A bill to ban almost all fox hunting will not be brought forward for another six months, the Government announced yesterday in a move that enraged backbench Labour MPs opposed to blood sports.
Alun Michael, the Rural Affairs minister, told the Commons that legislation would be based on the principles of "cruelty and utility ... rather than a list of activities to be banned", raising the prospect of exemptions for upland hunting, where alternative forms of pest control are considered impractical.
Mr Michael promised to "introduce legislation which we believe can satisfy the House of Commons" and indicated that MPs, who voted overwhelmingly for an outright ban on Monday, will have the final say.
He insisted ministers were prepared to force the will of the Commons into law if passage of the Bill were to be frustrated in the House of Lords. "It is not my intention to produce a fudge or compromise ... but to produce good legislation," he said.
The announcement sparked confusion and anger on both sides of the argument. Anti-hunt MPs attacked the delays and warned of the prospect that new legislation would stop short of a ban, while hunt supporters branded the statement a "black day for liberty".
Ministers want to avoid the sort of criticism that has blighted the Scottish anti-hunting legislation, which critics say is unworkable. They also want to avoid any legal challenge to a ban while averting protests from pro-hunt groups.
The Government is drawing heavily on the Burns report on the future of hunting, which found foxes caused greater damage in upland areas, where there were "fewer alternatives available to the use of dogs".
But Gordon Prentice, a Labour left-winger, warned: "There is a possibility even with this timetable of us discussing this issue right up until 2004. What is it that we are going to learn from six months of consultation that we don't already know?"
Tony Banks, a leading opponent of fox hunting, said: "There is no common ground. I don't know why you want to spend six months chasing shadows."
Ann Widdecombe, a former Conservative Home Office minister, said the announcement was "a recipe for yet more delay, for having this issue running up and down the parliamentary system. This House has shown its views. We are the democratically elected body."
The Conservative agriculture spokesman Ann Winterton said the Government was "caught by its own backbenchers who are deeply unhappy about the failure of government policy and by fear of a countryside march."Reuse content