Queen's Speech will not include ban on hunting

Andrew Grice
Tuesday 18 November 2003 01:00

Tony Blair is to anger Labour MPs and risk another backbench rebellion by refusing to include a Bill to outlaw fox hunting in the Queen's Speech a week tomorrow.

With the final touches now being put to the programme for the new parliamentary session, the list of measures does not include a hunting Bill and there is no mention of the issue in the latest draft of the speech to be made by the Queen, which is written by the Government.

Mr Blair's aides insist the move will not prevent the issue of hunting being tackled in the next parliamentary year. Officials may brief journalists on the day of the Queen's Speech that hunting will be addressed following the decision by the House of Lords to block legislation in the current session, which ends on Thursday.

At least two cabinet ministers - Hilary Armstrong, the Government Chief Whip, and Peter Hain, the Leader of the Commons - are pressing for a tougher commitment to action on hunting to be included in a last-minute amendment to the Queen's Speech. They have warned Downing Street that the absence of a such pledge will enrage many Labour backbenchers, who would regard it as a "breach of faith".

There is also concern among ministers that the Government's failure to make progress on hunting will fuel a revolt tomorrow against plans to allow hospitals to win foundation status with more freedom from Whitehall. The Government will try to overturn a defeat on the issue in the Lords earlier this month but faces a nail-biting vote. When the issue was last discussed in the Commons in July, the Government's majority dropped to 35, its lowest since Labour came to power in 1997.

For many Labour MPs, there is a link between hunting and foundation hospitals. They believe there was an unofficial trade-off before the July vote, which was delayed so that the Government could make its stance clear on hunting. Ministers told MPs wavering over foundation hospitals that the Government would ensure a ban on hunting with dogs, and some Labour backbenchers backed the Health and Social Care Bill on that basis.

Government insiders say that Downing Street is looking at all options for tackling the hunting issue, including the introduction of a Private Member's Bill by a backbencher rather than as a government measure. Officials are taking advice from experts on whether a backbench Bill could be pushed through under the Parliament Act, which allows the Commons to override objections from the Lords.

Downing Street is worried a government measure could "clog up" business in the Lords, and that the 92 remaining hereditary peers would seek to create a "logjam" to delay a separate Bill to end their right to sit and vote in the Lords.

But anti-hunting Labour MPs argue that it would be worth proceeding with a ban even if other legislation is delayed. Labour whips also fear that a failure to act will foment the rebellion against plans to allow universities to charge top-up fees of up to £3,000 a year, a flagship measure to be included in the Queen's Speech.

A prime ministerial aide said yesterday: "We know there are concerns on hunting. We are looking at different ways of addressing them."

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