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Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, with the leave of the House, I should like to repeat a Statement which is being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary. The Statement is as follows:
"The House will recall that last November, I announced that there would be an inquiry into hunting and that the noble Lord, Lord Burns, had accepted my invitation to be chairman. The other members of the inquiry were appointed for their expertise in agricultural and rural economics, and in veterinary science. I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and to the members of his committee, for their hard work and for the fact that the report has come in on time.
"The question of whether hunting is right or wrong is a matter for Parliament to decide. The committee was not therefore asked to recommend whether hunting should be banned nor was it asked to consider moral or ethical issues.
"The Burns report instead covers four key areas in relation to the activity of hunting. First, it considers the contribution hunting makes to employment and the rural economy as well as to social and cultural aspects of life in rural areas. Secondly, it deals with the animal-related aspects of huntingthat is, principally animal welfare and their population management. Thirdly, it considers whether drag hunting is a viable alternative to hunting. The final area covered by the report is an assessment of the consequences of any ban on hunting, and how a ban might be implemented. It also assesses how some people's concerns in regard to particular aspects of hunting might be addressed should hunting not be banned.
"The committee visited different parts of England and Wales to witness at first hand a number of hunting activities. Academics were commissioned to undertake research into various matters related to hunting activity. The inquiry attended seminars, organised by all sides of the debate. It also held a number of public meetings and ensured that working papers were placed on its website.
"This inquiry into hunting was the first official one since the Scott-Henderson inquiry reported to this House in June 1951. I have had the opportunity to read the report over the weekend. I thoroughly
"The report needs to be read and considered as a whole, and it is hard to do justice to its views in a few paragraphs. None-the-less the House would, I think, wish me to summarise some of its key observations. They include the following.
'between 6,000 and 8,000 full-time equivalent jobs depend on hunting'.
"A number of recommendations are made about regulation and licensing if a ban is not imposed, and the committee also concludes that generally any ban should apply nationwide, without different legislative provisions in different regions of the country.
"The purpose of the inquiry was to get to the facts and so better to inform the debate. I am sure that when right honourable and honourable Members have read the report they will see that it has achieved this objective.
"Let me now turn to the arrangements I propose to the House for it to consider the report and reach conclusions on it. Right honourable and honourable Members will want the chance first to study the report. Then, subject to the agreement of business managers, I would like the House to have the opportunity, if at all possible before the Recess, of a debate on the report itself on a Motion for the adjournment.
"I should like to say what I propose should follow that debate. In our manifesto we said that there would be a free vote on hunting with hounds. The Government are, and remain, neutral on the merits of whether hunting with hounds should be banned, but we do have an obligation to ensure that the decisions of this House can have effect.
"Last November, when I announced the establishment of the Burns inquiry, I therefore said that the Government would provide government time and assistance to allow this House to come to a proper legislative conclusion on a free vote on the matter. Our original plans were to take this forward with a Private Member's Bill in government time. I now however believe that it would be for the convenience of the House if there was a government Bill in government time which contained a series of legislative options on the merits on which there would be free votes. Such a Bill could, I believe, provide for a more structured debate and will better allow for consideration of a wider range of alternatives in the light of the report. The House will recall that this arrangement worked satisfactorily for the Sunday Trading Bill in 1994.
"Arrangements will meanwhile be made for the main interest groups to be consulted so that the options are set down as accurately as possible in the Bill to reflect the alternative legal regimes which could be put into force. The consultation will take place as soon as possible, and while the House will be aware it is not just a matter for me I anticipate a Bill will be introduced early in the next Session.
"I well recognise the strength of feeling on this matter. It is only right that all sides of the debate should be given the opportunity to have their point of view considered fairly and that Parliament should have the chance to come to a proper conclusion. I hope the House will agree that procedure of the kind I have described provides that opportunity. Meanwhile, I repeat my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his committee, and commend his report to the House".
Lord Cope of Berkeley: My Lords, I am grateful, as I am sure is the whole House, to the Minister for repeating almost exactly the Statement which the right honourable gentleman the Home Secretary made in another place.
First, I want to make it clear that this matter will continue to be a free vote for our supporters in this House, as in another place. But I remain a consistent supporter of hunting and have supported it since long before I was a Member of another place and during the whole of the time that I was such a Member. Is the Minister aware that there is strong support for the freedom to hunt among many who have never hunted at all, and from many uncommitted people, such as those who belong to the Women's Institute?
I am sure that we are all grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Burns, my noble friend Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior and their colleagues on the committee who have produced this report. But is the Minister not ashamed of the discourtesyI put it no strongerto the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and his colleagues, wherein Ministers leaked their decision to promote a government Bill before even reading the report that they themselves commissioned? This was, I think, disgracefully premature.
