AFTER two and a half years of heated debate and outright argument, Members of the Scottish Parliament voted last week to make Scotland the first part of Britain to ban foxhunting when they passed a law intended to make in MSPs voted overwhelmingly in favour of the Protection of Wild Mammals (Scotland) Bill. The voting was 83 in favour, 36 against with five abstentions.
But within minutes of the Bill being passed, it became clear that the controversy surrounding the legislation, which could see foxhunters imprisoned for up to six months or fined up to £5,000, would not go away. Pro-hunting opponents denounced the Bill as an unworkable mess whilst indicating that legal challenges would be mounted in both the Scottish and European courts once the Bill receives Royal Assent.
The credibility of the law-making ability of the parliament was called into question when some Conservative MSPs suggested that the Bill did not specifically banmounted hunts. One interpretation of the Bills ambiguous wording even indicated that foxes could be pursued by mounted hunts as long as the fox was shot at the end of the hunt, rather than killed by dogs.
This, in turn, brings into question the way in which hunting would be policed. Theoretically, a hunt could pursue a fox, and the dogs might kill the fox, but as long as a huntsman made sure to put a bullet in the carcass, no one could prove or disprove that the hounds or the bullet killed the fox, unless the kill was observed and filmed.
The Scottish Countryside Alliance said it would challenge the legislation under the European Convention of Human Rights. Legal action will also be taken under Human Rights laws against the Parliaments decision to throw out three amendments calling for compensation for the hundreds of rural workers who will lose their jobs as a result of the legislation. More time was devoted into defeating these amendments than any other part of the Bill, which many pro-hunting campaigners denounced as spiteful and petty, showing just how out of touch with rural matters the majority of the anti-hunting MSPs were.
The legal action will begin as soon as the Bill receives Royal Assent, and thus becomes law, in about four weeks time.
But Lord Watson of Invergowrie, the cabinet minister who drafted the Members Bill when he was a backbencher, said last night that he was proud that the Scottish Assembly had become the first legislature to say that suffering in the name of human pleasure is unacceptable.
Watson, the minister for culture, tourism and sport, added:
The House of Commons will follow this in due course
and it is an example of what the Scottish Parliament can do.
Opponents of the Bill have long since derided Lord Watson as being arrogant and completely ignorant of the realities of rural life, and have pointed out that he has never acknowledged that banning hunting would actually cause more welfare problems for foxes as other, crueller methods of control would become the norm.
During a stormy six-hour session, MSPs considered 107 amendments. At the end of the debate, a majority of 47 MSPs passed the law that will see the pastime banned by the autumn.
Earlier in the day, a series of changes were put forward by Lord Watsons supporters. Parliament passed the amendments, drawn up by a cross-party group of anti-hunt MSPs and designed to close legal loopholes that jeopardised the Bills aim to ban mounted hunts.
But critics claimed that the changes would criminalise gamekeepers and members of the Scottish hill packs by making their methods of pest control illegal. Incredibly, a suggested amendment to ensure that pest control involving the use of a single dog to kill vermin escaping from the undergrowth was lawful was defeated.
The way ahead for the legislation looks stormy, and the Westminster Government, currently under extreme pressure to ban hunting in England and Wales, will no doubt be watching the outcome of the legal challenges very closely before committing itself to providing Parliamentary time for another attempt to introduce a Bill banning hunting south of the border.