After 500 years, MPs vote down foxhunting

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A huge Commons majority of 260 for the Bill to ban foxhunting was hailed last night by the MP who is sponsoring it as "a moral mandate" to get rid of the sport in Britain. Colin Brown, Chief Political Correspondent, says Tony Blair privately gave MPs a clear signal there will be a change in the law before the next election.

The centuries-old tradition of foxhunting was facing extinction last night after the Commons voted by 411 to 151 to ban hunting with dogs. Foxhunting, which dates back 500 years but which began in its familiar form in the early 1800s, is unpopular among voters but has strong support in pockets of the country; and the battle is not yet over.

With the opposing camps digging in for a bloody parliamentary struggle, it could require the reform of another, even older, institution, the House of Lords, to make foxhunting illegal.

The MPs' vote sets the House of Commons on a collision course with the House of Lords, where hundreds of Tory backwoodsmen and hereditary peers are expected to come to the aid of the hunting lobby to kill the Bill, promoted by the Labour backbencher Michael Foster, before it reaches the statute book.

Tony Blair was hundreds of miles away visiting British troops in Bosnia but he issued Labour MPs with a private note, emphasising his support for the Bill, and promising that it would be kept "open to review for the future" - a clear signal that the Government may not, after all, let it die. The Prime Minister has been under intense pressure from friends and allies on both sides of the argument; and earlier briefing had suggested the Bill would get little Government help.

Now, though, ministerial sources confirm the options include using the Parliament Act to enforce the will of the Commons on the Lords after a delay of a year. A Cabinet member confirmed that another option would be to allow a backbench amendment to a future Home Office Bill on criminal justice to put an a ban on foxhunting on to the statute book.

The Home Office minister, George Howarth, who wound up the five-hour debate, warned the Lords that if they sought to frustrate the will of the Commons they would be hastening the end of the voting rights for the hereditary peers, which the Government is pledged to abolish. "If the House of Lords wishes to take the House of Commons on over this issue, let them do so," said Mr Howarth.

The Government may have to take away the voting rights of the hereditary peers before pushing through a Bill which included a ban on foxhunting.

The Government resisted demands to give the Bill time to ensure that it becomes law, but the Prime Minister told his backbench MPs: "I very much hope that opponents of the Bill would respect the will of the House and not seek to frustrate its passage by means of procedural delays.

"It is those in this House and in the Lords who seek to sabotage the Bill, not this Government, who will be preventing this private member's Bill reaching the statute book. We are keeping this matter open to review for the future."

Mr Blair is anxious to avoid being accused of breaking election promises over banning foxhunting, and Mr Foster was careful to stress that the Prime Minister had fulfilled the manifesto commitment to allow a free vote with yesterday's debate.

The noisy and impassioned debate over the Bill crossed party lines. The highlight came when Labour MPs cheered and applauded a sparkling speech by Ann Widdecombe, the former Tory prisons minister, and a supporter of the Bill.

Given a hero's welcome by jubilant supporters outside the Commons, some of whom were weeping with joy, Mr Foster said: "The size of the vote really indicates that this is going to become law.

"They will try (to sabotage it) but we have the moral mandate. The world now knows that in this country, the days of hunting are doomed."

Tony Banks, the sports minister and the most outspoken supporter of the ban on foxhunting in the Government, told The Independent: "My feeling is that we will see the end of foxhunting during the course of this Parliament.

"This vote today and the expressions of support throughout the country will assist us in making sure that happens. I can well understand why on this occasion no guarantees (of Government time) can be given but this will give a clear steer to the Government this is something we have to do."

The Union of Country Sports Workers and Countryside Alliance, which had organised a vigil and meeting at the Queen Elizabeth conference centre, had prepared the 600 people attending for a defeat. Many were expecting a greater majority.

This was stressed by Labour peer Baroness Mallalieu, who told them: "It is the bad news we have been waiting for but it is not a bigger majority than we've had before."