Day of chaos ends with fox-hunting ban forced into law

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Indy Politics

A ban on fox hunting was finally forced on to the statute books last night after a day of anger and chaos as peers defied a last-minute attempt by ministers to delay the law's introduction until after the next general election.

Hunting will be outlawed from February after the House of Lords made a final act of defiance and rejected a move to delay the introduction of a ban until 2006. Their vote triggered the Parliament Act to force the Bill into law.

Michael Martin, the Speaker of the Commons, invoked the Parliament Act shortly after 9pm in order to send the Hunting Bill for Royal Assent. He told MPs: "I am satisfied all the provisions of the Parliament Act have been met." His announcement was met with a mixture of cheers and shouts of "shame".

Baroness Mallalieu, the Labour peer and president of the Countryside Alliance, told the House of Lords: "This House has done the countryside proud. It has also done liberty proud. Let those who despise both use the Parliament Act on this miserable Bill if they can but let us not help them to avoid the consequences of what they are doing."

Peers rejected warnings by Alun Michael, the Rural Affairs minister, that it would be "perverse" to reject a delay in order to give the hunting community time to adjust to a ban.

The outcome will be a severe embarrassment to No 10, which had been desperate to avoid an outright ban, certain that this would stir up anger among the hunting community in the run-up to a general election.

It is also damaging to Tony Blair's reputation among Labour MPs, who are angry at his attempts to secure a last-minute compromise.

The Countryside Alliance is expected to launch a legal challenge to the Parliament Act today and has pledged to fight the ban through the courts on human rights grounds.

The Lords' vote came after a day of high farce at Westminster as ministers struggled to prevent the Bill becoming law as early as February next year.

The final passage of the Bill came amid confused scenes and arcane Parliamentary procedure. MPs rejected Government moves to delay the introduction of the ban until 2007 but accepted a delay until 2006.

At one point, Mr Martin was forced to adjourn the Commons for 40 minutes while officials unravelled details of the constitutional clash.

The shambolic scenes continued as the Lords' final debate on hunting was delayed while the French President, Jacques Chirac, took tea with peers in the Royal Gallery as part of his state visit.

Many MPs were furious at the Government's attempt to secure a delay. Hilary Armstrong, the Government chief whip, was tackled in the members' tea room by Labour MPs over the last-minute moves to delay the introduction of the Bill.

"We don't trust you," said a number of MPs. They said they suspected the Government whips were attempting to stop the Parliament Act being used to force the Bill through.Mrs Armstrong assured the MPs that there was no attempt to abandon the use of the Parliament Act to override the opposition of the Lords.

"We were absolutely furious about what was going on," said one of the Labour MPs. "It looked like Tony Blair was trying to get himself off the hook again. We weren't having it."

Lord Whitty, the Environment minister, said: "I am deeply disappointed that the Lords ... saw fit to reject the House of Commons proposals for delay in implementation of the Bill. In other words, they voted for a virtually immediate introduction of the Bill."

Last night, around 1,000 pro-hunt demonstrators staged an angry protest outside Windsor Castle as Mr Blair and M. Chirac arrived to attend a banquet with the Queen.

Waving placards in English and in French the protesters shouted anti-Government slogans and tooted hunting horns.

Ian Agnew, chairman of the Surrey Union Hunt, near Dorking, said: "I'm sure, in their heart of hearts, individually the Royals are against a ban - and are on our side."

THE PARLIAMENT ACT AT WORK

The Parliament Act was first passed in 1911 to ensure governments could set a budget, after peers rejected the 1909 Finance Bill, David Lloyd George's so-called people's budget, which provided pensions and health insurance for the poor.

The 1911 Act was used just three times, twice over the Government of Ireland Act, then for the Welsh Church Act of 1914. It was used once more in 1949 to bring in the current Parliament Act after the Lords rejected plans to nationalise the steel industry.

Since then, it has only been used three times: for the War Crimes Act 1991 allowing Nazis accused of murder to be prosecuted; the European Parliamentary Elections Act 1999, bringing in a list system for candidates; and the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 2000 which set the age of consent for homosexual acts at 16.

The Act states that a Bill thrown out by peers can be forced through a year and a day after being reintroduced into the Commons. The process which led to passage yesterday started a year ago.

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