MPs force new hunting ban vote

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Labour backbenchers will hijack a Government Bill to force Tony Blair to ban fox-hunting with dogs before the general election.

Anti-hunt campaigners are to give MPs a fresh vote on fox-hunting with an amendment to the Government's Countryside and Rights of Way Bill.

Labour MPs tabled the amendment to force the Government to act next month after the publication of the findings of the Burns inquiry, which is still taking evidence on the impact of a fox-hunting ban on the countryside.

Mr Blair will be challenged to honour his past commitments to ban fox-hunting before the general election by Gordon Prentice, the Labour MP for Pendle, who is leading the campaign.

Warning that its prevarication over a ban was doing "immense harm" to the Government, Mr Prentice called on Mr Blair to support the change to the Countryside Bill next month. In an audacious move, he will challenge the Prime Minister over three public commitments on banning fox-hunting made by Mr Blair in the past year. Mr Prentice has told the Prime Minister that leaving the issue "suspended in limbo" would hurt the Government in the run-up to the election.

"That is doing increasing damage as we get closer to the general election. This prevarication has done immense damage," said Mr Prentice.

"I have written to every member of Parliament from the Prime Minister down asking them to sign the amendment," he added.

The Government has insisted on waiting for the outcome of the Burns inquiry but Mr Prentice believes Labour MPs are growing increasingly restless over the issue.

"Millions of people out there support a ban," said Mr Prentice. "It is not town versus country. It is a question of whether people are prepared to tolerate killing for fun."

The amendment to the Bill allows some exclusions from the ban, including hunting with dogs to obtain food, control a species, or protect sheep.

The Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, and the Leader of the House of Lords, Baroness Jay, both denied reports that they had been helping the pro-hunting lobby to press its case.