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Anti’s fury at hunt ban delay

ANIMAL RIGHTS groups have joined forces to stop a last-minute attempt by the Government to delay its own hunting ban.

The League Against Cruel Sports, the International Fund for Animal Welfare and the RSPCA have taken legal advice on lodging their opposition to a stay of execution on a hunting ban.

The Government caused anger and amazement among anti-hunt campaigners just before Christmas when it announced that it would not oppose the injunction, being sought by the Countryside Alliance.

Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney-General, said that he would allow the alliance's application to go unchallenged. A Downing Street spokesman said: "If the Countryside Alliance is mindful to take out an injunction we are mindful not to oppose that."

Constitutional specialists said that it was unprecedented for a Government not to resist legal moves to scupper its own recently passed acts.

Ministers have secretly dubbed the move a "cunning plan" to avoid clashes with hunt supporters, but critics also say it is a ploy to help the Government avoid mass breaches of the law, due to come into effect on February 18, in the run-up to a possible spring general election.

Mike Hobday, of the League Against Cruel Sports, said: "We find what the Government is doing absolutely extraordinary. It must be the idea of some bright spark in Downing Street who thought this up without properly considering the consequences."

Meanwhile, John Cooper, chairman of The League Against Cruel Sports, outlined his disgust at the Government’s stance in far plainer words: "We are appalled that Downing Street is giving in to threats of violence, bullying and intimidation instead of defending the decisions of Parliament and doing everything within their power to uphold the Hunting Act which now has Royal Assent," he said.

"There is no reason whatsoever for the law not to be enforced."

Mr Cooper said the Countryside Alliance had tried and failed to delay implementation of the hunting ban in Scotland two years ago.

"The Scottish court rejected their case and their request for an injunction ... We have no reason to believe the English courts will not do the same."

Carol McKenna, of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, said: "If an injunction is applied for, we will look into ways that we can oppose it. It would be a very strange scenario if we went to court to defend the Parliament Act and the Government didn't, but it's one that might happen."

At a hearing in the High Court on January 25, the Countryside Alliance will argue that the Hunting Act is invalid because it was passed using the Parliament Act of 1949, which some lawyers maintain is invalid.

If it loses, as is expected, it will apply for an injunction delaying the Hunting Act pending appeals to the Court of Appeal and, if necessary, the House of Lords.

The Government is thought to be trying to avoid the campaign of civil disobedience threatened by pro-hunters in the run-up to the General Election, expected on May 5.

It risks infuriating Labour backbenchers, who were the driving force behind the foxhunting ban, as well as many party supporters.

Tony Blair is understood strongly to support the advice of Government law officers not to oppose the injunction.

Alun Michael, the Rural Affairs Minister who has been the target of pro-hunt demonstrations, said the Government was "relaxed" about the challenges but did not expect them to succeed.

Insisting it was "not a question of a secret deal", Mr Michael said: "What you simply see here is the Government being reasonable as we have been all along despite the fact that this is probably the most contentious issue, although not necessarily the most important, that we’ve seen in politics."

He pointed out that the February commencement date was voted for by pro-hunt peers and not MPs.

James Gray, a Conservative spokesman, said police should not waste time enforcing the ban until its legality was established.

Paul Flynn, an anti-hunting Labour backbencher, backed the Government’s stance. He said: "As a veteran enthusiast for a ban on bloodsports, I voted for an 18-month delay to allow hunters to adjust.

"In a cynical political stunt the Countryside Alliance - through the House of Lords - brought forward the ban to February 2005. We must not fall into the trap they have devised, and abide by the will of elected parliamentarians and introduce the ban in 2006."

Sir Gerald Kaufman, the anti-hunt Labour MP, said: "There are a lot of people who can oppose the injunction. I will seek to table an urgent question to the Attorney-General as soon as Parliament returns. I cannot think of a precedent for this."