Ministers expect ban in force by early next year

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The Independent Online

Fox hunting looks certain to be outlawed in England and Wales next year despite efforts by Tony Blair to distance himself from the vote by the House of Commons in favour of an outright ban.

The Government abandoned its attempt to find a compromise stopping short of a total ban yesterday, a day after a huge majority of ministers and Labour backbenchers voted for hunting to be ended.

Ministers will use the Parliament Act, which allows the Commons to override objections in the House of Lords, to force through the Hunting Bill, which will be reintroduced in the Parliamentary session starting in November. Peers who oppose the measure warned they would keep up the fight as long as possible, which could delay a ban until the end of next year.

There was confusion in the Government's ranks yesterday after Labour MPs defied Mr Blair's wishes by voting for a complete ban. Downing Street refused to say whether he supported the revised Bill, or to confirm that the Government would impose the ban.

But Alun Michael, the Rural Affairs Minister, said "all hunting" was to be banned. He said he would be "very surprised" if hunting were still allowed in two years. Tabling amendments to the Bill last night to reflect Monday's vote, Mr Michael said: "The House will be able to debate these changes very soon, and put the Bill into good order, so that it provides good legislation which will do what Parliament intends."

Despite Downing Street's reticence, ministers said privately that the Government would bow to the wishes of Labour MPs, and hoped a ban would limit their spate of rebellions on other issues, such as foundation hospitals.

The decision will infuriate the pro-hunting lobby, which is planning a campaign of marches and protests. The Countryside Alliance warned that it would defend in court those who defied the law and continued hunting and would "do what it had to do" to prevent a ban. The group said it was prepared to stage another "countryside march", with 300,000 people in London.

The Bill was referred to a committee of MPs yesterday to be "tidied up" to reflect Monday's events. The Bill is expected to return to the Commons next week.

The Lords is then expected to delay the Bill with dozens of amendments and it is likely to run out of time before the Parliamentary session ends in October. The Government willinclude the same Bill in the Queen's Speech in November, rush it through the Commons and send it back to the Lords in January.

Tony Banks, the former Sports Minister who pushed through the full ban, said he trusted the government to be true to its word and allow the Commons' desire for a fox hunting ban to pass into law.

"I think there is a head of steam now from ministers and backbenchers. When they sit down and analyse the extent of the will, they will ask why pick a fight with the House of Commons now?" he said. "I can't believe that Tony Blair will renege on this. They have played it decently so far and allowed a free vote."

More than 60 ministers, including John Prescott, Peter Hain, Tessa Jowell and Angela Smith, voted for a ban. The amended Bill would ban fox hunting, deer hunting, hare hunting and coursing, mink hunting and using terriers to dig out foxes.

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