on hunting with dogs by Nick Mays
On Monday this week MPs voted overwhelmingly for an outright ban on fox hunting, rebuffing compromise proposals which allegedly had the backing of Prime Minister Tony Blair. Anti-hunting MPs supported the ban by 386 votes to 175. The majority of 211 was almost identical to the vote for a ban last year when Members were debating the Hunting With Dogs Bill, which then failed because of a lack of parliamentary time.
But the number of MPs backing the so-called middle way, which would allow hunting to continue under strict controls, fell to 169, despite clear indications from Downing Street that Mr Blair favours a compromise. Only 11 Labour MPs supported this option, including the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, and Robin Cook, Leader of the Commons who, along with his wife Gaynor, was entertained by the Kennel Club luminaries at Crufts earlier this month.
The compromise deal was expected to be backed by the House of Lords in their own vote on Tuesday, although the Commons vote sent a clear signal that MPs are in no mood to compromise.
Tony Blair cast a symbolic vote in favour of a ban as a packed House of Commons divided in the indicative vote, which took place after a five hour debate on the issue.
Alun Michael, the Rural Affairs minister, told MPs that the Government would consider using the Parliament Act to overrule the Lords and steamroller any legislation onto the statute books. I refute suggestions that some sort of deal is being done behind closed doors or there is going to be some sort of selling out, he declared.
Mr Blairs official spokesman had raised the prospect of a compromise deal, saying: We can approach this issue in a way that approaches some kind of consensus and recognises there are differences of view.
Speculation suggested a compromise would impose tough controls on fox hunts, which would operate by licence in areas where foxes were considered to be a problem, and would include possible bans on hare coursing and stag hunting.
Labour minister Gerald Kaufman, threatened outright rebellion
if the Government did not agree to a ban. He said: Let
nobody believe that if that does not happen then we will stop.
We will go on until we get the complete ban. It will have
to be done sometime, so do it now.
He was backed up by left-winger Gordon Prentice, whose amendment to bring back the Hunting Bill was backed by more than 80 MPs. Mr Prentice said he would press for last years Bill to be brought back immediately. We are going to lose a lot of support out there if we endlessly prevaricate, he said.
Norman Baker, for the Liberal Democrats, said Parliament had spent 125 hours and 47 minutes debating the issue since 1997.
He said: The freedom to hunt is the freedom to inflict unacceptable stress and pain on an animal.
Kate Hoey, the former Labour sports minister, warned: I have to question the priority of this Parliament again when the lives of our constituents are being made intolerable, when what people are really asking for is a ban on being mugged, a ban on having to wait to get into the hospital, a ban on being homeless, a ban on being overcrowded and unable to be rehoused.
Another former Labour Sports Minister, the outspoken left winger Tony Banks, was pictured with three anti-hunting activists dressed as a fox, a stag and a hare before the debate was vehement in his determination to see the Government impose an outright ban. But the overriding concern for animal welfare appeared to be accompanied by a political consideration by Mr Banks who wondered aloud what the Government was afraid of, as the rural hunting community were nearly all Tories.
William Hague, the previous Conservative leader, mocked animal rights activists, who opposed hunting. He said: They think that if you ban the hunting of foxes, the foxes will be deeply grateful and rush around to help the farmer at lambing time.
Barry Sheerman, Labour MP for Huddersfield, argued for the middle way. He said: Most people agree on two things. They want to minimise cruelty to animals but they want a decent rural environment and I think we can have both and I positively believe theres room for compromise.
Clarke, a former Conservative Chancellor, said: The
criminal law should be only used with very great care ...
It should not be allowed to make criminals of the perfectly
respectable, civilised people who take part in [fox hunting].
They are law-abiding, decent citizens.
Ann Winterton said the Government was preparing an act of spiteful vandalism to deprive literally thousands of their jobs in deeply rural areas.
She said: It is quite wrong to make criminal an activity just because a certain percentage of the population, often on inaccurate information, disapproves of it.
As MPs arrived for the debate, hundreds of pro-hunt demonstrators massed outside Parliament and threatened to break in to the building.
Police closed the main gates to the Commons and formed a human chain across part of the road around Parliament Square when the demonstrators staged a sit-down protest.
A spokesman for the League Against Cruel Sports said: It was a very solid vote in favour of a ban on hunting. The wishes of MPs are absolutely clear. They want the Government to enable them to ban hunting; they want the hunting Bill brought back.
But Simon Hart, director of the Campaign for Hunting at the Countryside Alliance, said the vote changed little.
The Government is to consider the results of the Commons and Lords debates - and voting figures - after which Alun Michael is expected to announce the Governments intentions on legislation before Parliaments Easter recess.
How MPs voted: (2001 debate figures in brackets)
Status Quo For: 154 (155) Against: 401 (399) Maj: 247 (244)
Middle Way For: 169 (182) Against: 371 (382) Maj: 202 (200)
Outright Ban For: 386 (387) Against: 175 (174) Maj: 211 (213)