FOXHUNTING WILL be banned outright. This was the defiant message from the Government to the House of Lords last week when the peers debated the Governments Hunting Bill which had originally called for hunting to continue under licence but was amended by backbench MPs to call for an outright ban on hunting in England and Wales.
Lord Whitty, the rural affairs minister, faced angry protests during the Second Reading of the Bill in the House of Lords after announcing that the Government would seek to ensure that the "will of the elected House of Commons" to outlaw all hunting with dogs was implemented.
With the Government now ready to back the use of the Parliament Act to overrule attempts by the Lords to block a ban, this winter's hunting season could be the last.
Before the Lords began debating the hunting Bill, Lord Whitty confirmed that an estimated 20,000 hounds faced being destroyed if the ban was implemented. The Minister said foxhounds would not make suitable family pets, although some might be saved by retraining for farm work. The Government hoped to hold talks with animal welfare groups and the RSPCA on the hounds' future. However, this failed to prevent several Lords from berating him on this issue and causing the Minister to become increasingly irritated and defensive.
The peers were told that the Government would not seek to reinstate its own proposals for a licensing system for foxhunting based on the tests of cruelty and utility, which were rejected overwhelmingly by MPs in July. Instead it would seek to "facilitate" the amended hunting Bill, which proposes a total ban backed up by criminal sanctions.
Lord Whitty signalled that the Government would reintroduce the Bill incorporating the total ban in the Queen's Speech opening the new session of Parliament. Provided that the Commons passed it again, it would then go to the Lords, probably early next year.
Lord Whitty told the peers that the Government was not prepared to compromise on this issue: "It has been argued that the use of the Parliament Act would not be appropriate with this Bill. We dont want to get ahead of ourselves. But should there be no way through, and should the Bill be frustrated in its passage rather than scrutinised or improved, the Government could not stand in the way of the proper use of the Parliament Act."
He added that arguments about the cruelty of killing foxes by other means, such as shooting, or about civil liberties being infringed, were unlikely to sway the Government.
It is the first time the Government has stated explicitly that it will invoke the Act necessary when the Bill is again blocked by the Lords after being reintroduced in the Queens Speech in November. If the Lords voted the Bill down, it would become law immediately - otherwise it would pass by the end of the session, around late autumn 2004.