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County's MPs split over hunting with dogs

A VOTE on banning hunting with dogs in England and Wales will be held in the House of Commons next March. The decision has divided Kent's MPs and caused dismay among hunt followers who fear it will lead to wide spread economic devastation in the countryside.

The Countryside Alliance has called for a fair solution - the so-called middle way that allows hunting using a licence system. There are fears thousands of jobs could be at risk if it were banned.

There has also been widespread criticism that politically the announcement has been timed to deflect attention from criticisms of the Government's record on transport and health and the Stephen Byers affair.

But animal rights supporters are jubilant. Eileen Chambers, from the Herne Bay and Whitstable Animal Rights Group, said: "With all the publicity especially about hare coursing, this is bringing things to a head. We are just delighted and we hope it goes through." She said members of the public supported their stance and said hunters could still go drag hunting.

The choices before MPs on March 18 will be a complete ban, continuation of the status quo and the compromise middle way plan to allow hunting under licence with practices such as digging out ended.

The House of Commons will probably vote against hunting, but the big question is what will happen in the House of Lords where there is majority support for it to continue. Most commentators say the likely result is a compromise. The announcement was bound to happen soon because of the Scottish Parliament's decision to ban hunting north of the border.

Master of the West Street/Tickham hunt, Stuart Ross, was confident common ground could be reached to ensure hunting's survival. It was fatuous, he said, to sacrifice the far more important Criminal Justice Bill in favour of this because it had run out of parliamentary time. He said: "They've brought forward this bill simply to ingratiate themselves with the groups against hunting who've made substantial contributions to the Labour Party."

Canterbury and Whitstable MP Julian Brazier said: "It's a smoke screen. Blair is trying to get the Labour left behind him and trying to recoup popularity because I think he believes, perhaps wrongly, that there is support for abolishing hunting."

There could be tragic consequences for both the fox and the countryside if hunting were abolished. In strong field sports areas, said Mr Brazier, the countryside was well preserved for both people and wildlife. It was doubtful this would be maintained.

"Although I've no participation in hunting and have very strong views on animal cruelty, I think I will vote for it to continue as custom and practice," he said.

Faversham and Mid-Kent MP Hugh Robertson said: "I am irritated beyond belief that this has been re-introduced in the wake of the Byers affair. I will be voting for the retention of hunting for three reasons. One is the civil liberties question. I don't think albeit even a minority should be persecuted.

Secondly, I can see no point in banning hunting without banning fishing and shooting, and thirdly, it is extremely ill timed. Post foot and mouth, the countryside is in real crisis and this is unnecessary."

Labour South Thanet Labour MP, Dr Steve Ladyman, said: "I believe there should be a complete ban and I don't believe the middle way should be allowed. You can't licence hunting. It's still cruel." He rejected accusations this was a cynical ploy to buy support. "They would say that, wouldn't they," he countered.

Dr Ladyman said there was no evidence that banning hunting with dogs would ruin the rural economy. The impact would be minimal only. It was purely coincidental the announcement had ben made now.

He added: "People have been pushing for months for an announcement when this was going to be made. The Government couldn't delay any longer without being accused of fudging. The Government can't win. It announces the vote and gets accused of hiding issues and by not announcing it gets accused of fudging." said.

North Thanet MP Roger Gale, who is a long-standing opponent of hunting with dogs, offered what he called one small cheer for the plan. Mr Gale, who is patron of the Conservative Animal Welfare Group, said: "While the rhetoric has been forceful and the initial expectation high this Government's delivery on animal welfare has fallen very far short of the promises."

Urgency was needed to introduce long-overdue legislation to bring about an outright ban. "We must, I suppose, be thankful that the need for the Government to buy off its own back-bench has led to at least the beginning of a move in the right direction," he said.

Joint master of the East Kent Hunt Nigel Fisher was pessimistic. "The Government was getting in trouble with Stephen Byers. I'm amazed that to save one Minister's job, 30,500 must lose theirs," he said.

He wanted English MPs only to vote on the issue and not to have Scottish MPs involved after the recent banning of hunting north of the border.

A ban would have disastrous consequences. The hunt put in a quarter of a million pounds into the local economy. It had four hunt horses, two hunt staff and about 75 hounds. If banned the hounds would have to be put down, the hunt could no longer keep the horses and the staff would lose their jobs.

Moreover, he said, the hunt provided a service to local farmers, raised thousands for charity and see the end of the annual point-to-point race. "It's urban MPs not having an understanding of how it all links together in the countryside," he stressed.

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