The Home Secretary said that Parliament should have the opportunity to come to a proper conclusion. He also said that in another place there would be a debate on the report, preferably before the Recess. Does this also apply to your Lordships' House?
When the Government put the proposed Bill before your Lordship's House, will the same options be available to this House as are available to the other House of Parliament, and, if so, how? Will the three options be fully costed as to the expense of enforcement, which is not covered as far as I can see in the few minutes I have had to look at the Burns report, particularly in terms of the heavily stretched police and the time that it will cost them? What is the position on compensation, which again the Burns committee was not asked to look into?
Will Members of another place who represent Scottish constituencies be able to vote on this matter, given that the Scottish Parliament is deciding the issue for Scotland, as is its right under the legislation that was passed, whereas the proposed Bill will apply only to England and Wales?
Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, from these Benches we too thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made in the other place. The Government commissioned the Burns inquiry, which we warmly welcomed, but it is regrettable that they made a decision to bring forward a Bill before we have had an opportunity to debate the report of the inquiry. We do not feel that that knee-jerk reaction will forward the debate in any constructive way. We shall have this debate, and indeed debates on the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill, before the rural White Paper. That is entirely the wrong way round. We should have had the medium and long-term strategy for our rural areas clearly laid out well before the Government began to impose changes that are bound to have a social and economic impact, whether or not we approve of those measures.
Initial feedback from the Burns inquiry suggests that some areasalbeit a fewwill, indeed, be deeply affected. They are likely to be those areas already affected by the crisis in agriculture and by the strong pound affecting tourism. As it stands, people living in rural areas feel that they are the butt of other people's moral judgments. They have seen no plan for their futures and have had no opportunity to comment on them.
From this Front Bench I shall pass no personal opinion on hunting with hounds because we, too, will have a completely free vote on the issue. However, there are many of us who believe that this is another fundamentally authoritarian step from a Home Office that is intent on forming judgments on society without adequate consultation and debate.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Cope, and the noble Baroness, Lady Miller, for their observations. I am not sure that my thanks will extend further than that, but observations they were and I shall try to respond to them as best I can. I have noted that the noble Lord, Lord Cope, said that on his side the matter will be subject to a free vote. I congratulate the noble Lord on making that statement. I extend similar congratulations to the noble Baroness. The Government have made it plain from the beginning that we shall have a free vote on this matter. We made that matter clear at the outset when we discussed our manifesto. In fact, it was a manifesto commitment.
The noble Lord raised the question of leaks. There has been no leak, so far as I can determine, from the Home Office. There has been press speculation, but that of course is another matter. The noble Lord asked when there might be a debate. I should hope that there would be a debate before the Recess, but of course I cannot determine that. That is a matter to be agreed through the usual and proper channels and no doubt that will be properly processed, and the matter will be sorted out in the usual and efficient manner.
The noble Lord also asked whether the options would be fully considered in your Lordships' House. That is an interesting question. I think that probably we shall have to look at how this worked when there were options on Sunday trading. Probably Members of your Lordships' House will have a better memory of that than I. My understanding is that all the options on Sunday tradingthere were very many in the endwere fully debated by your Lordships' House and were considered in the legislation. I think that that template, that model, is one which will work well in this situation.
The noble Lord made an interesting point about the position of Scottish MPs who are Members of the UK Parliament. No doubt they will express their views as Members of that Parliament. Of course, this is a matter which is devolved to the Scottish Parliament. The noble Lord also made the speculative point as to whether this was stage one of a process covering other matters relating to fishing, hunting and so on. This is an issue which stands on its own. It should be considered on its own. No doubt Members of your Lordships' House will have varying and different opinions on that issue, but that is how we see the matter.
The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, I think perhaps somewhat unkindly, accused the Government of being authoritarian on the issue. I find it hard to believe that we are being authoritarian when we have provided an opportunity for a full debate on many of the background issues that lie behind the understandable
Viscount Cranborne: My Lords, perhaps the noble Lord could first, particularly arising out of the last part of his answer, tell the House how it will be possible to provide the amount of time that this House could reasonably request, both to debate the report and indeed to consider properly a Bill, given the enormous backlog of legislation we already have. Therefore, could the noble Lord undertake to ensure that this House is not blamed if there are delays in the consideration of this Bill when we are already overcrowded with business?
Secondly, could the noble Lord cast his mind back to the great Countryside Alliance march a couple of years ago which ended in Hyde Park and the remarkable fact that the guardians of Hyde Park did not have occasion to pick up one single bit of litter, that the law was obeyed throughout and that the guidance of the police was not only sought but followed? Would he therefore care to contrast the behaviour of those demonstrators with that of the rather more recent demonstrators round the Cenotaph and Parliament Square? Also, could he and other Members of the Government consider how sensible it is for them at this time of their remarkable popularity to alienate a section of the population which, perhaps more than any other, instinctively wants to obey the law?
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