Simon Hart: Hounding out a law that's failed in every way

YOU may remember that one of the most controversial debates in recent Parliamentary history was completed almost three years ago.

After 700 hours of Parliamentary debate, the Hunting Act was finally passed. Yet, in the intervening period, this famous law has been used to prosecute more people for hunting rats than hunting foxes.

Many hunts have been the subject of allegations by animal rights activists but only three cases have been completed and three other hunts are waiting for their cases to be heard.

In the context of the 40,000 days of hunting carried out by 300 hunts since the Hunting Act came into force, this is not exactly a flood of prosecutions.

The cases that have been heard, as hunts prepare for the annual Boxing Day meets, confirm that the law is so ambiguous and badly drafted that interpreting what is illegal hunting, what is legal hunting and what is not hunting at all, is nearly impossible.

One hunt, for instance, was found guilty for, among other things, not killing enough foxes.

Meanwhile, the campaign for the repeal of the Hunting Act continues to gain momentum. Only 29 per cent of people think that the Hunting Act is working, according to a poll, and an increasing number of politicians of all parties are coming to accept the case for the repeal of this legislation.

The Hunting Act came into force on February 18, 2005, after an eight-year battle that absorbed more than 700 hours of Parliamentary time. The prejudice, misuse of science and abuse of Parliamentary process that eventually saw the Act onto the statute book were the focus of criticism and regret from politicians of all parties, the media and the public, especially when one considers, for example, how little time was spent by MPs debating the validity, or otherwise, of the Iraq war.

The Hunting Act is unique in that its effects are entirely negative. It diminishes respect for Parliament; it puts law-abiding people at risk of prosecution; it diverts police attention from real crime; it brings no benefit to the environment; it is a blatant example of political prejudice, and it does nothing for the welfare or conservation of the species it claims to "protect".

The question now is not whether hunting should, or should not, have been banned, but whether the Hunting Act is a piece of legislation that should remain on the statute book. In other words, should the Act

be repealed?

It is a law that fails at every level – it is badly drafted, illiberal, cruel and divisive. Scrapping the Act need not be complicated or time-consuming. In fact, it could be remarkably simple. Public and political support for the Act has fallen dramatically and it is possible that a future Parliament is likely to have a majority of MPs who support its repeal.

When that time comes, the case for repeal is the argument that

a Government, of whatever colour, will need to consign the Hunting Act to the dustbin of British history.

As the third hunting season under the Hunting Act moves into full swing, not only has the true nonsense of a law based on prejudice and ignorance become clear, but the probability of the Act being repealed has become far greater.

David Cameron has made a clear commitment that a future Conservative administration would bring forward a government Bill in government time to scrap the Act.

It will be for each MP to decide how they will vote, but nearly every Conservative and a growing number of Liberal Democrat and Labour MPs are supportive.

Ten years ago, New Labour swept to power and the pundits were agreed that hunting was on borrowed time.

Ten years later, it is becoming increasingly likely that hunting will outlive the Hunting Act and the Government that tried to ban it

Simon Hart is chief executive of the Countryside Alliance.