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Friday, 1 March, 2002, 02:31 GMT
Hunting vote set for March
Hunting is suddenly back on the agenda
MPs will vote on banning hunting with dogs in England and Wales on 18 March, House of Commons leader Robin Cook told MPs on Thursday.

He made the announcement to muted cheers during questions on forthcoming parliamentary business.

Possible timetable
Thursday: Vote date announced
18 March: MPs given "indicative" votes
November 2002: Bill proposed in Queen's Speech
Autumn 2003: Ban could be in place

The Commons and the House of Lords will be asked to choose between the three options that were presented in the last parliament - a complete ban, the preservation of the status quo and the so-called "middle way".

But shadow Commons leader Eric Forth said the debate was all about "saving foxes, hares and failing secretaries of state", in a reference to beleaguered Transport Secretary Stephen Byers.

He said it "must be the most cynical ploy", if it was proved there was a link between Labour MPs' support for troubled Mr Byers earlier this week and the sudden announcement of a vote on fox hunting.

This was "a perfect example of the countryside being sacrificed to a secretary of state at bay", he said.

Free vote

Mr Cook brushed aside the charge, saying that in the Queen's Speech the government had promised a free vote on the future of hunting with dogs.

"The government will table a motion enabling the House to express its view in a free vote between the three options," he said.

"A similar vote will take place in the House of Lords."

After the votes and before the Easter recess, Rural Affairs Minister Alun Michael will bring forward the government's proposals "to resolve the issue," Mr Cook said.

It could mean a ban would be in place as early as 18 months' time.

But John Jackson, chairman of the Countryside Alliance, has said hunters may accept a licensing system to head off a total ban.

The government is said to favour finding a "middle way" between a total ban and the current situation.

Poor week

The Commons has voted twice to ban hunting since Labour came to power, but a ban was blocked by the Lords in the run-up to last year's election.

Hunting could be the subject of a licensing system and a degree of openly accountable regulation

John Jackson
Countryside Alliance chairman

The Commons is expected to vote for a ban, and the government is hoping the Lords will vote for regulation, rather than for no change.

This would open the way for politicians to draw up a bill offering a compromise, which could be pushed through in the next session of Parliament.

Otherwise, the government would have to use the Parliament Act, which allows it to push legislation which has been obstructed by the Lords, paving the way for a tortuous clash of wills.

Mike Foster, the Labour MP for Worcester who introduced his own bill to ban hunting in 1997, said he was confident the Commons would vote again for an outright ban.

Scottish MSPs voted to outlaw the practice of hunting with dogs earlier this month.

The BBC's Richard Bilton
"There is real anger directed at the government"
Rural Affairs Minister Alun Michael
"In our manifesto there was a commitment to have a vote"
Former sports minister Tony Banks
"The government is still hanging on to the hope that they'll find an easier way out of this"



Should hunting with dogs be banned?



19190 Votes Cast

Results are indicative and may not reflect public opinion

See also:

28 Feb 02 | Scotland
Chase continues over hunt ban
26 Feb 02 | England
Protest at hare coursing cup
14 Feb 02 | Scotland
Pro-hunt battle moves to courts
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