Time runs out for hunting ban compromise

The battle over the future of hunting with hounds is heading for a dramatic conclusion in Westminster this week with Labour MPs preparing to force a ban into law within three months.

The battle over the future of hunting with hounds is heading for a dramatic conclusion in Westminster this week with Labour MPs preparing to force a ban into law within three months.

With the Commons and Lords still on a collision course on the issue, Michael Martin, the Commons Speaker, is expected to invoke the rarely used Parliament Act to resolve the acrimonious stand-off between the two Houses.

Attempts to find a compromise will be continuing behind the scenes at Westminster today, but with pro- and anti-hunters apparently as entrenched as ever there is little hope of finding common ground. The efforts are being backed by the Prime Minister, who is keen for a ban not to take effect until 2006, well after the next election.

The Commons has voted for an outright ban which could come into effect by February. But some MPs have suggested that the start date could be delayed until July 2006, a formula backed by Downing Street and many cabinet ministers. There are doubts whether ministers could persuade Labour MPs, the clear majority of whom favour an immediate ban, to accept any compromise.

That schedule, however, has already been rejected by the Lords, who want unrestricted hunting to continue until the end of 2007 and then only to be banned by ministers, rather than the will of Parliament. Peers want the final decision to be left to the Secretary of State for the Environment and not MPs. They have also intensified their argument with the Commons by rejecting a proposal to ban stag-hunting and deer-coursing and only to allow some fox hunting under strictly monitored licences.

The stand-off sets the scene for four days of "parliamentary ping-pong" with the Hunting Bill shuttling between the two Houses until Thursday, when the current session of Parliament ends. If no agreement has been found, that would be the moment when Mr Martin is likely to move the Parliament Act for only the fourth time in its 55-year history.

The former minister Kate Hoey, the Labour MP for Vauxhall and an opponent of a ban, said it would be unenforceable and place huge burden on the police. She told GMTV: "A lot of work is going on behind the scenes to perhaps get some kind of compromise even at this stage."

Ms Hoey also said it would be unprecedented to use the Parliament Act over a measure not included in a government's election manifesto. The Countryside Alliance is preparing a legal challenge to the use of the Act, arguing both that it is intrinsically flawed and that the move threatens the human rights of hunters.

'PARLIAMENTARY PING-PONG'

The Hunting Bill returns to the Lords today for its third and final reading when peers are expected to defy MPs by overturning the proposed ban on hunting.

The Bill would then "bounce" between the two Houses, with MPs certain to restore the ban tomorrow and, unless some latecompromise can be arranged, with the Lords digging their heels in again on Wednesday.

The battle would then reach its final act on Thursday when attention turns to Michael Martin, the Commons Speaker, to see whether, if seems certain, he invokes the 1949 Parliament Act.

Designed for occasions when the two Houses are deadlocked, it has only been invoked three times: on the War Crimes Act (1991); on proportional representation in European Parliament elections (1999), and on lowering the age of consent for homosexuals to 16 (2000).

Ministers say that the Act permits passage of the Hunting Bill, but the Countryside Alliance is ready to mount a legal challenge to that view.

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