To Ban or Not to Ban? MPs Vote on UK Fox Hunt

LONDON, United Kingdom, January 16, 2001 (ENS) - UK Prime Minister Tony Blair has been reminded of a promise he made to a school girl three years ago, when he said he would vote to ban hunting. Tomorrow, he gets his chance.

That is when the centuries old tradition of hunting foxes with dogs is debated in the House of Commons as the Hunting Bill enters what is known as the committee stage. A vote for an outright ban could set the stage for fox hunting to be criminalized by the end of this year.

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Prime Minister Tony Blair. (Photo courtesy 10 Downing Street)
That would please 14 year old Roseanne Mills, who interviewed Blair in 1998 about his views on hunting for Animal Action, a magazine published by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA).

"I do think hunting is wrong and I will vote in favour of a ban in the House of Commons," Blair told the then 11 year old Mills.

Now the Leeds, Yorkshire schoolgirl has written to the Prime Minister to remind him of that promise and to ask him to vote for a ban tomorrow.

"By ignoring the suffering of foxes we are abusing our position of power over these beautiful innocent creatures," wrote Mills. "The treatment of wild animals is an indictment of the type of society we have.

"How can we allow this barbaric and unnecessary killing to continue in the name of sport? Fox hunting has existed for centuries in the UK and is a blight on our image as a nation," she continued.

Though symbolic, it will take more than Blair's vote to reverse what many consider to be a way of life.

Complicating matters is another centuries old institution: The UK's parliamentary system.

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Hunting foxes for "sport" has been a way of UK rural life for more than 200 years, but its days could be numbered. (Photo courtesy Countryside Alliance)
Tomorrow, Members of Parliament (MPs) have three options: allowing hunting with dogs under voluntary regulations, allowing it under licence from a new hunting authority, or a ban.

Should the Labour dominated House of Commons vote for a ban tomorrow, the UK's upper house, the unelected House of Lords, can still contemplate the three options and reach an independent judgment.

Given its anti-Labour majority, the Lords are expected to overturn a ban and back the compromise option of licensing. Under the Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949, the Lords can hold up a Bill with which they disagree for a year.

But under the same Acts, the government controlled House of Commons can ultimately reintroduce the Bill and pass it without the Lords consent.

Complicating issues still further is the strong possibility of Blair calling an election this spring. If Labour wins the election, political observers expect the new government to invoke the Parliament Acts and overrule the Lords.

Outside of parliament, the issue of fox hunting is considerably more black and white.

On Monday, hunt supporters began a vigil outside the House of Commons in London. Organized by the pro-hunting Countryside Alliance, the vigil is one of many protests planned around the country to coincide with tomorrow's vote.

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The Countryside Alliance claims fox hunting is the most natural way to manage what it says is a pest to rural livestock. (Photo by Miles Taylor, courtesy Countryside Alliance)
The group says the message to politicians is simple: Meddle with minorities at your peril.

"Politicians will by now be aware that whilst interfering with hunting, they are striking at the very heart of libertarian values," said Sam Butler, chairman of the Countryside Alliance Campaign for Hunting.

"This is only the next phase of our campaign," said Butler of the vigil and natiowide protests.

"Far from a hunting ban being a vote winner, the public is seeing this assault as anti-democratic, unnecessary and unfair. More voters than ever are now concluding that this is an issue worth fighting for.

"These events, both national and regional, illustrate quite clearly that you cannot take on a minority and expect to get away with it. There are very few votes to be gained from banning hunting, but a lot to be lost from depriving people of their way of life."

The Countryside Alliance is planning to march on London, March 18, and promises the "largest ever UK civil liberties demonstration."

In March 1998, with a rallying cry of "Listen to us," the group mobilized 120,000 people to demonstrate in London's Hyde Park.

Farmers have been controlling the fox population for hundreds of years. Hunting with hounds for sport became popular about 200 years ago. Central to the Countryside Alliance's argument is that the fox is a pest to livestock and that foxhunting is the most natural method of management.

It points out that after two centuries of organized hunting, the fox is a well conserved species.

Ban supporters argue that managing fox populations by hunting is anything but natural.

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The Burns report concluded that hunting with dogs "seriously compromises the welfare of the fox." (Photo courtesy International Fund for Animal Welfare)
"The arguments surrounding this issue have been well rehearsed in recent times, but it becomes a simple question of whether or not a civilized society allows a minority of its citizens to take its pleasure in terrifying and having torn apart a small wild animal," wrote Andrew Dickson, chief executive of the World Society for the Protection of Animals, in a letter to MPs.

"Hunting is intrinsically cruel and no amount of regulation will address that," said RSPCA spokesman John Rolls.

Rolls said most people in the UK agree with Roseanne Mills. "People want to see it banned and we join with Roseanne in urging the Prime Minister to vote for a ban," said Rolls.

Mills and the RSPCA are likely to have one wish granted at least. This week, Blair confirmed he will vote for a ban.