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Wednesday, 13 February, 2002, 12:29 GMT
Parliament 'under siege' over hunt Bill
Hunting graphic
BBC Scotland political editor Brian Taylor reports on the passage of the Bill to ban fox hunting and the controversy surrounding the legislation.

Smoke bombs, fury, demonstrators on horseback, court challenges, manure on the first minister's doorstep, claim and counter claim.

This doesn't feel like politics. It feels like a siege.

First, a couple of disclaimers. The Scottish Parliament has NOT spent the whole of its first three years debating fox hunting. The Scottish Parliament has devoted only a fragment of its attention to this issue.

Secondly, it is bogus to say that the many and varied problems of Scotland mean this issue should be ignored.

You might as well argue that every penny and every moment of ministerial time should be devoted to whatever is your personal interest or obsession - health, education, the arts - at the expense of all else.

Protesters outside the parliament
Protesters outside the parliament
There is a legitimate argument to be made that fox hunting should not be a priority for the parliament, that it should come well down the list of jobs to tackle.

But that is not the same as saying that lesser issues should never be addressed while there are major problems outstanding.

Again, you might as well argue that Scotland can do nothing about, for example, education or the arts or sport while the insidious scourge of drugs remains unsolved. That is an argument for stasis.

So let us hear no more talk, please, about whether there are better things for MSPs to tackle.

Of course there are. They are attempting to tackle them. That does not mean they cannot occasionally stray down the byways of Scottish life.

Practical implications

The fox hunting Bill should be judged in the same way as other issues. Is it good legislation? Is it a worthy or worthless cause? What are the practical implications for employment and Scotland's rural life?

Over the last few days, I have detected a curious atmosphere among some sections of the Scottish Parliament.

It is hard to explain, a sense of detachment from the Bill. Yes, MSPs are getting their heads down in an effort to legislate sensibly, if they can.

But many in Labour ranks seem inclined - if not to disown the Bill entirely - then perhaps to disclaim personal ownership.

Hunt pack
Compensation is a major issue
Talk privately to some Labour MSPs and they'll tell you they suspect the critics may have a point, that the Bill may be seriously flawed.

Talk privately to executive insiders who have sought at the last stage to rescue this legislation and they voice their worries that the legislation may not be, yet, utterly robust.

The biggest issue before Parliament today, of course, is whether - and how - to ban fox hunting.

But within that basic issue there are a range of complex considerations, distilled into umpteen technical amendments.

But those boil down into two main areas.

  • Can fox hunting be banned without affecting the work of gamekeepers and others involved in vital vermin control?

  • Secondly, should there be a scheme of compensation for those damaged by a ban on fox hunting - and, if so, how much?

To be blunt, the case for a ban has been seriously undermined by the reluctance to sanction compensation at an earlier stage.

It looked like - and partly was - petty spite.

Again bluntly, it appeared on occasion to derive from the same sense of class division and urban/rural mutual incomprehension which has characterised some of this debate.

Hunting dogs
The bill will ban hunting with dogs
As many have pointed out, if the parliament can sanction compensation for a ban on fur farming - an industry which does not exist in Scotland - then MSPs should have been willing to sanction compensation for Scotland's 10 long-established hunts.

Late in the day, the issue is being addressed by Labour, the largest party, and backed by the executive.

Karen Gillon MSP has advanced a scheme of limited compensation which would benefit those directly affected by a ban - for example, fox hound breeders.

Others in employment would receive aid from established redundancy and retraining measures.

The Tories - who have advanced a compensation scheme of their own - say the Gillon amendment "isn't worth the paper it's written on".

'Right' wording

But it'll go through, with support from the Liberal Democrats. The fight will be over the details, later.

Which leaves the question of loopholes. I spoke to representatives of Scotland's foot packs this morning as I arrived at Holyrood.

They are desperately worried they may yet be caught by legislation designed to end mounted hunting.

That will be the other main concern of MSPs today, to get the wording exactly right to ensure that the real target is addressed.

Mike Watson
Mike Watson sponsored the bill
To ensure further that there are no inadvertent consequences of the legislation.

Yes, that should have been done long since.

Yes, it would have been better had this not been left to the last moment.

But there are a range of reasons for that. Despite appearances to the contrary, fox hunting is not the first - or even the 50th - priority for most MSPs.

This is a Member's Bill, introduced by Mike Watson when he was a backbencher.

'Deliberate obfuscation'

Executive expertise has only been available at a late stage when it appeared evident that the Bill would cause practical problems for the courts and police.

Finally, there has been deliberate obfuscation by both sides of the argument, by the hunting lobby and the ban advocates.

MSPs must now decide whether they definitely want to ban mounted fox hunting - and pick their way, carefully and legalistically, through the range of options.

See also:

13 Feb 02 | Scotland
Final hurdle for Scots hunt ban
13 Feb 02 | Scotland
Fox hunting: The arguments
13 Feb 02 | UK Politics
Labour MPs step up hunting call
13 Feb 02 | Scotland
Fox hunting: The bill
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