Shock vote gives Livingstone hunt ban opportunity

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Ken Livingstone won a surprise chance to press ahead with his bid to ban foxhunting today through a rarely used parliamentary procedural device.

Mr Livingstone's Wild Mammals (Hunting With Dogs) Bill was second on the list for debate today - giving it little chance of success in even reaching a vote on its second reading.

But as the day's business began, Labour's Andrew Dismore (Hendon) moved that the Commons sit in private.

The move, hardly ever used by MPs, was defeated by 30 votes to nil.

But Commons Speaker Betty Boothroyd swiftly ruled that under parliamentary rules, with fewer than 40 MPs voting, the first business of the day should stand over to another sitting.

Senior Tory Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green), whose Government Powers (Limitations) Bill had been the first on the list for debate, complained of a "massive abuse of process of this House".

He protested: "A very serious Bill has been deliberately moved so that one man's political ambitions may be advanced by use of this House."

The Brent East MP and independent candidate for Mayor of London denied however that he had hatched any "plot" to advance his Bill.

To loud Tory jeers, Mr Livingstone insisted: "I had absolutely no idea ... although I did assume that the strangest things can happen in this place and made certain I was in my office by 9.10am this morning."

A previous attempt to ban hunting with dogs was backed with a 260 majority at second reading but foundered in its later Commons stages in 1998.

An inquiry is currently under way into the impact of a possible hunting ban. It is due to report in May.

Mr Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green) appeared to have been taken by surprise by Mr Dismore's tactic.

It had been expected that pro-hunt MPs would keep debate going on his Bill to ensure that Mr Livingstone's was not reached.

Despite Mr Duncan Smith's complaints, Miss Boothroyd said: "The situation we have been through today is not new.

"I remember being in the chair when it has been deployed on other occasions.

"I have to say to all Members responsible for Bills, it is for them to see that they have sufficient of their supporters there at the start of the debate."

Mr Livingstone said: "Far from it being a plot to advance one man's ambitions, there might have been some people, as I wasn't told about it, who thought it might be embarrassing if I hadn't been here."

He described the parliamentary tactics used to prevent a previous backbench bid to ban foxhunting with dogs from becoming law as an "appalling abuse of the basic democratic rights expressed at the ballot box".

Hunting with hounds was a "quite barbaric practice," he said. But despite the support of 411 MPs, the move was thwarted by "procedural manouevrings".