No local opt-outs in hunting ban bill

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The Independent Online
THE GOVERNMENT hardened its stance against fox-hunting last night as ministers promised a nationwide ban with no opportunity for pro-hunting areas to continue the sport.

After Tony Blair announced plans to ban hunting with dogs last week, Whitehall sources floated the idea of allowing people to call a referendum on whether their area should opt out of a national ban. It now looks certain that no opt-outs will be included in government proposals to be outlined later this month.

Ministers believe that opt-outs would cause chaos when hunts cross county boundaries, and even provoke violent confrontations between pro- and anti- hunting campaigners at borders between areas where hunting is banned and allowed.

"It would be impracticable and illogical," one government source told The Independent. "It would be like saying that child abuse is legal in Bedfordshire but illegal in Hertfordshire."

Legislation will be introduced in the parliamentary session starting in November, in the hope that anger among rural voters will abate before the general election.

The Government is expected to urge a Labour MP to bring in a private member's Bill rather than bring in its own legislation. But it will ensure that the measure gets "extra time" to complete its passage through Parliament, which it failed to do when Mike Foster's backbench Bill was blocked by the Conservatives last year.

The legislation will cover England and Wales. The question of a ban in Scotland will be a decision for the Scottish Parliament.

Conservative MPs may seek to amend the Bill to allow local opt-outs, but there is strong support among Labour MPs for a total ban, and ministers expect their views to prevail.

The proposed nationwide ban will infuriate the pro-hunting lobby. Yesterday more than 200 noisy protesters gathered outside Parliament. After police cleared them from the road they protested from the green in Parliament Square.

Inside the Commons, Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs seized on a leaked memo in which George Howarth, the Home Office minister, warned that the International Fund for Animal Welfare would turn their fire on the Government if it failed to ban hunting. Its sister organisation, the Political Animal Lobby, announced a pounds 1m donation to Labour before the last general election.

David Lidington, a Tory frontbench spokesman, said the Government had decided to act because it feared "a hostile advertising campaign by the Labour Party's pounds 1m paymasters".

But Mr Howarth insisted the move had nothing to do with the donation, saying the organisation had given pounds 117,000 to the Tories and pounds 70,000 to the Liberal Democrats.

Mr Howarth hinted strongly at a blanket ban. When Labour backbencher Dave Watts said there should be no "opt outs," the minister assured him that he would welcome the Government's proposals very warmly.

Today William Hague will make the proposed ban a key issue in next week's Parliamentary by-election in Eddisbury, Cheshire.