Hunting: Stag ban is lifted but Whitehall fights over bones of a Bill

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The Independent Online
The Government will raise hopes of a ban on foxhunting being imposed before the next election, even if the private member's Bill in the Commons today is eventually killed. But Colin Brown, Chief Political Correspondent, says hunt supporters were given a boost yesterday by the Forestry Commission.

On the eve of today's Commons vote on a bill to ban hunting with hounds, hunt supporters claimed a victory after a tactical retreat by the Forestry Commission to lift a ban on stag hunting by the Quantock Hunt on its land for the rest of this season.

The Commission's decision came after farmers shot 36 stags in protest at the ban on the Quantock Hunt and assembled them for a photograph of the mass slaughter, which appeared on the front page of The Independent on Tuesday. "This gives us a breathing space to fight for the ban to be lifted next season," said a hunt supporter.

But the Forestry Commission yesterday said it would not allow any hunting of deer on its land anywhere else, and that the Quantock Hunt would not be allowed a licence next season. The hunt, in Somerset, is only being given extra time to allow alternative ways of controlling deer numbers to be organised.

Campaigners for a ban on all hunting with hounds will be in full cry today in the vote on hunting. They are expecting a massive majority at around 3.30pm with most Labour MPs staying in Westminster to vote for the Bill, instead of going off to their constituencies for the weekend.

Michael Heseltine, the former deputy prime minister, will lead the charge against the Bill, and its opponents are confident of strangling the Bill in Parliamentary barbed wire during its committee stage. It will only take a handful of committed "saboteurs" to kill the Bill in later stages because of the lack of time.

But George Howarth, the Home Office minister, will give a clear signal that the Government is prepared to give the supporters of a ban a second chance, by allowing a forthcoming law and order Bill to be amended to include a ban on foxhunting, if the private member's Bill by Labour MP Michael Foster fails. That would ensure a ban had time to reach the Statute Book before the election. "The Government's line is that if the private member's Bill fails to complete its passage, it would be open to members to move amendments should a suitable vehicle occur in future sessions of Parliament," said a Whitehall source.

Ministers are keen to avoid further charges against Tony Blair for an alleged breach of faith over Labour's commitment to ensure a free vote on banning foxhunting.

Supporters of the Bill have put on unofficial whips for each region to ensure the highest possible turnout by Labour MPs to vote for the Bill's second reading. One of the unofficial whips told The Independent last night: "There is going to be a massive turnout. We are expecting a full house and a big majority in favour of the Bill."