Labour MPs fight back as minister supports hunt bill

Alun Michael, the Rural Affairs minister, last night made a last-ditch appeal to Labour MPs to back the Government's hunting bill which he said would introduce "a ban on cruelty". Mr Michael, who is responsible for steering it through Parliament, said his bill which licenses fox hunting, would enable restrictions on hunting to be pushed swiftly through the Commons.

"What is on offer today is a ban on cruelty," he said. "This bill will ensure all cruelty associated with hunting with dogs will be banned - no doubts, no compromise, no uncertainty, no delay - a ban on the cruelty and sport of hunting in the lifetime of this Parliament. The sooner the bill moves forward the sooner it can ban cruelty."

He said MPs who backed an amendment tabled by Tony Banks, Labour MP for West Ham, which would ban hunting would be voting to delay the bill. Earlier, the Government warned in a procedural motion which angered anti-hunting MPs in all parties, that it would refer the bill back to committee if the amendment banning hunting was passed.

Margaret Beckett, the Secretary of State for Environment and Rural Affairs, was seen moving along the back benches to talk to anti-hunting MPs in what was seen as a deliberate attempt to persuade them to back for the government.

The minister implied that if MPs backed the bill and government amendments, the bill would be pushed into the House of Lords on 17 July, then use the Parliament Act would be used to to force it past peers and on to the statute books. "To vote for (the amendment) ... is to vote for recommital and some delay," Mr Michael said. "I want to ban cruelty and I would have thought that members who have voted for a ban in this House would want to see this bill progress."

Mr Michael insisted no "sleight of hand was at work" and that the Government's tests would prevent the "wilful, prolonged ceremonial pursuit and inhumane slaughter of foxes for fun". But anti-hunting MPs, calling for a full ban, accused the minister of blackmail. They said, in a heated and bad-tempered debate, that the Government's decision to refer the bill back to a committee if an amendment banning fox hunting was accepted was wrong. Backbenchers complained about the Government's decision to table an amendment ahead of one calling for an absolute ban, which would tighten the bill. The Government's amendment would introduce a ban on hunting fox cubs and digging foxes out of holes and hiding places using terriers.

Gerald Kaufman, Labour MP for Manchester Gorton, said the minister had "shoe-horned" the new amendment ahead of Mr Banks' proposal to deprive MPs of a chance to vote for a total ban. He told Mr Michael: "You've done that deliberately in order to pre-empt a proper decision by this House." Andrew George, a Liberal Democrat MP, said many members now felt under pressure to decide how to vote, and criticised the "implicit blackmail" in the Government's procedural move. "One thing that is weighing heavily on us is the procedural pressure. It is acting like a shadow hanging over the chamber."

David Winnick, Labour MP for Walsall North, accused ministers of engaging in "blackmail" by suggesting that voting for hunting to be outlawed could lose the whole bill. "We should stick to our guns and have a total ban today," he said. Eric Martlew, Labour MP for Carlisle said the Government was in "something of a mess" and should drop its own amendment to clear the way for a vote on a total ban.

The Tories accused the Government of creating a "Horlicks". James Gray, the Tory front bench MP for North Wiltshire, said the bill was "complete and utter muddle" and "unprincipled".

Mr Banks said a total ban would stop a future government tinkering with a licensing system to reintroduce hunting. "I am one of those who believe that the killing of any animal for sport or fun is cruel and immoral," he said. "A total ban is clear and unequivocal, you get exactly what it says. We want to test that here in this House tonight. The people that elected us; we will give them what we promised we would give them, which is a total ban."

Tory MPs also criticise another Government amendment, to limit the time a fox can be chased. Gregory Barker, Conservative MP for Bexhill and Battle, said: "How does the Government think it will enforce such a bizarre and ridiculous idea of limiting the chase?"

Bloody passage for a bill to change the countryside

What does the Hunting Bill do?

It bans deer hunting, hare hunting, fox cubbing, hare coursing events and using dogs to dig out foxes in England and Wales. It sets up a system of licensed fox hunts, where hunts will be allowed if they can prove they need to control pests and hunting with dogs is the least cruel method.

Why do Labour MPs want to table an amendment banning all forms of fox hunting?

Because the Government proposal will allow fox hunting to continue and they believe Tony Blair is trying to wriggle out of a promise to ban it.

Why doesn't the Government opt for a ban on fox hunting?

Ministers think the ban in Scotland has been fraught with difficulties and they want to find a solution that will satisfy anti-hunting and pro-hunting groups. Several attempts to ban hunting since 1997 have failed because of lack of time or because of blocking in the Lords.

Has the Government's compromise proposal satisfied hunt supporters and hunt protesters?

No. Anti-hunting groups say it allows hunting to continue and pro-hunters believe it restricts their rights. But some anti-hunting and pro-hunting MPs think it is the best solution available and want to bring an end to the long-running issue.

Is the Government happy for the amendment banning hunting to succeed?

No. Officially it is in favour of a free vote for all MPs but privately it wants its compromise to go through.

What happens if the amendment banning hunting fails?

The bill goes into the House of Lords where peers are expected to block it. The Government will then allow the Parliament Act to be used to push the Bill past the Lords.

What happens if the backbench amendment banning fox hunting goes through?

The Bill goes back into a Commons committee for amendments to make sure there are no contradictions in the legislation.

When will the Bill become law?

If the backbench attempt to ban hunting completely fails it could be law by next year, otherwise it could take until the end of 2004.

VOTING FOR A BAN

Among the 362 MPs who voted for the rebel amendment, there were seven cabinet ministers:

John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, Peter Hain, the Leader of the House, Tessa Jowell, the Culture Secretary, Andrew Smith, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, Ian McCartney, the Labour Party chairman, Paul Boateng, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury

Fifty-seven other ministers and whips voted for a ban:

Nick Ainger, Bob Ainsworth, Douglas Alexander, Charlotte Atkins, Hilary Benn, Hazel Blears, Des Browne, Richard Caborn, Ivor Caplin, Lynda Clark, Paul Clark, Vernon Coaker, Yvette Cooper, Jim Fitzpatrick (teller), Caroline Flint, Paul Goggins, Nigel Griffiths, Harriet Harman, John Healey, John Hepple (teller), Keith Hill, Margaret Hodge, Phil Hope, Beverley Hughes, John Hutton, Adam Ingram, Melanie Johnson, Fraser Kemp, Stephen Ladyman, David Lammy, Christopher Leslie, Ivan Lewis, Tony McNulty, Gillian Merron, David Miliband, Margaret Moran, Elliot Morley, Chris Mullin, Jim Murphy, Mike O'Brien, Chris Pond, Dawn Primarolo, Bill Rammell, Nick Raynsford, Joan Ryan, Jacqui Smith, Stephen Timms, Gareth Thomas, Don Touhig, Derek Twigg, Stephen Twigg, Malcolm Wicks, Michael Wills, Rosie Winterton, Phil Woolas

Four ministers voted against a ban: Hilary Armstrong, Margaret Beckett, David Blunkett, Alun Michael

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