Sat, Nov 20, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Britain bans foxhunting -- after 700 years

THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Pro-hunt campaigners holding placards during a demonstration against the proposed ban on hunting with dogs, outside Windsor Castle, Thursday.

PHOTO: EPA

The speaker of the UK House of Commons, Michael Martin, Thursday night invoked the Parliament Act, overriding the opposition of the House of Lords and bringing to an end almost 700 years of foxhunting in England and Wales.

The total ban on foxhunts will be enforced from Feb. 18 next year. Prime Minister Tony Blair conceded that, bar a last-minute challenge in the courts, his efforts to delay the act until after the general election had failed. There are 318 registered hound packs in England and Wales, including 184 foxhound packs and 20 harrier packs. Around 8,000 jobs depend on hunting, while 15,000 to 16,000 people, such as hoteliers, could also be affected by the ban.

The government and police forces around the country must now brace themselves for the possibility of unrest over the next three months.

Hunt supporters have vowed to launch the most expansive campaign of civil disobedience ever seen over a parliamentary prohibition.

Thursday in parliament was marked by political manoeuvring by both pro- and anti-hunters as they sought to cast their opponents as the true enemies of compromise and reason.

The government made a final attempt Thursday morning to reach a compromise, tabling a delay until July 2006 or 2007 that it said would give hunts time to adjust to their closure. But the move sparked suspicion on Labour backbenches that the government was trying to scupper the ban.

The Speaker was bombarded by questions from confused members of parliament (MPs) and at one point suspended the sitting for 40 minutes. But Alun Michael, the rural affairs minister, and the whips gradually persuaded backbench MPs to vote to offer the compromise to peers one more time.

By a majority of 151, the MPs agreed to delay the implementation for the bill to July 2006, but rejected the government's preferred option of 2007. Within hours, the Lords, albeit by the surprisingly narrow margin of 153 to 114, voted to reject the 18-month delay, leaving the Speaker with no alternative but to invoke the Parliament Act to override the peers' objections.

Blair, facing hunt protests at a dinner with the Queen and French President Jacques Chirac said the issue would now go to the courts. He claimed Thursday that "probably, despite the very passionate views on either side of this debate, the majority of people would have preferred to have seen a compromise accepted."

In increasingly bitter Commons exchanges, foreshadowing a wider battle in the fields and the courts, Michael accused the anti-hunt peers and the Countryside Alliance protesters of behaving "like turkeys voting for Christmas."

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