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Noble Lords: Oh!

Lord Greaves: No, my Lords. I am trying to take an objective view of the Statement. I believe that hunting with dogs should not be allowed. If that is not the view of Parliament—if the Bill cannot be got through Parliament—my second choice is that the current situation should continue more or less as it is. The third way proposals, which have been associated with, among others, some of my Liberal Democrat colleagues, and the current proposal risk becoming a real can of worms. They will not bring this question to a close; they will merely continue it year after year. I believe that the Government have the right to bring the matter before Parliament. They should have done so several years ago and sought a firm resolution of it then but they were not able—or not prepared—to do so.

I turn to the meaning of cruelty and utility. When the Bill is published, will it clearly define those words? According to the Statement, they are supposed to be the golden thread that will bind all of this together. However, the Statement contained the assertion that meeting the two tests will be a decision for the independent registrar. It stated:

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    "I shall not prejudge the independent registrar".

If the Government are not prepared to prejudge the tribunal that they will set up, what understanding do they have of the likely outcomes of the process that they are establishing? I hope that the Minister can tell us. What is his best estimate of how much fox hunting will remain in this country if the Bill is enacted and the procedure is set up? The Government must have an idea of that; if they have not, it would be extraordinary for them to introduce the Bill. Are they in fact saying, "We are passing the buck to other people. We do not know what the outcome will be"? I hope that the Minister will tell us what the expected outcome is likely to be.

Finally, if the Bill is passed, what levels of supervision and control of the remaining hunts are there likely to be, once those hunts have been allowed to continue by the tribunal? Will that involve the sort of regime envisaged by the Middle Way Group or has that all been put to one side? Once hunts have been told, "Yes, you can continue", will that simply involve the current situation?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, both spokespeople for the Opposition dealt with the Bill in a calm and sensible way, which, as your Lordships will be aware, has not always been the case in relation to this subject.

The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, and, to some extent, the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, understandably asked: why are we giving this matter priority? As my right honourable friend said in the Statement, this may not be the most major issue but it has been around for an awfully long time, it has caused a serious problem between this House and another place and it needs to be resolved. The timing of that was in effect determined in our manifesto at the previous election: we needed a period of consultation to establish whether there was consensus. We have advanced a proposition that at least reflects many of the points put to my right honourable friend during that consultation, although it may not create an entire consensus. In particular, the issues involved are: is it cruel or more cruel than other methods of control and is it useful? In that context, is it useful with regard to damage to livestock, crops and biodiversity?

This issue, as I said, has been around for a long time and it needs to be resolved; it will be resolved by this parliamentary process. If the end result feared by the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, means, in effect, the end of hunting, that in itself would have to be a concession. Hunting with dogs is inevitably cruel and there is no way in which the utility can outweigh the cruelty. We are looking at a balance between cruelty and the avoidance of suffering, and utility in terms of pest control and crop protection.

This issue will be dealt with by another place in the first instance with a free vote on, I believe, all sides of the House and it will be dealt with here with a free vote on all sides of the House. We have also said that at the end of the process we want to resolve the issue. By considering the proposals in another place and here, I

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hope that we will recognise their merits. No one will be 100 per cent satisfied by the proposals but they reflect the key issues.

It is all very well for the noble Baroness to talk about the erosion of ancient liberties. However, if, as a result of a mature judgment, those ancient liberties are seen to maintain a system that involves unnecessary cruelty to animals, those ancient liberties, frankly, have to go. If, however, a balance can be demonstrated in favour of hunting or hunting can be adjusted to alter that balance, those liberties can, to that extent, be maintained.

I was a little concerned about the response of the noble Baroness; she does not normally utter threats. I was not clear whether she was speaking for herself or the Opposition when she referred to the effects on other parts of the legislative programme. This issue needs to be dealt with on its merits one way or another, just like any other piece of legislation. Part of the problem with regard to the way in which this House and another place previously dealt with such legislation is that somehow its significance was elevated above that of other legislation.

Baroness Byford: My Lords, I suggested that on all sides of the House this is a very controversial issue and that it will take time; my remarks should not be taken in any other way. The Minister slightly misunderstood what I said. This is a controversial Bill, which I believe he accepts, and the time that we spend going through it will obviously take away from the time that we can spend on the other Bills that I listed, which we will not be tackling.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, to that degree, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her clarification.

The noble Baroness asked a number of questions, in particular about how the registration system would work. A registration will operate initially for three years and it will be renewable. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, asked whether hunting could continue and under what terms: there may be conditions attached to the registration. If those conditions are not met, the registration could be withdrawn. Normally, it would last for three years. Inspectors from prescribed animal welfare bodies will be empowered to inspect the hunting arrangements.

The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, slightly surprised me when, expressing his own views on the matter, he said that he would rather have the status quo than something short of an absolute and crude ban. That is an odd position for the Liberal Democrats to take on this issue.

Lord Greaves: My Lords, I made it clear that that was my view, not that of the Liberal Democrats.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, the first part of what the noble Lord said was his view and I should hope that none of it was the Liberal Democrat view.

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On the Bill's definitions, cruelty will mean unnecessary suffering to animals and utility will mean the prevention of damage to, in effect, the agricultural sector and in terms of biodiversity. Both of those terms will be narrowly defined.

The noble Lord challenged me to estimate the extent to which hunting would remain operational as a result of these proceedings. He knows very well that I shall not rise to that challenge. We suggest that the registrar will take an independent judgment on these matters; having dealt with matters in that way, it would be wrong for the Government to imply that we have a target one way or the other. The Bill will achieve a reduction in the total amount of unnecessary cruelty resulting from hunting and the issue will have been resolved in this Parliament. No doubt noble Lords will raise other points.

4.50 p.m.

Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, the Minister said that there would be a free vote in this House. Will there be a free vote in the House of Commons?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, I said that there would be a free vote in both Houses. Perhaps the noble Lord did not hear me. I said that as far as my party is concerned there will be a free vote in both Houses.

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, will the Minister take back to his colleagues the thought that it might be a good idea if the Government stopped interfering in everyone's business the whole time? Here we have a sport which has been going on for hundreds of years and all of sudden it is to be criminalised. The noble Lord says that this is as a result of mature judgment. It is nothing of the kind. If we are such a mature society, why do so many people end up in prison? The answer is that we are not a mature society. Does the Minister agree that the Government are making a great mistake in saying that we should abandon all these sports and kill all the hounds and horses? I do not go hunting at all but it seems to me that what is proposed, on the basis that it will stop some cruelty, is to see the issue completely the wrong way round. Does the noble Lord agree?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, for well over 100 years this Parliament has had a record of taking legislative means to reduce cruelty to animals. There is a dispute about the degree of cruelty involved in this respect but it is not an innovative thing for Parliament to legislate to reduce cruelty to animals. This is the next step. I referred to mature judgment. There are polarised views on this issue. A step was taken which brought together, at least for a period, the various campaigning organisations. We tried to take the best of their views into account before proposing the process that will be incorporated in the Bill.


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