Lib Dem Conference: Party split on fox-hunting

A SPLIT over fox-hunting opened up after Jackie Ballard attacked the party's policy as "daft" for allowing MPs a free vote in the Commons.

The leadership has insisted MPs be allowed a conscience vote. Party peers are also split on how to vote if the Government carries out Tony Blair's pledge to introduce a ban.

Ms Ballard weighed into the dispute after her fellow MP Lembit Opik, a leader of the Middle Way group on blood sports, put forward compromise proposals to allow foxhunting to continue under licence. "We have a party manifesto commitment to ban hunting with hounds. But we had a bit of a sop to one of our MPs and wrote in a sentence that said that MPs could have freedom of conscience when voting on it, which I always thought was a daft thing to do," she said.

Hunting with hounds was torture, she added.

"As Liberals we are concerned about other life on this planet, not just human beings. If that is the analysis and the policy is that we should ban it, it is not a matter of conscience, it is a matter of policy. I disagree with giving MPs that get-out."

The cross-party Middle Way campaign, supported by Kate Hoey until she became a minister, the Labour MP Llin Golding and Tory MP Peter Luff, is proposing the creation of an independent body to license hunts with powers to impose penalties for breaking codes of practice.

Passions raised by the campaign to ban hunting were highlighted by a stand at theconference manned by the League Against Cruel Sports depicting a huntsman lying in a bath of blood, laughing at blood sports. The league is taking its display to Labour's conference next week.

Labour is braced for protests in Bournemouth, with the Countryside Commission planning to bus in 16,000 hunt supporters to a rally to coincide with Mr Blair's keynote speech. Police have been told that the British National Party and anarchists behind last month's City of London protest plan to provoke violence outside the conference.