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(Updated 17/4/01)

Lords to debate hunting question again

by Bernie Lovitt

THE HOUSE of Lords will be given another chance to debate the Government's controversial Hunting Bill, despite Tory predictions that the Government wanted to bury the Bill whilst the foot and mouth crisis persists.

Government business managers have decided to give peers a chance to draw up a detailed system of 'self-regulation' for foxhunting as an alternative to banning the sport outright.

Earlier this month the peers risked a head-on confrontation with the House of Commons by voting in favour of self-regulation as proposed by the Countryside Alliance and throwing out the 'middle way' option of appointing Government inspectors to control the sport, along with the earlier Commons decision on an all-out ban.

However, many peers who supported self-regulation in principle believed that the Countryside Alliance's proposal could be tightened up to alleviate fears about cruelty to animals.

The Lords are likely to be given one day "in committee" so that they can vote on the finer details of the Alliance's proposal. The debate on the issue is, however, most likely to be delayed until after Easter.

Even so, the Hunting Bill stands very little chance of completing its passage through Parliament before a June General Election, because any proposal made by the Lords will almost certainly be thrown out by the Commons. Anti-hunting campaigners had hoped that the decision taken by Prime Minister Tony Blair to delay the election from his preferred date of May 3rd until June 7th would enable the Government to invoke the Parliament Actand overrule the Lords and force the legislation through. However, it is well known that Mr Blair is keen to at least negotiate a better deal with the powerful pro-hunting lobby, rather than risk further confrontation with the rural community, already reeling from the effects of foot and mouth.

It now seems likely that any future attempt to ban hunting with hounds will be determined by what, if anything, is written in the Labour Party's election manifesto, in the likely event of Labour winning the election, even with a reduced majority.

Sports Minister Tony Banks, who is extremely outspoken against foxhunting and several other animal welfare issues, turned up the pressure on the Prime Minister to include a firm pledge to ban the sport in the party's manifesto.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4's TODAY programme last Sunday, Mr Banks declared that 167 Labour MPs planned to issue personal election manifestos pledging themselves to support a ban on hunting after the election if the current Bill failed to get through in time.