome announcement in the House: a rise in the threshold for eligibility to social care to £123,000 and the improvement of having a total cap on care costs. However, this will have huge implications for local authorities, because it will bring many more people into statutory eligibility for care. This will not come into force for several years, but the settlements in place now will have long-term implications for the future, and great implications for rural areas and rural authorities such as Devon, the fifth-oldest of all the local authority areas in England. The implications will combine with the similar kind of arrangements that occur, for example, in health.

Increasingly, there is a trend towards prioritising funding to address health inequality, rather than focusing on health need. The older one is, the greater one’s care needs.

Mr Graham Stuart: Ageist.

Dr Wollaston: It is ageist. We need to consider what elderly people require. How can we justify the fact that older patients in inner-city authorities have three times the amount spent on their cancer care than those living in a rural authority? For any condition that we might want to consider—be it diabetes, arthritis or dementia—

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rural local authorities’ needs will be higher. How do we justify to our elderly constituents, or to a carer for someone with dementia, that they are entitled to less? Why do we rate the value of an elderly person with dementia so much less in a rural area such as Devon than we do in an inner-city area?

We have to consider health inequalities, but other parts of the budget are more appropriately considered as modifiable areas for change. However, many conditions are not modifiable as health inequality issues. Will the Minister say what can be done to address health and social care needs? It is not just about addressing need, but the cost of delivering care. It might take a care worker in Devon 40 minutes to travel between appointments, whereas distances and costs will be far less in inner-city areas. There is also the consideration of whether a care worker can be found at all in many rural areas. Will those on the Front Bench consider the challenge of rurality? To be deprived in a rural area is to be additionally deprived. I hope that Ministers will address that by distributing funding more equitably to rural areas.

9.39 pm

Rory Stewart (Penrith and The Border) (Con): There is the possibility that those on the Front Bench will have a weary cynicism about this debate—a feeling that statistics are being thrown around, that special pleading is going on, names of councils being showered down on them, and figures of 50% or 2% and different definitions and so on being mentioned, but the point, of course, that hon. Members are making on both sides of the House is not about councils, but about rural communities and the very particular situation in which rural communities in Britain find themselves after 50 years of intense fragility.

We are talking not about individuals, wealthy second-home owners or people who retire to the countryside, but about organic, living communities of the sort that we prize in this country and that everyone in the Chamber prizes—communities containing young families, living small farms and a living school. Those things desperately depend on how rural councils are funded, however, and they face a perfect storm. Ministers are not the only people putting pressures on them. It is important to understand the overall context in which agri-environmental schemes, the huge movement towards supermarkets and capitalism itself have eroded rural communities. This is simply the last straw on the camel’s back. For all the reasons we have heard in the House—sparse population, fuel poverty, cost of living—these communities now face a serious crisis. Whatever we do with the 50% or the 2%, rural councils have inherited a situation in which they are significantly less well funded per head than urban councils.

Andrew Bingham: As my hon. Friend points out, this situation has been going on for a long time, so does he share my disappointment that, although we thought that this would finally be dealt with and that rural communities would get their fair share, that does not appear to be happening?

Rory Stewart: That is an excellent point. Perhaps Ministers will address the fact that this is an inherited situation, stretching back to the ’60s and the ’70s, and relating to the debts of urban councils and the types of

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assets that urban councils possess. The financial settlement was not designed to address real instances of deprivation or to take into account the indexes of deprivation that we all experience day to day—the cost of heating rural homes, the cost of living and so on.

The nub of the argument, however, has to be about the communities themselves—about why we care about them and wish to keep vibrant, living, organic communities alive. There are three reasons: first, there will come a time when we treasure the food security offered by those small farms, which do not exist independent of the funding that the council is prepared to provide for schools, transport or housing; secondly, tourism, which is one of the most rapidly growing sectors in the rural economy, is dependent not on our weather or food, but on a living landscape of humans; and finally, the fact that this is something deeply precious to Britain. In this the 21st century, our country has the privilege of being one of the most advanced developed countries in the world. We can set an example to other countries of how an advanced industrial economy should behave, what kind of civilisation and future we want and what kind of landscape we imagine for our grandchildren. The decision that Ministers make today will determine that: it will determine whether instead of a network of small farms, organic communities and vibrant villages, we end up with nothing but a wilderness for millionaires.

9.43 pm

Chris Williamson (Derby North) (Lab): This has been a very interesting and important debate, and I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) on leading it.

The Opposition would not support a drift of funding from deprived urban authorities in order to make up the shortfall in rural authorities, but that is not to say that the rural authorities do not have a important case —a case that has been eloquently put by hon. Members this evening.

Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): The hon. Gentleman will know that that has been the situation over decades, as we have heard from other Members, but we are not talking about just an urban-rural split. Larger county councils in other parts of the country, such as the south-east, are demonstrably overfunded, whereas councils and authorities such as Cornwall are underfunded. This is not an urban-rural thing; it is about looking at where the need is and ensuring the money gets there.

