Minister rejects calls to shelve anti-hunting Bill

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The government dismissed calls to drop legislation to ban fox hunting yesterday, despite Opposition claims that it is no more than a pre-election stunt.

The government dismissed calls to drop legislation to ban fox hunting yesterday, despite Opposition claims that it is no more than a pre-election stunt.

Lord Bassam of Brighton also rejected calls to drop the debate on the Hunting Bill because of the foot-and-mouth crisis.

He told a packed House of Lords that peers would have an opportunity to vote on all three options for reform: the status quo; new regulations on hunting, the so-called "middle way" option; and a complete ban on hunting with hounds.

Sixty nine speakers were listed to speak during the Second Reading debate in the Lords, highlighting the emotions aroused by the decision of MPs to outlaw hunting. The Bill has passed all its stages in the Commons, but has little chance of becoming law if a 3 May election is called because of a lack of Parliamentary time.

Lord Bassam told peers the Government was neutral on hunting. He said: "I know you all share the Government's sense of concern about what is happening in the countryside at the moment and we all sympathise with those who are suffering as a consequence of the spread of foot-and-mouth disease.

"We will continue to take all necessary steps to contain the outbreak so I reject any suggestion that because of the current foot-and-mouth disease crisis, we should not be proceeding with this Bill.

"Foot-and-mouth disease and hunting with dogs are two totally separate issues, and it is quite wrong of those who oppose any change to the law on hunting to seek to exploit the current difficulties our livestock industry are facing to further their campaign against this legislation."

Lord Cope of Berkeley, the Opposition frontbench spokesman on the Bill, said the legislation would not get through Parliament if the general election was on 3 May. He said: "No Bill starting here has time to complete its passage if the intervals laid down in our procedures are followed.

"This Bill cannot complete the normal scrutiny of any Bill in the time available before the 3 May election. That is the Government's choice. Other Bills were started earlier and can complete a normal passage but this Bill will fall before an election on 3 May by the Government's choice, not by any action of this House."

He added: "I approve of hunting. I respect the views of those who do not, but they should be very reluctant to criminalise so many of our fellow citizens. In particular we should all not criminalise something, in ignorance of the facts.

"The proposal is to stamp out a way of life. There are some activities that can take over people's lives and hunting is one of them and that is part of the reason for the strength of opposition to the Bill. We should all therefore think carefully."

Lord McNally, a Liberal Democrat frontbench spokesman, said: "What was acceptable to one generation is not acceptable to another.

"Over the years Parliament has outlawed cock fighting, bear baiting, dog fighting. All because at that time Parliament judged those to be gratuitous and unwarranted cruelty and therefore unacceptable."

Crossbencher Lord Burns, who chaired last year's inquiry into hunting, said if the sport were to be permitted he would a back a statutory licensing scheme. He said: "The number of deaths is not likely to be reduced by banning hunting. We are talking about alternative means of killing and whether or not they are more or less humane."

Lord Bragg said hunting was no worse than boxing, smoking or motor racing. People should be free to engage in a pastime which did not break the law or harm others, he said.