Tale of missing pro-hunt MPs

CONFUSION surrounds the Commons vote to ban fox hunting, and just why three Conservative MPs from this region did not go through the `no' lobby.David Ruffley (Bury St Edmunds), Tim Yeo (South Suffolk) and John Whittingdale (Maldon & Chelmsford East) are not recorded in Hansard as having voted, even though their opposition to outlaw field sports is well known.

CONFUSION surrounds the Commons vote to ban fox hunting, and just why three Conservative MPs from this region did not go through the `no' lobby.

David Ruffley (Bury St Edmunds), Tim Yeo (South Suffolk) and John Whittingdale (Maldon & Chelmsford East) are not recorded in Hansard as having voted, even though their opposition to outlaw field sports is well known.

The debate was mired in controversy because at the last moment, the Government withdrew a tidying up amendment to its own Bill to license fox hunts and ban hare coursing and stag hunting.

That left those opposed to hunting to back new Clause 11 proposed by Labour MP Tony Banks which stated "registration under Part 2 shall not be effected in respect of the hunting of fixes."

Initially, those organising opposition among Tory MPs told the pro-hunters to abstain as the best way to get the clause bogged down in parliamentary procedure.

The unofficial whips – as it was a free vote of MPs, the official whipping system was not in operation – then changed their minds at the last moment. But this did not percolate through to two Shadow Cabinet ministers Mr Whittingdale – whose constituency hosts the annual Boxing Day meet of the Essex Farmers' and Union Hunt – and Mr Yeo.

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Meanwhile, Mr Ruffley missed the vote because he "was escorting a visitor out of the building and just failed to get to the division lobby before it was locked."

Unfortunately for the three, Hansard doesn't record excuses for not voting and so future generations will read the official report and discover that the MPs for Bury St Edmunds, South Suffolk and Maldon & Chelmsford East did not oppose this move to ban hunting, which MPs approved 362-154.

All three did manage to vote for Liberal Democrat Lembit Opik's motion that hunting by dogs below ground should be allowed as long it is registered – lost 373-165 – and also voted to allow the hunting of mink to be licensed, which was defeated 341-160.

Perhaps of dwelling on the non-voters, we should salute the six Conservative MPs, including two from Essex, who bravely defied opinion in their own party and voted on Monday to ban fox hunting.

They were David Amess (Southend West), David Atkinson (Bournemouth East), Roger Gale (Thanet North), John Taylor (Solihull), Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford & Southend East) and Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone & The Weald).

Three Cabinet ministers broke ranks with majority Labour opinion and opposed an outright ban. They were Government Chief Whip Hilary Armstrong, Home Secretary David Blunkett and Margaret Beckett, who is Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Her Minister of State Alun Michael also voted `no' as did former Agriculture Secretary Nick Brown, Robin Cook, Mark Fisher, Kate Hoey, Huw Irranca-Davies, Tommy McAvoy, Austin Mitchell, and Dr Tony Wright.

Interestingly, the party most split on the issue was the Liberal Democrats. Of their 52 MPs, only 44 voted – 26 in favour of an outright ban and 18 against, one of whom was Norfolk North's Norman Lamb.

The amendments to the Hunting Bill are now being considered by a committee of MPs before being voted on again in the Commons. Then it will be off to the Lords, where it is likely to be defeated.

However, it's looking increasingly likely that the Government force through the legislation by using the Parliament Act, which means it will become law by Christmas 2004.

The Act, which asserts the authority and will of the elected Commons over the non-elected Lords, has been used just three times since 1949 – the War Crimes Act 1991, the European Parliamentary Elections Act 1999 which brought in the closed system of proportional representation, and the Sexual Offences (Amendment Act) 200 to legalise gay sex over the age of 16.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

"I would be the first to accept that it is necessary to kill foxes, and the first to accept that an argument of necessity can be made for killing other species. However, at the beginning of the 21st century, the fact that people should want to make a sport and gain pleasure out of it absolutely beggars belief."

Tory MP Anne Widdecombe, supporting a ban on fox hunting in the Commons on Monday.

WORLD TRADE LOBBY

MPs across the political divide were lobbied at the weekend to support the Trade Justice Movement, which wants pressure to be put on the Government to help the world's poorest countries at the next round of World Trade Organisation talks in September.

In Woodbridge, more than 100 people turned up to receive backing from Suffolk Coastal MP John Gummer, who joined a procession through the town and a silent protest around a giant set of scales representing the inequality in trade between the world's richest and poorest countries.

Down in Essex, Braintree Labour MP Alan Hurst told campaigners at his Witham offices: "I fully support the Trade Justice Movement's views that international trade rules need to be designed to give poorer countries a real chance to develop their own economies.

"I am concerned that international companies can wreak havoc in poor countries in pursuit of profit. The price of coffee to growers has dropped but the cost to consumers in Britain has not. The extra profit is not going to the grower."

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