HUNTING WITH hounds in Britain was outlawed amid extraordinary scenes in both Houses of Parliament on Thursday night last week as the ancient countryside tradition enjoyed by monarchs and peoples of all classes for more than 300 years was made a crime. From February 19th 2005 it will be illegal to hunt foxes, deer and mink, and hare coursing will also be abolished.
Prime Minister Tony Blair now faces a General Election campaign marred by rural demonstrations and civil disobedience, despite his last-ditch attempts to get his own party’s backbench MPs to accept a compromise motion which would have allowed hunting to continue under licence.
Extraordinarily, it was the pro-hunting House of Lords that refused to save the Prime Minister from such embarrassment by rejecting for a final time, the Bill as passed, which would have allowed hunting to continue until June 2006. By refusing to accept the Bill, the Lords then forced the Speaker of the House of Commons to use the Parliament Act to force the legislation onto the statute books – within 90 days.
The Bill had see-sawed between the two Houses of Parliament during the course of the previous two days and twice on Thursday. Thus it was that at 9.02pm – almost at the very close of the Parliamentary session on Thursday, November 18th, 2004, Michael Martin, the Speaker of the House of Commons, announced that the Hunting Bill had met all the provisions of the Parliament Act and would become law. To a mixture of cheers and cries of "shame" from MPs on both sides of the House and indeed, on the same benches, he said the Bill was being sent to the Lords for Royal Assent.
Shortly afterwards the announcement that the Act against hunting Reynard was now law was made in the Lords with the traditional Norman words "La Reyne le Veult". (The Queen wills it). Foxhunting — along with deer hunting and hare coursing with dogs — will now be banned.
Hunts all over Britain are now confronted with swift and painful decisions about what to do with their hounds and horses and whether to defy the law – as many have said they will do - and carry on hunting
Huntsmen first started breeding hounds for foxhunting in the early 1660s. In 2004, at least half a million people are either directly or indirectly involved in the 350 hunts across the country. At least 1,000 are employed directly by hunts and the industry is worth £14.9 million a year. Up to 8,000 people could lose their jobs and up to 25,000 hounds may be put down.
Mr Blair was given an early taste of the turmoil ahead when more than 1,000 furious pro-hunt campaigners flocked to Windsor Castle to barrack him as he arrived for a state banquet in honour of President Chirac of France. Embarrassingly for Mr Blair, M Chirac duly obliged the hunting lobby by declaring hunting "a fine sport". And there is more where that came from…
Peers rejected an attempt by the Government to delay the implementation of the Bill until July 2006. MPs had voted for the delay but peers threw it out in their final vote on Thursday night. The Lords argued that it was a measure dreamt up by the Government purely to prevent foxhunting being an issue at the general election, expected in May, rather than to allow hunts time to adjust to a ban and to wind down or adapt their operations, and they should not go along with it.
Baroness Mallalieu, the Labour peer and president of the Countryside Alliance, told the House of Lords: "This House has done the countryside proud. It has also done liberty proud. Let those who despise both use the Parliament Act on this miserable Bill if they can but let us not help them to avoid the consequences of what they are doing."
Peers rejected warnings by Alun Michael, the Rural Affairs minister that it would be "perverse" to reject a delay in order to give the hunting community time to adjust to a ban.
The view of pro-hunting peers was that Labour MPs should face the consequences of their decision. But Government lawyers were alleged to be discussing whether ways could be found of delaying implementation to avoid a string of prosecutions before the election.
The pro-hunting campaign, led by the Countryside Alliance immediately took its fight to the courts on Friday when a challenge to the 1949 Parliament Act was lodged, but the prospects of the courts challenging Parliament are thought to be slim.
The second challenge was for the payment of compensation to everyone whose livelihood depended on hunting under the Human Rights Act.
At a press conference on Friday, Mr Blair appeared agitated by the questions about the ban and said: "I have tried for the best part of two years to find a compromise and a way forward, since there are people who feel passionately on either side of this debate.
"For many people in the country, they would like to have seen a situation in which we dealt with the arguments as to cruelty whilst at the same time understanding the feelings of those who regard this as integral to their way of life. It was not possible to find a compromise in Parliament."
A spokesman for the Countryside Alliance said that Mr Blair "should not try to shirk his responsibilities by allowing the ban to go through. A total ban is unnecessary, unjust and unenforcable. People have said they are prepared to go to prison rather than stop (hunting)."
John Rolls, the RSPCA’s director of animal welfare, welcomed the ban as "a watershed in the development of a more civilised society".
Mr Rolls added: "This new legislation reflects modern society’s abhorrence of cruelty to wild animals which has, for too long, been veiled in the bloody cloak of tradition and prejudice."
The League Against Cruel Sports welcomed the passage of the Hunting Act. League chairman John Cooper said: "This is a wonderful day for the majority of the public who oppose the barbarity of hunting with dogs.
"Like many Acts, including those giving women the right to vote and establishing the National Health Service, the Hunting Act will be resisted by some elements of society. It is, of course, the right of all citizens to campaign within the democratic process. However, no one is above the law and those who break it or commit other illegal acts to highlight their displeasure at the banning of their blood sport must be prosecuted.
"The police must enforce the law. We and our members will bring to the attention of the police and the authorities any incidents we uncover of the law being broken. We will be vociferous in our demands that action be taken to enforce the law.
"Whilst hunts are free to pursue doomed legal challenges, they would more profitably spend their time converting to drag hunting, to ensure no jobs are lost, or, if they cannot abide a chase which does not result in the killing of a wild animal, rehoming their hounds."
Countryside Alliance Chief Executive Simon Hart denounced the ban, saying: "The Commons has totally rejected any compromise on hunting. The Prime Minister and the Government have allowed MPs to enact prejudiced, discriminatory and divisive legislation to ban hunting through the use of the Parliament Acts.
"By bringing back the banning Bill in September and allowing it to be driven through the Commons in one day the Government enabled the use of the Parliament Acts. It was not MPs, or the Speaker, who enabled the use of the Parliament Acts. The Government and the Prime Minister took the decision to re-introduce the ‘banning’ Bill.
"The Prime Minister’s hollow words and vote are worth nothing in comparison with his disgraceful decision to allow this Bill to be brought forward by the Government. He has lost control of his party and his priorities.
"The rural minority cannot possibly ‘bring down the Government’, but there is an absolute determination amongst many thousands of people who feel betrayed by Labour to work for a Government which better represents them".