Chris Williamson: The complexity of local government funding is certainly an issue, but when the hon. Gentleman refers to an historic problem, I remind him that in every year of the Labour Government, local government saw growth in its budgets. Only since the election of the Conservative-Liberal coalition have we seen a huge reduction in funding for local government. Of course we must argue for a fair share for rural authorities, but that should not be achieved at the expense of urban authorities.

Helen Goodman: Does my hon. Friend agree with the contention that the freeze only really helps authorities in the south-east with high house prices? Is he aware that of the 17 authorities with projected increases in

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spending power for 2014-15—the year after the £8.5 million one-off grant—no fewer than 14 are in the London commuter belt, while rural areas feature heavily among those facing the biggest reductions?

Chris Williamson: My hon. Friend draws attention to a real problem with the council tax freeze grant, as have Government Members this evening. Local authorities of every political persuasion have seen through the Secretary of State’s wheeze. For many local authorities, taking the grant would clearly create significant problems down the road. That is why we are seeing Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Labour authorities refusing to take the grant, for very good reasons.

We have heard contributions this evening from my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman), who we have just heard from again, and the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart), who spoke passionately about the need for a fairer settlement—although, rather paradoxically, he also said he supported the Government’s austerity programme. It seems to me that he cannot have it both ways.

Mr Graham Stuart: This is about the allocation and getting a fair share—hence the name of the Rural Fair Share campaign. We were going to have to control public expenditure whoever was in office; this is about recognising the need to look even more carefully to ensure a fair division based on need.

Chris Williamson: I hope the hon. Gentleman would agree, however, that it would be completely unfair to impose even deeper cuts on some of the most deprived local authorities in urban areas. The real issue is that the Secretary of State volunteered to accept unprecedented funding cuts—far higher than those for any other Department—in local government. The blame rests fairly and squarely on his shoulders; he has let down local government in rural and urban areas alike.

We also heard from the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), who made a significant contribution in calling for greater clarity about funding for local government. She made the point that there is no scope in her local authority for more efficiencies. She and others have seen through yet another scam from the Secretary of State: his “50 ways to save” document. Let me tell him that all local authorities have been doing that for years. I do not understand what he is talking about when he issues such a document. It might make a good soundbite in a press release, but he is not living in the real world.

We also heard from the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), who talked about the cost of delivering health and social care needs in rural areas and referred to the cost of rurality. It was interesting that the Secretary of State, sotto voce, did not seem to understand the term “rurality”. Perhaps that is an indication of the sort of problems that local government in rural areas is suffering from.

Finally, the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) talked about the importance of communities, but when the Secretary of State agreed the unprecedented

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cuts in local government funding, he drove a metaphorical knife into the heart of local communities up and down our country.

Richard Drax (South Dorset) (Con): I regret the tone and the personalisation. As far as Government Members are concerned, this debate is about the share for rural communities from an inherited budget that, as the hon. Gentleman will know, left this country in a terrible state. It is about the share for rural communities; that is what we are trying to fight for.

Chris Williamson: I remind the hon. Gentleman that there was a worldwide banking crisis and that it was Margaret Thatcher who deregulated the financial markets. The problems can be traced back to the big bang and the deregulation of those financial markets.

Duncan Hames (Chippenham) (LD) rose

Chris Williamson: I will give way to the hon. Gentleman in a moment.

What I regret is the Secretary of State letting down or betraying local government. Again, it is important to understand that it was this Secretary of State who volunteered for the biggest single reduction in Government funding of every Government Department. Government Members might not like to hear that, but that is the truth of the matter. If the Secretary of State had stood up for local government, local councils would not be in the parlous situation in which they find themselves.

Duncan Hames rose—

Chris Williamson: It is clear that the rural authorities are by no means the only authorities to have been dealt an almighty body blow by this Government—far from it. Councils in the north, councils in the south, councils in the east, councils in the west, county councils, district councils, borough councils, metropolitan councils, unitary councils, councils that serve urban areas and councils that serve rural areas: all have suffered at the hands of this Secretary of State. As I have already said, if he had done his job properly, today’s debate would not have been necessary.

Duncan Hames: I thank the hon. Gentleman for eventually giving way. Of course, his Government reduced the number of councils in Wiltshire and Cornwall that were underfunded in rural areas by abolishing them. Given that he has not found any alternative source for making the distribution of funds fairer, is the best he can offer to councils in Somerset and Devon the same prescription as his Government dealt those rural councils in Wiltshire and Cornwall?

Chris Williamson: Not at all. We are not making that point in any way, shape or form. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has made it clear that Labour’s policy is to give a fair deal, a new deal, for local government and to allow local government on the ground to determine the shape of local government, rather than it being imposed from the top. The local authorities to which the hon. Gentleman refers wanted the local changes brought about by the Secretary of State at that time.

