Enviroment: Death sentence hangs over MP's anti-foxhunt Bill

Packs of hunting dogs could be seized by the courts under the Bill to ban fox-hunting which was published yesterday. Colin Brown, Chief Political Correspondent, speaks to the sponsor of the anti-foxhunting Bill about the death threats he has received, and the threat to kill the Bill by his own government.
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The Independent Online
Mike Foster, the Labour MP for Worcester, yesterday said that he had been warned by the police to take his wife and three children out of their home for their own safety during a protest march in the city against his Bill to ban foxhunting.

"The National Front had promised to be involved in a protest march and the police advised my family to move out of the house. Clearly those circumstances are extremely difficult. It is not easy when you are in London doing your job knowing your family's life is being disrupted," he said.

The Wild Mammals (Hunting with Dogs) Bill, published yesterday, has raised the threat of violence from extremists on both sides. Mr Foster urged the "sabbers" not to carry out their threats of violence, if the Bill is killed in Parliament.

The MP has denied a charge of personal hypocrisy because he goes fishing. Yesterday he defended the Government for failing to provide time for the Bill to reach the statute book, in spite of promising a free vote on banning foxhunting in its election manifesto.

Tony Blair said on 9 July in the Commons that he supported the Bill, but Mr Foster said he had no assurance from the Prime Minister that he would be in the Commons for the second reading on 28 November.

"I don't know what the Prime Minister's diary commitments are. It would be unfair to expect every MP to turn up on that Friday," said Mr Foster.

He reckons that he has the support of 90 per cent of 418 Labour MPs, Liberal Democrats and some Tory MPs, including Roger Gale, chairman of the all-party animal welfare group, who turned out yesterday to support it.

That would be enough to give his Bill a massive majority in the Commons but it is likely to be "talked out" in the Lords. Downing Street has hinted that it could be picked up again in the next session in 1998-99, but Mr Foster says it was made clear at the outset that the Government could not give it time to get through in this session.

The lawyers are given plenty of scope for earning high fees in defending huntsmen and women from criminal charges if the Bill becomes law.

The Bill covers hare coursing but not hunting rabbits with dogs; it allows farmers to flush out foxes with dogs providing the foxes are shot lawfully, and not chased by the hunt; and it allows draghunts in which the packs follow a laid scent.

But it would not be an offence under the Bill if a dog from a draghunt "inadvertently" chases, attacks, injures or kills a wild animal, "providing that the draghunt is registered with a body whose objects and rules expressly forbid its members from using dogs for any purpose other than a draghunt".

The Bill carries sweeping powers which are certain to be tested to the limit in the Commons and the Lords. It would make it a criminal offence for anyone to hunt any wild animal with dogs, punishable by a pounds 5,000 fine, or six months' imprisonment. Farmers allowing their land to be used for hunting with dogs would also be guilty of a similar offence. Courts could order the forfeiture of any vehicle, animal, or article used in hunting, and disqualify the offender for any period from owning a dog.

The courts could also order the disposal of the dog "as the court thinks fit under the circumstances". The campaign behind the Bill, including the RSPCA, said it could include destroying the dogs, but they would normally be found a home by the RSPCA, or retrained.

The police would be given wide powers of search and arrest, including the right to go on to private property and to search vehicles if they suspected an offence was being committed, although they would not be able to search private houses without a warrant.

A spokesman for the pro-hunting Countryside Alliance attacked the Bill as "unworkable". The alliance's spokeswoman, Janet George, said: "Mike Foster's Bill is Draconian and unworkable and for anybody who owns a dog it makes it into an offence if the dog hunts anything."