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(Updated 4/4/01)

Lords reject hunting ban

PEERS DRAMATICALLY rejected a ban on hunting with Hounds during a second debate on the issue in the House of Lords on Monday. The move is a humiliating blow to Prime Minister Tony Blair and brings the Upper House into conflict with the Commons, who had voted by a large majority for an outright ban on hunting.


The peers debated and voted on three options, namely an outright ban on hunting, allowing hunting to continue under self-regulation (i.e. maintain the status quo) or to allow hunting under licence from a new hunting authority, the so-called ‘Middle Way’.


After a relatively short debate lasting four hours, the peers took to the division lobbies and cast their votes.
The votes were as follows:
Outright Ban: Rejected by 317 votes to 68, a majority of 249
Hunting under self-regulation: 249 votes to 108, a majority of 141.


Peers rejected the Middle Way option - Letting hunting continue under statutory licence: voting was 202 to 122, a majority of 80.


Douglas Batchelor, chairman of the Campaign for the Protection of Hunted Animals, commented before the debate: “In reality there are only two options - ban hunting with dogs or allow it to continue. You cannot regulate hunting to take away the cruelty of the chase or the kill.


“Statutory regulation is effectively licensed cruelty in the name of sport. The public is not fooled by that, MPs have not been fooled and we believe that peers should not be taken in either.”


There was confusion at the start of the debate and an adjournment while behind-the-scenes negotiations took place to sort out voting procedure.


Eventually Home Office Minister Lord Bassam told the House that “whichever is the last option to receive a majority, will be the one subject to detailed scrutiny when it is re-committed to the committee of your lordships’ house.”


In the Lords, some of the most vociferous opponents of a ban include president of the Countryside Alliance Baroness Mallalieu, and TV broadcaster and writer Labour peer Lord Bragg.


Labour peer Lady Mallalieu opposed the setting up of a hunting authority, saying that state control would lead to the creation of yet another bureaucratic quango. Attacking the Bill as a whole, Lady Mallalieu said: “Once Parliament goes down the path of outlawing activities because of what some imagine is going on in the minds and thoughts of others, we set off down a slippery path towards a society in which I and others who are for freedom would no longer wish to live.”


Opposition front bench spokesman Lord Cope of Berkeley, referring to the foot-and-mouth outbreak, said he found it “distasteful to say the least, to be discussing this Bill when the countryside is itself plunged into such dreadful agony.”


He argued that the Bill lacked clarity and purpose without even a definition of hunting: “It could make a criminal our of someone whose single dog chases a hare, or follows the scent of a fox, mink, or deer.”


Simon Hart, spokesman for the pro-hunting Countryside Alliance, who had been listening to the debate from the public gallery, said after the vote: “This is overwhelming cross-party objecting to a ban and it is quite clear there is no mandate for criminalising people who support hunting.”


The Prime Minister had been keen to broker a deal with the powerful hunting lobby on the issue, by allowing a compromise by adopting the ‘Middle Way’ approach, but opponents dismissed strict licensing as “state run hunting”.


The Bill is likely to fail if, as expected, the Prime Minister calls a General Election for May 3, despite growing pressure on him not to do so, due to the foot and mouth crisis.


But animal welfare campaigners hope a Labour victory would mean that Mr Blair would stick to his pledge to outlaw the sport and re-introduce a Bill in the next Parliament.


However, the issue, which has been at the top of the political agenda since Labour swept to power in 1997, has sparked renewed anger in the countryside among communities struggling to cope with the foot-and-mouth outbreak.


The pro-hunting Countryside Alliance was forced to postpone its Liberties and Livelihoods march through London, which was originally scheduled to take place on Sunday March 18, because of the disease. Hundreds of thousands of farmers and rural dwellers had intended to march through the streets of the capital in defence of what they see as their rightful civil liberties.


The issue looks certain to continue to dominate the political agenda for a long time to come, but, for now at least, it looks as though hunting with dogs may be safe for the next year or so.