Animal welfare: Ministers rally to the call of Bill to ban hunting

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A Cabinet minister last night was among more than 20 ministers who gave their backing to a Labour backbencher's anti-hunting Bill. Colin Brown, Chief Political Correspondent, discovered the supporters with their tails up.

David Clark, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, led backing of the controversial Private Member's Bill to ban stag and fox hunting with hounds as campaigners rallied their support at the Labour Party conference in Brighton. Supporters of the Bill said that they moved a fringe rally, chaired by Lauren Booth, the half-sister of Cherie Blair, inside the security area at the conference because of the threat of disruption by pro-hunt protesters.

Ministers who have added their names to a wall of posters in support of the Bill at the conference centre include Peter Hain, the minister for Wales, and Nigel Griffiths, the trade minister. Supporters said they also had backing from Glenda Jackson, the London transport minister, and Ron Davies, the Secretary of State for Wales.

The growing ministerial support was being used by the campaigners to deny reports that the Government was determined to kill the Bill in the Commons before it reached the Lords, where it could delay other business. Michael Foster, the Labour MP for Worcester, who is sponsoring the Bill, said he was "baffled" by the reports, and had assurances yesterday from ministers that they were untrue.

Two former political researchers for Labour ministers are behind the strategy to build support inside the Government. Ben Lucas and Colin Byrne, senior executives with two top public relations companies, are working respectively for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the International Fund For Animal Welfare. The League Against Cruel Sports is also behind the Campaign for the Protection of the Hunted Animal. "There is no government plot to kill the Bill. These stories have been put about by the pro-hunting lobby," Mr Byrne said. Their strategy will seek to link the campaign against hunting with Tony Blair's campaign to modernise Britain, and they said that William Hague, the Tory party leader, was "in danger of isolating himself" in opposing the ban on fox hunting.

"If there is a defining issue for Tony's message about modernising Britain, this is it. It is an incredibly new Labour issue. Apart from ministers, it is supported by many MPs from the new intake, such as Mike Wills, Lorna Fitzsimons, and Phil Woolas, who was on Tony Blair's campaign team," Mr Byrne said.