Hunting ban in sight for 2005
Matthew Tempest and agencies
Tuesday July 1, 2003
The rural affairs minister, Alun Michael, today conceded that foxhunting could be illegal by 2005, as the government licked its wounds over last night's Commons defeat.
Mr Michael said he believed the days of foxhunting were numbered, other than in exceptional circumstances.
Interviewed on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, he was asked whether people would be allowed to go foxhunting in a couple of years' time.
Mr Michael said: "I would be very surprised, other than in the way of exemptions."
But he denied that by withdrawing the "licensed hunts" compromise option, the government had done a u-turn on hunting to win support from backbenchers for foundation hospitals.
He said last night's vote, in which MPs supported a total ban on hunting foxes with dogs in England and Wales by an overwhelming majority of 208 was the "will of parliament".
He told GMTV: "They voted, if you like, between something that was easy to understand and explain and something which would have been easier to enforce - but that is the will of parliament, and it was the will of a large majority."
The result of the free vote killed off government proposals which would have outlawed stag-hunting and hare-coursing but permitted foxhunting under licence in areas where it was judged to be less cruel than other methods of culling foxes.
The bill was sent back to an MPs' committee last night for procedural work to incorporate the changes, which a spokesman for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said should be completed in time for MPs to vote on the amended bill before the Commons rises for the summer on July 17.
But it will almost inevitably be defeated in the House of Lords, which has voted against a total ban twice previously. It must clear the Lords by the end of the session in September or October in order to come into force.
Mr Michael indicated last year that the government would use the Parliament Act to force peers to accept the will of the Commons. But he warned last night it would be "extremely difficult" to invoke the act in the case of a bill so fundamentally altered from what was initially presented to MPs.
Mr Michael said: "It is for the Speaker to rule on whether the Parliament Act applies when a bill comes before the house on a further occasion."
The prime minister's official spokesman today confirmed: "The bill will have to reflect the vote last night and that it will do.
"But equally we have to wait and see what the response of the Lords is once the bill has been voted on again in the House [of Commons]," he added.
Pressed several times on the government's intentions, the spokesman would say only: "We will take it one step at a time."
The spokesman was asked whether the government would use the Parliament Act to force legislation through.
He replied: "It is not a matter for the government to decide to use the Parliament Act. It is the role of parliament to act on the Parliament Act. We have yet to get to that stage."
Mr Blair's spokesman was also asked why, after Downing Street yesterday indicated that Mr Blair would vote with the government's position, he subsequently did not vote at all.
The spokesman said that it had been Mr Blair's intention to support the new clause 13, but once that clause was withdrawn so that MPs could have a free vote on a total ban, the prime minister did not attend.
The spokesman explained: "If circumstances change, what happens changes."