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updated 28/9/01

MSPs vote in favour of hunt ban for Scotland


FOXHUNTING COULD be banned in Scotland by the end of next year after an overwhelming majority of members of the Scottish Parliament voted in favour A Bill to outlaw hunting with dogs.

Members voted to agree the general principles of Labour MSP Lord Watson of Invergowrie's Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Bill by 84 votes to 34, with one abstention. The Bill enjoyed wide cross party support, but had taken over a year to reach this crucial stage in the face of concerted opposition from pro-hunting MSPs and field sports enthusiasts.

The vote created an unprecedented situation because it flew in the face of a recommendation to reject the Bill by the Parliament's Rural Development Committee. The Scottish Parliament's Rural Development Committee had originally favoured a greatly amended Bill which would have allowed hunting to continue, but under strict licensing for each individual Hunt. An independent hunting authority, created to regulate hunts would handle the licensing arrangements.

The Committee later recommended full rejection of the Watson Bill as it was "unworkable" and "Unenforceable" and was likely to breach Human Rights laws. Lord Watson urged members to back the general principles of his Bill, which he first introduced on March 1, 2000. He complained no other Bill had taken longer than 107 days to complete its passage into legislation, while his Bill was already on its 409th day.

Lord Watson declared that the aim of the Bill was to ban mounted fox hunting, stop hare coursing and ban fox-baiting where dogs were used to bait and fight foxes underground, saying: "I have brought before this Parliament a Bill to reduce, if not to end, forms of cruelty that have continued for far too long and which should have noplace in a modern, cultured Scotland."

He also rejected accusations that the Bill was fatally flawed, stressing it could be amended at later parliamentary stages.

The Scottish Countryside Alliance pledged to fight on against the Bill, saying that legal advice had suggested that the Bill was clearly incompatible with the European Convention for Human Rights and that MSPs had been unwise to ignore the recommendations of the Rural Development Committee.

"There will be a huge lobbying exercise carried out on MSPs," he declared. "So many were making fundamental mistakes in their speeches, one had to ask whether they had really read the Bill."

Alex Fergusson, convenor of the Rural Development Committee, dismissed the legislation as "the wrong Bill, in the wrong place at the wrong time". Mr Fergusson expressed his disappointment that the Scottish Parliament's much-vaunted committee led system had been challenged for the first time in this way.

During the debate, he said ending cruelty to wild mammals was a "perfectly laudable aim" which had universal support but he insisted the Bill inaccurately "equates the use of dogs to cruelty", adding it would also cost more than 140 jobs.

Prevention

Another opponent of the Bill, Dr Murray, Dumfries Labour MSP, said the Bill could not be made more manageable through amendments at a later stage.

She said: "The current situation is hard to accept on moral grounds, but the Bill misses its target of reducing animal suffering."

Her amendment urged MSPs to reject the Bill and called on the Scottish Executive to come up with ways of preventing unnecessary animal suffering.

Anti-hunting Alex Neil, Scottish National Party MSP for Central Scotland, said the issue should not be seen as a battle between urban Scotland and the countryside.

He added: "I do not believe that implementation of this Bill will destroy the rural economy in Scotland."

But accusations of class warfare and battles between the town and countryside were inescapable as the debate raged within ad outside the chamber.

Alex Johnstone, North East Scotland Tory MSP and the former convenor of the RD committee, said fox hunting was an acceptable way of keeping down the fox population in Scotland, which has grown steadily over the last 15 years. He described the Bill as "a politically inspired offensive in an on-going class war, nothing more, nothing less".

Outside the chamber, angry insults were exchanged between protestors from both the pro and anti hunting lobbies. After the vote, Les Ward, chairman of the Scottish Campaign Against Hunting with Dogs, described the vote as "historic" and said he was sure the result would be welcomed throughout the country.

"This is a great day for Scotland's wildlife. For too long, a small number of individuals have been free to bait and bully wild animals for sport," he added. "I know the people of Scotland, the vast majority of whom want this ban, will be as grateful as we are for what our politicians have done."

However, Peter Hastie, a member of the Scottish Campaign Against Hunting With Dogs confirmed the worst fears of the field sports enthusiasts by calling on the ban to be extended to all field sports, including angling and shooting.

Radical

This is a far more radical step than most of the anti-hunting MSPs are prepared to take and an issue which they have been keen to avoid or play down. "We as a nation will not tolerate bloodsports any more," crowed Mr Hastie defiantly, "Scotland has spoken."

The prospect of Lord Watson's Bill becoming law ahead of the Scottish parliament's next elections was reinforced by Rhona Brankin, the Deputy Rural Affairs Minister, who said that the Executive would "not frustrate the further passage" of the Bill.

However, concerted opposition to the Bill may slow it down sufficiently to see it lost through lack of Parliamentary time or defeated outright on terms of legality.