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Last Updated: Tuesday, 21 October, 2003, 11:19 GMT 12:19 UK
Hunt deadlock looms

By Nick Assinder
BBC News Online political correspondent

For ordinary citizens it must be one of the most perplexing and unedifying examples of Parliament in action.

The fox hunting game continues in parliament
The sight of a government having to send a bill back to the Lords over and over again as peers refuse to accept the will of MPs seems absurd.

After months, if not years, of this bizarre ping pong, ministers are having to face up to the possibility they will have to resort to the little-used or understood Parliament Act to get their way.

The prospect has led to (unelected) Lords loftily insisting they are acting to protect democracy.

It is no wonder governments have traditionally hesitated to invoke the Parliament Act - as Tony Blair is almost certainly about to do over fox-hunting.

Disruptive protests

There now seems no possibility that the upper House is ready to give way on this issue, which has dogged Tony Blair ever since he was first elected in 1997.

There have even been dark threats that, if the government insists on pushing the Bill through under the Parliament Act, rural workers could take to the streets.

No one doubts that feelings are running extraordinarily high on this issue.

Both the pro- and anti-hunt lobbies are well organised and perfectly capable of launching large, disruptive protests to back their causes.

Unelected toffs

It is all too tempting to see this as a classic piece of class warfare.

But, irrespective of the rights and wrongs of the issue, this looks like coming down to a show of strength between the two houses of parliament.

It is clear that the Commons will ultimately win. That is the whole purpose of the Parliament Act - to ensure that, once the revising chamber has had its say, the will of the elected chamber prevails.

And it is the Commons, not the government, which invokes the Parliament Act - although, in practice, it is always an expression of the government's will as much as MPs'.

But this is always a last resort. It has only been used three times since 1949, and all of them within the last 12 years - for the war crimes act in 1991, the voting system for European elections in 1999 and to lower the age of consent for homosexual men to 16 in 2000.

Public support

Government would always rather find compromises than put themselves on a collision course with the Lords.

That is not out of deference or fear, but simply because of the chaos caused to the Commons timetable if the Lords insist on ping pong tactics.

Similarly, most Peers are well aware that their unelected status and constitutional position mean they should not challenge elected MPs too often if they are to retain any public support.

Things have changed somewhat since Tony Blair carried out his partial reform of the upper House.

Many peers seem more ready to challenge the government over issues they feel strongly about.

But this time, over an issue which most ministers wish they had never got into in the first place, it will go right to the wire in a lengthy and increasingly bitter battle.

And few are prepared to bet this can all be done before the next general election.


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