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Friday, October 1, 1999 Published at 09:36 GMT 10:36 UK

UK Politics

Blair: Hunt ban still on track

Tony Blair says his position on a hunt ban is unchanged

Prime Minister Tony Blair has insisted he can still deliver his promise to ban fox hunting before the next general election.

But he warned the issue was not the government's top priority.

Speaking to the BBC on the final day of the Labour conference, Mr Blair said his party had used the week to "set out a confident agenda for the future".

Prime Minister Tony Blair responds to allegations of bullying and intolerance
He said that by comparison the Conservative Party, which holds its conference in Blackpool next week, was "a complete wreck".

The prime minister played down the row over Leader of the House Margaret Beckett's comments that a hunting bill would have to wait for further reform of the House of Lords.

"Those reforms are going through now," he said.

"All we are saying that the legislative programme has got to be worked out by the government in due course."

[ image: The prime minister says the public has been impressed by Labour's conference]
The prime minister says the public has been impressed by Labour's conference
The prime minister insisted that the position set out by Mrs Beckett in an interview with BBC News Online was identical to his stance when he made his promise to ban fox hunting in July.

But he said that the hunt ban was not as great a priority for the government as other issues such as the economy, health and tackling crime.

"If you are asking what are the big issues that are determining the future of the country I don't think even the most ardent opponent of fox hunting would say that this is the big issue," he said.

Mr Blair revealed that he had not yet decided if the hunt ban should be achieved by government legislation or a private member's bill.

However, he said that Labour MPs would have a free vote on the hunt bill in the Commons.

'Fantastic response'

BBC's John Kampfner and journalists Simon Hoggart and George Jones review Labour's conference week
Mr Blair said Labour had received a "fantastic response" to its conference from the public.

"We have seen a Labour Party confident in itself as a new modernising Labour Party," he said.

And he urged voters to join his party which he said was the only one capable of delivering "one-nation politics".

Mr Blair rejected suggestions that the government was widely perceived as being bullying and intolerant.

He said that this was a claim made by elements of the press and other sections of what he termed the wider "forces of conservatism" within society.

"They are people who want to hold this country back from doing the very best that it can," he said.

Ministers defended

Mr Blair went on to defend ministers who came under attack from the media during the conference.

He brushed aside criticism of his deputy John Prescott who was driven 250 yards from his hotel to make a conference speech urging motorists to use their cars less.

Mr Blair said: "I just think it's more important that people concentrate on what he's doing for transport."

[ image: John Prescott: Accused of hypocrisy for his 250-yard car journey]
John Prescott: Accused of hypocrisy for his 250-yard car journey
Mr Blair also stood by Environment Minister Michael Meacher over his proposal that the rich should be banned from buying second homes in some rural areas to ensure long-term residents are not priced out of the property market.

"We are not going to stop people owning second homes. But he is totally right to raise the issue," he said.

Mr Blair refused to speculate on whether former Trade Secretary Peter Mandelson would return to the government in the upcoming reshuffle caused by Defence Secretary George Robertson's appointment as Nato secretary general.

"I have always had a very high regard for Peter and he has paid a very high price for what he has done.

"But whether he comes back into government or not is a decision I have to take at a later time and I am not speculating about it."

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