THE GOVERNMENT’S controversial Bill to ban hunting was passed – as expected – last week by a convincing majority. At the same time, outside the House of Commons, riot police form a cordon in Parliament Square to protect Westminster as a huge demonstration by pro-hunters and rural campaigners degenerated into violence.
As a group of hard-core protesters fought with police outside Parliament, a security nightmare unfolded inside as protesters stormed the chamber of the House of Commons.
Armed police were drafted in to guard the chamber after the extraordinary invasion during the debate on the Hunting Bill by five demonstrators wearing white pro-hunt T-shirts who evaded all Parliament’s security checks to reach the floor of the House. This was the first time in living memory that such a breach has happened – and it exposed the ease with which security could be breached by terrorists and others intent on less peaceful forms of demonstration.
Their action provoked outrage among MPs, who would have been defenceless to attack had the men had any violent intent. It succeeded in bringing proceedings to a halt for 20 minutes after the Deputy Speaker suspended the sitting.
The men were able to get into the chamber from a division lobby at the side of the Speaker’s chair, and they easily managed to reach the dispatch box, where they shouted and gestured at Alun Michael, the Rural Affairs Minister.
Four ran in to confront MPs from the exit behind Michael Martin’s chair and another escaped the clutches of security staff to come into the chamber from its entrance by the Members’ Lobby. They came into the Commons dressed in disguise and discarded the clothes they wore over their protest T-shirts in a Commons committee room.
Doorkeepers grabbed the intruders and bundled them out as stunned MPs looked on, wondering how they could have got so far without being appre-hended.
Eight people were held by the Serjeant at Arms, who has responsibility for Commons security, including Otis Ferry, the singer Brian Ferry’s son. The eight were later handed over to the police.
That evening, Andrew Marr, the BBC’s political editor, revealed that the corporation’s main news-desk had been tipped off about the protest in the chamber but chose to ignore it.
"Another great hit for us," he told the BBC News at Ten O’clock with masterly understatement.
It was later revealed that the intruders had carried out a ‘dry run’ in the Commons a day earlier, gaining access via a forged letter of invitation from two MPs and posing as building contr\actors. Among a pile of discarded "contractors’ clothes" police found a letter containing an invitation to a meeting at the Commons. It bore the forged signatures of Sir Peter Tapsell, the Conservative MP, and Kerry Pollard, the Labour MP.
An extra squad of police guarded the Commons chamber for the rest of last week after which Parliament rose for the party conference season. All leave for security officers was cancelled as a result of the protest.
The security breach and the violence in Parliament Square overshadowed the vote itself which anti-hunting campaigners hope will signal the death knell of foxhunting. The Bill, which was supported by 356 votes to 166, went to the House of Lords today and some time over the next two months will be forced on to the statute book under the procedures of the Parliament Act. The Prime Minister, Tony Blair, whose officials said earlier that he regretted that a compromise had been impossible, did not vote.
MPs voted by 342 to 15 on an amendment to bring the ban into force in July 2006 instead of the Government’s own target date of November 2006, meaning that next year’s hunting season will be the last.
Alun Michael, the Rural Affairs Minister told the House that the Government had been "patient" and had "tried to get the two sides to listen to each other and to find ways forward that were less divisive than the two extremes which are so shrill on this debate".
But, he added, "It has become clear that the views are so polarised that it’s impossible to deal with in that way."
Mr Michael went on to tell MPs it was wrong for some to argue that the use of the Parliament Act, if required, to force a ban through could justify illegal acts.
"That argument turns democracy on its head. The rightness or the wrongness of a particular piece of legislation is always subject to argument in this House and our parliamentary processes are the means with which these issues are argued through in the legislative process," Mr Michael told the Commons.
"The Parliament Act is part of that legislative process and part of the structure of our democracy — used sparingly, used only under provocation."
He rebutted the argument deployed earlier by Michael Howard, the Conservative leader, that the Government had problems far more pressing than hunting that it should deal with, such as crime, incapacity benefit, tax and regulation and hospital infections. If that were the case, the Minister asked, why had the Conservatives promised to make time available for an early Bill to overturn a hunting ban if they won the next General Election? James Gray, the Shadow Environment Minister and a keen huntsman, confirmed, "one of the first things we will do will be to reverse this disgraceful little Bill."