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Mr Speaker: Has the hon. Gentleman concluded his remarks?

Chris Williamson: In the interests of brevity, I will sit down and allow the—

Mr Speaker: The hon. Gentleman does not need to make a speech about it, but we are grateful to him.

9.53 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Brandon Lewis): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) on securing today’s important debate. It seems ironic that the first time I am at the Dispatch Box at this time of night since the last time I was here at this time of night, we are debating rural areas looking for fair funding. Last time, it was about urban areas, and Newcastle Members and others made the same sort of case for those areas.

I shall have to keep my remarks relatively short, as the hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) talked for some time, and I want to ensure that my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton gets the chance to sum up. If I do not cover everything Members have brought up this evening, I would be happy for them to come and see me—now or over the next few months—as we continue to argue passionately and with great determination over the issues raised tonight. However, as one of my hon. Friends commented a few moments ago, the tone of the debate changed dramatically when the hon. Member for Derby North decided to avoid the fact that it was the last Government who had pledged £52 billion in local government cuts. Labour Members have seemed not to want to discuss that in any way, while opposing every change and every reduction that we have introduced to deal with the deficit that we inherited from their Government. That cannot give any credibility to what they say about the money that is needed for local authorities.

The hon. Gentleman spoke of standing up for local government. What he should have observed tonight, and over the past few weeks, is the Secretary of State and other Government Members standing up for their local residents, for their communities, and for the hard-working taxpayers for whom we have introduced the council tax freeze option.

Chris Williamson: In that spirit—the spirit of Government Members standing up for their communities —will the Minister invite the Secretary of State to stand up for local government throughout the country, and argue with the Treasury the case for giving it a fairer share of the cake? Does he accept that its funding has been cut by 28%, which is a far larger reduction than any imposed by other Departments?

Brandon Lewis: I thought that the hon. Gentleman had something to say that was different from what he had already said. Again, he avoided mentioning the £52 billion of cuts that his party had pledged to make. My point is that Government Members, including the Secretary of State, are standing up for the people whom we are elected to stand up for—the hard-working residents who will benefit from the council tax freeze that this Government are providing.

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Let me say in the few moments that I have left that the thinking behind this local government financial settlement took into account ways in which councils can make progress in the years ahead, and that we believe it to be fair to both north and south and to both rural and urban communities. As others have pointed out, we have managed—although, I recognise, not to the extent that some would have liked—to reduce the gap between rural and urban. We have made adjustments to relative needs formulas to reflect the greater cost of providing services in rural areas. That is one of only three formula changes in the settlement. We have increased the weight of super-sparse areas in the formula, doubled the sparsity weight for older people’s social care, reinstated the sparsity adjustment for county-level environmental protective and cultural services, and introduced a sparsity adjustment for fire and rescue. As a result, funding per head is falling by less in predominantly rural authorities than in predominantly urban authorities, in all classes.

Mr Graham Stuart: Members on both sides of the House are concerned about the 2014-15 settlement and the position up to 2020. Can my hon. Friend assure us that Ministers will be willing to discuss next year’s settlement, and to ensure that we get the settlements right from then onwards?

Brandon Lewis: I can confirm that. I have had a few meetings with my hon. Friend, and he has—rightly—made a powerful case for people in rural areas. I can tell him that I shall be happy to continue to talk to Members from all parts of the country about next year’s settlement.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger) raised the position of West Somerset. I have visited West Somerset and met the council leader a number of times. I know my hon. Friend will agree that, given its critical mass—the area has just 35,000 residents—it must consider sharing management and services with other authorities.

There is much more to be said about this subject. I shall be happy to meet Members individually to discuss it with them, but I want to ensure that my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton has a couple of minutes in which to sum up the debate.

9.58 pm

Neil Parish: I welcome the powerful speeches that have been made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger), my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr Cox), the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart), the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman), and my hon. Friends the Members for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) and for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart). My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) would have liked to contribute, but, like many other Members, was not able to do so.

The extent of the support for this evening’s debate is clear from the number of Members who are present. I am sorry that more time was not available. I think that we should seek either a Westminster Hall debate or another debate in the Chamber, because it is clear that Members have more to say.

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I welcome what was said by the Minister, who dealt with us very fairly. However, I ask him to listen, and to ensure not only that the words with which he is provided by his civil servants show that money has been given to rural authorities, but that those words result in cash and not just statistics. This is not about spending power; it is about what the councils are given in grant. We are seeking a fair share, and Members across the House have made a powerful case for that tonight. I welcome the fact that the Minister will look at the funding for 2014-15, because that is important. I thank everyone for supporting the debate tonight.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered the matter of the local government finance settlement for rural local authorities.

Business without Debate

Delegated Legislation

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 118(6)),

POLITICAL PARTIES, NORTHERN IRELAND

That the draft Control of Donations and Regulation of Loans etc (Extension of the Prescribed Period) (Northern Ireland) Order 2013, which was laid before this House on 5 December 2012, be approved. —(Mr Swayne.)

