MPs to invoke Parliament Act to bring in ban on fox hunting

Seven years of argument in Parliament over fox-hunting will end this week, almost certainly with the Commons invoking the Parliament Act to over-rule the House of Lords and ban the controversial sport outright.

The House of Lords has one more day tomorrow to argue over details of the Hunting Bill, but it is thought highly unlikely that they will be able to agree on a version of the Bill that would have a chance of being accepted by the Commons.

There were rumours last week that government whips were going to try to broker a last-minute compromise because ministers wanted to avoid going into an election campaign next year against a background of angry protests from hunt supporters.

But the whips have denied getting involved in the issue, in which MPs have a free vote: any compromise that would have a reasonable chance of being passed by MPs would have been unacceptable to hunt supporters.

Denis Tunnicliffe, the former boss of the London Underground who was elevated to the peerage in May, made what was perhaps the last serious attempt to avoid a ban when he delivered his maiden speech in the Lords last week.

He proposed that the Lords should pass a version of the Bill which would have banned hare-coursing and stag-hunting, but permitted strictly regulated fox-hunting to continue in some parts of the country.

But supporters of hunting, including the Labour peer Baroness Mallalieu, regarded Lord Tunnicliffe's proposal as a method of introducing a ban by stealth. Baroness Mallalieu is also an avid supporter of stag-hunting.

When the Bill is brought back from the Lords to the Commons tomorrow or on Tuesday, MPs will almost certainly reject the amendments introduced by the peers, and use the Parliament Act to enforce a ban.

The battle over fox-hunting will then move from Parliament to the law courts, where the Countryside Alliance will seek a ruling that the Parliament Act is illegal.

It will also carry on in the countryside, where at least one fox-hunt will take place each day next week.

MPs have voted consistently in favour of an outright ban on fox-hunting, stag-hunting and hare-coursing since the Labour MP for Worcester, Michael Foster, introduced a private member's bill in November 1997 that would have outlawed hunting with dogs. The promise of a free vote of MPs on a ban had been included in Labour's 1997 manifesto.

But the sports won a temporary reprieve through the Government's apparent reluctance to act. Although Tony Blair has publicly declared his support for a ban, he is thought to be very reluctant to antagonise the well-organised pro-hunting lobby.

The Home Secretary, David Blunkett, is also reluctant to have the police drawn into enforcing the ban when hundreds of hunt supporters have pledged to carry on hunting in defiance of the law.