Secret plans to reintroduce hunting foxes, stags and other animals have been drawn up with the backing of senior Conservatives. Details of the controversial scheme emerged this weekend, including the creation of a Hunt Regulatory Authority (HRA) to police the behaviour of hunts.
The plans were drawn up by senior lawyers and the Countryside Alliance, and have the backing of influential Tories including William Hague and Edward Garnier, the shadow justice minister. They could act as a blueprint for the reintroduction of hunting with dogs across the British countryside, which was outlawed by the hunt ban in 2005.
The details are certain to reignite the fierce passions which erupted when the Government moved to stop the centuries-old practice.
Brian Fanshawe, a former master of foxhounds who has worked closely on the project for some time, confirmed that senior Tory figures have now backed the proposal: "Stephen [Lambert, of the Master of Foxhounds Association] and I went to see several senior Conservatives and suggested that this might be helpful in the repeal of the Hunting Act and they said 'absolutely essential'. Everybody recognises it's a very badly written law but we've always felt we couldn't really justify repeal just on bad law and have hunting go back to the status quo of the '80s and '90s.
"What we want to get away from is being accused of being arrogant and not dealing with genuine complaints."
The group apparently enjoys the support of Viscount Astor, who attended a recent meeting with the HRA at the House of Commons. Viscount Astor is stepfather to Samantha Cameron, the Tory leader's wife.
The League Against Cruel Sports is already gearing up to campaign against any reintroduction of hunting. A spokeswoman said yesterday that recent polling showed the public, including in rural areas, is still overwhelmingly opposed to hunting with dogs. "We will be working very hard in the run-up to the election to make people aware of the position of their local candidate," she said. "Fifty-six per cent of people say they would change their vote if their candidate supports repeal."
But the hunting campaigner Otis Ferry – son of Roxy Music star Bryan Ferry – said most people in rural areas supported repeal. "Hunting hasn't stopped," he said. "Every hunt has maintained its pack of hounds and numbers of staff. There are people all over England suffering from bad, shoddy legislation. Hundreds of law-abiding members of society are walking a tightrope when it comes to supporting their local hunt."
Animal welfare organisations have criticised plans to repeal the ban and the League Against Cruel Sports will next month launch a national campaign targeting key parliamentary seats where they believe pro-hunt groups will seek to campaign in the run-up to the general election.
Hunt supporters are increasingly confident the ban will be overturned if the Conservatives win power and have prepared the blueprint in readiness. Stephen Lambert, of the Master of Foxhounds Association, said: "We've built the car, the key is in the ignition, we're just waiting to turn it."
The plan he said was to "achieve and maintain repeal of the Hunting Act by making certain we have independent regulation in place. It is to satisfy the public, the media and parliamentarians that by repealing the Act they're not just turning the clock back. Hunting will then have a proper independent system for complaints and for ensuring that proper discipline procedures are kept."
Anxious to avoid the anarchic scenes that often occurred when pro-and anti-hunt groups clashed, they insist the Hunt Regulatory Authority would mean that foxhunting faced stringent controls. Under the new scheme entire hunts could be banned, packs of hounds de-registered and hunts barred from holding point to points.
Mr Lambert stressed that six key rules would govern all hunting, including hare coursing and terrier work. These included the demand that every hunting activity should avoid "unnecessary suffering"; that everybody engaged in any hunting activity must act in accordance with the law; that hunting must respect wild, farm and domestic animals, and property including land, trees, crops and watercourses; that all "reasonable steps must be taken to ensure that hunting is carried out on land with the permission of the owner, tenant or occupier"; that hunting is carried on "in a manner that respects any other lawful activity being undertaken by any other person on the land"; and finally that nobody may carry out any hunting "likely to bring hunting into disrepute".
Every hunt would have to sign up to the plan, he said. "Under the new system the onus for proper behaviour would fall on the master rather than the staff member. It is one of the thing that's wrong with the Hunting Act, that it can convict a huntsman and not the master. It's grossly unfair on the staff," he said.
"If there was some ghastly drama – the hounds accidentally catching a fox in some inappropriate place – it's not against the law but it most definitely brings hunting into disrepute and the HRA would act," he said.
The new HRA regulator would avoid the criticism of cronyism and having "too cosy" a relationship with the hunting fraternity made against an earlier, similar organisation – the Independent Supervisory Authority for Hunting – by using independent legal experts, he said. "The Independent Supervisory Authority for Hunting did a very good job but the opponents of hunting felt that it – the people on it – were too close to hunting. They weren't, but that's what we were accused of – having too cosy an operation. So this time we have been much more stringent about it, using a marvellous chap called Mark Lomas QC who is on the Bar Council and has quite a bit of responsibility for disciplinary procedures."
Under the new proposals the first chair of the HRA, a political nomination, will hold office for three years with the option of a three-year extension. But subsequent chairs will be appointed by a panel with the brief not to award the office to anyone connected with organisations either for or against hunting.
Mr Fanshawe said it was possible, although "extremely unlikely", that a hunt could be completely banned. "They'd be barred from the association. A foxhunt would be barred from registering their hounds, from using other people's hounds. They wouldn't be able to have a point to point. And there would be quite a bit of social stigma," he said.
But a spokesman for the League Against Cruel Sports said: "Hunters are in cahoots with senior politicians who are promising to repeal the Hunting Act when the opportunity arises, despite the fact that polls show public opinion is against them. Our campaign will highlight those candidates who have pledged their support for hunting, and those that haven't. After all, 75 per cent of the public support the ban, and politicians who ignore the public always suffer at the polls."
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