Environment Secretary Owen Paterson told the Yorkshire Post he is “absolutely clear” that there will be a free vote on repealing the controversial ban before the next general election – but that, as things stand, the pro-hunt lobby does not have enough support to win.
The Coalition Agreement signed by the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in May 2010 committed the newly-formed Government to holding a free vote on the hunting ban at some stage during the five-year Parliament.
But almost three years later, the issue has barely surfaced at Westminster.
In an exclusive interview in today’s Yorkshire Post, Mr Paterson – a Conservative right-winger and passionate advocate of fox hunting – said there is “more work to be done” to convince backbench MPs to vote for a repeal.
“We’ve got a pretty busy programme with a lot of other issues,” he said. “But I’m absolutely clear it’s the right thing to do to have a free vote at the appropriate moment.”
The problem for the pro-hunt lobby is that while many Tories want the ban repealed, the party also has a smaller number of mainly urban-based backbenchers who insist it should remain in place. With many – though not all – Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs opposed to repealing the 2005 legislation, the pro-hunters face an uphill struggle to win a free vote in the Commons.
Mr Paterson, who was handed the environment brief in last year’s Cabinet reshuffle, said a group of backbench Tories have been tasked with drumming up support over the coming months.
“I think there’s more work to be done,” he said. “We need to win some more support. There are some MPs who are actively working on this.”
The issue is a thorny one for David Cameron, who supports fox hunting and rode with his local hunt several times prior to the ban.
Having already failed to push his proposed boundary changes through Parliament last month after the Lib Dems withdrew their support, he will not want to be seen to lose another vote. Nonetheless, the pledge in the Coalition Agreement leaves him with little room for manoeuvre.
“We will bring forward a motion on a free vote enabling the House of Commons to express its view on the repeal of the Hunting Act,” the document states.
While on a visit to Yorkshire earlier this week, Mr Cameron insisted there will be no rolling back from that pledge – but would not be drawn on when the vote might take place.
He even hinted a delay might be supported by pro-hunting groups.
“We’ve made our promise in the Coalition Agreement – we will stick to it,” the Prime Minister said. “We’ll listen carefully to what rural communities themselves want.
“So far the supporters of this campaign haven’t pushed for a vote, but I remain committed to what we said in the Coalition Agreement.”