GOVERNMENT MINISTERS are to hold a series of public hearings later this month to try to defuse the row with countryside campaigners over the move to ban hunting with hounds.
Alun Michael, the Rural Affairs Minister, will chair three days of televised hearings at Portcullis House, Westminster, with pro and anti-hunting bodies. It is thought to be the first time that ministers have agreed to debate potential new laws with expert witnesses in public in advance of tabling legislation.
The Countryside Alliance, which is staging a massed rally and march to London on September 22, the Campaign for the Protection of the Hunted Animal, and the Middle Way Group, which supports the search for a compromise, have been invited to give evidence. Each group will bring expert witnesses, who will be examined.
Despite the consultation move, many pro-hunt supporters secretly suspect that Tony Blair has decided to ban foxhunting to try to placate backbench anger over Iraq and privatisation and to deflect public criticism from other areas of Government policy such as crime and the NHS..
John Jackson, chairman of the Countryside Alliance, who will give evidence, said: These hearings are hugely significant. For the first time, the Government is prepared to get the facts out in the open in advance of drawing up any legislation. People will then be able to judge whether the proposals which follow are logical and therefore to judge the ensuing behaviour of the House of Commons.
Mr Jackson, who will lead the Countryside Alliance delegation of three people, rejected the idea that the Government was paying lip service to consultation, having made its mind up to ban hunting. They would merely have drawn attention to the defects in their own legislation, he said.
Rural Affairs Minister Alun Michael commented: On March 21 this year, I told the House of Commons that the best approach would be to search for common ground, and to focus on principles and evidence. That could be achieved best by concentrating on two general principles: utility and cruelty the key issues addressed by the Burns Inquiry. Most people on both sides agree that cruelty should not be tolerated and utility should be recognised in "respect of activities involving land management and the control of wild mammal populations.
The more contentious the issue, the more important it is for a democratic society to search for common ground and then to approach legislation on the basis of principles and logic. It is to the credit of the three main umbrella organisations the Countryside Alliance, the Campaign for the Protection of the Hunted Animal and the Middle Way Group that they have entered into the process.
I am trying to encourage discussion rather than controversy, and I want to help the House to reach a resolution which will stand the test of time. l l lAlun Michael, the Rural Affairs Minister, was told by Tony Blair to find a solution to the foxhunting deadlock.
The choices are:
1: a compromise, based on a licensed form of hunting;
2: forcing a complete ban through Parliament;
3: the status quo
Ministers could decide on its future next month after a six-month consultation period.
In Scotland, a ban on hunting began this month despite a legal challenge by the Countryside Alliance. The countrys ten hunts are not allowed to meet.
Pro-hunt supporters challenged the Scottish Parliament under European human rights law.
MPs have overwhelmingly voted to outlaw hunting on several occasions since Labour took power in 1997. Its future in England and Wales is still in the balance.
An inquiry was held by Lord Burns two years ago and the Government introduced a Bill, which ran out of time when last years general election was called.
1.2 million people visit meets each year; 541,000 are mounted with 741,000 following the hunt.
There are 20,000 hounds, 50,000 terriers and 120,000 lurchers taking part in 860 to 900 hunts each week during the season, from September to the end of March.
50,000 horses are regularly used. Hunts employ 950 people directly; 14,300 full and part-time jobs are said to depend on it, including vets, farriers, stable staff, saddlers and local riding establishments.
Annual spending on hunting is as much as £243 million a year.