BBC On The Record - Broadcast: 22.09.02

Film: HUNTING FILM. David Grossman looks at what impact today's Countryside Alliance march will have on plans to ban hunting with hounds.

DAVID GROSSMAN: As you can see there are many thousands of people streaming down Whitehall and we're told there are many more thousands waiting to start the procession. What's brought them here is a range of issues, around the central theme that Government is just ignoring the needs of rural people. But there is also a core grievance and that's to do with hunting with hounds. Indeed, the organisers were very specific about that point, they said that if you don't oppose a ban on hunting with hounds, please just don't bother turning up today. They wanted all these people to speak with one voice to Government, with one message about hunting and the Government is at the the process of drawing up its hunting legislation. So, how can the Government possibly hope to keep all these people happy and the large number of MPs who are equally passionate, but passionate that hunting should be banned. I've been to Oxfordshire to try to find out if there is a way for the Government to square that very awkward looking circle. DAVID GROSSMAN: A change could be coming to the Bicester hunt - whilst the hounds can only smell breakfast on the morning breeze their huntsman Patrick Martin is a worried man. A ban on hunting would he says needlessly devastate his livelihood and the life of this part of Oxfordshire. He's told the government's inquiry that the case against hunting is a mess of unsubstantiated prejudice, in short a dog's breakfast. PATRICK MARTIN: I think it will completely destroy the countryside. I think people will feel they had been picked on and I think anybody can understand a reason for something being stopped if there is justification and good evidence for it being stopped. It is not animal welfare, it is personal prejudice. GROSSMAN: The Labour party though has long cherished the idea of banning hunting with hounds - it was one of the few old Labour ideas that survived into the new era. ACTUALITY TONY BLAIR: "It will be banned, I mean we'll get the vote to ban it as soon as we possibly can and we are looking now at ways of bringing it forward in a future session and allow people to have a vote and actually carry it through." GROSSMAN: Tradition is a big part of the appeal of hunting. Nineteenth century clothes long since abandoned in urban Britain are cherished here. But five years into the Labour government, Patrick Martin is still able to put on his stock and boots and go hunting is resented by many Labour MPs. Instead of going for an outright ban straight away the government spent time canvassing the views of MPs who overwhelmingly supported an outright ban. The government is, say its critics, guilty of weakness and dither. GRAHAM ALLEN MP: I think many people in the country and in parliament are absolutely baffled as to why Number Ten have played this issue in the way that they have, this issue, issue was around some four years ago with decisive leadership it could have been dealt with at that point and it would now be history, but by dragging this along in the way that the leadership have, what has happened is that it has become a far bigger issue than it deserved to be and of course many people are weary of it in all parts of the House. Many people would like to see the back of it. GROSSMAN: No hunting for the hounds today, instead a trip to the county show. You don't need an acute nose to detect that the government's still looking for a compromise on this issue, something short of an outright ban. The formula they are thinking about for their hunting bill expected this autumn , measures utility against cruelty, so hunting would be allowed perhaps under licence where it was the most effective and least cruel form of pest control. Ministers are extremely aware of the problems an outright ban could cause in the countryside, where there are dire threats of widespread civil disobedience. MARTIN: Fury is a good word, people will erupt, we have been fair, we have been peaceful we have done everything that is asked of us and at the end of the day if they turn round and say sorry we are going to ban you anyway that will not wash and they can face the consequences. GROSSMAN: And the consequences could be what? MARTIN: The consequences could be outright civil war, people in this countryside will not take this lying down. GROSSMAN: The Thame and Oxfordshire county show looks peaceful enough but below the surface is a mood of angry defiance at the threat of a hunting ban. The home secretary David Blunkett is personally opposed to an outright ban - he's said to fear it would needlessly jeopardise his fight against crime. KATE HOEY MP: People living in areas where there is huge amounts of crime do not want to see police resources wasted, it would be absolutely ludicrous when we are so short of police and when crime is on the increase that we want to make criminals out of decent law abiding citizens and that we want to use police resources to go off and try and catch those kinds of people. It is farcical and I think the Prime Minister must know that. GROSSMAN: In hunting as in politics the whips are there to encourage the awkward and the reluctant to think of the team. But when the government does publish its hunting bill it's made it clear it'll be a free vote, there won't be any whipping. MPs will be free to follow their conscience. And that means that even if the bill does start life as a compromise that allows hunting to continue in some form - when the large number of anti-hunting MPs get their teeth in it, it could easily be amended into an outright ban. ALLEN: I think putting some form of botched compromise together in front of the House of Commons would be a severe and profound misreading of the House of Commons at this point and would result in more distress. Frankly the House of Commons has made its position clear on numerous occasions, there should be an outright ban on hunting with hounds and anything less than that will be a misreading of the House of Commons and if the leadership feel that they can get away with something like that I think they will be making a very severe mistake and I think if someone puts forward a compromise it will be smashed aside by the massive majority in the House of Commons GROSSMAN: At the countryside alliance stall they're concentrating on spreading the word about today's march. If MPs do vote for a ban it will put them in conflict with The Lords where the last time a ban was suggested it was massively defeated. The only way out of this stalemate is for the government to invoke the parliament act - a piece of legislation that in effect allows the Commons to ignore the upper house - and the government has made it clear they are prepared to use it. ALUN MICHAEL MP: I am absolutely clear that if the Government introduces a Bill which is amended in the House of Commons, our promise in relation to allowing the Parliament Act to obtain would apply. It would be a matter for the Commons and I think I can't underline enough the important words "This would be a matter for the House of Commons." GROSSMAN: Baroness Mallalieu is a Labour Peer and president of the countryside alliance - she promises that if the government uses the parliament act would trigger legislative chaos. BARONESS MALLALIEU: If the government were to use the parliament act on an issue such as this then the opposition in the Lords, not just to the legislation itself but to the governments tactics would be widespread and throughout all parties and I have very little doubt that it would mean because in the Lords it is possible to delay legislation with very few people, no guillotines, no timetabling, if that were to happen the government would almost inevitably lose major pieces of legislation and be unable to fulfil the promises it made at the last election. HOEY: I'd have thought the last thing that the Prime Minister needs at the moment is full scale anger in the countryside, a row in parliament, time being spent on, on this when he is very, very busy at the moment with dealing with problems in the Middle East and the question of Iraq and also of course the pending referendum on our, on whether we would go into the European, join into the European Single Currency. GROSSMAN: The horn competition isn't perhaps everyone's idea of a pleasing sound - it is after all designed to excite hounds not delight music lovers. What most Labour MP's now seem to agree on is that for a way to be found out of the stalemate - the government needs to shrug off it's neutrality and show leadership. ALLEN: I think there are two ways forward, one is that this is allowed to run on and that a compromise is put to the House of Commons, is massively defeated, a ban is massively supported and then we invoke the parliament acts to ensure that we push this through over many years and making a big issue out of it. The other way to do it is for the Prime Minister to get off the fence and be very clear indeed that this is going to happen, he will help with the government majority to push this through quickly and by showing leadership in this situation I think that would kill off a lot of the opposition. The reason this has become a big issue is because there is perceived weakness. GROSSMAN: After all the preparation, Patrick Martin and the Bicester hunt take to the show ring. For how many more years is up to parliament. The issue of hunting promises to tie up both houses for years threatening the government's legislative programme. Then there would be the inevitable legal challenges that would follow any ban. In Scotland where a new law came in in August that process has already started. The government's in a very difficult position, for an administration that likes to build consensus, on hunting at least they know they can't please everyone.
NB. This transcript was typed from a transcription unit recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy.