SUPPORTERS who gathered outside Westminster earlier this week
to protest about the Government's plans to ban hunting with
hounds were criticised for not showing respect for Parliament.
Alun Michael, the rural affairs minister, broke from his prepared statement to MPs as he introduced the Second Reading debate in the Hunting Bill to say that he had listened to all sides of the argument in the past eight months. It was, he said, disappointing that the demonstrators "are not showing small respect".
In his opening remarks which lasted just over 30 minutes, Mr Michael was constantly heckled and mocked by Conservatives who repeatedly asked for interventions.
He gave way to listen to opposition arguments more than 20 times, but his patience wore thin when he was alerted to the tactics of demonstrators outside the Chamber. "In a free society everyone has the right of peaceful protest . . . I ask the Countryside Alliance and their supporters, including the more extreme wings and some Tory MPs, to show the respect to Parliament that I have shown to them in the last few months. It is Parliament that has to make the decision."
As Mr Michael sat down, Tories shouted: "Disgrace!"
The Government's Bill proposes to outlaw stag hunting and hare coursing while allowing foxhunting with hounds to continue under licence.
The Bill, Mr Michael told MPs, provided "simplicity and clarity about who can do what . . . and it is tough but fair."
added: "Some have wrongly suggested that this Bill is a
compromise pulled out of thin air, others that it is a vindictive
attack on a beleaguered minority. It is neither."
Mr Michael pointed out that the issue had wasted considerable parliamentary time. "We cannot go on debating this subject year after year after year without a conclusion."
Mr Michael said the Government hoped that the Commons and Lords would accept its provisions and both he and the Tory side gave assurances there would be a free vote on the matter.
Gerald Kaufman (Lab, Manchester Gorton), a veteran backbencher who wants hunting banned, said the Labour movement would be seriously damaged if the Government took away the free vote from so-called "payroll MPs" - ministers and their parliamentary private secretaries.
Mr Kaufman also said he had been told of the disturbances and that Carriage Gates, the main entrance to the Commons, had been closed as MPs began their debate. The Metropolitan Police, he said, should not be responsible for bring such protesters to justice, but rather the authorities of the House of the Commons.
David Lidington, the Tory rural affairs spokesman, said the Government's Bill was a threat to individual liberty and was designed to criminalise an activity that had been carried out, until now, by a small minority of law-abiding citizens. The Bill imposed unjustifiable restrictions on individual freedoms. "It will rob some of our fellow citizens of their livelihood and take homes from a number of families," he said. Far from enhancing animal welfare, it would cause considerable harm.
Mr Lidington confirmed the Tories' commitment to allowing time for the ban on hunting to be reversed if the Tories returned to power. The tests of utility and cruelty were narrowly defined in a way that would weaken any application. It was "objectionable" that the burden of proof under the registration schemes rested on the licence applicant.
"It won't be for the authorities to have to prove that cruelty takes place in hunting," he said. "Hunting will be unlawful unless those who hunt can meet the test of cruelty and utility."
Left winger Tony Banks (Lab, West Ham) said the issue was a moral one. "Killing animals is as wrong as killing humans," he declared.
As the debate continued, scuffles broke out t between pro-hunting supporters and police at a demonstration outside Parliament in central London.
Six people were arrested before the protest ended shortly before 7pm and the thousands of demonstrators began to disperse.
The demonstration began early Monday afternoon when up to 700 protestors, believed to be members of the extremist Countryside Action Network, staged a sit-down protest as they voiced their anger against plans to restrict foxhunting and outlaw stag hunting and hare coursing.
The crowd was swelled several hours later when an estimated 2,300 people on a Countryside Alliance march, which had begun south of the River Thames, arrived in Parliament Square.
The protest became rowdy when the two groups of pro-hunting supporters tried to join together. But they were kept apart by two lines of mounted police and dozens of officers linking their arms together.
A line of demonstrators stretched across the whole of the Parliament building, blocking a number of surrounding roads and disrupting rush hour traffic in Westminster.
the protest became more angry, the police lines retreated and
the crowd surged forward. A police van and police horses were
used to block the main entrance to the Commons to prevent the
protesters invading the Palace of Westminster.
Many of the protesters expressed their anger with the Government's hunting plans which, if made law, will see foxhunting allowed only with a licence.
Vivien de Haan, 41, from Ludlow, Shropshire, brought her three children to the protest. She said: "I'm here to defend all forms of hunting. We think it's the best form of pest control and no way is it cruel."
Anthony Robb, from Huish Champflower, near Somerset, accused the Government of "sacrificing a culture for the sake of appeasing the Left-wing". He said: "They are destroying a culture that's been built up over many generations. It's a very, very sad day for England."
Certhia Harden, 85, from Kent, said she had been hunting nearly all her life and had attended the protest to "defend the liberty of the countryside and to prevent one of our oldest traditions from dying out".
She said: "The Government are completely biased against hunting and know nothing about it.