THE LONG-AWAITED Bill to ban foxhunting in England and Wales is set to be delayed until the last minute by ministers to avoid a battle with the House of Lords over other legislation.
Labour strategists believe a launch for the Bill in the two-week Commons session in September will also give Tony Blair a boost for the annual party conference that month.
Party managers are still planning to use the Parliament Act to force the Bill on to the statute book after it has been twice rejected. But to do this, ministers must allow the Bill at least 30 days for consideration by the Lords before the end of the session, expected in early November.
It now seems likely that it will have its Second Reading in the Commons just days before the conference season because of the need for the contentious Asylum and Immigration Bill to clear the Lords first. However, peers are geared up to delay any ‘flagship’ Government legislation if they suspect ‘dirty tricks’ with yet another attempt to ban hunting.
A Westminster source said: "September is the most likely scenario now, which will mean a very tight timetable for the Lords. To count as a rejection where the Parliament Act can be used, it has to be in the Lords for 30 days."
The Hunting Bill could therefore be announced next month as the Commons prepares for its summer break, with its Second Reading rushed through in September.
A total of 236 Labour MPs have already signed an early day motion seeking the reintroduction of the Hunting Bill after Mr Blair’s equivocal commitment last year to "resolve the issue in this Parliament". However, despite hints by Peter Hain, the Leader of the Commons and ‘assurances’ from ministers, the Bill still seems a long way off.
The Parliament Act can be used to force through the Bill only in the form in which it left the Commons last summer — where it was amended by MPs to bring in an outright ban on all hunting with dogs.
Peers may adopt the tactic of restoring the Bill to its original draft form – which was as drafted by the Government until it ‘disowned’ the Bill during the debate - when it allowed some hunting to continue under licence in upland areas.
Lord Strathclyde, Leader of the Tories in the Lords said: "Bringing back the Bill will look gratuitous and backward-looking."
HAIN HINTS AT HUNTING BILL… BUT NOT HEAVILY
PETER HAIN, the Leader of the Commons, hinted last week that the Government was about to introduce legislation to ban hunting…. yet again.
Mr Hain told anti-hunting MPs he strongly supported them and that they would be ‘encouraged’ when they heard an announcement on the subject.
For months ministers have been stonewalling, refusing to say if they will reintroduce the anti-hunting Bill that failed to get through the Lords last year despite winning a Commons majority for an outright ban in a farcical vote that went contrary to the Government line.
The Lords amended the Bill to allow hunting to continue under licence – and the Bill then ran out of parliamentary time.
Anti-hunting campaigners hope the Bill will be reintroduced before the summer recess so that the Government can use the Parliament Act to force it on to the statute book if peers block it again. The Government have only hinted (again) at using the Parliament Act to steamroller the legislation through, as Prime Minister Tony Blair clearly does not want to alienate rural voters even further.
Labour MPs believe the Government’s approach is ‘softly, softly’ and that ministers will not say for definite that there will be a hunting ban because they do not want to make hunting a headline issue when they are trying to concentrate on public services.
Alternatively, ministers might well be hoping that the longer they push the issue away, the less likely it is to bring the Government into a fight with the pro-hunting lobby and rural voters.