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Lord Hogg of Cumbernauld: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. Would he agree that shooting and shooting estates form an important part of the rural economy in many parts of the country and that it is important that the Government should reiterate their opposition to any restriction on shooting and, for that matter, fishing in the forthcoming general election? Will he join me in condemning organisations that wish to ban shooting and fishing, to the detriment of work people in the countryside?
Lord Whitty: My Lords, on the first part of my noble friend's question, I must say that the Government recognise the importance of shooting. I think I said much the same thing at some point last week. We should support shooting-based enterprises and estates because they bring income, jobs and prosperity to relatively remote parts of the country. As to the next Labour Party manifesto, I see no reason why our long-standing position on shooting, which I enunciated yet again today and have set out many times in recent debates, should not stand, but I am no longer in charge of writing the manifesto.
Will the Minister give an assurance that he will robustly defend shooting against such organisations? To that effect, may I suggest that he discusses the matter with the vice-chair of the Labour Animal Welfare Society, who is no less a person than the noble Baroness, Lady Gale?
Lord Whitty: My Lords, every organisation and individual, whether a Member of this House or not, or a member of my party or the noble Earl's party, has a right to an opinion. I hope that we do not take away from that. I have made the Government's position on this clear on numerous occasions, and I do so again today.
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Earl Ferrers: My Lords, does the Minister realise what pleasure his Answer has given and will give? I speak as one who has been involved with the countryside, but the particular pleasure is that, for once, the Government have avoided the temptation of getting involved in regulating something else. Would the Minister not agree that, if the Government go on as they have gone on, before long we will have to get a licence to blow our nose?
Lord Whitty: My Lords, I briefly thought that this was a positive and supportive statement from the noble Earl and was about to respond accordingly. I shall ignore the second part of his question and accept his commendation of the Government's position in the first part.
Lord Whitty: My Lords, hunting has been a matter of political debate for many decades. The issue needed to be resolved, and it has now been resolved. There has never been a significant move to ban fishing, certainly not in the Labour Party. The same applies to shooting.
We have had the arguments about cruelty. The relative cruelty of hunting with hounds and shooting foxes has been debated in the Chamber for more hours than I care to remember, and I do not think that I can add anything to the wisdom already expressed on that matter.
Lord Palmer: My Lords, can the Minister give the House some assurance that the Home Office has no plans to tighten up the already very strict laws on obtaining a shotgun licence or, indeed, renewing a licence?
Lord Whitty: My Lords, the noble Lord will know that the Home Office is consulting on gun law. However, that relates to guns that may be used for criminal or other nefarious purposes, not for the sport of shooting.
Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, does the Minister agree that one of the differences between shooting and hunting is that many farmers make a far larger income from keeping much of their land for shooting, which also provides many conservation benefits?
Baroness Byford: My Lords, the Minister said that the Government had no plans to introduce any restrictions on shooting. What confidence does he have that his Back-Benchers in another place can be controlled should they want to go down that road?
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Secondly, will the Government give a steer when the animal welfare legislation comes into being? Some fear that that will be yet another opportunity for the issue to be raised.
Lord Whitty: My Lords, I have no doubt that it will be raised again. Many issues are raised again, but they are not government policy. The Government have stated the position on shooting in their manifesto, and Labour MPs are bound by that manifesto.
Lord Whitty: My Lords, Labour MPs are elected on the basis of that manifesto. Labour Party discipline which, as the noble Lord knows, is pretty profound on such matters, will be maintained. Our clear manifesto commitment was to allow a free vote on fox hunting, and that was carried out to the letter.
The Minister of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Lord Rooker): My Lords, my right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister is obliged by Section 10 of the Representation of the People Act 2000 to consider any application from a local authority to run an electoral pilot, including applications for all-postal pilots, at local government elections in May 2005. He will not proactively seek applications from local authorities to run such pilots in 2005.
Lord Goodhart: My Lords, does the Minister accept that, while increasing turnout is important, maintaining trust in the fairness of elections is essential? Does he also accept that all-postal ballots give much greater scope for personation and for pressure on voters to vote in a particular way?
Lord Rooker: Yes, my Lords, there are concerns, but we have very little evidence of these incidents. Following this year's electionI have just checked this information, so it is as up to date as possiblefive petitions making complaints are still outstanding, only two of which were in the pilot areas, Calderdale and Hull. There are three other petitions relating to this issue in Aston and Bordesley Green, Birmingham, and in Flintshire. There are two prosecutions pending in Halton and Oldham. That is the scale of the evidence. We get lots of complaints, leaders, thoughts and worries, but the actual evidence is a bit thin.
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Lord Elton: My Lords, is not the essential difference that in an all-postal ballot, there is no means of ensuring that every vote cast is secret? Where there is the option of going to the ballot box, there is always the option of a secret vote which is not subject to pressure which can be validated by someone knowing how you voted.
Lord Rooker: My Lords, I entirely accept that that is a serious issue. But as I said in relation to the Question, we have no plans to invite any applications from local authorities to run such pilots in 2005. Just in case anybody thinks of raising this point, you cannot run the general election on an all-postal ballot. It is not legally possible.
Lord Inglewood: My Lords, in response to an earlier question, the Minister referred to evidence of electoral malpractice. While there may not be much hard evidence and it is not necessarily the same as the general hearsay and circumstantial evidence of widespread electoral malpractice in certain localities in those areasand I speak with experience of recent events in the north-west of Englanddoes it mean that he does not take the circumstantial evidence seriously?
Lord Rooker: No, my Lords, it does not. But it is not as though we or the Electoral Commission sit back and wait. I know that the Electoral Commission was proactive after the elections this year in carrying out checks on people who had applied for postal ballots. It was looking for evidence that everything was okay regarding the correct person and the ballot paper. But as I said, the evidence is in short supply.
I entirely accept the concerns that have been expressed in the last few questions. These risks are inherent in choosing postal ballots or any other form of ballot that takes us away from the ballot box. That is why these checks are built in. However, there are no current plans for any pilot schemes in any of the 30-odd electionsthe English county council elections and the eight mayoral electionsto be held next year. Those are the only elections, contrary to the erroneous report in the Times on Friday which referred to 166 local authority elections. Nothing like that is planned for next year.
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