Political will for Hunting Act repeal in doubt

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A free vote on repealing the hunt ban law looks unlikely as MPs prepares for a hung Parliament.

Of the three main parties, only the Conservatives have any likelihood of bringing forward a change in the law, but such a Bill would face a difficult passage through Parliament.

The General Election in May is widely expected to produce a hung parliament, meaning compromise is the order of the day for the next lawmaking session.

Any chance of seeing a repeal Bill come before MPs would most likely come from one of two results.

The first is a Conservative commitment to hold a free vote on the subject, and back repeal if MPs show their support.

However, the Tories did make the same “if time allows” promise for this Parliament, yet proving unable to find sufficient spare time during five years in office.

The other route would be as a result of an individual MP making it the subject of a Private Member’s Bill.

While these bills only rarely become laws, the Tories have indicated they would be prepared to support such a move with more parliamentary time.

A Conservative spokesman said: “We recognise that hunting evokes strong views on both sides of the debate and that the issue is a matter of personal conscience.

“We are clear that we want to put a motion with a free vote before the House of Commons on whether the Hunting Act 2004 should be repealed when Parliamentary time allows.

“If Parliament were to vote in favour of repeal, the Government would introduce a Repeal Bill in both Houses of Parliament.”

Labour has repeated its opposition to fox hunting, making the ban a dogmatic point of principle.

Maria Eagle, Labour’s Shadow Environment Secretary, said: “David Cameron’s plans to bring back fox hunting show how out of touch he is with people’s everyday lives. The Tories should get over their narrow obsession with fox hunting and accept that the ban is widely supported.

“Only Labour can protect the Hunting Act because Labour is the only major political party committed to defending it.”

With the two parties divided, the fate of fox hunting lies with the smaller parties.

The Liberal Democrats is overall against fox hunting. However, as a spokesman said, the party would allow its MPs to vote as they wish should a repeal vote be brought before the House of Commons.

For Ukip, the situation is a little more complicated. The party thinks the decision to allow or ban hunting should be taken locally, not in Parliament.

The party says it would call for a series of county based referendums is a chance for rural people to have their say. The Countryside Alliance has previously dismissed this as “unworkable” , questioning what would happen if a fox crossed a county border during a hunt.

Polls suggest the SNP could be a powerful force in the next parliament, with a SNP/Labour coalition a possibility. Generally, the SNP is thought to be against fox hunting, but it has previously abstained in English-only votes, and did so during the vote to ban hunting with dogs.

It was former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Labour government who brought in the hunting ban, and in an interview with The Guardian in 2010, Mr Blair admitted that the decision was a mistake.

Admitting it was “not one of my finest policy moments”, he said: “I didn’t quite understand, and I reproach myself for this, that for a group of people in our society in the countryside this was a fundamental part of their way of life.”

Prosecutions prove ‘difficult’ despite millions invested in gathering evidence

THE HUNTING Act is difficult to interpret and prosecute, according to one district judge, who made the comments at the start of a trial at Beverley Magistrates Court in August 2013.

Daniel Curtis made the observation after charges of hunting a wild mammal with dogs brought against three men involved in a registered hunt were dropped.

In this particular case the prosecution offered no evidence against one of the men. His co-defendants were then told they had no case to answer after magistrates had heard from villagers, who lived near where the men were out hunting, about events on the day concerned and had watched CCTV footage of the hunt in action.

On clearing the three men, district Judge Curtis said the legislation was not easy and it was a classic example of the difficulties the Crown have in prosecuting such cases.

Mr Curtis said the Hunting Act 2004 was a piece of legislation that had caused much controversy. It was debated in Parliament for a “disproportionate length of time” and was eventually brought in by a free vote. But he said: “It is difficult to interpret and apply and difficult for the CPS (Crown Prosecution Service) to prosecute.”

