Hunting with dogs bill denounced as a fudge

Tony Blair was facing open revolt in the Labour Party over a compromise proposal to allow foxhunting under certain conditions. A bitter battle lies ahead before a final decision on hunting with dogs is reached.

When Labour came to power in 1997, opponents of hunting were confident that it would be banned by 2000. But it remains unfinished business in England and Wales - though the devolved Scottish Parliament has banned foxhunting north of the border.

Much will depend on the resolve of Mr Blair and his Cabinet. So far, he has lacked the determination to use his Government's majority to steamroller a ban on to the statute book.

Labour MPs described as a "fudge" the new Hunting Bill which would outlaw hare coursing and stag hunting in England and Wales but would let foxhunting continue if it were given the go-ahead by an independent registrar. Ratting and rabbiting with dogs would also be allowed.

Downing Street said Mr Blair believed that the compromise was the right way forward. But hard-line opponents of hunting served notice that they would press for an outright ban on all hunting with dogs by 2004. In an attempt to resolve years of argument, the Government proposed a complex system to regulate hunting fox, hare and mink with dogs.

Hunts would apply for permission to an independent registrar. Registration would be granted only where it could be shown that hunting was the most effective and least cruel method of pest control.

Hunts whose applications were rejected could appeal to a national tribunal headed by a senior legal figure. Hunting without being registered would be an offence - with
fines of up to £5,000 but no plans for jail sentences.

Hunts would be allowed to continue while their applications were being considered. The Government refused to give any indication of how many fox hunts would be allowed to continue.

However, only hunts in upland areas of Wales and Cumbria and possibly Northumberland are likely to be able to demonstrate that hunting is less cruel and more necessary than shooting or poisoning.

Many famous lowland hunts, including the Duke of Beaufort's and the Quorn, could face disbandment or a switch to drag hunting if they did not qualify for registration, which would last for three years.

Critics claimed that it would lead to "hunting by postcode" - with it legal in one part of the country but illegal in another. The Hunting Bill published by the Government was criticised by supporters and opponents of hunting.

The Countryside Alliance rejected the proposed ban on stag hunting and coursing. It promised to consider "constructively" the Bill's central principle of registration.

But more militant supporters of hunting warned of a campaign of civil disobedience if the Government pressed ahead with the Bill. The Campaign to Protect Hunted Animals said it would step up its efforts to secure an outright ban.

The cross-party Middle Way Group of MPs, who have backed the regulation, gave the legislation a cautious welcome. But Alun Michael, the Rural Affairs Minister, was left in no doubt that many Labour MPs felt let down.

Since Labour came to power in 1997, the Commons has twice voted for an outright ban on hunting with dogs - though it has been blocked by the Lords. However, Downing Street confirmed that Mr Blair, having charged Alun Michael with coming up with firm proposals to resolve the argument, would support the Bill. Although there would be a free vote, he would make clear to Labour MPs that he believed it was the right way forward. A show of support by Mr Blair and Cabinet members for the compromise could sway many Labour backbenchers, particularly younger, more ambitious MPs, who might want to demonstrate that they were backing the Government line.

But the proponents of the "middle way" have a lot of ground to make up. Their proposals were defeated by 371 votes to 169. The hard-line option of a total ban was supported by 386 votes to 175.

Much will depend on the attitude of Conservative MPs, who will also have a free vote. Their initial response was hostile. But if they joined forces with Mr Blair they might be able to vote down the hard-line opponents of foxhunting. The Bill - either in its original form, or amended to make it tougher with a ban - will go to the House of Lords around Easter 2003. The Upper House remains opposed to the Bill and would almost certainly return it to its original form and knock out any provisions for an outright ban. Mr Michael told MPs in March the Government would be ready to use the Parliament Act to ensure that the Bill became law if it was blocked in the Lords.

Mr Blair has always appeared reluctant to ban hunting - fearing a backlash from the countryside. However, if opponents of hunting succeeded in amending the Bill to impose an outright ban, he would be able to argue that he had acted in good faith.

He could claim he had sought a compromise based on regulation and used his best efforts to persuade Labour MPs to accept it. But he had been over-ruled by the elected House of Commons, whose will must prevail.

David Lidington, Tory environment spokesman, said the Government's decision to bring forward legislation on hunting demonstrated "an absurd sense of priorities".

Labour MPs said Mr Michael's proposals were an attempt to appease Middle England. Gerald Kaufman, the veteran Labour MP, accused the Government of a "botched attempt" to please both sides.

