THE FINAL stages of whether the Government’s controversial Hunting With Dogs Bill will be enacted took place this week in the Palace of Westminster with the Bill being subjected to a manic game of ‘ping-pong’ between the Houses of Commons and Lords.
Whether the Commons or the Lords would prevail was still unclear at the time of OUR DOGS going to press, but there were fears that the Lords would vote for a total ban to be enacted within three months as a ‘kamikaze’ plan to make the ban on hunting a General Election issue with massive shows of civil disobedience from rural communities – something that Prime Minister Tony Blair was keen to avoid.
With only three days to go until the end of the current session of Parliament and thus resolve the matter once and for all, Mr Blair signalled his intention to vote for a compromise measure to keep some foxhunting under licence in a last-ditch attempt to head off an outright ban in the Commons, when the Bill returned there from the Lords on Tuesday, according to Downing Street sources.
The Prime Minister was joined by several leading Cabinet members if given the chance to vote on a compromise amendment.
But the large Commons majority in favour of an outright ban seemed to be holding rock solid, with MPs determined to throw out every Lords amendment to restore some hunting of foxes under licence and stag as well as hare coursing and to push for a total ban on hunting with hounds.
The Hunting Bill returned to the Commons on Tuesday after completing its third reading in the Lords on Monday night and was due to be sent back to the Lords with MPs’ changes on Wednesday… with the possible ‘middle way’ amendment from the PM.
Efforts were under way in Westminster early this week to convince Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs to compromise, with repeated statements from Downing Street of Mr Blair’s opposition to a full ban.
A vote to ban foxhunting has been carried seven times in the House of Commons since 1997, most recently in September by 356 to 166, a majority of 190. Meanwhile, the lords have consistently voted in favour of allowing hunting to continue under licence.
MPs were likely to agree a stay of execution for foxhunting of 18 months in a regulation alongside the Bill to allow those in hunting communities to prepare for the cessation of hunting, but many peers were determined to reject this. Their "kamikaze option" would result in a ban being brought in after three months, on February 16 2005, making it an issue during the expected General Election campaign. There was some speculation that this could lose Mr Blair his job, even if Labour were to win the next election. Certainly, many anti-hunting Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs in marginal seats would be likely casualties at the election.
During the third reading, peers restored a cruelty test to the Bill and inserted "wildlife management" as reasons for licensed hunting. Many peers were understood to be willing to sacrifice stag hunting and hare coursing for a Bill which allows licensed hunting for ‘wildlife’ – i.e. foxes.
On Monday, peers gave an unopposed third reading to their heavily amended Bill which would allow regulated hunting to continue in England and Wales after having rejected the outright ban proposed by MPs.
Conservative and Liberal peers warned angrily of a "tragedy" that would split the country if the Commons insisted on a total ban. Lord King of Bridgwater, a former Tory cabinet minister, said hunting people felt "absolutely betrayed" by the way the Bill had been conducted by the Government.
Environment Minister Lord Whitty, who complained of being subjected to "abuse and harassment" during the Bill's passage, said he did not think peers had done enough to persuade MPs that regulated hunting was the way forward.
Indeed, the registration system put forward by the Lords would not be backed by Mr Blair because it changes the burden of proof and would bring all hunting with dogs, including hare coursing and stag hunting, within its scope, but the Government has made clear it wants an immediate ban on hare coursing and stag hunting.
However, Mr Blair hoped that his decision to back a compromise would persuade other Labour MPs and ministers to back away from a total ban. If about 80 Labour MPs joined him, the regulation compromise would stand a good chance of being approved.
It would avoid a damaging bout of parliamentary ping-pong that could continue until Thursday between the two Houses of Parliament. Ministers have already indicated they will use the Parliament Act to force a hunting ban on to the statute book if the dispute between the two Houses cannot be resolved.
The Speaker of the House of Commons, Michael Martin, was expected to say that the conditions needed for the Parliament Act to be used will have been met if there is no agreement before this session of Parliament ends on Thursday of this week.
But the Parliament Act cannot be used to push through the Government's suggestion that a ban be delayed until July 2006 - after the election - to allow hunts time to adapt. An immediate ban would trigger a legal challenge from the Countryside Alliance against the use of the Parliament Act and under Human Rights legislation – and it is here that the Government stands a good chance of losing…. at all levels.
Meanwhile, Leader of the Opposition Michael Howard has gone on record saying that if Labour banned hunting, a future Conservative Government would reverse the ban.