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BBC BREAKFAST WITH FROST INTERVIEW: ALUN MICHAEL MP, RURAL AFFAIRS MINISTER SEPTEMBER 22nd, 2002
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DAVID FROST: Well this morning one of the biggest protests ever staged in Britain is being held in the capital, Liberty and Livelihood march. Now it's already stimulated a great deal of debate before it's even got going. Up to 300,000 people are expected to attend and we can see the scene there at Hyde Park right now, so early arrivals, the group getting established there. But many groups who support, and indeed appreciate the countryside, have decided not to take part in the march, they say it's been hijacked by the pro-hunt lobby and don't want to be associated with that under those terms. Even the Rural Affairs Minister, Alun Michael, has decided not to go and he's here to explain why. Alun, good morning, why?
ALUN MICHAEL: Because they've asked only those who are passionate supporters of hunting to be there to express their view. I think that's what is a bit confusing about this march, on the one hand you have the issue of hunting, on which we have the most open and transparent process going on with the public hearings that took place a fortnight ago, in which, incidentally, the Countryside Alliance took a full part, as did the opponents of hunting, and at the same time you have a lot of concerns about the countryside which has been going through problems, and accelerating problems, for a couple of decades and as far as countryside issues are concerned, I'm with the people who have concerns about those, as is the whole Government.
DAVID FROST: But you think, obviously, that it has been, as people said, rather hijacked by the pro-hunting lobby.
ALUN MICHAEL: No, I think it was organised for the pro-hunting lobby.
DAVID FROST: They didn't hijack it, they started it and then, and then put a disguise around it.
ALUN MICHAEL: I think attempted to hijack the concerns, the genuine concerns, many people have about things like jobs and education, transport and all the other issues, which are a real challenge in rural areas because of the very diversity and the dispersion of populations in rural areas.
DAVID FROST: We've got to somehow make them listen, one of the supporters said, not particularly about pro-hunting and so on. A feeling that the Labour government is very, very urban, doesn't really listen to the countryside, never gets any votes there anyway, or MPs there anyway, that sort of feeling - what's the countryside ever done for us in Labour. How are you going to address that?
ALUN MICHAEL: Well it's factually wrong. We now have 180 rural or semi-rural Members of Parliament. They're a very strong voice within parliament. It's really as a result of their activities, representing their constituencies, that we had the rural white paper in November 2000.
DAVID FROST: A hundred and eighty?
ALUN MICHAEL: A hundred and eighty.
DAVID FROST: Good Lord. Really countryside MPs?
ALUN MICHAEL: Yes, rural and semi-rural, and can I make the point that Labour is the first political party in this country ever to have a national conference devoted specifically to rural issues. It was in July, it involved everybody, the NFU were there, the Countryside Alliance were there, the animal welfare organisations were there, and it was the best weekend conference I've attended for many, many years. It was lively, it was engaged, because it was dealing with the wider countryside issues, and dealing with them very effectively, a range of ministers involved listening to what rural people have to say. So I think the idea that the Labour party doesn't represent rural Britain is out of date, we do.
DAVID FROST: And what about - you're responsible for the hunting bill, Alun - what's the timetable, when will it pass through the House of Commons, at least for the first time?
ALUN MICHAEL: Well I said in March that I would go through a process - and I think this is an important point in a democratic society - trying to look objectively, both at the principles which everybody agreed are right and come out of the Burns Report of Utility, what you need to do in the countryside, to protect animals, to manage populations and cruelty, how do you avoid avoidable cruelty, avoidable suffering of animals in pursuing those reasons. Now we have had evidence, everybody's had the opportunity of giving evidence, all sides have engaged in the debate and I think that, that is actually a very good thing because for people who feel so passionately on an issue that's been divisive for so many years, for them to be willing, as they did, to come into the public hearings that I arranged and be a part of agreeing the format, agreeing the topics and then helping to question the experts, this has been a very open and transparent process. Now it's on the basis of facts and evidence, therefore, that I'll be putting forward proposals for parliament shortly.
DAVID FROST: Would you expect, Alun, that you'll have to invoke the Parliament Act?
ALUN MICHAEL: I hope not.
DAVID FROST: Or can you act, do you actually think you could get something that would appeal to the Lords as well?
ALUN MICHAEL: I hope that what I can do is to bring forward proposals that are so clearly based on principles and so clearly rooted in the evidence of what's necessary and what can be avoided, in terms of suffering of animals - oh and which actually recognises what people need to do in the countryside - that people will say yes, that is logical, that's sensible, that's measured, we'll go along with it and therefore we'll get away from these big divides. But it has to be right - not a fudge, not a compromise, but proposals based on the facts and the evidence.
DAVID FROST: And when would you see it as part of the law?
ALUN MICHAEL: Well I'm hoping to bring forward the proposals in weeks rather than months. I hope that I'll be able to do so in a way that will persuade parliament and start to build a consensus behind a single set of proposals. I hope - and one has to be an optimist if you're a democrat - I hope that that then will win support which means that we could be through the process, within a matter of months, or a year at the most,of a bill being introduced.
DAVID FROST: Thank you very much indeed, Alun.
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