Cook steps back from promising a government Bill to ban fox hunting

The Queen's Speech: Animals
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Labour is facing a backlash from its own MPs and the powerful animal-welfare lobby over fox hunting after it failed to commit itself to a Bill banning the sport.

Labour is facing a backlash from its own MPs and the powerful animal-welfare lobby over fox hunting after it failed to commit itself to a Bill banning the sport.

Tony Blair stepped back from an early confrontation with the pro-hunting community yesterday by promising only to allow a "free vote" in both Houses of Parliament.

Anti-fox hunting groups had reacted warmly early yesterday to the announcement that Labour would make Parliamentary time available this session to "enable a free vote to take place on the future of hunting with dogs".

About 160 Labour MPs have signed a pledge to back the outlawing of fox hunting and a Bill was widely expected to be introduced. But the commitment in the Queen's Speech yesterday may, in fact, fall short of an early Bill banning hunting. It may instead be a motion in both Houses, which would not immediately lead to the creation of a new law.

Yesterday the Government was insisting only that "the new parliament will be given an opportunity to express its view by a free vote. We will then enable Parliament to reach a conclusion on this issue," the Government said.

Many Labour MPs will be furious if the Government does not move forward with the ban and use the Parliament Act to overrule the House of Lords, which will continue to oppose a ban.

At yesterday's meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party, there were no promises from Robin Cook, the Leader of the House, that the promised free vote would include a Bill.

Clive Soley, chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party, warned that a Bill banning hunting was now "a matter of trust" and that it would be "damaging if one failed to emerge".

There was optimism among some Labour MPs, however, that the Government had signalled a willingness to proceed with a ban on hunting with dogs. By introducing a pledge this time, the Government has ensured it can resort to the Parliament Act, which requires that the Bill is considered in two consecutive sessions.

Pro-hunting organisations were delighted that the Queen's Speech did not mention legislation and claimed that the Government planned to consult them before deciding on the form of a Bill.

John Jackson, chairman of the Countryside Alliance, said: "If this process signals the Government's sincere determination to try to find a just way forward, which respects the freedoms and safeguards the livelihoods of rural people, the alliance will do what it can to help resolve the issue."

But anti-hunting groups will be furious if the Government backtracks on its pledge.

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