FOXHUNTING MAY carry on in England and Wales beyond this year’s likely General Election under a secret legal deal negotiated with Downing Street.
Several national newspapers revealed that they had learned that Lord Goldsmith, the Attorney-General, has agreed that he will not oppose any application from the Countryside Alliance for an injunction postponing implementation of the hunting ban before the courts have ruled on its legality.
The bitterly contested law, finally forced through Parliament by use of the Parliament Act in November last year, is due to come into force on February 18. Hunting groups have threatened a campaign of mass civil disobedience and potentially violent protests, blighting the Government’s preparations for a General Election which is widely expected to be held on May 5. An injunction would allow hunting to continue for several months or possibly even a year — well after the election.
Tony Blair is understood strongly to support the advice of government law officers on the injunction which, senior Whitehall sources say, could help to draw the political sting from the issue. However, pro-hunters have warned that they are not likely to forget the issue simply because the hunting ban may be deferred and will still raise the issue strongly during the General Election campaign.
The Prime Minister had previously attempted to broker a compromise for licensed hunting before being rebuffed by Labour MPs. He was also disappointed that the House of Lords last month rejected plans to delay implementation of the ban for 18 months and voted instead for a ‘kamikaze option’ to implement the ban within three months, thus not sparing the Prime Minister’s blushes during the General Election campaign.
The Government decided to overcome opposition from the Lords by invoking the rarely used Parliament Act which gives MPs the right to impose their will on the House of Lords. The Countryside Alliance is now challenging the legitimacy of this 1949 Act, a claim that would make the hunting ban invalid and trigger a constitutional crisis.
John Jackson, the alliance chairman, said that the case will be heard by the High Court on January 25-26. If judges rule against the alliance it is expected to apply for an immediate injunction delaying implementation of the law until the legal appeals process has been exhausted.
It is prepared to take the case all the way to the House of Lords and has "substantial funding" for legal costs.
A second court challenge against the ban, on the grounds that it breaches human rights legislation, is also likely early in the New Year. This could end up in the European Court at Strasbourg and take several years to resolve – during which time hunting will continue as before.
Asked about the injunction, Mr Jackson said: "It is quite normal for counsel to have conversations about these matters and, at the appropriate time, we would make such an application. A decision by the Attorney-General not to oppose the injunction would, of course, be very significant."
The prospect of delaying the ban will enrage more militant pro-hunting supporters who are determined to use the controversy to cause maximum damage to Labour at the next election.
Mr Jackson, regarded as a moderate within the alliance, has previously been attacked for his links with Labour. The disclosure of a fresh deal, understood to have been brokered between himself and Downing Street, may encourage those calling for a breakaway hunting campaign which openly defies the law and the authorities. But Mr Jackson said yesterday: "This has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with common sense."
One minister tried to salvage some credibility for the Government, commenting: "We have already accepted there is a case for giving hunting communities more time to prepare for the ban. You have to remember that MPs voted for the 18-month delay before the Lords rejected it."
LAW LORD WILL NOT SIT ON HUNTING CASES
ONE OF the most senior judges in the country has said that he disapproves of the ban on hunting and will not sit on any hunting case. Lord Scott of Foscote, a Law Lord, said in a recent interview with The Times: "I regret the ban hugely. It makes me very sad indeed. If there were any cases in front of the courts I will not sit on them — I have been too involved for too long. I disagree in principle with the Act and it would be inappropriate for me to sit as a judge in these cases."
Lord Scott spoke out as about 250 hunts throughout the country gathered for what could be the last Boxing Day meet, traditionally one of the most important dates in the hunting calendar.
Lord Scott’s intervention means that he will not be included in any judicial panel that may have to decide the merits of the Alliance case over use of the Parliament Act.
He did not wish to comment in detail on the case’s merits. He also barred himself from any involvement in a case to decide whether a hunt ban is in breach of human rights laws.
Lord Scott, 70, has been hunting for 45 years and rides with the Grafton in Northamptonshire. The sport is the first entry on his list of hobbies in Who’s Who? He is best known for his chairmanship of the arms to Iraq inquiry, where his tough independent streak upset some former Tory ministers.
Lord Scott told the newspaper he intended to turn up on foot today to support the Grafton hunt meeting at Towcester racecourse, Northamptonshire. He will be in the saddle later this week and said that he hoped to hunt regularly before the ban comes into force on February 18. After that he may switch to drag or bloodhound hunting. He insisted that he would not be party to disobeying the law. "I shall support hunts in what they decide to do if I think it is legal and not a circumvention of the Act."
Lord Scott made plain though he thought the ban on hunting and reasons for it were ridiculous.
When asked about the view of some MPs that it was a cruel sport, he said: "Lots of things are cruel. The fox would prefer not to be hunted, but it is not unacceptably cruel. One of the good things about hunting is that some foxes need culling, those that are lame or have some disease."