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Wednesday, 17 January, 2001, 14:09 GMT
Hunt ban may still fail
Local hunt
Hunting ban still a long way ahead
By BBC News Online's political correspondent Nick Assinder.

The disclosure that Tony Blair will miss the vote on the Hunting Bill has sparked fresh fears that a ban will never see the light of day.

His commitment to the Northern Ireland peace process cannot be denied - so it would be hard for supporters of a ban to criticise his decision to travel to Belfast instead of going through the voting lobbies.

But, according to his spokesman, unlike Northern Ireland, a ban on fox hunting "is not his number one priority".

And that comment has sparked suspicions that, if a ban cannot be made law before the general election, a new bill might not be reintroduced by a future Labour government.

Even now, the ban already has a number of hurdles to jump before it gets onto the statute books.

First of all, it has to get through the Commons vote. It is expected that enough Labour backbenchers will support a total ban to push it through.

Prime Minister Tony Blair
Blair misses vote again
But it is possible that two of the three options - a total ban, no change or licensing - are left as part of the Bill, effectively making it unworkable.

The government would then face having a second go in an attempt to defeat one of the two options.

Real trouble

Assuming the Bill does pass through the Commons with, as expected, backing for an outright ban, it will then go into standing committee where MPs from all parties hammer out the fine detail.

That can be a long and laborious process and can often significantly change proposed legislation.

After the Bill receives its third reading in the Commons, it then goes to the House of Lords - and that is where the real trouble could start.

It is believed ministers will allow the Lords to debate all three options - even though only one has been passed by the Commons.

Hunt protestors outside Parliament
Lords expected to reject ban

So peers could reject the whole Bill, or could send it back to MPs with a different option.

Bogged down

That is when the whole issue could get bogged down in time-wasting "ping pong" between the two houses, with MPs re-voting on it and sending it back to the Lords, only to have them reject it, or change it, once again.

So the chances of anything getting onto the statute book before a May election are virtually nil.

During the election campaign, Labour would have to decide whether to include fresh proposals for a ban in its manifesto.

And afterwards, a future Labour government would have the option of invoking the parliament act to force through a new bill in the face of peers' opposition.

But the comments from Tony Blair's official spokesman have raised a serious new question mark over the whole issue.

While the prime minister has constantly expressed his opposition to hunting, he has not taken part in any votes on a ban.

And he is now insisting that it is not top of his agenda. Many see this as the clearest possible sign that a ban will not be promised in the election manifesto and that the entire policy may be abandoned.

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See also:

17 Jan 01 | UK Politics
MPs prepare for hunt ban vote
17 Jan 01 | Talking Point
Does fox-hunting have a future?
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