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(Updated 02/02/01)

Hunting Bill debate

by Nick Mays


THE FUTURE of hunting is seriously in doubt, following the vote last month by MPs in favour of an outright ban on hunting with dogs in England and Wales.


The vote, by 387 to 174, a majority of 213, was a clear indication from MPs that they were only prepared to accept a total ban on what many see as a cruel activity. Counter measures, such as self-regulation and official licensing of hunts were defeated by large margins.


However, as reported previously in OUR DOGS, it seems likely that a General Election will be held in early May, so the Bill will need to clear the Lords swiftly in order to achieve Royal Assent before Parliament is dissolved. Even anti-hunting groups are resigned to the fact that it is most unlikely that the Bill will reach the statute books before the end of the current Parliamentary session, although they have vowed to bring the issue back again in the next Parliament.


Tory leader in the Lords, Lord Strathclyde declared: “When the Bill reaches the House of Lords, it will be subjected to the same scrutiny as any other Government Bill. No Bill, not even the shortest and least controversial one, can normally pass the Lords in less than six to seven weeks from when it leaves the Commons,” he said, speaking before the vote. “That means that if there is an election called for April or May this Bill has no chance of becoming law, for timing reasons alone. Tony Blair knows that.”
The debate in the House of Commons was, as expected, a rather lively affair, with differing opinions and viewpoints being fired back and forth between pro and anti hunting MPs of all parties, on all sides of the House.


Opening the debate, junior Home Office Minister MIKE O’BRIEN pointed out that it was a Free Vote and that the way each MP voted was “a matter of conscience”.


Tory home affairs spokesman DAVID LIDINGTON said his preference was for self regulation and attacked the “illiberal and intolerant” ban as a waste of police resources at a time of rising violent crime. Mr Lidington spoke out against recent threats made to hunt members by protestors. “We are dealing with people outside this House who have shown they are prepared to use intimidation, threats of violence and actual bodily harm in order to achieve their ends.”


Barbaric


BILL ETHERINGTON (Lab, Sunderland North) said: “I consider that fox hunting is as barbaric a method of destroying a fox as it would be possible to imagine.”


MICHAEL FOSTER (Lab, Worcester), whose own anti-hunting Bill failed in 1998 due to lack of parliamentary time, said he was glad that the Government had taken up ‘his’ cause and that he had not changed his mind. “Hunting with dogs is cruel and unnecessary and it’s time this practice was stopped,” he declared.


OWEN PATERSON(Con, Shropshire) said he and his family had hunted for years and that it was “decent, honest people” who go hunting for entertainment. He predicted that a ban would be “a terrible blow” to sheep farming.


LEMBIT OPIK (Lib.Dem Montgomeryshire), one of the founders of the ‘Middle Way Group’ which believes that a system of licensing for hunts is the best way to achieve control of the sport, told MPs that the debate did not need to be so polarised and emotive. Mr Opik said that the Group’s compromise formula was the most workable opportunity for keeping landowners ‘on side’ “and not criminalizing those who believe they’re doing nothing wrong.” Mr Opik pointed out that, if licensed, hunt premises could be inspected at any time and hunt members would have to undergo training - and pay for it. Unlicensed hunts would incur steep legal penalties.


NORMAN BAKER (Lib Dem, Lewes) criticised the Middle Way Group, saying it was “an apology for hunting.” He expressed concern that the Bill had no chance of becoming law before the next General Election.
Sports Minister TONY BANKS, was, as ever, bullishly outspoken against hunting. Attempting to deflect claims that much of the opposition to hunting was due to ‘class hatred’, Mr Banks said it insulted intelligence “to describe this as a class issue. This is about cruelty to animals.” Adding that there were no plans afoot to ban angling - despite some animal activist’s comments - Mr Banks gave his personal assurance that he would never ban fishing. “You don’t hunt fish with dogs,” he declared, “and if you are a decent angler, you put the fish back.” Admitting that the Bill stood very little chance of becoming law due to the forthcoming Election, Mr Banks called upon the Government to include a ban on hunting as part of its election manifesto.


‘Obnoxious’


JAMES PAICE (Con, Cmabridgeshire South East) said that cats caused far more damage than foxes or hounds, yet nobody had suggested banning cats. Mr Paice admitted that some people who went hunting were “obnoxious”, but added, “There are people in every walk of life who are obnoxious, but that is not a reason for stopping them doing what they want to do.”


Winding up the debate, Minister MIKE O’BRIEN rejected protests from Conservative MPs that Scottish MPs had no right to vote on the Bill as it would not be enforced in Scotland. The British Parliament had decreed that Scottish MPs had a constitutional right to debate the matter, he said. Mr O’Brien added, “I have considered my conscience on the views of liberty and cruelty... I will vote against the liberty to be cruel.” In conclusion, Mr O’Brien re-iterated that there would be “no ban on fishing or shooting under a Government led by Mr Blair, no matter what happens tonight.”


As the MPs filed into the division lobbies to cast their votes, their thoughts must have turned to that very possibility. For once one hunting activity is banned, others will be targeted by activists. Even if the second historic vote against hunting with hounds comes to naught, as the Bill is lost through Parliamentary procedure, it will surely, like Banquo’s ghost, return to haunt hunters. The question remains - will other phantoms follow in its wake?