Labour Party Conference: Countryside - Blair sounds the retreat on aim to ban fox-hunting

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The Independent Online
TONY BLAIR signalled a retreat yesterday from a ban on fox-hunting before the next election amid growing ministerial alarm at a campaign by the Countryside Alliance.

While the Prime Minister said MPs would have a chance to vote on banning fox-hunting, he in effect ruled out legislation and warned that any Bill could still be blocked in the Lords. Clearly alarmed at the damage being done to the Government in rural areas, Mr Blair declared that hunting was not the most important issue facing the rural communities. They were more worried about schools and jobs, he said.

"We will give MPs the chance to vote against foxhunting. I will vote in that way. If the will is that it should be banned, we will look to see how we give legislative effect to the will of Parliament.

"I know there is a strong feeling about fox-hunting on both sides. People in the countryside are worried about crime and drugs, better schools and hospitals and jobs. I think it is wrong of peopleto say that is the big countryside issue," he said on BBC Breakfast with Frost.

Mr Blair's volte-face on foxhunting - contrasting sharply with his commitment to a ban, confirmed in the summer - reflects growing concern in Downing Street at the way hunting is overshadowing the Government's jobs and education schemes in rural areas. It came just 24 hours before the Countryside Alliance buses in 16,000 to protest against a ban at the Labour Party's annual conference in Bournemouth.

Government sources denied weekend reports that the Home Office had been attempting to shuffle off the issue to John Prescott's Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions.

Jack Straw is still reviewing the options but the Government does not want a fox-hunting amendment to be tacked on to a big law and order Bill, fearing that its addition could delay the passage of the legislation in the Lords.

Mr Straw is hoping that a backbencher will take up the issue in the ballot of MPs to introduce private members' legislation in January. That would come as a disappointment to the MPs lobbying for action, because Michael Foster, a Labour MP, tried and failed to get a private member'sBill banning fox-hunting on to the statute book last year, in spite of an overwhelming majority in the Commons. The Government could guarantee more time, but Lord Carter, the Government Chief Whip in the Lords, has warned Mr Blair he could not guarantee getting the Bill through the Lords.

Meanwhile a leaked Countryside Alliance document suggested the Prince of Wales was one of the organisation's most important backers - and that he wanted his support for hunting kept secret. Chief executive of the Countryside Alliance, Richard Burge, told GMTV's The Sunday Programme: "I understand that he took a decision in early 1997 that because the issue [fox-hunting] was becoming contentious he would remove himself from it."

Mr Burge said that he believed that some of the Prince's concerns matched the Alliance's aims, but added: "There is a difference between him backing the issues and backing an organisation."