Animal cruelty Bill wins field sports lobby's backing

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The Independent Online
Cruelty to wild animals - except by hunting with dogs - is almost certain to become a criminal offence punishable by jail after a Labour backbencher's Bill was rushed unopposed through all its stages in the Commons yesterday.

After the failure last year of a Bill to outlaw all cruelty to animals, including a ban on hunting, Alan Meale, MP for Mansfield, secured the backing of field sports supporters by dropping anti-hunt clauses from his Wild Mammals (Protection) Bill.

The Bill would make it an offence to "mutilate, kick, beat, nail or otherwise impale, stab, burn, stone, crush, drown, drag or asphyxiate" any wild mammal. But, unlike the Bill proposed by John McFall (Labour MP for Dumbarton) last year, it "does not seek to outlaw the hunting and killing of wild animals with dogs or the strangulation of animals with wire snares", Mr Meale told MPs. Mr McFall's Bill was scuppered by hunt supporters.

Practices such as hunting foxes with hounds, beagling, snaring and lamping will still be legal. Snaring involves sending ferrets down rabbit holes to chase them out of other holes snared with wire traps. Lamping is hunting foxes at night with torches.

Mr Meale said he had reluctantly made considerable concessions after "intense" talks with pro- and anti-field sports groups. "Many of my friends and the vast majority of the public will be disappointed ... So am I." But he said that the reality was that a broader Bill would have "little chance at this time to become law - it had to be in the interests of the animal kingdom that I proceeded".

Junior Health minister Tom Sackville gave the measure "very strong support". He said: "It is a sad reflection on our society that such a Bill should be necessary, that there a despicable minority of people who are prepared to commit such acts."

Sir John Cope (Conservative MP for Northavon), a member of the British Field Sports Society, welcomed the Bill, say- ing that Mr Meale had been "very sensible" to limit its objectives.

Mr McFall also welcomed the Bill, saying: "Only by securing such legislation can we call ourselves a civilised society."

Kate Parminter, spokeswoman for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said: "We're delighted, and really optimistic about the Bill's chances this time."

Labour is committed to a free vote on the issue, which would probably go against hunting if the party won a reasonable majority at the next election. But when pressed on animal welfare in an interview in Country Life magazine in September, Tony Blair, the Labour leader, said: "We are not about to change people's way of life."

Mr Meale's Bill now goes to the Lords where it is also expected to have a speedy passage and will almost certainly reach the Statute Book.