Move to make hunt bans local

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THE future of fox hunting may be decided county by county after local referendums, as part of an initiative to neutralise one of Labour's most divisive issues.

However the move, which was revealed yesterday, may be delayed for another year until the House of Lords - one of the main obstacles to change - has been reformed.

Plans to allow councils to hold local polls on hunting have emerged after consultations by Clive Soley, the chairman of the 400-strong Parliamentary Labour Party. Mr Soley has discussed the ideas with the Home Secretary, Jack Straw.

Under the proposals, which are being backed by other senior ministers, councils would have the power to license or ban local hunts, probably after polling all voters in their area.

The proposals would avoid a repeat of the embarrassing party divisions that occurred last year when a Labour MP, Michael Foster, put forward a Private Member's Bill to ban hunting.

When that failed to become law Labour MPs made clear, in a meeting with Mr Straw, that they expected quick government action to ban hunting.

However ministers, including Peter Mandelson, Minister without Portfolio, were known to be concerned about the socially divisive nature of a hunting ban. That anxiety increased after the countryside march in London attracted a big crowd.

However, delegating the decision-making downwards would present difficulties, including the problem of policing county boundaries where policies differ. Some ministers are concerned that the move would prompt calls for more powers to be given to councils.

There was also doubt about the timing of any initiative likely to result from a backbench amendment or Private Member's Bill. One ministerial source pointed out that reform would be better left until the reform of the House of Lords has removed the hereditary element - one of the biggest obstacles to a fox-hunting ban.

Last night Mr Foster said: "I want to see an end to fox hunting and will look at every avenue to bring it about. I foresee difficulties with this approach, such as boundaries, and I would want the `full monty' rather than a halfway house. But if it would mean a ban before the election it is something that should be looked at."

Saboteurs to hit angling, page 7