THE GOVERNMENT last week announced the return of its long-promised anti-hunting Bill which was due to be debated in just one day by the House of Commons on Wednesday of this week.
However, fox hunting will not be banned for two years, thanks to a clause inserted into the legislation on the insistence of Prime Minister Tony Blair, who is keen to avoid a battle with rural voters at the next General Election. Despite this, pro-hunting campaigners have made it clear that they are hardly likely to ignore the issue either before or after the election.
Alun Michael, the Rural Affairs Minister, confirmed that the Government was to bring back the Hunting Bill this Wednesday (September 15th) and ask the Commons to approve all of its stages in a single day.
Ministers will then ask the Speaker to invoke the Parliament Act to force it into law in the face of likely opposition from the Lords but, in a final act of drama in the long-running saga over hunting, it would not be enacted for two years. This ‘delaying’ tactic risks angering animal welfare campaigners, while further alienating the countryside lobby. But it allows Mr Blair to say that he has met his manifesto pledge to enable Parliament to reach a conclusion on hunting.
Hare coursing will be exempt from the delay and be banned within three months. Deer, mink, hare and fox hunting will be banned by the end of November 2006 as a result of a Bill the Government is to reintroduce next Wednesday.
Mr Michael said the hare coursing ban would be in force before the next Waterloo Cup, the leading coursing event of the calendar. The hunt ban would allow only one further full season of hunting with hounds.
The new Banks Bill - named after the Labour MP Tony Banks who proposed the banning amendment - will be accompanied by a "suggestion" postponing the three-month deadline for the ban on fox, deer and mink hunting for two years. Both will be subject to a free vote.
The Lords would then be faced with the option of accepting this version of the Bill, with the two-year postponement.
If they rejected it, the Government would invoke the Parliament Act on the version of the Bill blocked by the Lords last year, which would impose a ban three months after Royal Assent.
In an exclusive interview published this issue with OUR DOGS, Tony Banks made it clear that he, personally, had no problem with a two-year delay, as it would give hunters no reason for having to destroy their dogs and to make other arrangements for their care. He added that, after campaigning so long for a ban on hunting, two years’ delay would be bearable to "get it right".
Meanwhile, Alun Michael said the Government could then choose to introduce a one-clause Bill of its own postponing the ban for two years. Mr Michael added that while "legislation is not a Government priority", hunting was "an issue on which MPs have expressed strong and consistent views over many years".
He said: "We are making clear that legislation is coming forward but we are creating the space in which decent people can get used to it."
Some people had not considered that it would happen and therefore needed additional time to deal with their future. Mr Michael said a two-year delay would give "even less reason" for hounds and horses to be shot.
The convoluted Bill will, in effect give the Lords, a majority of whom support the ‘middle way’ of licensed hunting, a choice between an almost immediate ban and two years’ grace, in which those involved in hunting can prepare for a ban. It also gives voters the chance to endorse the ban in a general election and reduces the prospect of hunt supporters staging acts of civil disobedience before an election. However, the Government faces a legal challenge from pro-hunting campaigners under the Human Rights Act, as well as a constitutional challenge over the use of the Parliament Act. The two-year period means that the ban would not be in place even if the election were delayed until July 2006. The Conservative Opposition have promised to reverse the ban if elected.
Phyllis Campbell-McRae, Director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) UK, said: "We are extremely concerned about a two-year delay. This is about ending cruelty to animals and any delay will prolong their suffering."
In response to suggestions that there were places such as the West Country where hunters have resolved to defy a ban, Minister Alun Michael added: "The Government believes most people are law-abiding people who will not defy Parliament."
He said he had signed a declaration saying he was "quite happy" that the Hunting Bill did not contravene the Human Rights Act and said any compensation for loss of livlihood required would be "minimal".
He also said he was confident that the requirements of the 1949 Parliament Act, which allows the Commons to over-ride the will of the Lords, were satisfied, even though this legal instrument is usually reserved for emergency legislation in times of crisis.
