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Thursday, September 30, 1999 Published at 08:44 GMT 09:44 UK

UK Politics

Margaret Beckett answers your questions

The Leader of the House of Commons, Margaret Beckett, answers questions sent by BBC News Online users.

Questions on fox hunting

Q: Before the General Election I was promised by both the Labour Party headquarters in London and the local party here in Somerset that a Labour Government would ban hunting and coursing with dogs, if that was the will of Parliament as expressed in a free vote. So when is Labour going to deliver on its pre-election promise?

I am fed up with Labour procrastinating on this issue -- for goodness sake act decisively and act speedily. If you want to retain my support then a hunting ban MUST be in place before the next General Election.
Terry Sessford, Wincanton, Somerset

Q: I suppose it was inevitable that the media would speculate about Blair's commitment to a ban on hunting, but I would like to know whether the government still intends to honour its pledge to push for a ban during this Parliament.

If there is any backtracking on the issue, or delay until after the election, many Labour supporters (including an overwhelming majority of Labour MPs), will be extremely disappointed.
Peter Anderson, Plymouth

Q: When will the government introduce legislation to introduce a ban on hunting with dogs, and is the government worried about the treat from the so-called "Countryside Alliance"?
Steven Gavrilovic, Cannock Staffordshire

A: I think the chief thing is that we made it plain before the election that we would give a free vote in a discussion on the hunting ban and the prime minister has made it plain that he remains wedded to that point of view.

But it isn't just as easy as people seem to imagine. There is a very powerful lobby against legislation in the House of Lords. At present we are in the process of reforming the House of Lords - we haven't done it yet - and it has been made very plain by a large number of people, particularly among the hereditary peerage, that they are even more opposed to the abolition of hunting with hounds than they are to the abolition or reform of the House of Lords.

So it's an issue that arouses great passions and the government not only does not have a majority in the House of Lords, we're in a minority in the House of Lords. So that makes it extremely difficult to get legislation through. So we're extremely conscious of the fact that people do want to see that change. Very conscious too that there is a long tradition in this country of that sort of change being made mostly though private members' legislation. That again is difficult to handle technically. So it is not easy and the fact that we have a large majority does not mean we can just wave a magic wand and do everything that we want at high speed.

But we are very mindful of the strong feelings about the subject. There is a lot of work and a lot of thought being given to whether and how we can address it.

Q: BBC News Online: That sounds as though you are saying House of Lords reform has to be completed first?

A: It would be a complete waste of everybody's time to try and get a bill against hunting with hounds if you had not changed the House of Lords.

Q: News Online: Can you at least tell the people who have e-mailed us these questions the ban will happen before the election?

A: No I can't tell them that. For one thing, we never announce or pre-judge what will be in a Queen's Speech and I don't know any more than they know - or indeed anybody knows except the prime minister and even he probably hasn't finally made up his mind - how far away the election will be.

So I can't tell them when such a bill might come forward. All I can tell them is that we're very very mindful of the concerns that they express.

Q: News Online: And are you worried by the Countryside Alliance?

A: Well they have a every right to their point of view and they have every right to express it vigorously, but the whole point of having a free vote is that people do express what is finally their own view and like most of my parliamentary colleagues I voted to ban hunting with hounds.

Questions on the Labour Party

Q: Many people believe that the Labour Party in general and the leadership in particular are arrogant and unresponsive to the needs and wishes of the membership and the electorate. To refute this claim could you detail a specific major policy that the Labour government had taken that was wrong, modified in the light of experience, and the specific measures taken to correct the mistake.
David Pilling, London

A: I think the people who primarily say the Labour Party is arrogant and unresponsive are Tories and I understand and sympathise with the fact that they think we're arrogant just to be in government at all and to be ministers. They really haven't got used to the fact that they're not in power.

When you realise that they have been in power for 78 of the past 100 years then perhaps it's not all that surprising. But you find if you ask for specific examples of how the government has demonstrated its arrogance what usually comes out is something the government has done that people don't like.