Hunts given a stay of execution
– but for how long?

After five years of intense debate under Labour on the subject of hunting, one fact is clear: that hare coursing and deer hunting will be banned.

Alun Michael, the rural affairs minister, said in his Commons statement that there was "incontrovertible evidence" that these two sports failed the tests of preventing cruelty and recognising "utility" set out by Lord Burns in his hunting inquiry.

Mr Michael stuck to these principles, identified by Lord Burns, to the extent of conceding - to the annoyance of many in his party - that hunting with dogs might be the least cruel way of controlling some animals in some circumstances. Ratting and rabbiting fall into this category.

He also took Lord Burns's hint at the hunting hearings this autumn that consensus between pro- and anti-hunters was possible only over time. He has therefore booted many issues into the future, including the main question of whether lowland mounted foxhunting is banned.

Under the process he has proposed it could take several years for fox hunts, hare and mink hunts to learn their fate, for first a process of registration and appeal has to be gone through which is not dissimilar to the introduction of the Right to Roam - a process taking five years.

Hunts will now have to write to a Government-appointed registrar stating why they comply with two standard tests:

The utility test "involves asking what is necessary to prevent serious damage to livestock, crops and other property or biological diversity".

The cruelty test "involves asking which effective methods of achieving that purpose involve least suffering".

Applicants can also specify conditions to which their hunting will be subject. Where an activity "has no utility and involves cruelty it will not be allowed to continue". If either the hunt, or animal welfare groups, wishes to contest the registrar's decision they may appeal to a tribunal set up by the Lord Chancellor.

This will be a national body with a president at its head. Its panel will have a legally-qualified chairman, sitting with normally two other members, one qualified in land management and the other with experience in animal welfare. Mr Michael said the onus was now on people who conducted any activity to show that it could meet the standard tests or find ways of changing their activity to meet them.

It is clear that all forms of hunting will have a chance, including hare hunting - although not coursing - because of the benefits it can claim for conserving hares.

Mr Michael refused to say what proportion of lowland fox hunts might be assumed to meet the criteria of utility and least suffering, but after hunting of one kind has been allowed, whether upland or lowland, it is hard to see how others would not be allowed to continue.
Hunts will come under the law on animal welfare for the first time, with any breaches being subject to fines of up to £5,000.

Mr Michael dismissed suggestions that any compensation would be payable for jobs lost or hounds or horses destroyed. He argued that his intention was to regulate hunting and disallow cruelty, therefore compensation would not apply.

It is most likely that thousands of foxhounds made redundant as a result of some hunts being forced to cease would have to be destroyed, as they could not be re-homed – despite suggestions by the RSPCA that they could be.

The one piece of advice Lord Burns gave him at the hunting hearings which Mr Michael has not taken is that a compromise, of the kind now proposed, was unlikely to satisfy his own back benches and was unlikely to convince supporters of unbanned hunting that their sports would not be next. Although Mr Michael made explicit undertakings that the Government had "no intention whatsoever of placing restrictions on the sports of angling and shooting"
devotees of those sports will be casting an uneasy eye over his statement this morning to see if it sets a precedent for banning them in the future. Certainly extreme anti-hunting protestors have said – as long ago as the year 2000 – that they would push for bans on angling and shooting once hunting with hounds was banned.

The discrepancy between a total ban on deer hunting and hare coursing was also seized upon by pro-hunters as evidence of the Government’s failure to deal with the issue fairly.

Simon Hart, of the Countryside Alliance, said: "Alun Michael said he would not make a prejudicial decision about foxhunting, but he has about deer hunting. I don't see why deer hunts cannot apply to be registered as hunts and, if necessary, turned down.

"Mr Michael says that there is incontrovertible evidence that deer hunting is cruel. If it is so, they will not get a licence. The evidence that it is cruel has not been published, as he said it would be, which is worrying."

Others have remarked that it is curious that Mr Michael should have said the evidence against hare coursing was incontrovertible while the evidence in favour of the control of rabbits and rats with dogs was incontrovertible too.

Meanwhile, it emerged that stalking an animal or flushing it out of cover to be shot would be allowed under the Hunting Bill presented by Mr Michael to the House.

It was also pointed out that Lurcher or Greyhound owners prevented from coursing their dogs could apply to be registered for carrying out pest control.


To receive Breaking News dog stories direct to your Inbox,

sign up for the weekly Our Dogs email newsletter here