A BAN on hunting with dogs in England and Wales would cost the Government at least £155 million in compensation to affected parties, according to an analysis commissioned by the Countryside Alliance.
The total could be many millions more, however, if ancillary claims from businesses such as livery stables were eligible for payments.
Some lawyers believe there is also a strong case for compensation to hotels which benefit from tourism linked to hunting, in areas such as Exmoor.
The issue is certain to heighten concerns within the Government over the impact of a hunting ban. Although Tony Blair has pledged that the issue is to be resolved in this Parliament, anti-hunt MPs have still not been given a date when a Bill to ban the activity will be returned to the Commons and parliamentary time is looking decidedly limited before a possible General Election in 2005.
The prospect of such a large compensation payout — the cost of 15 new secondary schools — will also alarm the Treasury. Chancellor Gordon Brown has already told colleagues that if any compensation has to be paid it must come from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs DEFRA – and this would undoubtedly severely strain DEFRA’s resources.
The alliance decided to conduct the study after a damning report from the Lords and Commons Human Rights Committee in November 2003 that said the Bill banning the sport was in breach of the Human Rights Act in failing to make compensation provision for those who lost their jobs.
The committee also believes compensation should be paid to anyone who has a contract with a hunt. Farmers, for example, would be entitled to some compensation for having to pay others to keep down foxes and to collect fallen stock — services offered free by hunts.
A DEFRA spokesman insisted last night, however, that its legal advice differed from that of the parliamentary committee and it did not believe it was liable for compensation. The issue is almost certain to go before the courts to decide if the Bill falls within the ambit of the human rights legislation.
Some ministers may be running scared, however, as the Government’s £5 million compensation package for mink farmers forced out of business after the fur-farming ban has already been denounced by a High Court judge as irrational, arbitrary and in breach of human rights.
The cost analysis ordered by the alliance came from an accountant, William Patterson, from Lampeter, West Wales, and was based on losses that would be suffered from the Warwickshire Hunt. These figures were then used to provide a national snapshot. Simon Hart, chief executive of the alliance, said: "If the Government brings back the banning Bill it will face a fierce battle in the courts and in the country as well as this huge compensation bill. The sensible option would be to leave well alone."
Anti-hunt campaigners dismissed any basis for compensation. Douglas Batchelor, chief executive of the League Against Cruel Sports, said, "Their case is without foundation because the Hunting Bill does not stop people hunting; what it does is take the wild animal out of the equation."