No reverse of Hunting Act expected in this parliament

Attempts to reopen the controversial debate on whether current fox hunting laws should be repealed have reached a 'frustrating impasse', regardless of blossoming turnouts at Boxing Day hunts across the country.

More than 300 hunts will be taking place across the country today.

As animal welfare group, the League Against Cruel Sports, today claimed a new survey showed that the majority of the British public oppose hunting with dogs for sport, the Countryside Alliance said it expected upwards of 250,000 people would gather to take part in more than 300 annual Boxing Day hunts, including in parts of rural Yorkshire.

More than 17 months since the campaign to reverse the Hunting Act 2004 was halted in an 11th hour parliamentary intervention by the Scottish National Party, there is no indication that plans for MPs to vote on the issue will be revived any time soon.

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The SNP’s MPs reneged on their practice of not voting on England-only matters in July 2015 and joined Labour in opposing a free vote on whether the fox-hunting ban should be amended.

Countryside Alliance chief executive director Tim Bonner.

SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon directly linked the move to the Government’s plans for “English votes for English laws”.

Tim Easby, director of the Master of Foxhounds Association, said: “If we are going to have a vote to get the law changed we need the support of the vast majority of people and if people are standing in the way for political reasons, rather than any environmental or welfare reasons, then we have an impasse like we have now. It’s frustrating but that’s where we are. I can’t see any political change in this parliament.”

Under the Hunting Act, hunts in England and Wales are limited to using two dogs to flush out a fox to be shot, and practice ‘drag hunting’ where hounds are trained to follow an artificial scent.

The Conservative Party has restated its commitment to a free parliamentary vote on a repeal of the Hunting Act but campaigners fear Brexit priorities will get in the way.

Countryside Alliance chief executive director Tim Bonner.

Before the Scottish National Party blocked the 2015 vote, then Prime Minister David Cameron had been expected to vote in favour of reform which would have brought the law south of the border in line with that in Scotland, where an unlimited number of dogs can be used to flush out a fox to be shot.

The Tories had made it a manifesto pledge earlier that year to give Parliament the chance to repeal the Hunting Act and although a Party spokesman offered no timescale, he did say that the Party remained committed to doing so.

The spokesman said: “We stand by our manifesto commitment to give Parliament the opportunity to repeal the Hunting Act on a free vote, with a government bill in government time.”

While refusing to completely rule out the possibility of the Party making good on that promise within the scope of the current parliament, both Tim Easby, director of the Master of Foxhounds Association, and Tim Bonner, chief executive of the Countryside Alliance, believe the prospect is unlikely.

Mr Easby, who has previously been a member of the Middleton and the West of Yore hunts in North Yorkshire, said: “You only need one piece of the political jigsaw to change and it has a knock-on effect on other things, so never say never, but I think it is highly unlikely in this parliament, not least with everything that the government has to untangle regarding Brexit.”

Mr Bonner, who has written for today’s The Yorkshire Post on how there has not been any successful prosecutions brought against registered hunts under the 2004 Hunting Act over the past two years, agreed that change was unlikely short-term.

Mr Bonner said: “A very reasonable attempt was made last year to make amendments to the Act but the SNP, for whatever reason, decided to conduct a 180 degree turn on its previous commitment not to engage on an issue which has no effect in Scotland.

“Because of this it is difficult to see an obvious way forward in this parliament with the parliamentary arithmetic as it is. We also have to be realistic about the Government’s priorities and the massive importance of Brexit, not least for rural communities.”

Mr Bonner added: “Longer term we will continue to highlight the Act’s shortcomings and push for a proper resolution, but that may have to be in the next parliament.

“This is an issues that is not going to go away. It’s now more than a decade on since the Act came into force, but the popularity of hunts continues to grow and it is an unworkable law.”

According to the League Against Cruel Sports, 84 per cent of people told an Ipsos MORI poll that they opposed the legalisation of hunting foxes, hare and deer.

The group’s CEO, Eduardo Gonçalves said: “Just because families might venture out on Boxing Day to see the hunt, stroke the dogs or watch the horses, doesn’t mean they support repealing a law to enable the hunt to chase and kill wild animals with their dogs for sport.”

Mr Easby said the annual Christmas hunts continue to be well attended.

“The Boxing Day hunt is at the heart of Christmas for a huge number of people. Every year there is a huge turn out.

“There is a very restricted law but we operate within that.”