Election '97: Ashdown favours free vote on fox hunting

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The Independent Online
Paddy Ashdown yesterday broke his own manifesto policy on fox-hunting, an issue that provokes strong feelings within the Liberal Democrat party.

In the manifesto, the party promises that it will "protect wild animals", adding: "We believe that the issues of hunting with hounds and coursing should be decided by free votes in the House of Commons."

But when the party leader was asked what he would do about fox-hunting during a Radio 5 Live interview with Sybil Ruscoe, he said: "Well, fox- hunting is an individual vote, it's a free vote.

"It's not a vote that is a party vote and every party takes the same view, so I give you my views, not those of the Liberal Democrats.

"I used to hunt as a boy in Ireland. I've discovered recently ... no, not recently, 15 years ago, that I could personally no longer do it. It's a sport that I cannot support, personally."

Mr Ashdown then asked: "Now would you then legislate against hunting? I don't believe you can legislate against hunting until there has been an effective study into it, because I think the thing is now so clouded by propaganda and counter-propaganda."

If that was Mr Ashdown's personal view, and he voted against an immediate ban, as a matter of conscience in a free vote of the Commons, that would not breach the line taken by the manifesto.

However, Mr Ashdown then told Ruscoe on Five: "So what we'd wish to have first, before legislating, is a Royal Commission into hunting on the basis of which we can consider whether legislation would be appropriate and then what would be the appropriate legislation."

The manifesto makes no mention of a Royal Commission, yet Mr Ashdown's use of the word "we" indicates that he is talking for the party, rather than himself.

In a Sky News phone-in last night, Tony Blair said hunting was "particularly vicious", and he was against it.

Labour, he said, would offer MPs a free vote on banning hunting with hounds - for either foxes or deer - if it won the election.

However, Mr Blair made it clear that the other country sports, such as fishing and shooting, would be safe under Labour.

"What we've said to people is that there will be a free vote on hunting. The people are entitled to make up their minds about that.

"But all this stuff that we are banning - fishing and shooting and country sports - that's absolute rubbish."

Pressed for a personal view on hunting, Mr Blair said he voted in the past to ban it and would do so again.

"I'm against it - hunting. I've already made my position ... That's what I've done and I will do it again.

"In relation to other field sports, there is absolutely no part of Labour Party policy to abolish them at all."

Asked why he had singled out hunting, Mr Blair said: "I think most people feel it's particularly vicious and this is a matter that MPs will have to make up their minds about."