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Hunting bill before the Lords again

PEERS ARE set to discuss and most likely reject the Government’s anti-hunting Bill when it returns to the House of Lords for its second reading next Tuesday, September 16th.

After the initial debate, the Bill is expected to go to Committee for line-by-line discussion and amendment, although campaigners believe that this will take place ‘on the floor’ of the House, rather than behind closed doors in the usual manner. In this way, all peers will be given a chance to debate and scrutinise the entire Bill.

It is widely expected that the Lords will reject the outright ban on hunting, voted for by MPs in the Commons two months ago and instead amend the Bill to allow hunting to continue under licence, the so-called ‘Middle Way’ favoured by many parliamentarians.

The House of Commons voted overwhelmingly for an outright ban by 386 votes to 175, rejecting any notion of a ‘Middle Way’ option where hunting could continue in certain areas under licence. The following day, the House of Lords voted against an outright ban on Foxhunting in their own debate on the issue and delivered 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.

If the outright ban is rejected by the Lords, however, MPs are certain to call upon Ministers to use the Parliament Act to force a total ban on to the statute book in the next session of Parliament. However, Rural Affairs Minister Alun Michael has pointedly refused to say whether such an option will be used, indicating the Government’s reluctance to ‘pick a fight’ with the rural community at a time when other issues such as the Hutton Inquiry are showing the Government in an increasingly bad light.

Even if the Parliament Act was used, the legislation might not even be in place until 2005, just before a General Election, which might enable to Government to lose, through ‘lack of Parliamentary time’ what it now considers to be an unwanted, embarrassing – and potentially vote-costing - piece of legislation.

Meanwhile, thousands of pro-hunting supporters have indicated that they will boycott the payment of council tax, car licence tax and the BBC licence fee under plans to launch a campaign of "civil resistance" against the proposed ban on foxhunting.

The threat of law-breaking by thousands of otherwise respectable middle-class citizens was revealed in confidential documents prepared by the Countryside Alliance and leaked to the press some weeks ago.

Other plans to foment "civil unrest" include an invasion of Chequers, the Prime Minister’s country retreat, with hundreds of horse-borne protesters and the disruption of milk supplies by blockading dairy centres.

The leaked documents show that the Alliance believes several million people support its cause. Senior figures in the organisation say only a few thousand supporters would be needed to boycott payments of vehicle excise duty and council tax, along with the BBC licence fee, to cause chaos. One strategy document, entitled Civil Resistance, argues the case for law-breaking on a massive scale, stating: "If it were to become apparent that the Parliament Act would be used then we would promise the Government to make the ban unenforceable in the run-up to the next election."

Meanwhile, the Countryside Alliance has threatened to take the Government to court under European human rights legislation if it imposes an outright ban on hunting.

The Alliance plan to challenge the ban on hunting passed by the Scottish Parliament back in February. Such a challenge could also eventually apply to any law banning hunting in England. The Scottish Executive has yet to take the decision to bring the ban into force but the Alliance's lawyers have already begun the process of a legal challenge.

The Alliance has already received strong legal opinion that the Scottish ban goes against the Human Rights Act on a number of grounds. It believes that if the Scottish Executive's determination to persist through the courts in the knowledge that it was infringing the Human Rights Act could trigger punitive fines.

It is believed that the Westminster Government is keen to avoid a lengthy and costly legal confrontation with the Alliance and is determined to "get the legislation right" and thus prevent the issue of hunting from becoming an annual fiasco for the Parliamentary process, thus taking up huge chunks of Parliamentary time. The outcome of any legal action against the Scottish Executive will be studied closely by Ministers in Whitehall with this in mind.