MPs vote for hunting with hounds ban

HUNT supporters in East Anglia vowed last night to fight to save their sport after MPs voted by a huge majority of 211 for a ban on hunting with hounds.

HUNT supporters in East Anglia vowed last night to fight to save their sport

after MPs voted by a huge majority of 211 for a ban on hunting with hounds.

In a series of free votes in the Commons, after a noisy massed protest by pro-hunt supporters outside Parliament, MPs first rejected "supervised" self regulation or the status quo option, by 401 votes to 154, majority 247.

The middle way was defeated by 371 votes to 169, majority 202, before the House backed an outright ban by 386 votes to 175.

At the close of an emotive five-hour debate, the result was announced to cheers in a crowded Commons chamber.

Peers will debate the vexed issue today and are expected to opt for the so-called "middle way" of licensed hunts.

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The Government is to make a statement before the Easter recess next week on how it plans to move forward after the "indicative" votes.

Speaking after the vote James Buckle, joint master of the Essex and Suffolk Hunt and master of the Essex and Suffolk Foxhounds, said: "It's of no great surprise to us and it's a shame they have such an entrenched view and are not prepared to listen to the debate.

"We will fight on and we just hope now that the Lords will come out with an honest opinion and the Government will start talking and coming up with a compromise."

Liz Mort, eastern region spokesperson for the Countryside Alliance, who said MPs had no intention of letting the facts get in the way of their prejustice.

"We look again to the Upper House to teach them what responsible politics is about. We fully expect today's debate to show that, as for the last vote, there is a clear overall parliamentary majority against a ban," she said.

"Backbench MPs are simply trying to bully through a measure which commands neither parliamentary nor public majority support.

"Any ban on hunting would put people out of work, would damage the rural economy - and certainly wouldn't help a single fox."

Anti-cruelty organisations reacted with delight last night as MPs voted for an all out ban.

Lawrie Payne, regional representative League Against Cruel Sport, said: "I am very pleased by the result. It was what we expected but obviously it's just the first stage in the process which we would hope would see the end of the barbarity of hunting.

"We would hope that the English parliament will follow that of the Scottish Parliament who have already abolished hunting this year."

Colchester Liberal Democrat MP Bob Russell also backed the decision, saying: "Hunting with dogs is cruel and barbaric. I consider people who pursue this activity to be sick. Killing for pleasure cannot be acceptable in civilised society."

Tony Blair was said to have voted for a ban - the first time he has voted on the issue since he arrived in Downing Street - despite reports that he favoured a compromise deal involving some form of licensing.

Opening the debate, Rural Affairs Minister Alun Michael denied a deal had been done, insisting: "That is speculation inspired by nothing".

He said the Government remained neutral on what was "essentially a parliamentary issue" and there was no whip on Government or Opposition supporters to vote in a particular way.

MPs again took up entrenched positions on the controversial issue, which has divided politicians for years.

But some showed signs of a readiness to compromise or even a complete change of mind.

Former Sports minister Kate Hoey (Lab Vauxhall), a supporter of hunting in the past, said she was pleased that an alternative to a total ban on hunting was now being seriously considered.

But she still insisted: "When you look at all the different methods, my view, backed up by Lord Burns, is that the hunting of foxes with hounds is actually the most natural way to kill foxes."

Barry Sheerman, Labour chairman of the education select committee, a consistent supporter of a ban on hunting, said he now supported the middle way.

Amid some heckling from his own side, Mr Sheerman said of his change of heart: "I know it won't be popular on my side, but I have genuinely listened to the arguments."

Labour's Gordon Prentice (Pendle), however, remained implacably opposed to hunting, saying: "I believe hunting with dogs is cruel. It inflicts unnecessary suffering and should be banned."

Urging ministers to reintroduce the Government's last Bill on hunting and use the Parliament Act to force it through the Lords, he warned: "We are going to lose a lot of support out there if we endlessly prevaricate, hesitate and vacillate."

Earlier, Mr Michael had refused to rule out the use of the Parliament Act as he came under pressure from Labour MPs and promised to listen to all views before deciding on the way forward.

Former Conservative leader William Hague launched a passionate defence of hunting, saying a ban would be based on prejudice, ignorance and naivety.

Mr Hague said the Government could have discussed a wide range of other rural matters such as the aftermath of foot-and-mouth or the quality of meat imports.

"They have shown how grossly out of touch they are with the feeling of the countryside in the bizarrely inappropriate choice of hunting as the debate today."

Tory former minister Ann Widdecombe, a fierce opponent of hunting, said the present generation looked back with disbelief at bear-baiting and cock fighting.

Future generations would look back in disbelief that, "at the beginning of the third millennium, we were still debating whether or not it was right and proper to allow people to chase an animal to exhaustion with its killers closing in on it ... in the name of tradition".

Labour former sports minister Tony Banks said: "In our manifesto we said that we would bring this matter to a conclusion. We can only have a conclusion if the will of the House of Commons in its vote is actually respected.

"This is a moral issue. I just can't understand how anyone can take pleasure from killing a wild animal.

"There is no middle way. You can't compromise on cruelty. You can't have a system of Queensbury Rules whereby an animal can be ripped to pieces.

"The middle way is hunting by another name. It is hunting with a bit of bureaucracy.'

Tory former Chancellor Kenneth Clarke also weighed into the row for the first time, saying he was opposed to a ban.

The criminal law, he said, should "not be allowed to make a criminals of the perfectly respectable civilised people" who take part in foxhunting.

Liberal Democrat Norman Baker said Parliament had spent 125 hours and 47 minutes debating the issue since 1997.

No-one could doubt the Commons' view and the Government had shown "an abdication of responsibility" by not acting on it, he said.