MPs clash as vote on fox-hunting Bill exposes splits

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MPs clashed over fox-hunting last night as they approached the first parliamentary hurdle to a ban of the blood sport. They were expected to overwhelmingly back the Hunting Bill in a free vote at second reading after nearly six hours of impassioned argument.

MPs clashed over fox-hunting last night as they approached the first parliamentary hurdle to a ban of the blood sport. They were expected to overwhelmingly back the Hunting Bill in a free vote at second reading after nearly six hours of impassioned argument.

The debate would then move on to consider three options for the sport during the legislation's committee stage. MPs will be able to choose between a scheme to license the activity, self-regulation and a complete ban on hunting with hounds, backed by a fine of up to £5,000 for illegal hunting.

Opening the debate, Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, said that after 22 failed backbench attempts to deal with fox hunting, the Government had decided not to set down a course of action in the Bill, but to give MPs three options suggested by leading interest groups. Whichever option is chosen, it would take effect a year after the Bill became law to give hunters the time to adapt to the change.

"This is not an issue that follows traditional party lines," he said. "There are supporters and opponents of hunting in all of the main parties. Mr Straw said that his personal preference was for regulation. "We believe that the time has come to deal with the issue of hunting with dogs once and for all."

David Lidington, the Tory Home Affairs spokesman, said that Conservative MPs would have a free vote on the issue, but that in his opinion the Bill was "misguided and unnecessary". "I intend to vote against the Bill's second reading," he said. And if it reached committee stage, he would vote for self-regulation."

Far more important policies that could have been brought forward in place of the Hunting Bill, he said, adding that cynics might suggest the Bill was designed to show Labour was delivering legislation in return for the "large sums of money" it received from animal welfare groups.

The Bill was a major attack on the freedom of a large minority of citizens and no compelling evidence had been provided that a ban would reduce cruelty, he said. "This Bill is intolerant. This Bill is illiberal and it deserves to be rejected."

John Major, the former prime minister, who along with Michael Heseltine lent his support to a wrecking amendment to the legislation, said he had never hunted but opposed a ban "as strongly as any country dweller".

"This is a breathtaking example of political interest overtaking the rights of minorities," he said. "In this Bill, tolerance is swept aside.

"On this issue, Labour members have the open-mindedness of a revolutionary tribunal," he said. "This is the wrong measure, at the wrong time, for the wrong reason."

But Tony Banks, a former sports minister, told MPs he could not understand how anyone could take pleasure from a fox being ripped apart. "My mind is not closed, my mind is made up, because I cannot abide cruelty to animals."

Mr Banks denied this was a party political issue, pointing to Ann Widdecombe, the shadow Home Secretary, who has made clear her opposition to fox-hunting.

Michael Foster, the Labour MP for Hastings and Rye, whose Private Member's Bill to ban hunting was supported by 411 MPs in November 1997 said the "beginning of the end" of fox hunting had arrived.

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