Fox-hunting pledge to be in manifesto

A commitment to ban fox-hunting with dogs is to be turned into a Labour manifesto pledge for the next general election to overcome resistance in the House of Lords.

The move by Tony Blair will disappoint campaigners pressing for a ban to be implemented before the general election. But senior party sources said it was unlikely there would be enough time to get a ban on fox-hunting through the House of Lords before the general election. "We will make it a general election pledge and then force it through the Lords," said a source.

Ministers said that they were prepared to offer four options to MPs to decide how to proceed: an outright ban; permitting fox-hunting but with strict licensing for hunt packs for the first time; local referendums to decide where foxhunting should be banned; or leaving the law unchanged.

The move was intended to head off anti-hunting Labour MPs who are threatening to table amendments to the Countryside Bill to ban fox-hunting near footpaths.

Gordon Prentice, a Labour backbencher, has confirmed that he would be prepared to amend the Bill on access to the countryside to ban fox-hunting.

However, government whips have warned Mr Blair that the Bill could be scuppered in the Lords if a ban on fox-hunting is attached in the Commons.

"We will have enough trouble getting the Countryside Bill through the Lords without a ban on fox-hunting," the source said.

The Government is also keen to avoid being embarrassed by Ken Livingstone, whose private member's Bill on fox-hunting is due for a second reading in the Commons tomorrow.

Mr Livingstone's Bill is due to be talked out because he has chosen the same day as a backbench Bill by Iain Duncan Smith, the Conservative MP for Chingford and Woodford Green, to cut the number of special advisers in government, which is strongly opposed by Labour MPs.

Mr Livingstone is expected to use the defeat of his Bill to put pressure on Mr Blair to give him government time to get a ban on fox-hunting on to the statute book as a platform for the final weeks of his campaign for mayor of London.

Mr Blair faces a dilemma over the way to handle Mr Livingstone's Bill. He met senior Labour MPs at the Commons yesterday and promised there would be "no dirty tricks or games" played with Mr Livingstone's Bill by the Government.

That will not stop Mr Livingstone emerging from the Commons after his Bill is talked out to demand intervention by Mr Blair to implement a ban on fox-hunting. But it could avoid the Government being accused of seeking to block Mr Livingstone.

Mr Blair will insist that the Commons should await the outcome of the Burns inquiry at the end of May before taking any further action.

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