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New law planned as Lords back
‘middle way’ on hunting ban
by Nick Mays


THE HOUSE of Lords voted against an outright ban on Foxhunting in their own debate on the issue last week, the day after the House of Commons had voted for an outright ban by a huge majority. Delivering a huge vote in favour of the so-called ‘Middle Way’, the peers backed the option of allowing fox hunting under regulation by 366 votes to 59, a majority of 307.

Their Lordships rejected an outright ban on hunting by 331 votes to 74, a majority of 257, with the number opposing the move substantially up on last year’s vote. In a third vote, the option of preserving the status quo was rejected by 119 votes to 97, a majority of 22.

The voting puts peers in direct conflict with the Commons, which voted overwhelmingly for an outright ban on hunting on Monday. MPs roundly rejected the so-called middle way, which would allow hunting to continue under strict conditions. Anti-hunting MPs supported a ban by 386 votes to 175.

Although Prime Minister Tony Blair cast a symbolic vote for a ban, he is thought to favour the compromise plan. But in this, the PM faces a dilemma: whether to press ahead with the compromise and risk widespread revolt on the back benches, or support an outright ban and risk provoking another battle in the Lords and huge protests from countryside supporters.

The Government’s intentions to ban hunting by stealth became clear just days later, on Friday, when Alun Michael, the rural affairs minister, outraged Conservative MPs and countryside groups by telling the Commons that the Government would use the Parliament Act to overcome the opposition of the Lords and force legislation on hunting on to the statute book before the next election.

Mr Michael announced that the Government was abandoning the previous hunting Bill, which proposed three options: an
outright ban, a strict licensing system, or allowing hunting to continue as at present but under a system of self-regulation. There will now be six months’ consultation on a new Bill that will be based on the principles of cruelty and utility, rather than a list of activities to be banned.

The indications are that the Government is keen to draft a workable bill, having seen the “dog’s dinner” of the Scottish Parliament’s anti-hunting Bill which is self-contradictory and which criminalises ordinary dog owners whose dogs might accidentally chase animals such as rabbits.

Necessary

Although Mr Michael did not give any further details, private briefings by ministers suggest that hunting with hounds will be banned except where it can be shown that two conditions are met: that it is necessary for pest control and that it is less cruel than poisoning and shooting.

In practice, that is likely to confine hunting to a few foot packs in the uplands of Wales, Cumbria and possibly Northumberland.

It would mean that nearly 200 famous lowland hunts, including the Duke of Beaufort’s and the Quorn, would have to be disbanded or switch to drag hunting. This autumn and winter could be the last full hunting season in England and Wales.

Stag hunting and hare coursing would be banned, but Mr Michael said the Government did not intend to place restrictions on angling and shooting - an assurance that was greeted with scepticism by Tory MPs. Some anti-bloodsports campaigners have previously indicated that they intend to “go after” angling and shooting, despite any such claims by the Government.

The Burns report on the future of hunting 18 months ago said that in lowland areas hunting by registered packs made only a “minor contribution” to the management of the fox population.

But in upland areas, where foxes caused more damage to sheep and game, there were fewer alternatives to the use of hounds.

While the report said that hunting with hounds “seriously compromises the welfare of the fox”, it acknowledged that none of the legal methods of fox control was “without difficulty from an animal welfare perspective”. The Government, however, intends to rely on the existing legal definition of cruelty - “causing unnecessary suffering” - to curb hunting.

Mr Michael said the Government recognised that there were “legitimate concerns in the countryside about pest control, land management and other practicalities”.

Commitment

Although promising consultations with all interested groups, he acknowledged that the Government’s proposals fell well short of the so-called “middle way” proposals for hunting to continue as a licensed activity.

He said that Labour had a manifesto commitment to enable Parliament to reach a conclusion on the issue - and made clear the Government now wanted to ensure that that happened. In a break with normal parliamentary procedure - a fairly common occurrence under New Labour - he confirmed that if the legislation was frustrated by the Lords, the Government would invoke the Parliament Act to ensure that it reached the statute book.

The new Bill would be introduced in the new session of Parliament starting in November and should become law by the summer of 2003. If the Lords blocked the legislation, the Government would reintroduce the same Bill at the start of the new parliamentary year in November 2003. Under the Parliament Act it would become law sometime the following year.

To add strength to the anti-hunting thrust of the Bill, Labour opponents of hunting secured an assurance from Mr Michael that if they amended the Bill to impose an outright ban on all forms of hunting with dogs the Government would ensure that it reached the statute book.

The pro-hunting Countryside Alliance issued a statement saying that they would oppose any suggestion of a ban on hunting, evoking the Human Rights legislation and taking the battle to the European Courts if necessary.

It is probable that the Alliance will be looking to organise another ‘march’ in the Autumn, the last of which was cancelled last year owing to the spread of Foot and Mouth Disease.