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Last Updated: Sunday, 26 September, 2004, 20:47 GMT 21:47 UK
Prescott attacks pro-hunt 'mob'
Hunting protests outside Parliament earlier this year
More hunting protests are expected on Tuesday
John Prescott has branded pro-hunt protesters a "braying mob" and denied that the countryside is a no-go area for the Labour Party.

The deputy prime minister told Labour's conference in Brighton, where hunt protests are expected on Tuesday, Parliament should decide on a ban.

In a provocative passage, Mr Prescott talked of the "contorted faces" of protesters outside Parliament.

In the same week, new right to roam laws had come into force, he said.

Foxy Music

The Hull East MP was opening the debate on Labour's sustainable communities policy paper.

We have been thrown as a bone to the Labour Party backbenchers
Darren Hughes, Countryside Alliance
He said the government was "helping real people with real problems. Not like that braying mob expected outside."

"Yes, they'll be here again. Well, at least it gives the foxes another day off.

"And they say they care. On the countryside, conference, I care. This party cares - passionately - about the countryside.

"It's this Labour government that's investing in rural communities - and that's why we have more MPs in rural areas than all the Tories put together."

And in a swipe at Otis Ferry, one of the protesters who invaded the commons, he said: "Today is Bryan Ferry's birthday - many happy returns and give my love to Otis and Foxy Music."

Labour voters

Labour is attempting to hit back this week at claims it neglects the countryside.

Environment minister Margaret Beckett told delegates the government would "target more support" at deprived rural areas.

Earlier, protesters attempted to prevent commons leader Peter Hain from travelling to Brighton for Labour's conference.

What's happening now is that the government is acting with a jackboot by forcing the legislation through
Conservative Tim Yeo
More than 150 people blocked the lane leading to Peter Hain's house near Neath, in south Wales for several hours, before dispersing at 1400BST after talks on his driveway.

Mr Hain said he thought the majority of Labour voters supported a hunting ban.

A large-scale demonstration planned by the Countryside Alliance outside the conference venue on Tuesday, when Tony Blair is due to address delegates.

It follows a series of protests at events attended by rural affairs minister Alun Michael in various parts of the country in the wake of the September 15 House of Commons vote to ban hunting in England and Wales.

Mr Hain, who is also Welsh secretary, was one of the 339 MPs who voted in favour.

John O'Shea, a retired factory worker from Merthyr, who got up at 0400 GMT on Saturday to join other demonstrators, said it was the working-class who hunted, not just "a gentleman in a red coat".

He was unsatisfied with Mr Hain's response after meeting him in his driveway.

"I will only be satisfied when there is no ban on hunting," he said.

'Fringe issue'

The Tories and Liberal Democrats have also criticised Mr Hain for describing fox hunting and Iraq as "fringe issues" for the conference.

Mr Hain told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "Hunting and Iraq are just fringe issues as far as conference is concerned.

"The main dominating issue is how does the country go forward, how do we give more security at work, how do we give more support to hard-working families, how do we improve childcare?"

He later said he hadn't intended to downplay the importance of Iraq as an issue as it "most emphatically is not".

Security measures

Tim Yeo, shadow environment secretary, told the Today programme: "What's happening now is that the government is acting with a jackboot by forcing the legislation through.

"I support the right of everyone in this country to protest within the law.

"It's not surprising that people that are concerned about the future of the countryside and their jobs and the contribution hunting makes are taking their protest to Brighton."

Mr Yeo said it was "entirely legitimate" to make life difficult for the government, who he accused of running a "vendetta against parts of the countryside".

Darren Hughes, of the Countryside Alliance, said: "We have been thrown as a bone to the Labour Party backbenchers."

The BBC's Carole Walker
"He dismissed as 'soap opera' new reports of his difficult relationship with his chancellor"

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