Question agreed to.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 118(6)),

NATIONAL HEALTH SERVICE

That the draft Local Authorities (Public Health Functions and Entry to Premises by Local Healthwatch Representatives) Regulations 2012, which were laid before this House on 10 December 2012, be approved. —(Mr Swayne.)

Question agreed to.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 118(6)),

SOCIAL SECURITY

That the draft Universal Credit, Personal Independence Payment, Jobseeker’s Allowance and Employment and Support Allowance (Decisions and Appeals) Regulations 2013, which were laid before this House on 10 December 2012, be approved. —(Mr Swayne.)

Question agreed to.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 118(6)),

ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION

That the draft Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) (Amendment) Regulations 2013, which were laid before this House on 8 January, be approved. —(Mr Swayne.)

Question agreed to.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 118(6)),

11 Feb 2013 : Column 680

CRIMINAL LAW

That the draft Crime (International Co-operation) Act 2003 (Designation of Participating Countries) (England, Wales and Northern Ireland) Order 2013, which was laid before this House on 8 January, be approved. —(Mr Swayne.)

Question agreed to.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 118(6)),

CONTRACTING OUT

That the draft Local Authorities (Contracting Out of Tax Billing, Collection and Enforcement Functions) (Amendment) (England) Order 2013, which was laid before this House on 14 January, be approved. —(Mr Swayne.)

Question agreed to.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 118(6)),

COUNCIL TAX

That the draft Council Tax Reduction Schemes (Detection of Fraud and Enforcement) (England) Regulations 2013, which were laid before this House on 14 January, be approved. —(Mr Swayne.)

Question agreed to.

REGULATING EUROPEAN POLITICAL PARTIES

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 119(1)),

That this House takes note of European Union Documents No. 13842/12, draft proposal for a Regulation on the statute and funding of European political parties and European political foundations, No. 13777/12, a Commission working document prefiguring the proposal for an amendment to the Financial Regulation introducing a new title on the financing of European political parties, and No. 17469/12, a Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council amending Regulation (EU Euratom) No. 966/2012 as regards the financing of European political parties; notes that these proposals are still being considered by the Council; and supports the Government’s position that the UK, along with other Member States, should seek further clarification on a number of points before negotiations progress further. —(Mr Swayne.)

Question agreed to.

SITTINGS OF THE HOUSE (22 MARCH)

Motionmade,

That this House shall sit on Friday 22 March.—( Mr Swayne.)

Hon. Members: Object.

HUMAN RIGHTS (JOINT COMMITTEE)

Ordered,

That Mr Dominic Raab be discharged from the Joint Committee on Human Rights and Mr Robert Buckland be added. —(Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, on behalf of the Committee of Selection.)

JUSTICE

Ordered,

That Mr Robert Buckland and Robert Neill be discharged from the Justice Committee and Gareth Johnson and Mike Weatherley be added. —(Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, on behalf of the Committee of Selection.)

11 Feb 2013 : Column 681

Petition

West Lancashire Developments

10.2 pm

Rosie Cooper (West Lancashire) (Lab): I wish to acknowledge the work done by the members of Burscough Action Group to collect 4,016 signatures alongside securing a 96% opposition vote in a parish poll on proposals in the West Lancashire Local Plan to develop Yew Tree Farm in Burscough. In particular, I would like to thank Gill Bjork, Michelle Blair and Gavin Rattray for their commitment to keep fighting the corner of Burscough residents. I am presenting this petition to the House this evening to give the residents of Burscough who have signed it the voice that they feel they have been denied by West Lancashire borough council. I would therefore like to present a petition of residents of West Lancashire.

The petition states:

The Petition of residents of West Lancashire,

Declares that the Petitioners reject the proposed developments by West Lancashire Borough Council in their West Lancashire Local Plan because of the following detrimental effects; the loss of Green Belt and agricultural land, the loss of a safety buffer between residential and industrial areas, the further strain on inadequate infrastructure; roads, sewers, health services and schools, the damage to the environment through pollution and loss of habitat, the devaluation of property, the loss of identity as a village and finally because there is no guaranteed benefits to local residents.

The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urge the Government to stop the proposed developments in the West Lancashire Local Plan by West Lancashire Borough Council.

And the Petitioners remain, etc.

[P001155]

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Policing of Violence at Hunts

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Swayne.)

10.5 pm

Chris Williamson (Derby North) (Lab): I secured this debate to highlight the antisocial and criminal behaviour of a tiny minority of individuals who cause havoc in the countryside. These rural ruffians are blood sports enthusiasts who have been getting away with this lawless behaviour for far too long. To my mind, they are no different from the mindless yobs that blight some of our urban housing estates, but the police, regrettably, are turning a blind eye to their lawless behaviour.

