Ban on fox hunting will come into force earlier than planned

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair is preparing for a showdown on fox hunting today by turning the knife on thousands of pro-hunting protesters threatening to bring Parliament Square to a standstill.

Tony Blair is preparing for a showdown on fox hunting today by turning the knife on thousands of pro-hunting protesters threatening to bring Parliament Square to a standstill.

Despite personal misgivings about a ban, Mr Blair gave his backing to an 11th-hour amendment to the Bill on fox hunting which brings forward the date when fox hunting will be banned to 31 July 2006, six months earlier than planned.

It was signed by Tony Banks and Mike Foster, leading Labour supporters of a ban, and endorsed by Peter Bradley, the parliamentary aide to Alun Michael, the minister in charge of the fox-hunting issue. "It meets the PM's concerns about bringing in a ban after the last possible date for a general election, and it will make a lot of colleagues more comfortable," said a minister. Mr Blair had been planning to allow a two-year delay to avoid the damaging spectacle of pack hounds being put down in the run-up to the election.

Angry Labour MPs warned at a crowded meeting on Monday that they would support a rebel amendment by Gerald Kaufman, the Labour MP leading the fight to ban hunting, to cut the delay to 12 months. But last night ministers confirmed to The Independent that they were drawing up a compromise for an 18-month delay.

Rebel Labour leaders said that the amendment would be enough to stop a Labour revolt. It will mean that September 2005 will be the last season of lawful fox hunting with dogs.

Mr Kaufman said MPs were hoping this was the last time they would have to vote on fox hunting. "I don't want this to come back," he said. "If it were to be two years from Royal Assent, it will have taken nine and a half years to fulfil this commitment."

A free vote has been allowed for MPs today who are going to rush the Bill through all its stages in the Commons before it goes to the Lords. However, the Cabinet remains split. A number of cabinet ministers, including John Reid, the Health Secretary, and, it is believed, Mr Blair, favour the "middle way" proposal for permitting hunts under strict licensing, but that was rejected by MPs in the last session of parliament.

Michael Martin, the Speaker, will announce today that the Parliament Act is being applied to the Bill to force it through the House of Lords. Simon Hughes, president-elect of the Liberal Democrats, will oppose its use. "You really cannot say it is disgraceful for the unelected House to block it when the House of Lords is Tony Blair's creation," he said. "Ten years ago I was completely opposed to fox hunting but I have changed my mind. I support the middle-way option."

Lord Tebbit, a former Tory cabinet minister, said the Lords would vote to replace the outright ban with a licensing system. That threatens to trigger the Parliament Act, and could hasten the Bill onto the statute book under the arcane rules of Parliament.

However, the pro-fox-hunting lobby are going to seek a judicial review next week against the use of the Parliament Act to override the Lords.

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