UK Politics

MPs will get free vote on fox hunting - Downing Street

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Media captionDavid Cameron: "I regret to say I don't think there will be government agreement to go forward"

MPs will get a free vote on repealing the ban on fox hunting before the next election, Downing Street has said.

David Cameron said he "regretted" ministers had been unable to agree on allowing farmers to use more than two dogs in pest control.

The move is understood to have been opposed by Nick Clegg.

But No 10 said that would not affect the coalition's commitment to a free vote on overturning the 2004 hunting ban as a whole.

The coalition agreement in 2010 included a commitment to give MPs a say on repealing the ban on hunting with dogs introduced by Labour, but it has yet to schedule the promised free vote in the Commons.

Downing Street aides said a vote would take place "when parliamentary time allows", although some have questioned whether it is likely to happen before the next election.

Separately, the government has been considering allowing farmers to use more than the two dogs currently allowed to flush out foxes which are then shot, to protect lambs from being attacked.

'Westminster rumours'

The League Against Cruel Sports has opposed any changes, saying it would be a bid to repeal the law "by the back door".

But the Federation of Welsh Farmers' Parks, which is calling for the change, has produced research which it says "shows clear need for change in the law on fox control with dogs".

At Prime Minister's Questions, Labour's Angela Smith, MP for Penistone and Stocksbridge, asked Mr Cameron: "Westminster is awash with the rumour that the government is considering an amendment to the Hunting Act.

"So will you take this opportunity to quash that rumour by confirming your commitment to the coalition agreement, which only allows for a free vote on the repeal of the legislation?"

Mr Cameron replied: "There are always lots of rumours going round Westminster and it's a good moment to talk about them.

"As you know, as I've said before at this dispatch box, proposals were made on a cross-party basis to [Environment Secretary Owen Paterson] about an amendment to the Hunting Act that would help in particular upland farmers deal with the problem of fox predation of their lands.

"That letter has been received and is being considered but I regret to say I don't think there'll be government agreement to go forward."

'Coach and horses'

Mr Cameron has previously said he has "some sympathy" with the Welsh farmers' argument.

Joe Duckworth, chief executive of the League Against Cruel Sports, said: "I am delighted that we have flushed out this back-door attack on the Hunting Act.

"What they planned would have driven a coach and horses through the act. I am delighted we have thwarted this plot from a tiny but powerful hunting lobby.

"We have won this battle but not the war. We call on the prime minister to either admit the Hunting Act is here to stay or hold the promised vote on repeal of the act."

A senior Liberal Democrat source said Mr Clegg opposed a change to upland hunting laws as it was not covered by the coalition agreement - but the Lib Dems would not block the free vote on fox hunting promised in the agreement.

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