I have been a trustee of the League Against Cruel Sports since 1979, and I was the press officer and then the chair of the Hunt Saboteurs Association 35 years ago, so I know from first-hand experience what these characters are capable of. I was regularly assaulted and threatened by hunt supporters, and I would like to give the House just one example of an incident that happened to me. Following a lengthy car chase, my vehicle was rammed by a supporter of the Quorn Hunt who was driving a Land Rover. Just a few minutes later, several other Quorn Hunt supporters used powerful catapults to fire steel ball-bearings at me. I was therefore delighted when Parliament struck a blow for decency by passing the Hunting Act 2004.

Simon Hart (Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire) (Con): The hon. Gentleman will have to forgive me—I am trying not to be facetious in asking the question, but would he at least declare to the House any criminal record or record of a similar nature that he obtained while being a hunt saboteur, because I think that is relevant to the debate?

Chris Williamson: I am pleased to confirm to the House that I had no criminal convictions when I was a hunt saboteur.

Simon Hart: Would it be fair to say that the hon. Gentleman was bound over to keep the peace for an incident involving inciting people, in the eyes of the law, to break the law when he was secretary of Derbyshire hunt saboteurs back in the 1970s, as reported in the Derby Telegraph?

Chris Williamson: For the record, I was bound over to keep the peace after taking part in a Radio Derby broadcast to outline a protest against grouse shooting. That is very different from what the hon. Gentleman is seeking to imply.

The Bill that became the Hunting Act was long overdue. Public opinion overwhelmingly supported the ban and still does. Labour, Tory and Liberal Democrat voters support the ban; young and old citizens support the ban; male and female citizens support the ban; urban, suburban and rural dwellers all support the ban.

Angela Smith (Penistone and Stocksbridge) (Lab): Has not support for the ban increased since the Hunting Act was passed during the 2001 to 2005 Parliament?

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Chris Williamson: My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. People cannot understand why some Government Members want to bring back this barbaric activity. The overwhelming majority of the British people want blood sports to remain consigned to the dustbin of history. As my hon. Friend points out, the vast majority of the British public want the Hunting Act to be retained.

The Act should have consigned hunting to the dustbin of history, yet such is the arrogance of some members of the hunting fraternity that they think they are above the law. However, they need to understand that nobody in this country is above the law—not even them. Organisations including the League Against Cruel Sports, Hunt Watch, Protect Our Wild Animals, the Hunt Saboteurs Association and the International Fund for Animal Welfare, along with many other conscientious individuals, have continued to monitor hunt activity. They all tell a consistent story: hunt violence and hunt havoc continue to blight the lives of ordinary people living in and visiting our beautiful countryside.

I have been genuinely shocked by the evidence that has been passed to me about the behaviour of these common criminals. Antisocial behaviour, intimidation, harassment and even violence directed towards those monitoring their activities are all too commonplace. I could not believe that the violence and intimidation, which I witnessed in the 1970s, is even worse today. The disregard for the wider rural community is another feature of their selfish, arrogant behaviour, which includes road blocking; invading and damaging private property; rampaging hunting dogs killing livestock and beloved pets; causing road traffic accidents; and recklessly trespassing on railway lines.

I am not suggesting that everyone who participates in hunting is an arrogant, violent thug. Indeed, I am sure that most hunt followers obey the law. However, worryingly, a significant minority are arrogant, violent thugs, which is why urgent action is needed to tackle this flagrant disregard for the law. Of course I understand that the police numbers have been reduced, but where the law is being routinely abused, the public must have confidence that the authorities will take action. That is why the Government must act to give the police the tools they need to do the job.

Since I secured this debate, I have been inundated with examples of the lawless behaviour of sections of the hunting fraternity. The incidents are too numerous to list them all tonight, but I wish to give just a few examples to illustrate the kind of people and the sort of incidents I am talking about. In December, a hunt monitor reported to Okehampton police an assault that was captured on film. She was told to attend the police station with evidence of the assault, but, after reviewing the DVD, police officers told her that no offences had been committed. They said that there were just some driving issues that the offenders would be advised about, that any assault was part of a hunting issue and that she should not have been on the public footpath in the first place.

Last summer, a south Pembrokeshire hunt supporter was jailed for three and a half years for firearms offences while at a hunt, after a hunt monitor was shot in the head by what transpired to be a modified single-shot handgun. The man also had a sawn-off shotgun and ammunition inside his van, and a further 16 guns were found in his home. In Devon, two separate home owners sold their houses and moved away from the area after

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being victimised by the local hunt. The hunt master of the Crawley and Horsham hunt, Kim Richardson, was recently filmed telling hunt monitors,

“You’re all fair game now”.

On 4 January 2012, a female hunt monitor was violently assaulted by a supporter from the Cottesmore fox hunt. The woman was on her own when she saw the hunt’s hounds illegally chasing a fox. When she intervened, she was thrown to the ground by a man who smashed her over the head with an aluminium bottle before pinning her down and pouring the bottle’s contents over her face.

