Hunting supporters swamp government inquiry with messages

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Of the 5,000 letters and e-mails received so far by the Government's inquiry into hunting wild animals with dogs, 99 per cent have come from hunting supporters, the inquiry chairman, Lord Burns, has said.

Most of the writers had "probably been encouraged" by the hunting lobby group the Countryside Alliance, Lord Burns said yesterday, but it was not a case of everyone writing the same letter.

"They're not people just taking a template which has been given to them by someone else. They do, in the main, reflect individuals' views of hunting and the reasons why it matters to them," Lord Burns said.

The inquiry, due to report at the end of May, was set up last November by the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, as an adjunct to his promise that the Government would give parliamentary time and drafting assistance for a backbench Bill outlawing hunting. The Government will make no move until the inquiry has reported.

Its purpose is "better to inform the debate" about fox hunting and its allied pursuits, looking at their impacts on the countryside, from social life and employment to animal welfare, and at what effect a ban would have. It will not make a recommendation about a ban either way.

The Countryside Alliance said yesterday it was openly encouraging its members to write to the inquiry but denied it was a mass lobbying exercise. "It's merely to make sure the inquiry has submissions from ordinary participants in hunting," a spokesman said.

Lord Burns, who as Sir Terence Burns was Permanent Secretary to the Treasury from 1991 to 1998, and has never been involved in hunting, said yesterday the inquiry was halfway through its work and had received 250 significant submissions as well as the letters and e-mails.

Inquiry committee members had visited 16 hunting events, with Lord Burns himself visiting 12. The inquiry will also set up informal meetings with the anti-hunt lobby group, Deadline 2000, Lord Burns said. There will be a series of formal meetings with hunting supporters and opponents, separately.

"What we are after here is not having a debate of the rights and wrongs of hunting," said Lord Burns. "We're trying to inform debate by gathering evidence."

* Much of the evidence gathered so far is available on the inquiry website at www.huntingenquiry.gov.uk

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