London (CNSNews.com) - In a trial vote later this month, the British government plans to gauge legislative opinion on a potential bill to ban the traditional sport of hunting foxes with dogs in England.
Hunting supporters say the practice is part of Britain's rural heritage, while animal rights activists argue that the sport is a cruel pastime for the wealthy.
Pro-hunt activists vowed Monday to keep pressure on the government in advance of an "indicative vote" on March 18 that will give parliamentarians the chance to voice their opinion on what type of hunting bill, if any, should be introduced in the legislature next year.
The vote will follow a day-long debate on the subject, and MPs will choose whether they prefer to ban foxhunting entirely, allow it to continue with government licensing provisions, or to keep the status quo.
Last month, Scottish legislators voted to ban hunting with dogs, effectively putting an end to the sport starting this fall. Prime Minister Tony Blair's administration decided Thursday to put a similar measure before the British parliament that would stop foxhunting in England and Wales.
Blair's Labour Party promised to hold the second "free vote" in two years on the foxhunting question in its general election platform last year. Whips will not enforce a party line and each legislator will be free to vote according to his or her stance on the issue.
In 2000, the House of Commons voted in favor of a total ban, but the House of Lords refused to change the law and the bill was killed.
Darren Hughes, a spokesman for the Countryside Alliance's Campaign for Hunting, Britain's largest pro-hunting group, said a similar result is likely this time around.
"We expect both houses to vote the same way they did last time, so if the government wants to introduce legislation there will have to be some sort of compromise," he said.
Hughes said that during the 2000 vote, the so-called "middle way" of government licensing put forth by politicians was "pretty much unworkable."
"Whether we support a compromise depends on what the government comes up with this time," he said. "We're willing to listen."
The spokesman also pointed out that, far from being unregulated, foxhunts are currently overseen by a variety of independent organizations led by the Independent Supervisory Authority on Hunting.
"We feel they adequately regulate the industry, but some people are never going to be happy until hunting is banned," Hughes said.
One of those people is Douglas Batchelor, chief executive of the League Against Cruel Sports, an organization that is confident of winning another victory after the vote in Scotland.
"We are now another step closer to our goal of seeing a ban on hunting in place for the whole of the U.K.," he said.
Batchelor said an overwhelming vote against hunting in the House of Commons would force the government to introduce a bill banning the sport, regardless of the outcome in the Lords.
Hughes countered by saying there are more important issues for legislators to be concerned with, citing the recent foot-and-mouth disease epidemic that ravaged Britain's rural economy. Still, the Campaign for Hunting will be actively fighting any suggestion of a ban.
"We will be writing to our MPs and expressing our concern about the upcoming vote," Hughes said. "If any hostile legislation is introduced, we'll fight it the same way we did last time."
E-mail a news tip to Mike Wendling.
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