Multiple choice hunting ban proposed

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MPs will be given a choice on how far to go when a Government bill to ban fox hunting is introduced, it has emerged.

MPs will be given a choice on how far to go when a Government bill to ban fox hunting is introduced, it has emerged.

The long awaited Burns Inquiry report into the future of the sport will hit Home Secretary Jack Straw's desk today, but it is already clear that the Government is to bring forward its own legislation on the controversial sport.

Rather than give MPs a simple choice on whether or not hunting should be banned, the bill is to offer a range of options.

MPs will get a free vote, as hunting is regarded as a conscience issue. Options are likely to include retaining the status quo, a partial ban - with hunting allowed to continue in areas where foxes were a particular problem - or a total ban.

The Burns report, details of which Mr Straw will disclose to Parliament on Monday, is the product of weeks of evidence gathering from pro and anti-hunting groups, who gave varying views about the threat to jobs and impact on the countryside if the traditional bloodsport was banned.

The Government has faced heavy pressure from backbenchers and "heartlands" Labour voters to reinforce its credentials as a radical reforming administration by putting its weight behind a ban.

And the pressure on the Government to be seen to be in proactive mode was arguably increased by the Prime Minister's uncomfortable encounter with the Women's Institute on Wednesday.

Rather than leave a backbencher to introduce a private members bill proposing a ban - an option which has seen previous attempts talked out by Parliamentary opponents - the Government is now ready to announce that it will introduce its own Bill.

The hunting controversy has rumbled on inside and outside Westminster since Labour swept to power three years ago, but despite a private members bill by Labour MP Mike Foster (Worcester) which won the overwhelming backing of MPs at Second Reading, the measure failed under the Commons procedure rules.

Another private bill by London Mayor Ken Livingstone was also killed off.

Tony Blair raised the hopes of animal welfare campaigners when he told the BBC last summer that he wanted a ban.

His statement immediately prompted the pro-hunting Countryside Alliance to stage a nationwide series of protest rallies and marches, and the Prime Minister responded by setting up the Burns Inquiry.