MPs to be given vote on Hunting Bill before Easter

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair is preparing to introduce a Bill banning hunting to the House of Commons before Easter after unexpectedly dropping it from the Queen's Speech last year.

The move, described as a "matter of trust" between the Prime Minister and Labour MPs, will disappoint hunting enthusiasts who assumed that the issue had been moved off the Government's agenda. But it will delight his own party and animal welfare groups who have criticised the Government for continually refusing to resolve the issue.

Ministers are determined to finalise the Bill before the end of the parliamentary session after six years of deadlock between the House of Commons and the House of Lords.

They want to give MPs the chance to vote for a full ban by Easter but are considering delaying its introduction to the House of Lords until after the summer. That would stop peers spending so much time discussing the hunting Bill that they deliberately wreck the progress of other bills on the Government's agenda.

The House of Lords, which has consistently opposed a hunting ban and has stopped other bills progressing, is expected to block the hunting Bill again by voting against it.

But ministers have discussed employing an infrequently used device called the Parliament Act to push the Bill past the House of Lords and on to the statute books.

It could then become law in England and Wales before the next election. A ban has already been introduced in Scotland.

Government sources said that the decision not to delay the Bill further was now a "matter of trust" with Labour MPs. Environment ministers met this week to discuss the agenda.

"We are looking at introducing it in February, March or April and then delaying its introduction to the Lords until after the summer," one Government source said. "We can use the Parliament Act after the Bill has been in the Lords for a month. That will enable its passage before the next general election."

The decision to reintroduce the Bill comes as Tony Blair faces the prospect of defeat at the hands of Labour backbenchers over tuition fees.

Westminster observers will interpret the Government's decision to press ahead with a hunting ban as an attempt to win back the confidence of Labour backbenchers.

Last night, animal welfare groups said that failure to bring back the Bill would pose huge problems for Labour at the next election because the Government has repeatedly promised to do so.

"A ban on hunting has become a matter of trust between Parliament and the people following the promises made by Tony Blair, Labour ministers and MPs," said Douglas Batchelor of the League against Cruel Sports. "While we understand the Government's problems, no one would forgive any further delay."

Labour MPs made their wish for a complete ban on hunting clear last year when they voted overwhelmingly to throw out a Government proposal to licence hunting in England and Wales and to outlaw the sport it completely.

A minority of MPs want to introduce a licensing system for hunts in a bid to find a compromise. They will have a chance to discuss the proposal next month when Lembit Opik, a Liberal Democrat MP, introduces a private member's Bill on this option. But it has no chance of becoming law.