On 18 March 2012, supporters of the Ross Harriers hunt broke the window of a vehicle belonging to a monitor and attacked the monitors with an iron bar. One of the victims of the attack suffered injuries to the leg and head.

Simon Hart rose

Chris Williamson: On 25 March 2012, three hunt monitors were set upon by a group of 15 Coniston fox hunt supporters armed with sticks.

Simon Hart: Will the hon. Gentleman just give way on that point?

Chris Williamson: I have a lot to say and I want to make some more progress. If I have time, I will let the hon. Gentleman in towards the end.

One of the monitors was left with welts on his back and a serious eye injury after the attackers tried to throw him down a ravine. An ambulance was called to treat him, but could not reach him after it was deliberately held up by vehicles belonging to hunt supporters, who hurled abuse at the paramedics.

On 3 November, the Crawley and Horsham huntsman Nick Bycroft was filmed breaking the wing mirror of a moving vehicle and then trying to smash the window with his whip. However, the West Sussex police, who were on the scene, refused to take action. On Boxing day, five armed men from the Southdown and Eridge fox hunt attacked a solitary hunt monitor, beating him around the head and injuring his hands. Keys and equipment were stolen from the vehicle, yet the East Sussex police refused to visit the hunt meet to identify the culprits.

Earlier this afternoon, I watched a short DVD produced by the International Fund for Animal Welfare, which illustrates the intimidation, theft and assault to which its monitors have been subjected. I have to say that I found the footage shocking.

I also have evidence—a letter from Thames Valley police—of one particular hunt incident dating back to January 2011. It involved a Thames Valley police detective inspector who told a complainant that the case was

“fundamentally flawed (principally due to the delay in time since the offences)”.

Is an offence not an offence whenever it takes place? Is the passage of time a valid reason not to pursue?

It is not just hunt monitors who are the victims of these militant blood sports fanatics. I also have recent examples of other types of antisocial behaviour where these rural ruffians have run amok. In Kent, a farm manager’s wife was pushed off a public footpath by

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horse riders who were galloping across a narrow area. She was pushed into a hedge after grabbing her pet dog to save him from being attacked. The Goathland and Staintondale hunts killed a pet cat. In Devon, a Staffordshire terrier was attacked by hunt hounds. In Yorkshire, recovering horses at a sanctuary were distressed by rioting hounds. The owner of the sanctuary subsequently received threats—incredibly—from a member of the hunt. A Surrey cattle farmer had his herd disturbed on a number of occasions, causing severe distress to many of the cattle. In Somerset, a sheep farmer complained of sheep being distressed by hunting hounds. In Gloucester, horses were distressed by trespassing hounds that killed a fox on private property. In north Cornwall, animals from a small holding were disturbed by rioting hounds.

Those examples are just the tip of the iceberg. In what other part of society would that be acceptable? The simple answer is that it would not be. The irony is, of course, that none of this is necessary. If those recalcitrant hunt supporters and their unacceptable practices were not tolerated by the hunting fraternity’s hierarchy, those incidents would stop. By complying with the terms of the Hunting Act, all the transgressions I have outlined could be avoided.

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government rhetoric about the Hunting Act being flawed and not enforceable and the signals that they would like the hunting ban to be repealed sends the message to the police not to take such offences seriously when they ought to be doing exactly that?

Chris Williamson: I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. Indeed, I shall come to that point towards the end of my speech.

Simon Hart: I respect the fact that the hon. Gentleman has given way. We could both stand here all evening making such comments. I have spent 20 years compiling a list of incidents of violence against legitimate country people and hunt supporters, particularly by members of the hunt saboteurs in balaclavas and all that. Will he accept two things? First, could he not at least seize this opportunity to apologise to all those people—women and children included—who have been on the receiving end of violence from the hunt saboteurs? Secondly, could he not recognise that in every instance that he has mentioned there is existing law to deal with the matters that he has brought to the attention of the House?

Chris Williamson: If anybody is owed an apology, it is the victims of the hunt violence that I have referred to. I regret the fact that the hon. Gentleman has not taken the opportunity, as a former chief executive of the Countryside Alliance, to offer that apology tonight.

If the hunting fraternity complied with the terms of the Hunting Act, the hunt monitors, whom they seem so frightened of, would be welcomed because the hunts would not be doing anything unlawful. However, the Masters of Foxhounds Association and the Countryside Alliance have singularly failed to deal with the lawless behaviour in their midst.

Will the Minister reassure me that he will issue an instruction to chief constables stating that the Hunting Act must be upheld? Will he also ensure that chief

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constables take steps to prevent hunt supporters from intimidating anyone who is lawfully monitoring hunting activities? Will he state for the record that, as far as this Government are concerned, no one is above the law? Does he agree that the mixed messages from senior Ministers could be misinterpreted by some people as tacit approval for breaking the law? Will he urge his senior colleagues, including the Prime Minister, to stop criticising the Hunting Act?


