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Wednesday, 11 September, 2002, 19:13 GMT 20:13 UK
Hunt plans ready 'in weeks'
A hunt
Three days of hearings on hunting have closed
Proposals for new laws on the future of hunting with dogs will be unveiled by ministers in "a matter of weeks".

Rural Affairs Minister Alun Michael announced the timescale as three days of hearings on the hunting debate came to a close on Wednesday.

Alun Michael
Alun Michael has thinking to do on his proposals
Mr Michael hailed the success of new-style hearings in allowing experts and campaigners from all sides of the debate to discuss the issue in the same room.

Campaign groups, however, took away opposing conclusions, with the pro-hunt lobby saying the hearings proved there was no evidence for a ban and their opponents insisting there could be "no compromise on cruelty".

The hearings at Westminster saw Mr Michael take evidence alongside officials from pro- and anti-hunt campaigners, as well as those who want legal regulation of the practice instead of a ban.

'Evidence, not taste'

Mr Michael acknowledged some campaign groups had put their "spin" on the hearings and urged MPs to look at the full evidence.

"The future of hunting with dogs should not be decided on personal taste, but on evidence," he said.

Instead, the focus should be on the key principles of how useful hunting was in managing wildlife and whether it was more or less cruel than the alternatives.

Scenes from the last Countryside March
Pro-hunters are taking part in this month's Countryside March
Mr Michael said the legislation he would propose should be based on "principles and not a shopping list of cans and can'ts", said Mr Michael.

He was upbeat about what he said had been an "innovative" style of hearings.

"It's achieved intelligent discussion on a highly contentious issue and that has got to be good in a democratic society," he said.

Resolution search

The hearings had provided "no killer fact", said the minister, but seeing different views usually advocated "in separate rooms" put up against each other had helped cast new light on the issues.

Mr Michael is trying to come forward with law plans which can deliver on Labour's manifesto pledge to allow Parliament to "reach a resolution".

He wants to put forward his proposals "in a matter of weeks" but could not promise when MPs would get the change to debate new legislation.

Anti-hunt MPs have already said they will accept nothing short of a complete ban - something which the House of Lords would resist.

Tony Banks
Anti-hunt MPs like Tony Banks insist on a total ban
Phyllis Campbell-McRae, UK director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, said the hearings showed hunting was cruel and was carried out for "recreation not utility".

"The hearings found no real common ground and it is unlikely that there could ever be because you cannot compromise on cruelty," she said.

The anti-hunt lobby said the only new evidence to come out of the hearings was two scientific studies showing fox control was uneconomic and unnecessary.

'Valuable process'

That claim is dispute by the pro-hunt Countryside Alliance, which said hunters had never been afraid of seeing their pursuit tested on the principle of cruelty.

The alliance agrees that new legislation must be needed but says such laws must be able to "stand the test of time".

Richard Burge, chief executive of the alliance, said: "This valuable process has shown that there is no evidence either on utility or cruelty grounds for any kind of ban on hunting, although there may well be a case for some independent regulation.

"The burden of proof must be on those who would take away others' liberties and no proof has been forthcoming."

The Middle Way group, which wants hunting restricted, not banned, said the hearings had provided common ground in key areas.

In a joint statement, the group's co-chairmen, Baroness Golding and MPs Peter Luff and Lembit Opik, said praised the hearings.

"This process has provided the building blocks for a sound resolution, not only to the hunting argument, but also the wider spectrum of wildlife management methods," they said.

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