Compensation for ban on fox hunting may cost taxpayer £150m

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Taxpayers are facing a bill running into millions of pounds in compensation for fox-hunting supporters over claims that next February's ban will cost them their livelihoods.

Taxpayers are facing a bill running into millions of pounds in compensation for fox-hunting supporters over claims that next February's ban will cost them their livelihoods.

Pro-hunting campaigners, who are threatening to disrupt Prime Minister Tony Blair's general election campaign, yesterday said that the claims could amount to £150m.

Ministers countered that they would fight the claims, but admitted there could be a successful case against the Government because "kamikaze" pro-hunting peers rejected a delay of 18 months.

Thousands of hunt supporters are expected to take to the fields today to demonstrate their determination to defy the new law. The Countryside Alliance started a High Court action yesterday to seek a judicial review over the use of the Parliament Act to impose the ban from 18 February. The case is due to be heard in the new year.

A multimillion-pound claim is also being prepared by a barrister hired by the Countryside Alliance. It will be submitted to the Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg in February. That is intended to anger Labour MPs and anti-hunt campaigners.

"The bill is going to run into millions of pounds ... It is insane, but the Government has got to look at itself in the mirror," said a spokesman for the Countryside Alliance. "We are not going to go away."

Ministers confirmed private discussions had been held about the threat to the Government over the claim for pay compensation. One cabinet minister said the Government would fight any claim. The Government's lawyers have advised ministers that there is no right to compensation for restricting the use of property, including packs of dogs which may have to be put down. But this view has been challenged by the joint committee of peers and MPs on human rights which came down on the side of the Countryside Alliance.

The committee, which includes Lord Lester, the civil rights lawyer, strengthened the Alliance's claim that imposing a ban after three months does not give those employed in the hunting industry sufficient time to find alternative jobs, and could be a breach of human rights laws. The committee said there could have been no claim for compensation if Mr Blair had succeeded in his last-minute attempt on Thursday to delay the ban for 18 months.

One senior member of the committee told The Independent: "Eighteen months' notice ... would make it much harder for business concerns to argue there had been an unreasonable interference with their property rights. With a ban after three months there is clearly ... an arguable case for compensation."

Senior police officers warned that enforcing the ban would stretch forces to the limit.

Alastair McWhirter, chief constable of Suffolk and the Association of Chief Police Officers' spokesman on hunting, told The Times: "It is not an offence to wear red or pink coats or jackets, it is not an offence to exercise hounds or keep up traditions of using horns. Unless someone owns up to it, you need a wild animal in the picture to show someone has committed an offence." He said he believed it would be the most tested piece of legislation since drink driving laws were introduced nearly 40 years ago.

The Prime Minister has admitted fox hunting will become an election issue because of the strength of feeling behind it. Mr Blair said he had wanted a delay of 18 months so that people could take their case out to the country and to give huntspeople time to adapt to the ban.

Alun Michael, the Rural Affairs minister, attacked pro-hunting farmers yesterday as "irresponsible" for threatening to deny access to their land for utility operators attempting to maintain supply.