10.19 pm

The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice (Damian Green): I congratulate the hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) on securing this evening’s debate. It is not often in an Adjournment debate that the full emotions behind it are apparent, but they already have been this evening. The House will be aware of the strong emotions and feelings held on both sides of the debate.

In the last few minutes of his speech the hon. Gentleman set me some challenges, so let me address them directly. Violence at hunts is unacceptable, whether that is violence towards those who are hunting or towards those who are protesting against hunts. As with any violent crime, I would expect the police to take appropriate action should violence occur at a hunt.

The hon. Gentleman also said that he wanted me to direct chief constables to do certain things. I should point out to him as gently as I can that it is not for Ministers to tell chief constables how to do their job. One of the things that we most cherish about British policing is that the police are operationally independent, and when politicians try to direct police in detail as to how they should do their job, they enter very murky—

Chris Williamson: Does the Minister not feel it is appropriate, however, to issue guidance to the chief constables to make it clear that the Hunting Act 2004 is the law of the land and that police have an obligation to uphold the law—all laws?

Damian Green: I am not aware of a single police officer in this country who does not know that the Hunting Act is the law of the land. The hon. Gentleman is asking me to interfere in the operational decisions of the police. That I refuse to do, and any sensible Policing Minister—indeed, any Minister—would refuse to do that because that is not the way we do policing—

Chris Williamson: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I do not want to keep interrupting his flow, but surely he is not satisfied at the fact that hunts are regularly and flagrantly breaking the terms of the Hunting Act. That cannot be right, can it? It is the law of the land and surely the Government have an obligation to make sure that the law of the land is upheld.

Damian Green: Let me get to the facts. As my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) said, on both sides of the hunting debate it is possible for people to compile a list of grievances. That is what has happened.

Let me turn to the question of policing at hunts very directly. There are over 325 registered hunts in England and Wales. Together they have carried out over 70,000 days’

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hunting since the Hunting Act came into force in 2005. From 2005 to 2011, the latest year for which official figures are available, a total of 332 individuals were prosecuted under the Hunting Act. Of these, 239 were found guilty.

The Association of Chief Police Officers has issued guidance to forces on the enforcement of the Hunting Act. This guidance reinforces the general position that the deployment of police officers, including for enforcement of the Hunting Act, is an operational matter for the police force concerned. The police, of course, have an important duty to enforce the law, but this general duty to enforce the law is subject to the normal discretion of chief constables, who are required to balance resources and priorities. The Hunting Act is no exception to this principle. It is up to the police to decide what resources they use to enforce and prioritise the Act.

The hon. Gentleman indicated that he thought the police were perhaps neglecting this because of the absence of sufficient resources. The Government have no choice but to deal with the deficit and that means that all public services must constrain their spending. Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary has made it clear that there is no simple link between officer numbers and crime levels, between numbers and the visibility of the police in the community, or between numbers and the quality of service provided.

I hope that hon. Members in all parts of the House and on both sides of this passionate debate would welcome the fact that in the first two years of this Government, crime fell by 10%. On both measures of crime it is clearly falling and it is perfectly clear that the police, even with the constraints on resources, are able to do their job better than ever before. There is no argument to be made at all that resources are restricting the police from doing their basic job of cutting crime. That applies across the board.

Let me turn to the right of protest, which the hon. Gentleman rightly mentioned. I agree with him that peaceful protest is a vital part of a democratic society.

Chris Williamson: The right to protest is not what I was talking about in relation to hunt monitors, who are engaged in a perfectly legal and lawful activity in monitoring the activities of the hunting fraternity, partly to make sure that they do not transgress the law. Indeed, evidence garnered by hunt monitors has led to numerous successful prosecutions. It is not about protest: it is about monitors being allowed to go about their lawful business.

Damian Green: Indeed. I have already, I hope, enlightened the House with the number of prosecutions. If the hon. Gentleman is arguing that hunts are not being properly policed, I simply point out that there have been 332 prosecutions and in 239 of those people were found guilty. Whether he regards monitors as protestors or as something else, it is clear that the police are doing their job, as is the rest of the criminal justice system, and people are being prosecuted successfully.

The rights of monitors, protestors, or whatever we wish to call them need to be balanced with the rights of others to go about their business without fear of intimidation or of serious disruption to the community. The police have a responsibility to assess and manage

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this balance to ensure public protection and safety, and to engage with protestors, monitors and event organisers to enable peaceful activities to take place. It is clear that on either side of this debate none of these rights extends to violent or threatening behaviour. It is not acceptable for peaceful and law-abiding people to be attacked by others for expressing their views, and the police will and do act if that happens.

