The Government’s attempt to change the rules on fox hunting and end the ban on using a full pack of hounds could be wrecked in the Commons this week.
Late plans to include “research and observation” loopholes are now likely to mean the SNP will claim that the changes do affect Scotland, allowing them to join Tory rebels and a whipped Labour vote to inflict the first defeat on David Cameron’s majority government.
Although the Conservative manifesto promised a free vote to repeal the hunting ban introduced by Tony Blair’s government, the Prime Minister has opted for an easier route which makes technical changes to the Hunting Act.
The class-ridden debate on fox hunting delivered the 2005 law which specified that only two hounds could be used to “flush out” foxes, which would then be shot. Three years earlier Scotland had brought in its own ban.
However, north of the border there is no limit to the number of the dogs involved, and full packs of pedigree hounds still take part in fox hunts, mainly in the Borders.
In a truncated 90-minute debate in the Commons on 15 July, the Government will argue that only technical changes are being made to the Hunting Act. Ministers will claim there is no back-door strategy to revitalise traditional fox hunting.
The Scottish Nationalists were expected to simply abstain from the Commons vote because the central issue only affects England and Wales. However late proposals and amendments have changed that assumption.
Included in a largely low-key draft order are concessions for “research and observation” relating to pest control and the overall health of the fox population, with evaluations of diseased and injured foxes.
The SNP’s Westminster group held discussions on the hunting changes and there was broad agreement among the 56 SNP MPs and the party leader, Nicola Sturgeon, that they would stick to the convention of keeping out of purely English affairs.
However, senior party sources have told The Independent on Sunday that the amendments could be a “game changer”. A meeting of the parliamentary group tomorrow night will now take the final decision on how the SNP will vote.
The party source said: “Although we have been told these changes will equalise hunting rules and bring England and Wales into line with Scotland, this may not be the case.
“If ‘research’ in England and Wales encourages a resurgence in traditional fox hunting simply because prosecutions would in future be difficult to secure, that could be seen as encouraging Scottish hunts to take a similar route. So we have every right to protect Scottish laws, and therefore we may vote against these government plans.”
Labour has already announced that its MPs will not be allowed a free vote and aims to take full advantage of Mr Cameron’s potential embarrassment.
Although the Tories have been given a free vote, its MPs are being pressured by the Whips’ Office because of the potential impact of a defeat. Up to 40 Tory MPs are reported to be ready to abstain or vote against the changes. Ministers, including Dominic Raab and Tracey Crouch, are regarded as unlikely to back the government line.
The decision on 13 July by the SNP will therefore be critical.
The League Against Cruel Sports (LACS) is mounting a media campaign to highlight what it claims is an attempt by Mr Cameron to bring back hunting.
It says: “These changes will destroy the Hunting Act and bring this cruel sport back to our countryside.”
The LACS is asking constituents to lobby their MPs, urging, “Don’t let your MP be fooled into helping hunting return by the back door.”
Some 70 times a year, at 10.45am, the Berwickshire Hunt leaves to “flush out” foxes. Farmers invite the hunt to kill foxes deemed a threat to livestock, and between two and 60 horses are led by the Master, Rory Innes. There’s no chase. Hounds are sent in to root out foxes, which are then shot. The League Against Cruel Sports recently filmed five of the Borders’ hunts. No evidence of anything against the law was found – yet suspicions remain that hunting here is illegal and should be banned.
It would be ‘hypocritical’, Innes said, for the SNP to vote to defeat changes that equalise hunting with dogs across the UK. “The Government is changing a law that simply doesn’t work. With only two dogs involved – the limit in England – effective pest control, which is what farmers want, just doesn’t work.”JCReuse content