Tony Blair gave his clearest indication so far that there are no immediate plans to introduce a ban on fox-hunting yesterday. The Prime Minister said the Government would await the outcome of an inquiry on the implications of a ban before it would "state its position".
Facing calls for a ban during question time in the Commons, Mr Blair promised that MPs would get a chance to vote on the Burns inquiry's report once it was published.
"Lord Burns will publish his report in due course, the Government will then state its position, the House will have the opportunity of voting," Mr Blair said. "But let us be quite clear. The views of this House are already well known - and so are mine."
But anti-hunt campaigners will take the Prime Minister's response as a sign that legislation banning hunting with dogs will be delayed until after the next general election.
Mr Blair was pressed on the issue by Bob Russell, the Liberal Democrat MP for Colchester, who said: "By the time of the next general election, will hunting with dogs be banned as most people believed Labour promised at the last general election?"
A previous attempt to ban hunting with dogs won a 260 majority at its second reading but fell victim to Conservative delaying tactics in its later Commons stages in 1998.
Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, has promised that the Government will support a private member's Bill once the Burns inquiry into the impact of a possible hunting ban has reported at the end of May. However, although it would be possible to introduce such a Bill next parliamentary session, it is now likely that there will not be a ban until the next general election. There have been suggestions that the Government will propose its own legislation, giving MPs multiple choices on hunting measures in the Labour manifesto.
Lingering hopes for a ban for the next election were also dashed last week when Ken Livingstone, the independent candidate for London mayor, failed to attract enough MPs to support his Wild Mammals (Hunting with Dogs) Bill.
Labour MPs have threatened to amend the Countryside Bill, which is passing through Parliament, a move which could lead to the biggest backbench rebellion since the party took power. Anti-hunt MPs hope their amendment will coincide with the publication of the Burns inquiry's findings next month.
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