The police have a range of powers available to deal with violent crime, whether at a hunt or elsewhere. Where a violent crime has been committed or alleged, or a complaint has been made to the police, it is the responsibility of the police to investigate and determine whether there are sufficient grounds to launch a criminal investigation. The hon. Gentleman gave a number of examples, in some of which the police had clearly looked at evidence and decided that a prosecution would not be successful. That is normal police activity; it is what the police do every day. They detect more crimes than end up in court because they may well, on looking at the evidence in any type of crime, decide that perhaps a crime has not been committed or that there is not enough evidence to—

Simon Hart: The Minister sensibly mentioned the issue of intimidation. Would he like to express a view about whether it is necessary for people involved in hunt monitoring or hunt protesting to wear paramilitary gear and balaclavas? Is not that in itself intimidatory? Could the police exercise the powers they already have to make sure that people who want to protest do so in a legitimate and non-confrontational way?

Damian Green: Violent or intimidatory behaviour will draw the attention of the police, from wherever it comes. As I have said several times, this is a passionate debate with very strongly held views on both sides. I am anxious that those views can continue to be expressed but that people stay within the law, and that intimidation and violence is kept out of this debate, as it should be kept out of all debates in a democracy.

Chris Williamson: For the sake of clarity and setting the record straight, I have seen evidence—I have it here on this DVD and I have seen other footage—of hunt supporters wearing the paramilitary uniforms and balaclavas that the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) mentioned, being extremely intimidatory and, indeed, physically assaulting hunt monitors. I hope that the Minister and the hon. Gentleman would admonish those individuals as well.

Damian Green: I say to the hon. Gentleman what I have just said to my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire: I will condemn violence and intimidation wherever it comes from. We are all aware of how strongly felt the views are on this matter, but they should not lead to violence or intimidation.

If the police have evidence of violence, intimidation or any other criminal activity, they will consult the Crown Prosecution Service, which will decide whether an offence reaches the threshold required for prosecution under the relevant legislation. The code for Crown prosecutors prohibits a prosecution from continuing if there is not a realistic prospect of conviction.

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Once criminal proceedings are brought in an individual case, it is for the courts alone to determine whether the police have acted correctly in enforcing the law and whether there is sufficient evidence to convict the defendant of the charges brought. Where a defendant is convicted, it is for the court to decide, within limits laid down in legislation, what sentence should be imposed, taking into account any aggravating or mitigating features of the case. That is a fundamental principle of our criminal justice system and no Government Minister has the power to influence the courts in the exercise of their judicial discretion—and a very good thing, too.

On hunting more generally, this has been a highly contentious issue for many years, both in this House and among the general public. It has been brought home to me this evening, as it has on other occasions, that that remains the case. I know that the hon. Gentleman in particular is passionate about the issue, as is my hon. Friend. It is right and proper that Government and Parliament should reflect on this matter from time to time.

I should make it clear that, while I appreciate that this is a sensitive issue that needs to be discussed from time to time, the Government are not proposing any immediate reform at this stage. We recognise the strong views held on both sides of the debate and—this point is important to the House—that it is an issue of personal conscience. Members of all parties in the House hold different views on the subject of hunting and it has traditionally, and rightly, been subject to a free vote in Parliament. I was a Member at the time of the Hunting Act and voted against it. My personal views are on the record. I should say as a declaration of non-interest that I have never been hunting in my life. Nevertheless, I voted against the Bill.

The Conservative election manifesto promised that Parliament would be given the opportunity to repeal the Hunting Act on a free vote. There are many greater priorities facing the Government at the moment, but we plan to honour that commitment by tabling a motion on hunting at an appropriate time.

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Chris Williamson: Will the Minister give way?

Damian Green: I will give way one last time.

Chris Williamson: I thank the Minister for giving way again. Does he agree that that commitment and the rhetoric of senior Ministers are, as I said in my speech, tantamount to tacit approval for those who are transgressing the Hunting Act to continue to do so? They may be misinterpreting them—I am sure that Ministers would not encourage people to break the law—but does the Minister not understand how the hunting fraternity might take that as tacit approval to break the Hunting Act?

Damian Green: No, absolutely not. Every party at every election makes promises to change the law. Nobody takes that as tacit approval to break the law. If they did, no party would, responsibly, ever promise to change the law at any election and, therefore, there would be no point in having elections or election manifestos. As I hope the House will have observed, I am trying to steer a course, but I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that I absolutely reject his interpretation of my party’s policy at the election.

As I have said, the time is not appropriate and we are not prioritising reform of the Hunting Act at the moment, but the right to protest peacefully and within the law is one that this Government hold dearly. Violence against those who do or do not support hunting is unacceptable. I know that the police will take appropriate action to identify and prosecute the perpetrators of violent crime, using the range of powers at their disposal to deal with any violence or unlawful activity. That is what the police should be doing, that is what the police are doing and that is what they will continue to do.

Question put and agreed to.

10.34 pm

House adjourned.