AS EXPECTED, the House of Lords voted by an overwhelming majority to amend the Government’s Hunting Bill to allow hunting to continue under licence – the so-called ‘Middle Way’ option, which is favoured by the Prime Minister.
During the debate, Lord Whitty, the Rural Affairs Minister, told peers that the Lords would be exceeding its powers as a revising chamber if it substituted a Bill banning hunting with one allowing hunting under licence.
Peers ignored his warning and, as expected, voted by 322 to 72 to overturn the ban sought by MPs and replace it with a system of registered hunts authorised by tribunals similar to that first proposed in the Government’s Bill until it was amended to call for a total ban by backbenchers.
His remarks dismayed some hunting supporters, who had taken heart from earlier Downing Street comments suggesting that the Prime Minister remained wedded to his wish for a compromise. Tony Blair’s official spokesman said before the vote: "Let us wait and see what the House of Lords does, but the Prime Minister has not changed his view at any point that it would be better if a compromise is agreed."
Sources close to Mr Blair indicated, however, that he did not harbour any realistic hope that a compromise would survive when Labour MPs and other anti-hunting MPs vote on the Bill again on its return to the Commons.
Mr Blair is understood to be deeply unhappy at the prospect of introducing an outright ban. He regards that as contrary to his New Labour ethos of governing for the whole country and not acting out of spite towards any group of voters. Since then he has given pledges on a hunting ban to MPs in return for their support over bitterly contested votes for controversial Bills such as the Iraq war and top-up tuition fees.
The amendments to restore registered hunting were moved by Lord Donoghue, the Labour peer and former junior agriculture minister, who said that he did so in a spirit of compromise and appealed to supporters of a ban to follow suit. "If the Government does not accept this rational compromise and also uses the draconian Parliament Act against its original proposals, then my Government, of which I am normally a most loyal supporter, will in my view be shamed and humiliated by its actions."
Lord Whitty added that the group of amendments would alter fundamentally the structure of the Bill and would mean peers sent back to the Commons an entirely different measure rather than one revised on points of detail. "It is not usually a good move to send back to your negotiating partners a proposal which has already been overwhelmingly rejected, not unless you wish to precipitate a complete breakdown of relations between the two sides. I put that as a warning," Lord Whitty said.
Meanwhile, the Prime Minister’s Cabinet allies have launched a last ditch attempt to persuade Labour MPs to allow hunting to continue under licence.
The Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, indicated a new attempt to find a compromise by voting for the amendment to the total ban. He was one of several ministers who backed the compromise in the Lords last week.
More senior ministers are expected to give their support for an amendment and there are signs that Mr Blair is also preparing to vote for compromise, having studiously avoided voting any way on the issue previously. In fact, 58 Labour peers voted for compromise. Only 53 voted for a ban.
The ‘Compromise’ Ministers included Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean, the foreign office minister, Lord Rooker, the minister of state for the Office of Deputy Prime Minister, Lord Irvine, the former Lord Chancellor, Lord Macdonald of Tradeston, the former transport minister, and the Blairite peers Lord Bragg, Lord Winston, Lord Alli, Lord Haskins and Lord Puttnam.
The legislation, which is currently in committee stage in the Lords, will be sent to the Commons on November 16. MPs are likely to reject it because, with the Lords' amendments, it would not result in a total ban on fox hunting.
The legislation would then be sent back to the Lords, who are expected to make concessions on hare coursing, before returning the Bill to the Commons once more.
MPs will then have one day to decide whether to back the compromise.
The changes would allow for only a few strictly licensed hunts in upland areas. The alternative is to return the Bill to a total ban and invoke the Parliament Act to force it through before the end of the session.
At this point Mr Blair and senior members of his Cabinet will make clear publicly that they back the compromise.
Such a compromise still appears to be unlikely. Hundreds of Labour MPs remain implacably opposed to any form of hunting, as do some ministers including Peter Hain, the Commons Leader, and Hilary Armstrong, the chief whip.
Countryside Alliance Chief Executive, Simon Hart, said: "The Labour Party's manifesto commitment was to enable Parliament, not just the Commons, to reach a conclusion on the hunting issue. Parliament has spoken and it has rejected a ban. It is now time for Labour MPs to stop blocking fair and sensible compromise proposals.
"Once again there has been overwhelming support for a compromise in the House of Lords.
The hunting community is ready to accept fair regulation and the Prime Minister has said that he supports the amendments made to the Bill - the only people now blocking a sensible-evidence based resolution are Labour backbenchers".
How the votes went: Commons Third Reading 15th September: ban 341 against 157. Lords Registration 26th October: ban 72 against 320