However, Mr Gray was careful to state that he and the Opposition would not condone breaking the law either by protests or illegal hunting once a ban was in place. He attacked it for reflecting "warped priorities" and imposing an "Islingtonian outlook" on rural communities.
A ban would probably lead to more foxes being killed but by poisoning, gassing, snaring and shooting, which were much more cruel than hunting, a selective method that tended to kill "the ill, the elderly and the weak", he said.
Sir Gerald Kaufman, a Labour backbencher and vociferous supporter of a hunting ban, declared it was "a momentous day" which should fulfil two Labour election manifestos over two-and-a-half parliaments.
Sir Gerald attacked hunt supporters for arguing that a ban would lead to the unnecessary destruction of packs of hounds, saying that hunt servants were "utterly callous" and shot hounds once their working life was over.
"Nobody can say this Bill will not take place without the fullest, elongated debate, and I can remember after 34 years in this House," Sir Gerald said.
Andrew George, the Liberal Democrat rural affairs spokesman, argued that it was wrong for hunt supporters to object to the ban as an attack on the civil liberties of a minority. He said there were others in rural areas who took equal displeasure in hunting whose views must be taken into account.
This was challenged from his own benches by Alan Beith, Lib Dem MP for Berwick upon Tweed, who said he might be displeased by many things but a stronger argument was needed to ban something altogether.
Oliver Heald, the Shadow Leader of the House, declared: "This procedural motion involves a massive use of executive power in order to crush an aspect of freedom in rural communities."
The senior Labour backbencher Barry Sheerman, MP for Huddersfield, also objected, saying his party’s manifesto had had no mention of using the Parliament Act. But Dennis Skinner, Labour MP for Bolsover, bluntly urged ministers to press on and "tell the House of Lords to go to hell and that we’ll carry this Bill".
The Hunting Bill was given an unopposed first reading in the House of Lords the following day (Thursday September 16th), although the peers were treading carefully in what looks certain become a procedural minefield. They will debate the Bill's second reading on October 12th, when Parliament resumes after its annual break for the party conferences.
Opponents of the Bill in the Lords are still discussing their tactics. But it is unlikely that peers will seek to block it or vote it down. It was clear that they did not want to ‘walk into the trap’ set by the Government and be accused of acting unreasonably and wrecking Labour's legislative programme over the issue.
It is most likely that the Lords will amend the Bill to reintroduce a licensing system to allow hunting with dogs where it could be shown to be the most efficient and least cruel method of pest control.
The Government had previously proposed the compromise solution of regulation, but Labour MPs, who inserted a total ban on all hunting with dogs, rejected this. The Government capitulated and adopted proposals for an outright ban.
Under the strategy, the Lords would challenge the Commons to vote down the amended Bill, which it will almost certainly do. The terms of the Parliament Act mean the version approved by the Commons containing the ban would become law in November.
But there are doubts over whether the Lords will approve the separate amendment, backed by the Commons on Wednesday night, to delay implementation of the ban until July 31, 2006.
The Government wanted an 18-month delay in the ban coming into force, so that it would not take effect until after the latest date for the general election. The last legal hunting season in England and Wales would begin in the autumn of next year.
Ministers are anxious to prevent pro-hunting demonstrations disrupting the election, and argue that a delay gives hunts time to make alternative arrangements for their hounds and horses.
If the Lords vote down the delay, the ban would come into force three months after the Act is passed - probably next February, through the very use of the Parliament Act, as promised by the Government. That would mean the approaching hunting season would be the last.
Some peers and countryside campaigners believe a delay would mainly benefit Tony Blair, who wants to push the argument past the election. They believe bringing matters to a head quickly would ensure that hunting would be a major issue in a general election expected next May.
However, pro-hunting campaigners have promised that whatever happens to the Bill, Mr Blair and his Ministers can expect a rough ride and plenty of protests in the next few months.
They were as good as their word, when Alun Michael was forced to stay away from an event last weekend heralding the ‘Right To Roam’ legislation, when pro-hunting campaigners threatened to disrupt the event.
Meanwhile, the Countryside Alliance, whilst critical of the Commons vote, was quick to condemn the demonstration on the floor of the House of Commons and the violence outside.
Alliance Chairman, John Jackson, said: "I condemn these lawless activities which are selfish and self indulgent. However appalling the behaviour of Alun Michael, people should not allow themselves to be provoked into activities of this kind which can only harm the cause for which thousands of their fellows are demonstrating peacefully".