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Last Updated: Thursday, 9 September, 2004, 17:53 GMT 18:53 UK
Hunting ban to be debated by MPs
Hound
Are hunts' days numbered?
Commons leader Peter Hain has confirmed a vote on banning hunting with dogs will take place next Wednesday, but said the ban may be deferred two years.

Rural affairs minister Alun Michael said the delay was to give people involved in hunting "adequate time" to re-home dogs and "refocus" business.

Ministers say they will force the law change through even if peers oppose it.

But pro-hunt supporters are planning a mass protest outside Parliament when MPs debate the issue next week.

The Countryside Alliance predicts thousands of campaigners will make their anger felt at Westminster.

The delay in bringing the ban into force will be seen as an attempt to avoid it becoming an election issue.

'Pressing problem'

Mr Hain said he expected the Hunting Bill to go through all of its Commons stages in a single day next Wednesday and have its first reading in the House of Lords the following day.

He gave no date for a debate in the Lords, but this is expected to take place in October, following the brief parliamentary recess for party conferences.

POSSIBLE TIMETABLE
15 Sept 2004: MPs vote
Oct: Lords debate
Nov: Bill forced through using Parliament Act
Feb 2005: Hare coursing ban
Autumn 2006: Fox hunting banned
All dates assume Commons votes in favour of ban and Lords votes against

The government decision to propose a two-year deferral of the ban was revealed on Wednesday.

Mr Michael said: "This period will give those involved in hunting more than adequate time to cease the activities which are to be banned."

He said this could involve "the dispersal or re-homing of dogs, and for refocusing any business activities on alternatives like drag-hunting or disposal of fallen stock if they wish to do so."

No hare delay

Hare-coursing would be banned three months after the bill is passed, Mr Michael said.

"Violence and intimidation associated with illegal coursing events is a real and pressing problem in many areas of the countryside today," he said.

"There can be no justification for delaying further in giving the police the powers they need to crack down on the criminals involved."

The government has chosen the path of prejudice and spite
Simon Hart
Countryside Alliance

The chief executive of the League Against Cruel Sports, Douglas Batchelor, said that the return of the bill to the Commons was "the high point of our 80-year campaign to expose fox hunting as a cruel sport and to get it banned".

But he said that the League "simply cannot see any good reason" for a delay on implementation of a ban.

"MPs have made the moral decision that hunting with dogs is unacceptable in a modern society, and this decision should come into effect as soon as possible," he said.

Opposition

The move to delay the ban will be put to Parliament in a separate motion and the deferral depends on MPs and peers backing it.

Anti-hunt Labour backbencher Gordon Prentice predicted the delay plan would be defeated if MPs were given a free vote on the issue.

He welcomed the Bill but told BBC Radio 4's World At One: "This is an issue which started out as a positive for the Labour Party, has turned into a negative and is now close to an embarrassment."

Conservative environment spokesman Tim Yeo said that his party was determined to reverse any hunting ban.

Reaction?

Mr Yeo said: "If Labour railroad through a bill to ban hunting using the Parliament Act, we will introduce a Government Bill to reverse Labour's ban.

"All Conservatives front and back bench will be allowed a free vote in both houses. The vast majority of Conservatives believe a ban is an infringement of civil liberties and damaging to the countryside."

A spokesman for the pro-hunting Countryside Alliance said it made no difference if there was a delay before the bill's implementation.

"The government has chosen the path of prejudice and spite - the reaction it unleashes will be entirely its own responsibility," said Alliance chief executive Simon Hart.

He said the government was no longer concentrating on the hunting issue but on managing the Labour Party and settling old political scores.




WATCH AND LISTEN
The BBC's Tom Heap
"Thousands of people are determined to fight the bill"



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