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Wednesday, 13 February, 2002, 15:02 GMT
Labour MPs step up hunting call
Hunt member and hounds
Hunting looks set to be banned in Scotland
The credibility of Tony Blair's government is being put at risk by the failure to settle calls for a ban on hunting with dogs, says Labour MP Tony Banks.

The former sports minister argues it would be an "utter betrayal" if the government does not give MPs a free vote on the issue.

His comments come as the Scottish Parliament prepares for a marathon debate expected to end with hunting being banned in Scotland.

Labour is committed to giving MPs the chance to vote on the issue in the current session of Parliament.

Tony Blair has said the government will introduce a bill at an "appropriate time".

Courage call

A previous hunting bill, which ran out of parliamentary time when last year's election was called, gave MPs a choice between an outright ban, the current self-regulation and a new licensing system.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, Mr Banks said the government seemed to lack political courage on the issue.

Tony Banks
Banks says failure on the issue would be "utter betrayal"
"It does seem with the evasive answers that the prime minister has been giving us recently that somehow he still believes that you can appease your enemies on this issue and you can dump on your friends."

The likely Scottish ban made a nonsense of the fact the rest of the UK had not followed suit, despite an "enormous majority" of MPs wanting a ban, he argued.

"A large number of MPs from all parties are actually beginning to feel that the government is just having a laugh in respect of getting a ban through the House of Commons," said Mr Banks.

"Quite frankly, if it isn't resolved then I must say it will be a matter of utter betrayal by the Labour government, and I won't be ashamed to say so."

More important issues

The anti-hunt MP said the debate should not only focus on fox hunting but on hare coarsing and stag hunts too.

Last year, Commons Leader Robin Cook said anti-terror measures, as well as legislation over the collapse of Railtrack and foot-and-mouth must take precedence over MPs time.

But Mr Cook stressed no decision had been taken to drop plans for a hunting bill.

Mr Banks agreed there were more important issues but said there was no excuse for inaction.

He highlighted that business in the Commons had finished at 5.30pm on Monday and suggested House of Lords reform now seemed to be on the "backburner" leaving time for the hunting bill.

Lembit Opik, the Liberal Democrat MP who has spearheaded the "Middle Way" group calling for tighter regulation of hunting, said the pro-hunt lobby would actually be quite happy with the Scottish bill.

The Scottish ban now had so many exemptions and conditions that it was not an outright ban and was really a "messy version" of the Middle Way group's more streamlined proposals.

That showed the issue was far more technical than may advocates of a complete ban led people to believe, Mr Opik told BBC News Online.

"It simply underlines what the Middle Way group has been saying all the time - the only way we are going to get a proper and workable long term solution is by putting the emotions to the side and putting the facts on the table."

See also:

03 Nov 01 | UK
Fox hunters seek end to ban
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