THE GOVERNMENTS New Hunting Bill was due to be outlined in the Queens Speech at the State Opening of Parliament this week, and was widely expected to favour the licensing of local foxhunts - but with an in-built mechanism designed to be unfavourable to the hunts, writes Nick Mays.
The government was to hand the final decision on whether to ban or preserve individual hunts to new tribunals, whose members would include representatives from groups opposed to hunting.
The bodies would be chaired by senior legal figures and would include members from animal welfare and countryside groups - in most instances the RSPCA and the National Trust.
In each case, the tribunal had to rule whether the use of hounds is the most humane method of killing foxes in a particular area. If there was no consensus, it is understood that the chairman would have the casting vote.
Legislation outlining the move was due to be announced in this week's Queen's Speech. Labour MPs who back a total ban have been assured that it will mean that all but a handful of hunts will be outlawed.
The Labour MPs have rejected previous attempts to broker a "middle way" that would allow some foxhunting to survive. However, ministers have recently been briefing MPs on the Bill to try to ensure that it wins support.
The Daily Telegraph received leaked details that the proposed law would divide the various forms of hunting with hounds into three categories: those to be banned outright, those to be permitted and those that must prove they can be justified.
coursing and stag hunting may be included in the banned category.
Ratting and the use of dogs to hunt rabbits will be allowed.
however, Ministers will argue that, in these cases, dogs can
be the most humane method of pest control. Foxhunting is to
fall in the third category. Individual hunts will have to
make cases for their survival.
The new tribunals would rule on whether the hunt would be necessary in terms of controlling a pest problem. The bodies must then be satisfied that the use of hounds is the most humane method available.
"What it means in practice is that the lowland hunts will be banned because they won't be able to argue that hunting with hounds is more humane than shooting foxes," said one Labour MP, who supports a total ban. "It is the upland hunts, mainly those in Cumbria, that are likely to survive."
Although the Bill appears to offer a loophole for some hunts, countryside campaigners will be furious that the final decision is being passed to tribunals that include dedicated opponents of hunting.