With regard to can I give a specific example, no specific huge example springs to mind of where the government was wrong and backed down and changed course and so on, but of course the whole point of having the House of Commons and discussing legislation is so that people can air their ideas and the proposals they're putting and listen to other points of view and make changes and all the legislation that we've been putting through has been properly considered and changes and amendments made and ideas taken on board and that's something we shall continue.

We're actually doing something that no government has done in the past, which is that we are increasingly publishing legislation in draft. We are experimenting with a whole range of special committees that take evidence and bring different views in and so on and the whole thing is a process that allows far more input from people other than government ministers before decisions are made than has ever been the case before.

I think these are the sort of accusations that people make without necessarily being able to stand them up. And the thing that strikes me is that if you listen to anyone in the House of Commons in the Conservative Party they'll tell you that this prime minister comes to the House less than anyone else - it's completely untrue. As a matter of fact this prime minister comes to prime minister's question time infinitely more than John Major ever did.

Q: News Online: It could be argued fox hunting is an example of an area where you've changed your plans in response to public pressure.

A: I think people in the news media rather over-react to these things in some ways. What happened with the fox hunting bill is that it became absolutely clear that there wasn't any prospect of it getting through. Sometimes you get people talking as if, oh well the government could easily have found time. You can't do that, that isn't the way the system works for private members' legislation. And if you can't get it through the House of Lords it doesn't matter how much time you find in the Commons. And that would be time wasted and no government can afford to waste time. So we had to recognise reality and accept that we couldn't actually get that fox hunting bill through.

Then that brings me on to the issue of it coming back on to the agenda. What everybody seems to overlook is that, if you talk to people in the Parliamentary Labour Party, if you talk to Jack Straw, they'll tell you that discussions about what we could do and how we could handle the issue have been going on ever since we had to abandon that piece of legislation.

What happened is that the prime minister was asked a question in public and answered it. He didn't bring up the question of fox hunting, a member of the audience did. So the notion that he was looking for a chance to make a big dramatic statement, he wasn't - but when he was asked a straight question he gave a straight answer.

Q: News Online: So there was no intention to make that statement at all? It just slipped out?

A: It didn't slip out. He was asked a question and he answered the question - it is a perfectly normal, legitimate thing. But it was the viewer who put it on the agenda, it wasn't the prime minister.

Q: Since the 1997 election the Labour Party has experienced a transition of support from active members to passive members. Do you think this is a bi-product of your ideological shift to the center and do you fear that the next election campaign will be a more difficult task because of this?
James Shillabeer, Canterbury

A: I think the thing is no party likes to see membership going down, we like to see it going up. And also all parties like to think our members are not just members they are keen and interested and take part in the work of the organisation and so on. But the fact is there are cycles in this sort of thing.

In the run-up to an election, people get more interested, it seems more important, they get more involved. After an election, they feel they can take a breather and do something else that they may find just as interesting. Not many people, sadly, are passionately interested in politics all the time.

So I think it would be a mistake to read anything too profound into changes in membership or shifts in people's participation. If you saw that as a trend over a long period of time and consistently that would be a different matter, but it has only been two years since the election.

Q: Having been in both, what do you see as the major difference between Tony Blair's government and James Callaghan's, other than the use of Pagers to communicate?
Gavin Simpson, The Sandon School

A: People make too much fuss about the use of pagers because it is not nearly as significant as is sometimes suggested. In fact the most important and valuable use of pagers is to alert people to when they can go home in the early hours of the morning.

The principal difference is one simple absolutely outstanding hugely important difference, which is that Callaghan's government didn't have a majority. So everything was an uphill struggle, everything was a nightmare, the pressure on ministers was enormous. And although government is always very highly pressured, the workload is always very high, it is obviously worse when you don't know if you're going to win any given vote on any given day.

Although as we were saying earlier with fox hunting having a big majority doesn't always guarantee that you can get your own way all the time and nor should it but it certainly does give you some comfort that you can win major things without having a long and drawn out fight.

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