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Friday, 4 May, 2001, 20:36 GMT 21:36 UK
Hunting bill falls at first hurdle
Fox hunt
The hunting issue led to parliamentary concerns
By BBC Scotland political correspondent Elizabeth Quigley

It could all have been over by now - if Tony Blair had plumped for May rather than delay the General Election because of the foot-and-mouth.

Westminster work would have stopped but it would have been business as usual at the Scottish Parliament.

And that's perhaps the reason why this week seemed unusually quiet.

MSPs haven't been short of work to do, it's just that the scheduled business appears to have been deliberately designed to be low-key because everyone thought this would have been the final week of the election campaign.

Committees have been busy putting the finishing touches to reports such as the inquiry into Hampden stadium and scrutinising various pieces of legislation going through the Parliament such as the Housing Bill.

Protester with fox
The hunting debate has become something of a vexed question

All important and worthwhile but not headline-grabbing.

Until it came to the rural development committee. The news that the Bill to ban hunting and hare-coursing in Scotland had stumbled at its first parliamentary hurdle wasn't supposed to have been made public until after the committee's report was published.

But news of the private meeting soon leaked out. After poring over evidence for months, the MSPs had already delayed finalising their stage one report but this week they had to face either delaying again or taking the decision on whether or not to give their approval to the Bill.

They were faced with a variety of choices. One of the first was to decide if they should even offer any advice to the parliament on how to vote on the Bill.

They could have washed its hands of the Bill passing it on without comment.

Growing concerns

But they were split down the middle on this - leaving the committee convener Alex Johnstone to use his casting vote to move the discussion on.

This was seen as a controversial move - by pro-ban campaigners and even by some MSPs who want to shelve the Bill.

They argued that because one Labour MSP was ill and so missed the meeting, the convener should have waited until all the committee members were present.

But they did move on to decide whether or not to support the Bill and that vote was more clear cut - rejecting the Bill.

There had been concerns about the Bill almost from the moment it was tabled - that it wasn't a straightforward ban on red-coated men and women galloping across the countryside in pursuit of a fox - and that it would criminalise terrier workers, rough shooters and even dog walkers should their pets kill a rabbit while they're out.

Controversial decision

Even the Labour MSP Mike Watson who proposed the Bill agreed - but urged MSPs to look at the big picture and be assured that the necessary changes would be made later.

This doesn't appear to have convinced the committee. One Labour member is believed to have abstained in yesterday's meeting - and the committee decided the Bill as it stood was too wide-ranging.

That decision is a setback to introducing a ban. But the Bill's future is not solely in this committee's hands. Once the committee's report is officially published, it will then be up to the full parliament.

A committee report has never before rejected a bill - and a committee's recommendations on whether or not to support a bill have always been accepted by the full parliament.

But the strength of feeling in support of a ban on fox-hunting in general rather than this bill in particular might well overcome concerns about the actual wording of this piece of proposed legislation.

Whatever happens, MSPs are unlikely to want to take what could be an extremely controversial decision before 7 June - the date that now looks likely to be Tony Blair's choice for the General Election.

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