Ministers give time to private hunt Bill

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The Independent Online
HUNT SUPPORTERS said the Government could face a violent backlash after the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, confirmed it will back moves to outlaw fox-hunting before the next general election.

They gave a cautious welcome to the announcement by Mr Straw that he is appointing Lord Burns, former permanent secretary to the Treasury, to head an inquiry into the impact of a ban on foxhunting.

The former Terry Burns will be seen as a strongly independent choice. He was a key player in Whitehall in the Thatcher era but was treated with suspicion when Gordon Brown arrived at the Treasury. He agreed to retire after in effect being frozen out by the Chancellor's close-knit team.

The inquiry has been told to report by spring and will look into "the practical issues involved in hunting with dogs, how a ban could be implemented and what the consequences of a ban would be". Ministers said it would not be used to kick a ban on fox- hunting into "the long grass".

Mr Straw told BBC radio the Government was prepared to use a guillotine motion to limit debate and get the Bill through the Commons. "Government time also includes the prospect, if it is needed, of a timetable motion that would also be the subject of a free vote. We are ensuring this can be a matter on which the House of Commons can reach a conclusion."

The Government's backing for a Bill was welcomed last night by Michael Foster, the Labour MP who received death threats when he tried to get a private member's Bill banning hunting with hounds through the Commons two years ago.

It was blocked despite a majority of 411 votes to 151 on the second reading. He is hoping his Bill, which was drafted with the help of the Home Office, will be revived after the ballot of MPs next month.

The Countryside Alliance chairman, John Jackson, said: "We believe that the outcome [of the inquiry] will make legislation to ban hunting unnecessary and inappropriate."

Tory MPs who back hunting were furious with the tactics the Government is prepared to use to get the Bill on to the statute book. They were angered at the readiness of ministers to use the guillotine to cut short debate and to use the Parliament Act to force a backbench Bill through the Lords, if it has a big majority in the Commons.

Julian Brazier, Tory MP for Canterbury, said: "We had a violent demonstration in London that was disowned by the Countryside Alliance. If the Government isn't careful, you could find the countryside turning round and biting back." He accused the Government of using anti-democratic tactics.

The Tory leader, William Hague, said: "It shows how completely they [the Government] misunderstand the problems of the countryside. We've got the countryside now in desperate problems, from the neglect of agriculture, from the concreting over of the Green Belt, from things like the increase in petrol prices, that have particularly hit the rural areas. What do the Government do about these things? - favour a Bill to ban fox-hunting."

Tory MPs also accused the Home Secretary of "running scared" by announcing the decision in a written Commons answer rather than a statement to the Commons on which he could be closely questioned.