THE BATTLE to ban hunting with hounds stepped up a gear this week when the House of Lords debated the Government’s controversial Hunting Bill which would abolish hunting by July 2006.
More than 40 peers were scheduled to debate the Second Reading of the Bill from Tuesday of this week, with the most likely outcome being a raft of amendments from the peers opting for a ‘middle way’ on the issue, to allow hunting to continue under licence. The legislation as it stands - which the Government has threatened to steamroller into law using the Parliament Act if peers attempt to delay it - criminalises the traditional rural sport.
The Bill has already passed through the Commons, with MPs debating all stages during a one-day sitting last month, while a rowdy demonstration by hunt supporters took place in Parliament Square.
Proceedings in the Commons were halted at one stage after a major breach of security when demonstrators broke into the chamber.
Members of the pro-hunting Countryside Alliance held another demonstration outside the Labour Party conference in Brighton, as Tony Blair was making his keynote speech. Several demonstrators were ejected from the conference after interrupting him.
There were no plans for a similar Whitehall demonstration this week, but in recent weeks there have been signs of movement on the issue with talk of a ‘compromise’ solution. Lord Strathclyde, the Conservative leader in the Lords hinted that peers would amend the Hunting Bill to allow foxhunting under licence rather than block the measure.
The tactic would seek to put pressure on the Commons by giving the impression that peers were seeking a compromise and challenging MPs to vote again to ban hunting, probably in the final days of this parliamentary session.
Lord Strathclyde told the Conservative party conference last week: "I hope the Lords can promote a sensible compromise over hunting. We will try, but already the Government say they won’t listen. Instead, they will use the cudgel of the Parliament Act to crush any point of view other than their own. This foolish, unnecessary crisis sums up Labour’s blunderbuss attitude to our constitution."
Amending the Bill to permit hunting under licence would restore the Bill to its original form, when ministers were seeking a compromise last year. It was later changed by Labour backbenchers to propose a total ban on hunting with dogs.
Such a move would complicate the likely use of the Parliament Acts to force the ban through. It also puts at risk Tony Blair’s plan to delay enforcing a ban on foxhunting until July 2006. Peers are overwhelmingly opposed to a total ban, while MPs led by Labour backbenchers such as Tony Banks and Sir Gerald Kaufman argue that hunting is cruel and must be outlawed.
After the second reading this week, the Bill will go into committee a fortnight later from October 26 to 28 and be given its third reading on November 16 or 17 before being sent back to the Commons, where the political war or words will continue. Whether or not the Government will use the Parliament Act to impose its will remains to be seen, but the Countryside Alliance is prepared to mount a challenge in the courts over the legality of using the Parliament Act, as well as the core of the legislation itself.
One thing is clear – the battle about the ban hunting has only just begun.