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Thursday, 21 December, 2000, 01:23 GMT
Hunting Bill clears Commons hurdle
Hunt protesters outside Parliament
MPs have overwhelmingly backed legislation which could lead to hunting with hounds being banned in England and Wales.

They voted by 373 to 158 for the Hunting Bill to move to the committee stage in the House of Commons.

A free vote is due to take place next month when MPs will be able to choose between three options contained in the bill, including a total ban.

Under the timetable that has now been agreed, MPs must finish their debate within seven weeks and then the bill will go to the House of Lords where it is likely to run into immediate difficulty.

A year ago the government admitted that even with the departure of most heriditary peers, the Lords were unlikely to give it the go-ahead.

Opening the debate on the bill's second reading, home secretary Jack Straw indicated that his personal choice was for a 'middle way' option which would impose a licensing system.

The bill is misguided and unnecessary

Tory spokesman David Lidington
Summing up for the opposition, home affairs spokesman John Bercow said:"We will fight this Bill again and again and again at every stage."

As angry pro-hunt protests went on outside Parliament, Mr Straw told the Commons that he would support a scheme of regulation, as put forward by the Middle Way Group of MPs.

Under the scheme, hunting would become a licensed activity, with anyone wishing to take part required to apply to the Hunting Authority.

The other two options are for self-regulation and a complete ban on hunting with hounds, backed by a fine of up to 5,000 for illegal hunting.

Failed attempts

Any move to ban hunting outright is expected to meet fierce opposition in the Lords, making the legislation a possible casualty if a General Election is called in the spring.

Mr Straw stressed that after 22 failed backbench attempts to deal with fox hunting, the bill had not been determined by the government itself, but rather contained the three options suggested by leading interest groups.

"This is not an issue that follows traditional party lines," Mr Straw said.

Tory spokesman David Lidington said in his view the Bill was "misguided and unnecessary" and he would vote against it.

Mr Lidington said a ban could not be justified on grounds of animal welfare more wounded animals would suffer due to different methods of animal control, like snaring and shooting.

He said a ban could have an "acutely damaging" effect on the lives of individuals and rural communities.

'Red-nosed toffs'

Former prime minister, John Major, attacked the government, saying ministers were trying to turn the nation against what he called "a minority of red-nosed toffs".

Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Simon Hughes said the party supported a ban but confirmed MPs would have a free vote on the Bill.

He said he was personally in favour of banning hunting, but the onus was on those who wanted a ban to prove it was necessary before removing an individual's liberty.

Labour's Colin Pickthall conceded that hatred against hunting was influenced by "the class war instinct".

He said the pro-hunting camp's claim that a ban would represent the repression of a minority was true but irrelevant.

Former agriculture minister John Gummer said members claiming to be making moral arguments were talking about matters of personal taste.

Electoral reasons

He said the bill had been introduced for electoral not moral reasons.

Liberal Democrat MP Lembit Opik, a leader of the Middle Way Group, said human rights and animal welfare should exist side by side.

He said their scheme would cost around 1 million a year and would be paid for by the hunts themselves and not the taxpayer.

Plaid Cymru's Simon Thomas said the matter should be devolved to the National Assembly for Wales to decide.

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See also:

28 Oct 00 | UK Politics
Fox hunting season opens
07 Jul 00 | UK Politics
MPs debate hunt inquiry
26 Jun 00 | Scotland
Hunting report under fire
13 Jun 00 | UK Politics
Hunters will be 'called to arms'
11 Jun 00 | Wales
Warning over ban on hunting
09 Jun 00 | UK Politics
Hunting the popular vote
23 Nov 00 | UK Politics
Hunt bill by Christmas
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