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Last Updated: Monday, 28 March 2005, 12:54 GMT 13:54 UK
Interview: Alun Michael
By Nick Assinder
Political correspondent, BBC News website

You could forgive Countryside Minister Alun Michael if he appeared worn out, even jaded.

Alun Michael
Born:22 August 1943
Educated: Colwyn Bay Grammar School and Keele University
Family: Married to Mary (Crawley), 2 sons and 3 daughters
Job: Minister in Department of Environment , Food and Rural Affairs

He has, after all, spent much of the past four years battling to find a way through the extraordinary row over the government's plans to ban hunting with dogs.

But far from it. While clearly relieved the hunting controversy is, to a large extent, behind him, Mr Michael could not be more enthusiastic when it comes to the other parts of his brief which he clearly believes are far more relevant to people's everyday lives.

And, while MPs devoted hundreds of hours, and the media acres of space, to the Hunting Bill, Mr Michael insists his other work actually demanded more of his attention.

Work on the Clean Neighbourhoods Bill, extending national parks and regenerating the rural economy has been continuing, often almost unnoticed until recently.

"These are the things, like the Clean Neighbourhoods Bill, that people really want to talk about. The issues of graffiti, litter and so on impact on everyone's lives," he says.

"These are the issues I regard as really crucial and the ones regarded as important by people in rural areas as well as urban ones."

Long shadow

They have also found their way back onto the agenda, with the prime minister, for example, placing much stress on the sort of low-level nuisances like littering that can quickly spark a downward spiral of decay in areas, he says.

But, inevitably, his attempts to find a way through the fox hunting row still cast a long shadow.

Alun Michael meeting hunt protesters
Mr Michael tried to bring both sides together
And he is prepared to admit it may have been less painful for the government if it had insisted it was going to ban the activity and then simply bulldozed it through Parliament.

"There is an argument it could have been dealt with clinically and in short time, but we genuinely recognised the fact there were passionate views on both sides of the argument, he says.

"The problem is that I believe in an approach based on evidence and the capacity of human beings to be rational given the opportunity to do so. I also believe in co-operation.

"The problem with fox hunting and the other forms of hunting is that very few people come to it without a mind that is made up one way or another.

"It was very close to achievement in the Commons and I feel some pride in the efforts we made."

Legitimate means

He is also confident that most of the talk about hunts breaking the law will evaporate and is clear that such actions would only damage the pro-hunting case.

He respects the pro-hunt lobby's attempt to challenge the law through legitimate means.

But he goes on to call for some clear statements from the Countryside Alliance and anti-hunting groups about their intentions.

1987: Elected Labour MP for Cardiff South and Penarth
1987-88: Opposition whip
1988-92: Labour spokesman on Welsh Affairs
1992-97:Spokesman on Home Affairs and voluntary sector
1997-98: Minister of State in Home Office
1998-99: Secretary of State for Wales
2001: Minister of State in Department of Environment , Food and Rural Affairs
"The danger is, if there is not a balanced approach taken to it you end up not enforcing the Hunting Act but dealing with public order issues which are a lot more serious," he says.

"So, for that reason, it would be helpful if the Countryside Alliance and hunting organisations were to consolidate and clarify their intention of staying within the law and if those people like hunt saboteurs were to recognise that there is no justification for interfering, for instance, in drag hunting activities and things like that.

"Earlier we had a lot of nonsense about people saying this is an unjust law. Well, it is not an unjust law, its a law that some people don't like.

"Hunts ought to show a little forgiveness to people who don't trust them, given their own language in saying they are not going to obey the law."

He also dismisses suggestions it will be difficult to tell if hunts are breaking the new law.

"The Countryside Alliance are admitting, to use their words, that some foxes have been killed accidentally.

"Well you can't hunt accidentally and if people are actually flouting the law while pretending to obey it, it will become obvious pretty quickly."

But it is clear that Mr Michael hopes that, in future interviews like this one, he will spend less time being questioned about foxhunting and more about the issues he believes are finally finding their rightful place in the political agenda.

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