Hunting ban Bill runs out of time

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The Independent Online
JACK STRAW, the Home Secretary, is under pressure to announce an inquiry into blood sports to head off the Labour MPs' demands for a ban on foxhunting after a Private Member's Bill yesterday looked doomed to a lingering death.

After last Sunday's mass march on London by the countryside lobby, dominated by the hunting, shooting and fishing fraternity, the Bill to ban foxhunting was slowly dispatched with a whimper.

The anti-hunting campaign managed a token protest of 12 bedraggled people, with four banners, in the rain outside the Commons.

The Tory old guard who led the assault on the Bill were nearly tripped up by new technology. Michael Heseltine, who led the charge, was in full flow during his speech, when his mobile telephone went off in contravention of a ruling by the Speaker, Betty Boothroyd. Mr Heseltine, a former minister in charge of technology, fumbled with the instrument before carrying on. Supporters of the Bill tried to force the pace by halting a debate on one amendment with a closure vote.

The opera hat - needed to make a point of order during a division - was passed aroundduring the vote as the supporters of the Bill cried foul over the slowness of their opponents.

The Serjeant at Arms was dispatched to investigate, but it was clear that the number of amendments would leave the Bill too little parliamentary time, and it will get the coupe de grace next Friday.

Tony Blair, who was in Scotland, told MPs last year that Labour's election manifesto commitment to allow a free vote had been fulfilled. But the size of the record 260-vote majority on the Bill's second reading last November was a warning that the demands will not go away.

A cross-party group of MPs, including the Labour MP Kate Hoey, who are seeking a "middle way" out of the foxhunting row, last night led calls for an independent inquiry to allow a compromise to be reached,.

An inquiry has not been ruled out by Michael Foster, the Labour MP who introduced the Bill. Supporters of the ban fear an inquiry will be used to put the issue off until after the next election, but it may keep alive their hopes. They were furious with Mr Straw for saying the Government had no mandate for a ban. Former Labour frontbencher, Kevin McNamara said: "There will be many Labour supporters ... who will see this as a sheer shift of ground from `no time this session' to `no time ever' ".

Mr Straw is anxious to avoid the Government's Crime and Disorder Bill being targeted in the autumn by anti-hunting MPs to outlaw foxhunting.

Government sources confirmed that Home Office officials were studying an inquiry among the options for dealing with public concern about blood sports.

Ms Hoey said: "Today's debate strengthened the case for an independent inquiry because so many new things were coming out."