Thursday, 1 May 2014

Tories wisely row back on foxhunting vote commitment

It appears David Cameron and Nick Clegg are not going to gift Labour a pre-election boost by being silly enough to keep to the 2010 Coalition Agreement promise to allow a free vote on the repeal of the Hunting Act during their term in office. 

Breaking promises is, of course, a regular feature of the coalition government. David Cameron promised that the NHS would be safe in his hands. The result has been the Health and Social Care Act that opens the floodgates for private healthcare providers. 

Chancellor George Osborne promised to ‘mend’ Britain’s economy and four years later economic growth remains below its pre-recession peak whilst workers have endured the most protracted squeeze on incomes since the 1870s. Even the growth that has taken place has been driven by inflated house prices and debt-fuelled consumer spending. The much promised re-balancing of the economy away from consumption to exports and investment is empty rhetoric.  

In the dire circumstances Britain now faces it is therefore perhaps no bad thing that the government is not going to waste Parliamentary time discussing fox hunting. Far better if they spent time sorting out the mess they’ve made. Of course, that is not the reason why a vote has abandoned until, what environment secretary Owen Paterson, calls “an appropriate time. ” Which, in plain English, means after 2015 when the coalition hopes the media will help persuade voters to give them a second chance. 

The promised vote has been abandoned because the public overwhelmingly believe that fox, deer and hare hunting belong firmly to the past. In December 2013, a poll by IPSOS Mori revealed that over 80% of people – with no divide between rural and urban inhabitants – want these barbaric practices to remain outlawed. Additional research by the League against Cruel Sports has also revealed that only a minority of MPs would like to repeal the law. There is even a Conservatives against Fox Hunting organisation that has MPs as members. The group believes supporting redcoats engaging in fox hunting will particularly damage the Tories electoral chances amongst women voters.

It was, of course, Labour that finally swept away hunting with dogs in 2005. It needed the Commons Speaker Michael Martin to invoke the Parliament Act, for only the fourth time since 1949, after Conservative peers in the House of Lords constantly refused to pass the legislation despite MPs support for it on a free vote. 

In 2006, legal attempts by the Countryside Alliance (CA) and other hunt campaigners to reverse the ban on grounds that it breached human rights were dismissed by the High Court.

The trade union for rural workers, the TGWU, which became part of Unite in 2007, welcomed the legislation viewing fox hunting as unnecessary and cruel with foxes dying terrible deaths after being pursued over lengthy distances before being caught and ripped to death by the chasing pack. 

The union also submitted evidence to the earlier Burns committee of enquiry into hunting with dogs in which it disputed claims by the CA that thousands of countryside jobs would be lost under a ban. In fact, only one hunt has subsequently been forced to close and the employment impact has been negligible. 

Amongst the CA’s most prominent backers have been the large landowners. “In Norfolk and Suffolk some of the most prominent supporters of fox hunting are large landowners and farmers who have a history of paying slave labour wages and allowing their employees to live in sub-standard accommodation” says Peter Medhurst, former TGWU rural workers' officer. 

The CA also predicted that the 2004 Hunting Act would be unenforceable and there were also threats to defy the act.  In the first two years there were just eight successful prosecutions under the Act. The figures though have steadily increased and are approaching 300 in total. 

The League against Cruel Sports (LACS) has been very successful in monitoring hunts and gathering information that has assisted police forces to prosecute lawbreakers. In August 2013, LACS footage resulted in four members of the Middleton Hunt in North Yorkshire pleading guilty under the Hunting Act after they used terriers to flush out a fox, which was then torn apart by the waiting pack of hounds. 

One of the most prominent supporters of fox hunting has a number of convictions. Mark Bycroft from the Old Surrey Burstow and West Kent hunt last year launched a pre-meditated attack on Martin Randle, 24, from Brighton during an anti-hunt protest. Bycroft was cautioned for common assault. Considering he has a number of previous convictions for similar offences then Bycroft appears to have been dealt with very leniently. In September, Bycroft also pleaded guilty to hunting a fox with dogs and was fined £150. 

None of which stopped a smiling Nigel Farage, the UKIP ‘foreigner bashing’ leader who backs privatising the NHS and does not want to curb bankers’ bonuses, shaking Bycroft’s hand on Boxing Day. Farage believes he can pick up votes from disillusioned CA supporters at the next election. 90% of CA members voted Tory in 2010 and the organisation played a part in helping unseat a number of high profile anti-hunting MPs including Labour’s Michael Foster in Worcester. Foster was one of the primary movers behind the Hunting Act. 

Cameron, who has regularly voiced his personal support for the repeal of the hunting ban, has had to decide between gifting Labour an open goal in the run up to the election or lose support to UKIP. Unsurprisingly, he has decided that Labour, where support for maintaining the ban is almost unanimous, is the greater threat. 

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