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Thursday, 21 March, 2002, 21:35 GMT
Hunting decision put on hold
One of the 184 hunts in England and Wales
Hunting's future is going out to talks
The government has promised six months of consultation before introducing a bill to resolve the dispute over whether to ban hunting with dogs.

But it appeared clear from Rural Affairs Minister Alun Michael's statement that the government sees hunting ending in its present form.

The clash is obviously coming between this House and the House of Lords

Tony Banks
Labour MP
Mr Michael told MPs the government wanted to find "common ground" but would use the Parliament Act to force through the new plans if they met obstruction in the Lords.

The government would also let MPs get their way over Lords' wishes if the House of Commons changed ministers' plans so there were no exceptions to a ban, said Mr Michael.

A huge majority of MPs this week backed an outright ban, but deadlock continues with the House of Lords, which voted in favour of allowing hunting to continue under new licences.

Mr Michael said the government wanted to construct its bill around the principles of "cruelty and utility" - rather than outlawing a list of activities.

That has not satisfied anti-hunt groups and the League Against Cruel Sports said there was "no utility argument" for fox hunting.

Alun Michael, Rural Affairs Minister
Alun Michael: Seeking common ground "realistic"

The pro-hunting Countryside Alliance says it is encouraged the new bill will be based on the principles outlined by Mr Michael.

But the campaign group stresses it is ready to mobilise a mass countryside march if the threat of a ban persists.

'Diametrically opposed'

The minister did not produce any detailed proposals, but indicated that hunting with dogs could continue where it was shown to be the most effective and humane method of pest control available.

One possibility is that hunting in upland areas could continue, although Mr Michael did not go into such details.

Mr Michael said the debate needed to focus on "practicalities" and he recognised there were "legitimate concerns" about land management and pest control.

But he believed agreement could be found between the different groups.

Ann Winterton, shadow agriculture minister
Ann Winterton accused minister of trying to "settle old scores"
He said the two Houses of Parliament were "diametrically opposed" on the issue but the will of MPs had to come first.

He told MPs: "I promise to bring to the House of Commons a bill that will deal with this issue effectively once and for all and make good law.

"And I earnestly hope we can do so on the basis of as much common ground as possible.

"I propose a process of consultation on the practical issues of detail with a wide variety of interested parties.

"This period will last no more than six months, including work on drafting a new bill."

'No common ground'

But leading anti-hunt MP Tony Banks warned that it was impossible to secure a consensus.

"There is no common ground," said Mr Banks. "Quite frankly, I don't know why he wants to spend six months chasing shadows.

"The fact is the clash is obviously coming between this House and the House of Lords and he should face up to that."

The scene was set for a clash of wills between the two Houses and Parliament, said Mr Banks, who urged the minister to face up to that reality.

And Ann Widdecombe, one of the few anti-hunt Tory MPs, called Mr Michael's statement a "recipe for delay".

'Fight for liberty'

Mr Michael insisted that seeking common ground, rather than consensus, was a realistic proposition.

But his Conservative counterpart, Ann Winterton, argued the government had already made up its mind.

She said ministers were caught between its anti-hunt backbenchers and the threat of a countryside march.

"The message must go out the length and breadth of this land - we must fight for our country traditions and values," said Mrs Winterton.

She argued the government was more concerned with "settling old scores".

If the government had reintroduced the hunting bill dropped last year when the general election was called, ministers could have forced a ban through the Lords this year.

Now a different bill is to be introduced, that option is no longer available.

The BBC's Mark Mardell
"There was real passion in parliament today"
Minister of State for Rural Affairs Alun Michael
"We made a manifesto commitment for parliament to decide"
Conservative MP Nicholas Soames
"What he [Alun Michael] proposes is a black day for this country"
Background and analysis of one of the most contentious issues in British politics

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See also:

21 Mar 02 | UK Politics
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