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Alun Michael: In a moment. Enforcement is not simply a matter for the police. It is common for animal welfare organisations to enforce animal welfare legislation through private prosecutions, and hunting with dogs will be no exception.
As I have said, nothing in this Bill will force people to act illegally. It is for Parliament and, ultimately, the democratically elected House of Commons, to determine the law of the land. Neither House of Parliament will allow itself to be intimidated by threats of violence. The police will act properly against violence in connection with hunting, whichever side it comes from. That is the position as understood by the police, and as it should be understood in this House.
Mr. John Butterfill (Bournemouth, West): Does the right hon. Gentleman recollect that hunt saboteurs caused huge numbers of breaches of the peace, and that there were almost no prosecutions by the police? In what way will the situation be different when the positions are reversed?
Alun Michael: It is very straightforward: the police enforce the law against either side without fear or favour, as is absolutely right. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman read the article that Alastair McWhirter, the chief constable of Suffolk police, wrote for last week's edition of Police Review. He has lead responsibility within the Association of Chief Police Officers, and I have discussed these issues with him. I should underline the fact that Mr. McWhirter does not say that the Hunting Bill as amended will unenforceable, as one or two headlines have suggested. Quite reasonably, he does point out some of the difficulties and makes suggestions for overcoming them, such as the use of video recording evidence. Since he wrote his original article, recommittal has ensured that the Bill as it now stands will be workable, and he has confirmed[Interruption.] Opposition Members should listen to what I am saying, and I shall give them that sentence again in full. Since Mr. McWhirter wrote his original article, recommittal has ensured that the Bill as it now stands will be workable, and he has confirmed that that is his understanding.
Alun Michael: A great deal in policing is difficult. The comparison was drawn in respect of the Bill as drafted and the Bill as amended in Committee. The senior policeman also made clear the objectivity with which the police would deal with the enforcement of any legislation passed by the Houses of Parliament.
Mr. Clifton-Brown: Would the Minister care to comment on the article that appeared in The Times on 3 July, in which Alastair McWhirter, whom the Minister has cited and prayed in aid, pleads for practical laws? The article states that police chiefs had hoped that MPs
Alun Michael: I suggest that the hon. Gentleman should read the full version in the Police Review rather than the shorter version in The Times or headlines that have been attached by a variety of press and media to a thoughtful article. That is why I went to some trouble, having seen in advance what Mr. McWhirter was saying about the Bill, to explain some of the ways in which he has been misquoted.
David Burnside : The article in The Times is the most misquoted for many years. Will the Minister comment on the Chief Constable's statement that if the anti-hunting forces succeed in their campaign, it will lead to increased violence against organised shooting in the countryside, which will contribute to a breakdown in law and order?
Alun Michael: The Chief Constable referred to the disruption of activities in relation to hunting in the past and the possibility that some people might seek to disrupt other countryside activities. We have no truck with that approach. [Interruption.] It is unhelpful for law and order and the countryside when Conservative Members mock the proper application of laws, which is what the issue is all about.
Mr. Luff: The Minister has completely misrepresented the article in The Times, which provides a comprehensive demolition of the effect of the Bill. The chief constable said that 200 shoots had already been disrupted. It will get much worse in the countryside, and this legislation is a recipe for disaster for the police force of the United Kingdom and the respect that it enjoys in the rural communities of England and Wales.
Alun Michael: I do not think that the hon. Gentleman should talk up that sort of lawbreaking. The law must be enforced against those who disrupt legal activities, wherever they take place. I have already said that the full article by Mr. McWhirter, published in the Police Review, is consistent with what I have said to the House this evening.
Mr. Swire : For the sake of clarification, the Minister should point out that Mr. McWhirter was speaking in his capacity as spokesman for the Association of Chief Police Officers. Why does the Minister believe that Mr. McWhirter went on to say:
Alun Michael: It is about time that Conservative Members appreciated that if people choose to break the law, it is their decision. That applies in a whole variety of matters. If the law says that something should not be done, the individual who does it breaks the law. It is not the other way round.
Alun Michael: I would like to hear Opposition Members encourage more respect for the law. The hon. Gentleman says that as a lawyer he respects the law, but then he suggests almost that it does not matter whether people obey the law or not. The House has come to a conclusion on the issue of hunting with dogs, after many years of thoughtnot overnightand Members should appreciate the efforts that the Government have made to find a way to ameliorate the impact of a ban on hunting. That House deliberated and took a decision last week. We now have a Bill that is consistent with the way in which the House voted a week ago, and it should be treated with due respect.
Mr. Kenneth Clarke (Rushcliffe): I have listened with interest to this passionate debate about whether it is practical to enforce a law of which the Minister did not approve until about 10 days ago. In the rural parts of my constituency, criminality is the issue raised most often with me. My constituents suffer from a level of criminality, vandalism and antisocial disorder that the police are unable to cope with at present. Is the Minister suggesting that priority should be given to enforcing a new law against foxhunting and that my rural constituents can look forward to an unprecedented number of policemen coming to their area to prevent foxhunting, which is not the major cause of criminality or disorder in my constituency?
Alun Michael: I suspect that the right hon. and learned Gentleman's sense of priorities is shared by Labour Members. I remind him, however, that during his time at the Home Office, little was done to deal with hare coursers. Illegal hare coursing has been a nuisance, and worse, in many parts of the country. It is a scourge of many rural communities, and the Bill will provide police with the tools to tackle that problem. I have yet to hear a word from Conservative Members on that point, although many of them have written to me to suggest that it would be a good idea to deal with the pestilential and illegal activity of hare coursing.