Thursday, September 30, 1999 Published at 06:02 GMT 07:02 UK
Hunt ban faces delay
Hunting ban: No pre-election pledge
By Political Correspondent Nick Assinder
Government moves to ban fox hunting will have to wait for reform of the House of Lords and may not come before the next election, the leader of the House of Commons has said.
And she bluntly refused to promise there would be government time for such a bill before the next general election.
Mrs Beckett insisted the prime minister and the government was still determined to outlaw hunting with hounds.
Her comments, following recent remarks by other ministers, will add to fears that the government is not ready to push through legislation in the near future - and probably not this side of the next general election.
'Waste of time'
"We are in the process of reforming the House of Lords but we haven't done it yet and it has been made very plain by a large number of particularly hereditary peers that they are even more opposed to the abolition of hunting with hounds than they are the abolition or reform of the House of Lords.
"It is an issue that arouses great passions and the government not only does not have a majority in the House of Lords, we are in a minority so that makes it extremely difficult to get legislation through."
Not only did ministers never announce what was going to be in a forthcoming Queen's Speech, but nobody had any idea when the next election may be. "So I can't tell them when such a bill might come forward," she said.
A news agency report later quoted unnamed government sources as playing down Mrs Beckett's remarks, insisting that with reform of the Lords now imminent, legislation could still be on the statute book by the time the country goes to the polls.
"There is nothing that Margaret has said that precludes legislation before the end of this Parliament," the source was quoted as saying.
The first stage of Lords reform is expected to come into effect later this year and will leave 92 hereditary peers in a temporary upper chamber. Lord Wakeham will later make his recommendations on the second, and more radical, phase of the reform.
But there are fears that the government will delay implementing any second phase and the interim Lords could last for decades.
And there are concerns that even the first phase may be delayed by continued wrangling in the upper chamber.
Mrs Beckett clearly believes that legislation on hunting cannot be taken to the Lords before phase one has been completed.
But her comments also raise the question of how the government would react if the interim chamber also contained a large majority against anti-hunting legislation.
Prime Minister Tony Blair surprised MPs when he recently suggested he would make parliamentary time available for legislation before the next election.
The issue has sparked mass protests led by the Countryside Alliance, with more than 16,000 taking to the streets in Bournemouth during the Labour party conference.
The alliance's Pamela Morton welcomed Mrs Beckett's remarks, although she said that the government still seemed bent on outlawing their sport.
"She has probably injected more realism in this after Mr Blair's dismissive arrogance over the Bournemouth march," she said.
However the anti-hunting Tory MP Roger Gale accused Mr Blair of going back on his promise of legislation.
He said: "He has gone high-profile on this himself and now, at the back of the conference, suddenly his hatchet girl is required to say: We may have said it but we don't actually mean it."
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