Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Eden of Winton: The noble Lord, Lord Alli, has made a most powerful speech. He is so right to remind the Committee that the liberty of the individual is at the root of our consideration during the course of these proceedings in Committee. I do not think that I should attempt to extend the debate any longer, or to add to what he has said, because he has said it with such conviction and force, but I remind the Committee that the Government, in their press handout in September 2002, stated:

There has been ample opportunity for consideration of both principle and evidence. The Government carefully considered the evidence, and on that basis they brought forward the original Bill that contained clauses for registration. It is that which should be reinstated in the Bill and I so agree with the noble Lord who has just spoken that it is the right and duty of this House to ask the other place and especially the Government to think again.

6.30 p.m.

Lord Brennan: The primary duty of this House in enacting criminal law—and this is criminal law—is to ensure that it represents the view of most of our people, that the acts in question are properly to be regarded as criminal and properly to be dealt with by the criminal court. That question involves the exercise of each of us in fulfilling a parliamentary duty of deciding whether the Bill satisfies that test. I wish to raise an issue for consideration about that question, which involves an issue of governance. On Second Reading the Minister said:

    "This is a difficult situation for the House and, in many respects, the Government".—[Official Report, 16/9/03; col 888.]

He was right. I amend the quotation in only one regard: it is a difficult situation for both Houses.

In a healthy democracy, it is inevitable with a bicameral system that the two Houses disagree from time to time, and very seriously disagree. Three solutions occur. First, this House could accept the Salisbury convention and a manifesto commitment and pass the law. Or, the Government could decide not to pursue the legislation, for whatever reason. We now face a third alternative used in recent times in a serious dispute between the two Houses in which it is said that

21 Oct 2003 : Column 1553

a free vote of one House enables that House to prevail regardless of the Salisbury convention and regardless of the Government's position.

I raise this as a question and have no firm conclusions to draw, but I want the House to consider this issue. We accept the Salisbury convention relating to a manifesto commitment because we interpret that approach as meaning that we have accepted not just the will of the Commons or the Government, but the will of the people expressed at a general election. Secondly, by dint of the Parliament Acts, the lower House—the Commons—has the power, should it exercise it, to force through legislation regardless of the convention. I accept that that is a democratic right that should exist, but it should be exercised with prudence. In the 80 years between the 1911 Parliament Act and 1991, including the 1911 Act, it was exercised three times. In 1991, the then Conservative government used the Parliament Act. Although I am making no comment about the integrity of my party—which has acted as it thought best—if this Bill is dealt with under the Parliament Act it will be the third in four years. That is a very serious matter for democracy for us to consider.

Of those three, the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act was a free vote and this is a free vote. As for the two others, the European Parliamentary Elections Bill was a government Bill that the Government pursued with Whipping. The Criminal Justice (Mode of Trial) Bill failed in this House in 1999–2000 and the Government chose not to pursue it. In those two Whipped Bills, the Government decided what they thought best politically.

As with the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill, we are dealing with a free vote. Let us consider what has happened democratically. The Government went into an election—it could be any government—with a policy to ban fox hunting on a free vote. Having got that manifesto commitment, they employed a very substantial and serious course of public inquiry and consultation. Having considered everything that they had heard, they put a scheme to Parliament, which, because I have every confidence in my Government, I have no doubt that they thought best represented the will of the people.

If the House of Commons, by the exercise of a free vote, takes a different route from what the Government thought to be in the best interests of the people, as a democrat, I for one want that free vote to be explained to me as being taken and exercised by every MP on the conscientious basis that he or she was seeking to represent what he or she thought to be the best interests of most of our people—the will of the people. Otherwise, a free vote would be a capricious commodity in the hands of a House of Commons MP.

Has that happened in this instance? In the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act, it did. Most people agreed with the Parliament Act route when it became necessary. Do they now? Can this House or the other responsibly say that most of the people in this country want to criminalise hunting in the form of this Bill? I am quite convinced as just one citizen among others

21 Oct 2003 : Column 1554

that that cannot be plausibly argued. I ask the question, because it is worth the other House noting our concern: is this a proper Bill, the correct vehicle to employ the Parliament Act? It is a very serious question.

My noble friend Lord Graham talks about the amendments disembowelling the Bill, but they are disembowelling a Bill that has been created as a consequence of—in the Minister's word—"wrecking" his Bill. Can anyone plausibly say that, out of that disembowelled wreckage of legislative enterprise, the will of the people has been clearly expressed? I doubt it.

When my noble friend Lord Hoyle reads the debate again when we have time, he will find that, in substance, the Bill represents the Government's position—what they thought best represented the interests of our community. If the Bill goes back to the other House in an amended form, it is not a contest of power between two Houses, but a serious, honest disagreement in which each Member of each House should look to the responsibility he or she carries to the nation, not to his or her own opinions. I applaud this attempt to reach a middle ground, to resolve disagreement in the best interests of Parliament and the country. I firmly support the words of my noble friend Lord Donoughue and I hope that, although I have put a constitutional flavour on this, it will help us to maintain a view that is correct: the way that we deal with this Bill, majority or minority, liberty or cruelty, whatever it might be, we do so for the country.

Lord Waddington: Does the noble Lord agree that there is certainly no precedent for use of the Parliament Act when this House refuses to connive at the destruction of the Government's own Bill?

Lord Brennan: I am distressed that my very old friend the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, who led me many times at the Bar, has forgotten the objectivity that he used to exercise in those days. The fact is that we are not here involved in a party political debate. I have made it expressly clear that my comments were made as a democrat and not a Labour politician. I hope that the debate can continue in that vein.

The Lord Bishop of Chester: I should like to say from these Benches that the predominant view in speeches in previous debates has been to support a form of registration. I personally support the amendment and also, to a very large extent, the powerful and moving speech by the noble Lord, Lord Alli. However, I think that the principle of freedom does not stand alone but has to be qualified by other principles which are introduced in later amendments, in terms of utility, lack of cruelty and so forth.

I shall, if I may, flag up my own view. It probably is the time slightly to adjust the boundary of what is legal and not legal in the general area of hunting and field sports. I find that I can support fox hunting. I declare an interest in that I keep a few hens. I have five. Indeed, I am tempted to adopt the unique position of wishing to extend fox hunting to urban areas where I live, because until recently I had six.

21 Oct 2003 : Column 1555

It seems that there is a clear argument on the basis of utility to have fox hunting as part of the mix of the control of foxes. People may get a certain amount of pleasure from it, but, as long as that does not become the predominant argument, it seems to me to be perfectly possible. Human motives are often mixed. I find it much harder to justify the continuation of hare coursing. I shall come on to that later. My own view is that the principle of freedom which the noble Lord, Lord Alli, advocated, needs to be qualified in particular cases. That was true with the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, where the 14-day limit was an absolutely clear barrier to the freedom of the medical profession and so forth.

So on those grounds I wish at this stage to support the principle of the amendment. I support in general terms the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Alli. As we move into a more multicultural, multi-faith and diverse society, as we are doing all the time, these issues of how we tolerate minority views that we ourselves would not particularly wish to advocate will arise in all sorts of areas. It seems to me that the more the criminal law can keep its limits clearly in sight and leave room for moral debate—which indeed one might have with my noble friend here—the better we will be. However, for the moment, I believe that the amendment is the right way forward. I shall vote for it.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page