MPs to vote on fox-hunting in three weeks

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A vote on banning hunting with dogs in England and Wales will be held in theCommons on Monday 18 March, Leader of the House Robin Cook told MPs today.

Mr Cook said that in the Queen's Speech the Government had promised a free voteon the future of hunting with dogs. "The Government will table a motion enabling the House to express its view in a free vote between the three options. A similar vote will take place in the House of Lords," he said.

After the votes and before the Easter recess, Rural Affairs Minister Alun Michael will bring forward the Government's proposals "to resolve the issue," he told MPs.

The three options are a ban on hunting with hounds; the status quo, with hunting allowed; and the compromise "middle way" plan to allow hunting under licence, with practices such as "digging out" ended.

The Government has been under growing pressure from Labour MPs to honour its pledge in the party's general election manifesto last year to allow a fresh vote on hunting. Its Hunting Bill was blocked by the Lords before the election.

The vote falls short of a full Bill banning hunting but will help the Government to frame legislation on fox-hunting in the next Queen's Speech.

Some Labour backbenchers, who have been pushing for a ban, will be angered by the Government's failure to introduce a Bill outlawing hunting with dogs. They are expected to accuse the Government of a "fudge" which will lead to more delays on the hunting issue in Parliament.

A key issue in next month's votes will be whether the Lords votes in favour of the compromise plan. Peers rejected the "middle way" proposal last year but some ministers believe they may endorse it this time.

If the House of Lords backs the middle way plan, cabinet ministers who support it, including Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, and Mr Cook, may press for it to be proposed in legislation rather than an outright ban.

But that would anger many Labour MPs who have been increasingly frustrated on the Government's failure to act on a pledge by Tony Blair to ban hunting. The Commons, which voted by an overwhelming majority to ban hunting before the last election, is certain to vote in favour of a total ban.

More than 400 MPs, led by the former sports minister Tony Banks, have signed a House of Commons motion calling on the Prime Minister to outlaw hunting with dogs. They have accused Downing Street of dragging its heels on the issue and warned that Labour voters will see the failure to act as a "betrayal of trust". The Prime Minister was warned at a recent meeting of Labour backbenchers that his failure to help push through a ban could lose him grassroots Labour support.

Anti-hunting groups, including the RSPCA, have recently threatened to use their financial might to run a national advertising campaign highlighting Mr Blair's failure to outlaw the sport.

MPs voted by 387 votes to 164 for an outright ban before the election, but the Bill did not become law after the House of Lords voted against it. Today's announcement follows this month's vote in the Scottish Parliament to ban hunting.

Mr Blair will come under pressure from his own backbenchers to introduce a Bill banning hunting in next year's Queen's Speech. They will want him to use a rarely used parliamentary tool to overrule the Lords if, as expected, they reach deadlock with the Commons. The Parliament Act would allow the Government to push through a ban, even if peers oppose it. But Mr Blair is believed to be reluctant to use the device. Several ministers, including Margaret Beckett, David Blunkett, John Prescott, and Alan Milburn, have voted for a ban in previous divisions.