A huge amount of money has been spent by anti-fox hunting groups to gather evidence of breaches of the Act by registered hunts, including by the League Against Cruel Sports which, according to its new report to mark 10 years since the Act came into force, has invested £1 million in a team of professional investigators who have been dispatched to monitor hunts.

In its report, the group claims the legislation is effective, with Ministry of Justice figures showing that the Hunting Act out-performs all other wild mammal legislation on the statute books in England and Wales - having both the highest number of convictions since 2005 and the highest conviction rates.

Animal welfare lobby claim public’s support

ANIMAL WELFARE groups maintain that fox hunting is hugely unpopular with the public, despite fresh calls for a repeal of the ban from countryside groups.

A survey carried out by Ipsos MORI, commissioned by the League Against Cruel Sports in November last year, found that 80 per cent of the British public think fox hunting for sport should not be made legal again.

Some 86 per cent thought deer hunting should not be made legal and 88 per cent of the 1,971 people who responded to the poll said hare hunting or coursing should not be legalised.

Michael Stephenson, director of campaigns at the League Against Cruel Sports, said: “The Hunting Act is not only successful, it is very popular. Recent Ipsos MORI polling shows that 80 per cent of people in both urban and rural areas do not want to see a return to hunting with dogs.

“There is no evidence to support claims that more foxes are being killed now than before the Act, but this is irrelevant anyway. Parliament’s intention was to end hunting with dogs for sport due to the profound suffering caused by the prolonged chase and violent death.

“The legislation is not about class it is about animal cruelty. Hunting is not just about red coats and never has been. The Hunting Act was brought in to stop cruelty to animals in the name of sport, regardless of the perpetrator. The Hunting Act is about animal welfare, nothing more.”

But the Countryside Alliance maintain the Act is a personal attack on a group of people.

“We certainly believe there was no justification for the law in the first place,” said the Alliance’s campaigns director Tim Bonner.

“It was an attack on a group of people rather than any attempt to improve animal welfare and what we are left with now is a confusing and wasteful piece of legislation that doesn’t do anything for anyone.

“We had over 7,000 hours of parliamentary debate on this legislation and none of that produced a single piece of evidence that hunting with dogs is any more inhumane than trapping, shooting and all other means of capturing foxes, and there is no evidence that the Act has saved a single fox.

“None of the organisations that backed it have ever attempted to try to show the Act’s benefit to animal welfare.”

Under the Act, huntsmen are allowed to use up to two dogs to flush out a fox but no more than that.

Case study: Fear of accusations every time we ride out is unsettling

FOR MANY families hunting has been central to their lives in the countryside for generations and most feel the Hunting Act was a direct attack on their way of life.

Phil Ellerington, 61, an arable farmer near Beverley, has been involved in the pursuit for 50 years. His local hunt is the Holderness which attracts around 50 people to meets on Tuesdays and about 70 on Saturdays.

Mr Ellerington told The Yorkshire Post of how the legislation had changed his life.

He said: “The ban turned hunting on its head. We have to hunt a trail which we do but it makes my job as amateur whip very difficult. If you’re hunting a trail (of scented material) that’s been laid and a fox comes out of nowhere the hounds are naturally going to go for it, which can be difficult.”

He said the Act has to be repealed. “The people who brought it in wanted to look after the fox but before the ban a farmer would have been tempted to leave a fox if it took just one or two of its sheep. Now they get shot because they know they won’t be hunted.”

Seven hundred hours were spent by MPs debating the Act in Parliament. Pro-hunting groups warned of dire consequences.

Mr Ellerington said: “There are as many packs of hounds in the country now as there were 10 years ago. We all thought packs would have to be put down but they haven’t, but I don’t like the ban, when you go out every Tuesday and Saturday and think you could break the law, how would you feel?

“It’s a way of life. Our whole life revolves around horses and hounds and the social life that goes with that. We’ve kept going but we are at risk of being accused of breaking the law and it’s not a nice feeling.

“The fox has never had a predator and man has always had to control it but there is a fine line between controlling it and over controlling it.”