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Thursday, 17 May, 2001, 13:26 GMT
The fox hunting debate
Few issues divide opinion as strongly as fox hunting.
The Labour Party devoted just 13 words to fox hunting in its 1997 manifesto.
But its promise of "a free vote in parliament on whether hunting with hounds should be banned" used up days of debating time without finally settling the future of the ancient country bloodsports.
A ban on hunting raises the prospect of police grappling with red-coated huntsmen who say they will continue the pursuit whatever Parliament decides.
Since 1997 there have been whispers at Westminster that despite his apparent support of a ban, the Prime Minister has not wanted to see a vocal and powerful section of the country population criminalised.
Argument over the rights and wrongs of hunting are still fierce despite being well rehearsed.
The anti-lobby says that not only is hunting cruel, it is an inefficient way of protecting livestock from foxes and controlling their population.
Hunters retort that shooting and poisoning would be far more cruel and consider the right to hunt with hounds an important civil liberty.
They add that hunts provide a service to farmers by keeping a pest in check and disposing of fallen livestock, as well as providing 16,000 jobs, from the smithy shoeing the horses to the houndsmen who care for the dogs.
The antis says that only 1,000 jobs would be lost if hunting ended and that rural communities are as in favour of a ban as urban people.
Attempts to ban hunting stretch back half a century. In 1949 two private members bills failed and a Labour government inquiry found that hunting involved "less cruelty than most other methods of controlling them".
Three more attempts, all by Labour backbenchers, failed between 1992 amd 1995 in the face of a Commons Conservative majority.
When Labour won its 1997 landslide, MPs who wanted a ban took up the party's manifesto pledge.
In November 1997, Labour MP Michael Foster published a private member's bill to ban hunting with hounds.
Although it passed its second reading with a massive Commons majority, the government refused to give it enough parliamentary time, saying that it was not a high priority in its legislative schedule.
Four months later it was "talked out", leading Mr Foster to withdraw the bill.
Despite this failure, hunt supporters were fighting back.
They launched a nationwide campaign under the banner of the Countryside Alliance, which brought out 250,000 marchers in London to back hunting.
PRIME MINISTER'S PLEDGE
A year later, the prime minister was asked on the BBC's Question Time programme what had happened to the manifesto commitment for a free vote.
To the audience's surprise, Mr Blair said: "It will be banned. We will get a vote to ban it as soon as we possibly can."
But before that took place, Home Secretary Jack Straw announced the independent Burns inquiry into hunting, to help MPs decide how to vote.
THE BURNS INQUIRY
The Burns Inquiry finally reported back to MPs in June last year and concluded that:
Another cross-party group, the Middle Way, called for a compromise - the regulation of hunting and bringing it under existing animal welfare controls.
THE LATEST ATTEMPT
Last year, as the parliamentary clock ticked away, the Queen's Speech outlined a bill that would give MPs a free vote on hunting with three legislative options:
The proposals appeared to make clear that in the future hunting had, at the very least, to meet some of the concerns of the welfare lobby.
But with the whole of Westminster working on the assumption of a spring election campaign, ministers were immediately accused of having timed the legislation to make sure that, whatever happened, it did not become law before the prime minister went to the country.
On 17 January this year, MPs voted to ban hunting with a thumping majority of 213 -- though this was substantially less than the majority for the Foster hunting bill.
Despite indications that he would vote in favour of a ban, the prime minister was locked in peace talks in Belfast and missed the vote.
In a reversal of the usual party split on hunting, Jack Straw voted against a ban, his Tory shadow Ann Widdecombe voted in favour.
There was little sense of a triumph among the anti-hunting MPs. They knew that the legislation would face a tough battle in the House of Lords.
On 26 March peers rejected an outright ban by 317 votes to 68, a majority of 249.
Unexpectedly, they also turned down the "middle way" option of regulation.
Instead, they approved a future of self-regulation for hunting - the closest option to the status quo - with an majority of 141.
The Bill became one of the first casualties of the calling of the General Election - falling because of a lack of parliamentary time.
But, after a tense wait for both sides, the pledge has made it a second time into a Labour manifesto - though the wording is different.
This time, the party says that it will "enable Parliament to reach a conclusion on this issue.
"If the issue continues to be blocked, we will look at how the disagreement can be resolved."
Whether this means that the party would resort to using the Parliament Act to force the legislation past the House of Lords, will clearly depend on events.
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