Pro-hunt agitators target 37 MPs at start of 'five-year campaign'

Investigation: How activists will sabotage the ban through the courts, the ballot box and beyond
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Indy Politics

Fox-hunting supporters are preparing a five-year campaign on three battlefronts to overturn the ban on the sport imposed last week by the House of Commons. They plan to challenge the ban in the countryside - through a campaign of civil disobedience - in the courts and at the ballot box.

Fox-hunting supporters are preparing a five-year campaign on three battlefronts to overturn the ban on the sport imposed last week by the House of Commons. They plan to challenge the ban in the countryside - through a campaign of civil disobedience - in the courts and at the ballot box.

The hunting lobby has drafted a hit list of 37 Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs in marginal seats, seen by The Independent on Sunday, which includes several ministers and many of Labour's most vocal critics of fox-hunting.

They are also planning a campaign of civil disobedience in the countryside, and have gone to court to argue that the Commons broke the law by invoking the Parliament Act last week to impose the ban.

Scores of hunts plan to continue after the ban comes into force on 18 February next year - a campaign that police commanders admitted yesterday will severely over-stretch local forces and be difficult to enforce.

Rose Tait, of the Vale of the White Horse hunt in Gloucestershire, said: "We're carrying on regardless. On 19 February, which is a Saturday, I have it ringed in my diary. My husband and I, and our two children, who are six and seven, are going hunting ... I'm just going to carry on hunting."

The Chief Constable of Suffolk, Alistair McWhirter, said upholding the new law would be a "challenging additional burden". He added that hunters would need to be caught pursuing a fox or stag to be arrested, but added: "We are going to deal with what Parliament has passed. That is what our job is."

Tony Blair and the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, had hoped to avoid confrontation with the hunting lobby before a general election. They were part of a small group of Labour MPs who voted for compromise in a free vote last week, but were outnumbered eight to one by those, including John Prescott, who wanted an outright ban.

Philip Cowley, an analyst from Nottingham University School of Politics, claimed yesterday that there is no precedent in post-war Britain of a party leader being so heavily outvoted by his own MPs.

On Friday, the alliance lodged the first in a series of legal challenges at the High Court, claiming that the 1949 Parliament Act, invoked by the Commons last week, was never legal. Once the ban comes into effect, the alliance will then try to use the Human Rights Act by claiming that it breaches their civil rights.

However, the most controversial element of their protests will be their decision to campaign in the constituencies of anti-hunting MPs at the election - including a number of Labour MPs whose stance puts them at risk of highly personalised campaigns.

Names on the target list include the Home Office minister Melanie Johnson, the health minister Stephen Ladyman, Labour MP Jim Knight - nursing Britain's smallest majority, 153 votes - Peter Bradley, parliamentary aide to the rural affairs minister Alun Michael, and Candy Atherton, the Falmouth MP. "She is just loathed," he said.

The hit list will be published on the internet by Jeremy Sweeney, a political lobbyist who has advised the pro-hunting lobby. He plans to set up a new political party and declare who funds his campaign to comply with election campaigning laws.

Mr Sweeney distanced himself from calls for violent protests and said he had warned the pro-hunt lobby to be patient.

Tally who: the key 'antis'

Sir Sidney Kentridge QC

The silk who will argue the Countryside Alliance's case that the 1949 Parliament Act is illegal. Now 81, he made his reputation in his native South Africa 50 years ago by defending Nelson Mandela and other young ANC leaders. Marcel Berlins, who watched his performance, described it as "the most extraordinary feat of advocacy I have ever seen".

Ann Mallalieu

A Labour peer who enjoys taking part in the stag hunt on Exmoor, she has been one of the most vocal and effective opponents of the Hunting Bill as it was going through Parliament, and will no doubt keep hunting until the ban comes into force. But, as a lawyer, she will probably have to obey the law after that.

Roger Scruton

The libertarian philosopher and moralist was the public face of the Hunting Declaration, in which hunt supporters declared their willingness to break the law if hunting were banned. The organisers claim to have 50,000 signatures.

Otis Ferry

The son of the pop star Bryan Ferry led the group who invaded the floor of the Commons as MPs were debating the Hunting Bill. Others may be expecting him to take a lead role in any civil disobedience campaign, but he said: "I'm on bail, so I don't really know." Yesterday, he was out riding with the South Shropshire Hunt.

WHAT THE BILL DOES

The Hunting Bill makes hunting with dogs an offence in England and Wales.

The ban covers the hunting with dogs of all wild mammals, including fox, deer, hare and mink. It is still legal to use dogs to hunt rabbits or rats, but there are strict limits about how many dogs and whose land you can hunt on. This is to prevent fox-hunters going out with hounds claiming they are looking for rabbits.

It also makes it an offence for a person to allow their land or dogs to be used. The Bill outlaws hare-coursing events, and makes it an offence to participate in, attend or allow dogs to be used for hare-coursing.

Police are given powers to arrest anybody they suspect to have committed these offences. A person found guilty of an offence is liable to a fine of up to £5,000. The law also entitles the police to stop and search persons, vehicles, animals or possessions, and to seize them as evidence.

It gives the courts powers to order persons convicted to forfeit dogs, vehicles or hunting articles.

Tom Anderson

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