Cameron signals the return of fox-hunting
David Cameron has "sympathy" with relaxing the ban on fox-hunting, his official spokesman has said.
The comments came as Environment Secretary Owen Paterson is coming under pressure from a cross-party alliance of MPs to scrap a law prohibiting farmers from using more than two dogs to flush out foxes.
If sanctioned, it could mark a first step towards the return of fox-hunting with a full pack of hounds in Devon and Cornwall. The coalition Government has pledged to stage a free vote on repealing the controversial Hunting Act altogether.
But one Westcountry MP, who is anxious to see the ban reversed, cautioned against rushing to a Commons vote this side of a general election as pro-hunt MPs would not win. Nonetheless, the prospect of amendments to the legislation is now a live political issue.
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The Prime Minister's spokesman said: "There is a very specific issue here around pest control and the impact it has on particular farming communities, such as hill farmers. The Prime Minister has some sympathy with these concerns. They have been voiced by MPs from across the House."
The spokesman said the coalition agreement included provision for a free vote on hunting, and declined to rule out holding one before the general election.
"Given the cross-party nature of concerns raised in this area, it is something the House may wish to consider," he said.
Farmers say attacks by foxes on lambs have increased, and argue that limited pest control measures permitted under the 2004 Hunting Act are not working.
They point out that the change – likely to require a vote in Parliament but not a fresh Bill – would bring the law in England and Wales into line with that in Scotland.
The clamour follows a study commissioned by the Federation of Welsh Farmers' Packs – a group representing huntsmen who shoot foxes under the current law – which demonstrated for the first time that deploying a full pack of hounds to flush foxes from cover can be almost twice as effective as using a pair of dogs.
Amending the pest control provision could help shore up Conservative support in its rural heartlands amid criticism from householders affected by the HS2 rail plan and policies designed to modernise the party, such as gay marriage, which risk alienating traditional supporters.
But Conservatives have been joined by Liberal Democrat, Labour and Plaid Cymru backbenchers to back farmers groups calling for amendments to the Act.
Kate Hoey, Labour MP for Vauxhall in London, said: "Unless you are someone who does not believe that a fox should ever be killed I cannot understand why in terms of welfare this is not something that could be supported by a broad range of opinion."
Roger Williams, Liberal Democrat MP for Brecon and Radnorshire, said: "This is a debate that must be had."
Neil Parish, Conservative MP for Tiverton and Honiton, is among a core of Tories who want the Hunting Act overturned, but are anxious to secure enough support before going to a Commons vote.
He said: "It is sensible to make amendments to the Act so that it is workable and practical. In the long-term I wold like to see the Act repealed. But I don't think that will be this side of an election. For one, our coalition partners will not be as enthusiastic."
The Countryside Alliance said it understood the "urgent need for the only effective method of fox control", but made clear amending the Hunting Act should not be an alternative to full repeal.
Tim Bonner, head of campaigns for the Countryside Alliance, said: "The Countryside Alliance has consistently made the case for the repeal of the ban on hunting and does not believe that it is possible to amend or adapt a law as flawed as the Hunting Act into any workable form."
Labour, which forced through the controversial law, signalled its opposition to even tweaking the Act.
Shadow Environment Secretary Maria Eagle said: "Ministers are kidding themselves if they think there is a cross-party consensus on hunting. If the Tories insist on trying to change the law, they will find that they simply don't have the votes in Parliament."