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Last Updated: Friday, 26 December, 2003, 11:18 GMT
Put NHS before hunting, poll says
Hounds
Hunting legislation was left out of the Queen's Speech
Only one out of every 50 Britons think banning or curtailing hunting with dogs should be the government's top priority, a poll of 1,000 people suggests.

The Countryside Alliance survey says that most people saw the NHS as the top issue facing ministers.

The findings come as supporters across Britain set out on for traditional Boxing Day hunts.

Anti-hunt organisations are staging demonstrations to support their call for the pursuit to be banned.

The largest protests are due in Sussex, Essex and around the Beaufort Hunt in Badminton, South Gloucestershire.

Today's hunt will be the penultimate one
Mike Hobday
League Against Cruel Sports

The government has been trying to get a ban - or some form of tight regulation - through parliament for some time.

But the last attempt was kicked out by the House of Lords in the last parliamentary session and there was no mention of new legislation in the Queen's Speech in November.

However, ministers have said the issue will be "resolved" soon and the anti-hunt lobby is still convinced it will be banned within two years.

League Against Cruel Sports spokesman Mike Hobday said the Boxing Day protesters wished to show their "abhorrence" for hunting.

He went on: "We expect legislation to be passed in November next year, with another three months before it comes into effect.

"Today's hunt will be the penultimate one."

We have been hearing over the last seven or eight years about plans for legislation and nothing has happened
Tim Bonner
Countryside Alliance

But pro-hunt organisations remain confident, saying that many more people than usual have pledged to join Boxing Day hunts.

Countryside Alliance spokesman Tim Bonner said: "There has been a change of attitude from the hunting community.

"Hunting has become much more open.

"People would rather get involved than worry about their image.

"They would rather be out there than worry about how people perceive them."

Supporters were not worried about the prospect of government legislation, Mr Bonner added.

Hunting is near the bottom of the public's list of priorities
Simon Hart
Countryside Alliance

"We have been hearing over the last seven or eight years about plans for legislation and nothing has happened," he said.

Countryside Alliance Chief Executive Simon Hart said its poll showed the government was on the wrong track.

"This poll shows what everyone, other than Labour backbenchers, knows - hunting is near the bottom of the public's list of priorities."

But a League Against Cruel Sports spokesman said: "Previous polls have always found the majority of people are against foxhunting.

"The British public always show a great deal of support for a ban against foxhunting.

"Of course, people might believe that education and health are more important."

Asylum policy

The poll, conducted by NOP, found 46% of respondents said the NHS should be the government's top priority.

One out of every five said it should be policy on asylum seekers, and the same number chose international terrorism.

Universities was the most pressing issue for 9%.

The government's last attempt to introduce legislation on hunting would have allowed it under a strict licensing system

Ministers hoped it was enough of a compromise to attract the backing of the largely pro-hunting Lords and the mainly anti-hunting Commons.

But this summer the Commons voted to turn the bill into a wholesale ban.

That was rejected by the Lords, and the government ran out of parliamentary time.




WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Sarah Mukherjee
"The hunting lobby say many more people than usual have said they will be joining Boxing Day hunts"



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