The all-party Middle Way Group said the reintroduction of the Bill was "a triumph for prejudice and bigotry" which would condemn tens of thousands of dogs and horses to death and lead to more foxes, deer and hares being killed.
Lembit Opik, MP, the co-chairman of the group, said: "The public must realise this Bill has nothing to do with animal welfare."
It went against the conclusions of the Burns inquiry into hunting and the hearings led by Mr Michael and "instead of being based on principle, substitutes the personal bigotry and prejudices of backbenchers".
Tim Yeo, the Conservative spokesman, said: "If Labour railroad through a Bill to ban hunting using the Parliament Act we will introduce a Government Bill to reverse Labour's ban. The vast majority of Conservatives believe a ban is an infringement of civil liberties and damaging to the countryside."
Mike Hobday said the League Against Cruel Sports, of which he is a spokesman, was "absolutely delighted" with the re-introduction of the Bill but that a two-year extension was "unhelpful and unnecessary and MPs are unlikely to vote for it".
Simon Hart, of the Countryside Alliance, said the alliance intended to challenge the validity of the 1949 Parliament Act. Its lawyers believe that the Act was not passed in a valid manner under the terms of the 1911 Parliament Act. "We will be taking the Government to court on a matter of considerable constitutional significance," he added.
Alliance Chairman, John Jackson, added: "The declared intentions of the Government have everything to do with party management and the timing of the next General Election: they have nothing to do with public policy or the welfare of wild animals. This is corrupt politics and will cause wide spread anger and contempt.
"The position with regard to the Parliament Act 1949 will be tested vigorously in the Courts at the earliest appropriate moment. That is a matter of constitutional right as is peaceful demonstration.
"The wider question asked with increasing frequency, 'how should the private citizen react to the prospect of unfair laws imposed in an unfair way?' is a matter for the individual conscience".
The Long Haul to Hunt Ban
The Prime Minister has always been at best ambivalent, at worst uneasy about a ban on hunting – particularly as his own Sedgefield constituency hosts many working class ‘miners’ hunts’. The 7 year-long fight by Labour to implement a ban on hunting included in its 1997 General Election manifesto was first taken up in the autumn of 1997 by Michael Foster, a newly elected Labour MP, who tabled his own backbench Bill to ban hunting.
Foster’s Bill was overwhelmingly backed by the House of Commons but Downing Street killed it off by allowing it to run out of Parliamentary time in July 1998. A year later in July 8, 1999, Mr Blair surprised everybody by telling the BBC One Question Time programme that legislation to outlaw foxhunting was back on the agenda. In September, Mr Blair began his party conference speech by delivering a defiant " Tally-ho!" to the pro-hunting demonstrators outside the hall. He was, however, already backing away from a ban once again, telling an interviewer that legislation would not be included in the forthcoming Queen’s Speech.
A year on again, in the summer of 2000, after a bitter confrontation between the Labour leadership and activists, ministers were back promoting the issue. In January 2001, MPs voted once again for a full ban, but it was stopped by the Lords and again ran out of Parliamentary time. The 2001 Labour General Election manifesto promised another free vote, but added that the issue would be resolved in the next Parliament. Nothing more was heard until, in February 2002, Mr Blair promised MPs that he would honour his promise. A vote in March resulted, predictably, in MPs backing a ban and the Lords opposing it. Alun Michael, the Rural Affairs Minister, announced a six-month consultation on new legislative proposals, which led to the detailed report prepared by Lord Burns, vilified and praised in equal turn by both pro and anti hunting campaigners, depending on which conclusions Lord Burns reached.
The Government thought that it had secured Commons backing for a compromise option of regulated foxhunting in December 2002, but this was thrown out by MPs in July 2003, who voted overwhelmingly for a total ban. Once again, the Lords blocked the legislation, opting instead for the ‘middle way’ licensed hunting option.