by Nick Mays
THE GOVERNMENT faces the prospect of paying punitive damages under European human rights legislation if it imposes an outright ban on hunting.
The warning was made last week by Richard Burge, chief executive of the Countryside Alliance, as he set out plans for the pro-hunting campaign over the next few months, including at least one major march in London.
The first mass rally - similar to the Countryside March in 1998 - is expected to attract up to 500,000 people, including many from sporting organisations elsewhere in Europe which are alarmed by the prospect of a hunting ban.
The date, possibly in July, or September to coincide with the end of the Governments six-month consultation on a Bill on hunting, is expected to be decided by the Alliance board in the next two weeks in consultation with the Metropolitan Police.
The House of Commons voted overwhelmingly for an outright ban last month by 386 votes to 175, rejecting any notion of a Middle Way optioin where hunting could continue in certain areas under license. The following day, the House of Lords voted against an outright ban on Foxhunting in their own debate on the issue and delivered a huge vote in favour of the so-called Middle Way, the peers backed the option of allowing fox hunting under regulation by 366 votes to 59, a majority of 307.
The Prime Minister has made it clear that he would prefer to see the issue settled by sensible compromise legislation which would allow for hunting to continue in areas where other methods of fox control would not be sufficient. After both Houses had voted, Rural Affairs Minister Alun Michael announced that the Government would instigate a six month consultation period between all concerned parties to ensure that workable; legislation could be drawn up.
From this week, delegations from hunting communities will visit regional offices of the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to press for the Governments compromise solution on hunting to be fair and tolerant.
The Alliance is supporting calls by a cross-party group of peers for a joint committee of both Houses of Parliament to draw up the proposed Bill, instead of leaving it to the Government to draw up in secret.
Mr Burge said that the Alliance would be challenging the ban on hunting passed by the Scottish Parliament in February well in advance of the next hunting season in the late summer. Such a challenge could also eventually apply to any law banning hunting in England.
The Scottish Executive has yet to take the decision to bring the ban into force but the Alliances lawyers have already begun the process of a legal challenge.
The Alliance has already received strong legal opinion that the Scottish ban goes against the Human Rights Act on a number of grounds. It believes that if the Scottish Executives determination to persist through the courts in the knowledge that it was infringing the Human Rights Act could trigger punitive fines.
Mr Burge said: Our advice, which is very strong, is that the Scottish Parliament has started down a path which they will lose and lose in a big way.
The longer they keep going and the more they damage peoples lives, our view is that we wont just be seeking compensation for those damaged lives we will be seeking punishment of the Scottish Executive through damages claims to make sure that the Scottish Parliament realises the error of going down that way again. If that is class retribution, it is class retribution - the rural class on the suburban middle class in this case.
Mr Burge said he hoped that the Scottish Executive realised from day one that it was on to a loser. Individual procurators fiscal would have to ask, probably by the autumn, whether they really wanted to start arresting people under a Bill which had already been thrown out by a first court. With the human rights law still new, Mr Burge said the levels of compensation that the Alliance would be seeking had yet to be established.
It is believed that the Westminster Government is keen to avoid a lengthy and costly legal confrontation with the Alliance and is determined to get the legislation right and thus prevent the issue of hunting from becoming an annual fiasco for the Parliamentary process.
The outcome of any legal action against the Scottish Executive will be studied closely by Ministers in Whitehall with this in mind.
Turning to the planned London rally, Mr Burge promised that the demonstration would be legitimate, law abiding and there would be no civil disobedience.
He said: We want people in urban centres looking at their TV or their newspapers saying, `What on earth has gone wrong when decent people like us have to take to the streets in order to defend their way of life and the things that matter to them.
He said that any government which played on democracy and liberty on the world stage would have to consider how would that play if their own citizens are demonstrating on the streets.