The tens of thousands of people attending traditional Boxing Day hunts in the West Country yesterday did so knowing afresh there was no realistic prospect of the hunting ban being lifted.
Pro-hunting Environment Secretary Owen Paterson confirmed there was no prospect of the promised free vote in Parliament on the issue – because it would be lost.
Enough Liberal Democrat and Conservative MPs are against repealing the ban – or at least debating it in Parliament again – to mean ministers know they will lose the free vote Prime Minister David Cameron promised hunters after he came to power in 2010. The Tories have now decided to put the hunting ban on the back burner, while pressing ahead with plans for gay marriage.
Yesterday, dozens of hunts braved flooded fields and blustery conditions to meet again on Boxing Day, with rallying speeches from hunt masters in town squares and village greens across the region, with 300 meets taking place in the UK.
This was the first Boxing Day hunt meet since the first hunt was successfully prosecuted for breaching the seven-year-old hunt ban, but there was defiant talk from the hunts and their supporters, despite the increased pressure for greater enforcement, and little prospect of the ban being lifted any time soon.
Although hunting for foxes with hounds has been outlawed, drag hunts are still permitted.
Environment Secretary Owen Paterson appeared to ruled out bringing the issue back before MPs, despite the Prime Minister promising a free vote on whether repeal should be debated in full.
“There’s only a point having a vote if you’re going to win,” the minister said. “At the moment, it would not be my proposal to bring forward a vote we were going to lose. There needs to be more work done on Members of Parliament.
“It is our clear intention to have a free vote but we need to choose an appropriate moment,” he added.
Later yesterday Conservative Party chairman Grant Shapps defended the Government’s decision to shelve a promised vote on ending the hunting ban, instead targeting plans for gay marriage.
The move threatened to put the Conservative leadership at odds once again with many of its traditionalist supporters in rural areas who are still smarting over the decision to legislate for same-sex marriages.
Mr Shapps insisted that ministers were simply being pragmatic in the face of the parliamentary arithmetic, with strong opposition among Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs to ending the hunting ban as well as some Tories.
“As Owen Paterson said, it makes sense to bring something forward if you think there’s a chance of there being a parliamentary majority and at the moment there doesn’t appear to be one,” he told BBC Radio 4’s The World at One.
“There probably is a parliamentary majority for gay marriage. We’ll see.
“But it means that Parliament won’t be voting on something that isn’t going to happen.
“The point about bringing things in front of Parliament is there is precious little point if you think you are not going to win the votes or that Parliament isn’t going to change the law.
“In one case, there is precious little chance that Parliament will change the law.
“In the other case, there is every chance.”
Shadow environment secretary Mary Creagh, Paterson’s opposite number, said there was no public support for ending the hunting ban – something backed by the latest Mori poll, which showed more than three-quarters of people would not want hunting with dogs made legal again.
“Most people back Labour’s ban on hunting wild animals with dogs and accept there is no place for animal cruelty in a civilised society,” she said.
“People are worried about their incomes falling, prices rising and losing their jobs, yet this out of touch Tory-led Government wants to bring back hunting.
“After the recent high profile conviction of members of the Prime Minister’s hunt, I hope that hunts will respect the law this year.”
Conservative backbencher Simon Hart, a former chief executive of the Countryside Alliance, said he believed Mr Cameron still intended to honour the commitment to hold a free vote – contained in both the Conservative general election manifesto and the coalition agreement – but cautioned there must be no backsliding.
“He knows that he has made a promise on this, he knows he can’t really afford to let down core voters in rural constituencies and nothing he has said in the last two-and-a-half years to me has indicated that he has slipped an inch on this,” he told The World at One.
The Mori poll was commissioned by the League Against Cruel Sports, which said the RSPCA’s prosecution of the Heythrop Hunt for three cases of illegal hunting in Gloucestershire, would spur on campaigners to catch more hunts breaking the law.
“Hunting is a barbaric and sickening blood sport belonging to the past,” said Joe Duckworth, the league’s chief executive. “Whether you live in a castle or council house, choose to ignore the law, we will catch you and see you in the dock.
“The Coalition Government has said it will debate repeal of the Hunting Act. They should listen to the majority of decent people in the country, support the act and not waste valuable parliamentary time,” he added.
Mr Duckworth said as hunting moves back up the political agenda they would be stepping up their campaign against hunts which broke the law.
“We have invested £1 million in recruiting new professional investigators who are out in the field, many of them ex-police officers, and we have quadrupled the number we have out there, in the field, trying to catch these people hunting illegally,” he told the Today programme.
However the RSPCA was widely criticised for the costs it racked up – £330,000 in legal fees – prosecuting the Heythrop. Commentators accused it of mounting a political campaign against that particular hunt because it is the hunt local to Prime Minister David Cameron, who has, in the past, ridden with it.
Barney White-Spunner, the chief executive of the Countryside Alliance, said although he wanted the law repealed, ‘country people trust’ the Prime Minister to deliver in the end.
“I think in due time it will change,” he said. “We know when the act came in that it took a huge amount of parliamentary time, more time than debates over Iraq and we know that actually if you are going to go for some form of repeal then it would probably take another huge amount of time at a time when the Government and parliament has got other priorities.
“I think people are absolutely sensible and mature about that but I am absolutely confident the Act will be repealed.
“In the meantime, the country people trust the Prime Minister will deliver what he can,” he added.