Deal allows extension to fox hunting

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Fox hunting is set to continue in England and Wales for another year under a deal sanctioned by Tony Blair, it emerged today.

Fox hunting is set to continue in England and Wales for another year under a deal sanctioned by Tony Blair, it emerged today.

The field sport will be outlawed from February 18 after the Parliament Act was used to force through a ban in the face of opposition from the Lords.

But the Attorney General Lord Goldsmith will not fight an application for an injunction from the Alliance, Downing Street confirmed.

That means hunting could continue until all the avenues of legal appeal are exhausted.

The move would avoid the campaign of civil disobedience threatened by pro–hunters in the run–up to the General Election, expected in May.

However, it risks infuriating Labour backbenchers, who have repeatedly voted for a ban, and many party supporters.

The Prime Minister strongly supports advice from government law officers not to oppose the injunction, The Times reveals.

Mr Blair has previously attempted to broker a deal to allow hunting to continue under licence.

The PM was also disappointed that the House of Lords voted for an immediate ban rather than government proposals for an 18 month delay.

Peers voted for the so-called "kamikaze option" to maximise embarrassment to the PM in the run-up to the election.

An injunction issued while the Alliance lodges appeals with the House of Lords and in Europe under human rights legislation could see the ban postponed for several months or even a year.

The Alliance is expected to apply for one when the case, which they do not expect to win, comes before the Appeal Court late next month.

Chairman John Jackson told The Times: "It is quite normal for counsel to have conversations about these matters and, at the appropriate time, we would make such an application.

"A decision by the Attorney-General not to oppose the injunction would, of course, be very significant."

A Downing Street spokesman said: "If the Countryside Alliance are mindful to take out an injunction we are mindful not to oppose that."

Mr Jackson said on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: "On the basis of conversations that have taken place between counsel... my very clear understanding is that the Attorney General would not object to an application for an injunction suspending the operation of the Act."

He added: "Both legal challenges have got very considerable legs and, in my opinion, great legal and moral right behind them."

Asked if those expecting a ban in February should think again, he replied: "Absolutely, in my view."

Rural Affairs Minister Alun Michael said the Government was "relaxed" about the challenges but did not expect them to succeed.

"It's for the court to decide whether to accept the terms of an injunction," he told Today.

"We can either argue vigorously against it or we can wait to see what the court decides. We're content to wait and see."

Mr Michael, who has been repeatedly targeted by the pro-hunt lobby, added: "We are absolutely confident that the legal challenge to the Hunting Act will fail.

"But now that Parliament has passed the Act, the right place for it to be challenged is in the court and not through intimidation and violence..."

Insisting it was "not a question of a secret deal", he added: "What you simply see here is the Government being reasonable as we have been all along despite the fact that this is probably the most contentious issue, although not necessarily the most important, that we've seen in politics."

He stressed: "It's for the court to decide whether the injunction succeeds. We're relaxed about it."

Mr Michael also emphasised that the February commencement date was voted for by pro-hunt peers and not MPs.

Conservative spokesman James Gray said police should not waste time enforcing the ban until its legality was established.

He predicted pro-hunt supporters would fight for a Conservative victory in the General Election, whether or not an injunction was in place.

Tories have pledged to introduce legislation to repeal the ban if they are returned to government.