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The BBC's Mark Mardell
"Anti-hunters were also out in force"
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RSPCA's Bill Swann
"You can neither regulate or licence the cruelty out of (hunting)"
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Lord Mancroft of the Countryside Alliance
"We would prefer a complete overhaul of (our) shambolic animal welfare legislation"
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The BBC's Robert Hall attends a hunt in Higham, Suffolk
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Wednesday, 17 January, 2001, 22:10 GMT
Hunting ban vote begins
Essex and Suffolk Hunt
Many hunts were out to highlight their case
MPs are voting on the future of hunting in England and Wales, as supporters and opponents of the bloodsport hold demonstrations outside parliament and across the country.

The Commons chamber was packed for the debate ahead of what is expected to be an expected overwhelming vote in favour of a ban on Wednesday.

Outside in Westminster, pro and anti-hunt campaigners staged peaceful protests, with police on standby in case of clashes later.

Meanwhile, despite earlier signals he would be at Westminster to vote for a ban, it emerged that Prime Minister Tony Blair is in Northern Ireland for political talks with local parties.

The three options
New licensing scheme - "the middle way"
Total ban
Mr Blair has made public his opposition to hunting with hounds but failed to cast his vote during the two previous attempts by MPs to outlaw hunting since New Labour took office in 1997.

The news that he is once again absent for the free vote has disappointed the anti-hunting lobby.

MPs debated the three options for the future of hunting over more than five hours before voting on each of them started at 2200GMT.

'Conscience' vote

The debate was opened by junior Home Office Minister Mike O'Brien who told MPs the votes on each option were a "matter of conscience" for each of them.

"It's a matter of each constituency MP to determine how they decide to represent their constituents," he said.

Tory home affairs spokesman David Lidington, who opposes a ban, said his preference was for self regulation as the licensing proposal was both "cumbersome and bureaucratic".

Hunt meet in Suffolk
Hunts met across the country before the Commons debate
Outside the Houses of Parliament the League Against Cruel Sports held a demonstration while across the road in Parliament Square, a pro-hunting vigil backed by the Countryside Alliance continued.

Further afield, hunt members and supporters held large gatherings in areas including Somerset, Wiltshire, Wales and Essex.

Even if, as expected, MPs vote for a ban, the strong opposition it is forecast to come up against in the House of Lords means the Bill is highly unlikely to become law before the expected spring general election.

Timing constraint

In the run up to Wednesday's debate Tory Lords leader Lord Strathclyde insisted peers would subject the measure to the same scrutiny as any other government bill.

"No bill, not even the shortest and least controversial one, can normally pass the Lords in less than six to seven weeks from when it leaves the Commons," he said.

"That means that if there is an election called for April or May this Bill has no chance of becoming law for timing reasons alone. Tony Blair knows that."

Downing Street has rejected speculation that if as expected the Bill falls when it reaches the Lords, a pledge to ban hunting will appear in Labour's election manifesto.

With the full array of potential parliamentary obstacles taken into account it could be November 2002 before a ban takes effect.

'Middle way'

The last time the current Bill came before MPs in December, at second reading stage, a ban was backed by 373 votes.

Cabinet ministers Mo Mowlam, John Prescott, Nick Brown and Margaret Beckett are expected to vote in favour of a ban.

Others - including Jack Straw, Peter Mandelson and Robin Cook - are expected to support the "middle way" licensing system.

Conservative leader William Hague is expected to support self-regulation while shadow home secretary Ann Widdecombe is passionately in favour of a ban.

Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy is also believed to support a ban although most of his party are expected to back licensing.

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17 Jan 01 | UK
The hunt bites back
17 Jan 01 | UK
Head to head: Foxhunting
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Hunt ban may still fail
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Does fox-hunting have a future?
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Pro-hunt vigil continues
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Hunting for victory
17 Jan 01 | Scotland
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