Environment: Downing St refuses to back fox hunting ban

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The Bill to ban fox hunting to be published today looks imperilled after Downing Street said the Government would not provide it with government time to become law. The controversy will be increased today with the publication of the Wild Mammals (Hunting with Dogs) Bill, sponsored by the Labour MP Mike Foster, which will carry a penalty of a pounds 5,000 fine or six months' imprisonment.

In spite of making fox hunting a criminal offence with a stiff penalty, the massive Labour majority will guarantee the Bill an overwhelming Commons majority for its second reading on 28 November.

It will get cross-party support, and the Tory MPs who will back the ban on hunting with dogs will be led by Ann Widdecombe, the former Home Office minister.

MPs are being inundated with letters in support of the Bill. Supporters claim around 30,000 letters have been sent to MPs to back the Bill.

But the opponents, who organised the mass rally of an estimated 100,000 supporters in Hyde Park in the summer, including William Hague, the Tory leader, are planning to kill the Bill by blocking it passage through the committee stage.

A Downing Street source said: "There will be a free vote and once that has happened, we have made clear it won't get government time. We have made it clear the Government has enough on its plate at the moment." An opinion poll published today shows most countryside dwellers are opposed to fox hunting. MORI found 57 per cent supported Mr Foster's Bill, and 32 per cent opposed it. Sixty per cent of rural people disagreed with the proposition that hunting with dogs is an important part of the British way of life.

l Animal welfare activists kept up the pressure for a complete ban on the export of live animals for slaughter yesterday, handing in a 800,000- signature petition at the Ministry of Agriculture.