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(Updated 3/7/01)

'All out war' against new hunting bill

by Nick Mays

AS PREDICTED in last week’s OUR DOGS, the new Labour Government’s Queen’s Speech included a commitment to allow parliamentary time for a new Bill to outlaw hunting with Hounds.

Pro-Hunting groups and individuals vowed to wage an “all out war” on the Government’s renewed anti-hunting pledge, many of them furious that the issue should be raised so soon after the last Bill was defeated due to lack of Parliamentary time and in the wake of the Foot and Mouth crisis which has done so much to weaken the already precarious rural economy.

A hunting ban would cause greater hardship for many hunt employees and businesses that rely on hunting for their livelihood.

However, hunt supporters drew some comfort from what appears to be a degree of ambiguity in the Government’s attitude towards the sport. In the Queen’s Speech the Government said that it would “enable a free vote” to take place - as opposed to promising to bring in a Government Bill.

Strict ballot

This was seen by many campaigners as the Government’s willingness to give Parliamentary time to debate a Private Member’s Bill. However, all Private Members’ Bills are subject to a strict ballot and the chances of an anti-hunting Bill coming first, or at least high up in the ballot are only fair. However, campaigners remember that Michael Foster’s ill-fated 1997 Wild Mammals (Hunting With Dogs) Bill was first in the ballot at that time.

Countryside Alliance spokesman John Haigh commented: “If and when a Bill is brought forward we shall spare no effort to make sure it is defeated. We shall fight tooth and nail by every legal means - including ultimately looking at the Human Rights legislation - to bring about that defeat.”

Mr Haigh pointed out that the Burns Inquiry into hunting provided no justification for a ban on foxhunting.

“We would strongly urge all MPs to refer to that report which concluded that hunting is no less humane than other practical alternatives and has a beneficial influence on conservation.

“Hunting also accounts for several thousand jobs and is a vital part of the social and cultural life of many rural communities.”

Compromise

The last anti-Hunting Bill was passed by a massive Commons majority, but the House of Lords overturned this. The Lords had been asked to reach a compromise on the direct instructions of Prime Minister Tony Blair, who was keen to avoid any further arguments with the rural community. However, the Bill was lost, along with many other items of unfinished legislation when Parliament was dissolved in May before the General Election.

Margaret Beckett, the new Rural Affairs Secretary, has said, however, that the issue is too big to bury. Her team of five ministers in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is opposed to hunting. In spite of reports that Mrs Beckett had been asked to reach a compromise on the issue, Whitehall officials denied that any instructions had been issued.

The Government’s only official comment on the proposed new Bill was issued by a spokesman who said: “Hunting is an issue that arouses strong passions on both sides. It is rightly a Free Vote issue in both Houses.”