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 ...in 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
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.
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
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
GROSSMAN: And the consequences
could be what?
MARTIN: The consequences could
be outright civil war, people in this countryside will not take this lying
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
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
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