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The Ping Pong Bill

THE HUNTING Bill bounced backwards and forwards between the House of Lords and the House of Commons several times last week, in a bizarre display of Parliamentary ping pong. In fact, it moved between the two Houses twice on Thursday, when the crucial decision to use the Parliament Act to steamroller the legislation through took place.

On Monday of last week, the Lords gave an unopposed Third Reading to the Bill, having heavily amended it to allow hunting with hounds to continue under licence. From here it returned to the Commons on Tuesday and was debated the following day, Wednesday. The Government made a spirited attempt to introduce a compromise option into the Bill to allow limited licensing options for foxhunting – but still maintaining a total ban on stag hunting and hare coursing. However, despite the PM himself voting and being backed up by several of his Ministers, this was rejected by backbench MPs and the Lords’ amendments were stripped out, leaving the ‘total ban’ Bill in place. The Bill then was sent back to the Lords for ratification.

On the morning of Thursday, November 18th, the last day of the Parliamentary session, the Lords were faced with a stark choice. Whether to accept the Bill which would see a total ban on hunting enacted by July 2006, or to attempt to amend it again, knowing that to do so would force the use of the Parliament Act which would see the ban enacted on February 19th 2005. This would, of course, not allow time for the hunts to prepare for a ban by gradual ‘winding down’, but the Lords knew that the hunting community backed their stand and that many hunters had vowed to carry on hunting, regardless of a ban, and risk arrest for breaking the law.

With this in mind, the Lords then re-inserted their clauses to allow hunting to continue under licence and sent the Bill back along the corridor to the Commons, where it was due to be debated that afternoon.

MPs arrived to find that Alun Michael, the Rural Affairs Minister, had put down an amendment to delay the ban until July 2007 and then his parliamentary private secretary Peter Bradley (Lab, The Wrekin) put down a second amendment delaying a ban until July 2006. Hilary Armstrong, the Labour Chief Whip, was reported to be having intense discussions in the Members' Tea Room after tempers flared among MPs suspicious that some kind of deal was being prepared.

Mr Michael insisted that MPs had a free vote. Mr Michael told MPs that delaying the ban until 2006 or 2007 would enable the Commons "not only to be reasonable but be seen to be reasonable - going the extra mile, if you like". Gregory Barker (Con, Bexhill and Battle) protested: "Everyone in the countryside who cares for liberty and the environment will see that your machinations over commencement has nothing to do with reasonableness but shabby horse-trading behind the scenes on the Labour benches."

The Bill was again voted on in its original form – i.e. a total ban to be introduced by July 2006 and sent back to the Lords for ratification. Liberal Democrat peers switched to support the package, but other peers heeded appeals from pro-hunters to stick to their principles and reject the deal because it would have seen the Bill pass without the need for the Parliament Act. They voted against the Bill by 153 to 114, a majority of 39. The Bill then returned to the Commons for a final time.

At this point, Michael Martin, the Commons Speaker, certified that the Hunting Bill should pass under the Parliament Act after being rejected by peers in successive parliamentary sessions. The final rejection by peers that afternoon had, he said, "brought us to the end of the road". Mr Martin made his announcement just after 9pm to cries of "shame" from the Tory backbenches and "hear hear" from Labour MPs.

Reading from notes, he told MPs: "I have to inform the House that a message has been brought from the Lords as follows: 'The Lords insists in their amendments to the Hunting Bill to which the Commons have insisted on their disagreement for which insistence they assign their reasons. "

'They insist on their amendments to which the Commons have disagreed for which insistence they assign their reasons. And they disagree to the amendment proposed by the Commons in lieu of the Lords, amendments for which disagreement they assign their reasons'

He then pronounced: "I am satisfied that all the provisions of the Parliament Act have been met", and declared that the Bill should be passed. This provoked cries of ‘Shame" and cheers and sarcastic shouts of "Tally-ho!" from MPs on all sides of the debate.

After seven years and an estimated 700 hours of debate in both Houses of Parliament, hunting was to be come illegal.