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Labour MPs demand hunting ban … again

THERE WAS a definite feeling of deja-vu in Westminster earlier this week when a total ban on foxhunting before the next General Election was demanded by more than 200 Labour MPs.

The MPs, led by Tony Banks, former Sports Minister and vehement opponent of hunting, tabled a Commons motion urging the Prime Minister to fulfil commitments to settle the issue in this Parliament.

Michael Foster, the Labour MP for Worcester who introduced the backbench Bill to ban foxhunting in 1997, which was lost in 1998 due to a lack of Parliamentary time, said: "This is a reminder to Tony Blair that this is unfinished business. There is a commitment to see it resolved, and we want to see it resolved before the next general election. If the Government introduced the Bill between now and the summer, that would be the ideal time."

Mr Foster is one of 212 MPs who have signed the Commons motion calling on Mr Blair to act. Others include Ann Widdecombe, the former Conservative Home Office minister, who has long been an opponent of foxhunting, and Gerald Kaufman, the Labour chairman of the Commons select committee on culture, media and sport.

Mr Kaufman was instrumental in forcing the Government to guarantee that it would support a Bill to outlaw foxhunting after its own proposals for allowing hunting to continue under licence were rejected by the Commons in a debate which turned into a debacle when the Government apparently disowned its own Bill.

Mr Blair is known to have been reluctant to force through a total ban because of strong opposition from the Countryside Alliance, which has said that the measure would make criminals of ordinary people who will not give up traditional country pursuits.

Leaders of the Countryside Alliance said they would seek a judicial review against any ban. However, senior cabinet ministers said last night that the Government would reintroduce a Bill to implement a total ban on hunting with dogs.

They said the Lords would reject the measure again, but the Government has indicated it would be prepared this to use the Parliament Act to force the Bill onto the statute book by the spring of next year.

Mr Banks said he was confident that a ban would be introduced this time. "Unless something cataclysmic happens, it is unthinkable that the Government wouldn't deal with this," he said.

Some Labour MPs believe that announcing plans to ban the sport would encourage party supporters to turn out and vote in what could be a difficult set of elections for the Prime Minister.

Labour activists feel passionately about hunting and Mr Blair has tested their patience sorely by refusing to make legislation a priority.

However, the decision to drop the proposed Lords Reform Bill and to allow the Supreme Court Bill to carry over into 2004/5 session of Parliament means there is now less pressure on the Parliamentary timetable. This has strengthened the hand of those arguing for the anti-hunting Bill to be debated in the Commons before the local and European elections, to be held on June 10.

In its 2001 Election manifesto Labour promised to "resolve" the issue. The Government published a compromise Bill, that would have outlawed most hunting, but on a free vote MPs converted it into legislation for a total ban. The amended Bill did not get through the Lords, where most peers are in favour of hunting being allowed to continue.

As long as the Government publishes a Bill identical to the one that left the Commons last year, it will be able to use the Parliament Act to make it law at the end of the Parliamentary session, regardless of what happens in the Lords.

The issue now is purely one of whether or not the Prime Minister wants a fight with the Countryside Alliance, rural communities across the UK and, of course, his own MPs.