Blair discusses how to force through Hunting Bill

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair has secretly discussed with MPs using the Parliament Act to push the controversial Hunting Bill through the House of Lords.

The move comes as Labour MPs prepare to amend the compromise Bill in a way that would turn it into an outright ban on fox-hunting.

At a private meeting with MPs on the hunting committee last week, the Prime Minister talked through the details of how to make use of the Parliament Act, which allows the House of Commons to over-rule the House of Lords.

The meeting has boosted Labour MPs' hopes that the Government will not delay the Hunting Bill to make way for other legislation. Tony Blair is to follow up the personal meeting with MPs with another meeting tomorrow, to discuss the future of the Bill.

One anti-hunting MP described the Prime Minister's meeting last week as positive and said that Mr Blair made no attempt to persuade MPs not to push for a complete ban.

"We thought he would try to persuade us not to table the amendment but he didn't," the MP said. "After all the Parliamentary Labour Party has been through over Iraq and foundation hospitals, the Prime Minister should toss us all a bone and let us get this thing through."

A leaked letter from the Environment minister Alun Michael, who is responsible for steering the Bill through the Commons, reveals that the Government is keen to complete its passage.

Mr Michael's letter says: "Hunting with dogs is clearly not of the same importance as health, crime or employment, which are at the heart of the Government's legislative programme but it does need to be resolved as soon as possible and my Bill is designed to do just that.

"I agree that there is a pressing need to complete report stage and third reading in the Commons and move to the Lords, and I am sure this will happen shortly."

The present Bill offers a compromise solution that would permit fox hunts if they were shown to be the least cruel method of controlling the population of foxes. But anti-hunting MPs want to introduce an absolute ban on meets and more than 100 of them have signed an amendment that would strengthen the legislation.

The House of Lords is expected to oppose a ban and Parliament, backed by the Government, would have to use the Parliament Act to overrule the peers' wishes. Government sources said yesterday that its priority was to "get this issue over with" and prevent it from dragging into another parliament.

Whips are concerned about the prospect of yet another bruising battle with Labour backbenchers after recent rebellions on the war in Iraq, foundation hospitals and trial by jury.