Labour MSP’s compromise bid to emasculate anti-hunting bill

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A LABOUR MSP launched a last-ditch attempt last night to prevent her colleagues from banning fox hunting.

The Scottish parliament will vote tomorrow on Lord Watson’s Bill to ban hunting north of the Border.

Most MSPs in the parliament oppose hunting and were expected to back the Bill - despite a highly-critical committee report which warned that the Bill was deeply flawed.

But last night Elaine Murray, the Labour MSP for Dumfries and an opponent of the Bill, submitted an amendment which she hopes will offer a compromise.

She believes her amendment will allow MSPs to register their opposition to hunting without actually voting for the Bill.

This 11th-hour amendment is an deliberate attempt to prevent MSPs from voting for a Bill which they believe is unworkable but which they will vote for simply because they see no alternative.

Ms Murray’s amendment would have the effect of scrapping Lord Watson’s Bill.

However, it would also commit the executive to "take action against unnecessary suffering" and to bring legislation for wild animals into line with that for domestic animals.

The amendment would not ban hunting but it would force ministers to take on the issue themselves and introduce new, unspecified, measures to prevent cruelty to wild animals.

Ms Murray said: "I know people were concerned about the extent of the current Bill’s provisions, particularly its impact on gamekeeping and other activities.

"This would stop the more cruel aspects - like hare coursing - but it would be up to the executive to take it forward."

Ms Murray insisted last night that she had not been given the tacit support of the executive and stressed that ministers had made it clear they wanted to stay out of the debate.

All ministers in the executive have, officially, been given a free vote on fox hunting tomorrow.

But many may decide to back Ms Murray’s amendment because it gives them a convenient get-out clause, allowing them to oppose animal cruelty but not backing the controversial bill.

Many MSPs have a problem with Lord Watson’s Bill because of flaws in the drafting which were picked up by the rural development committee.

Indeed, the committee members found the Bill was so badly drafted they felt they could not recommend it to the parliament, arguing it was unworkable.

Lord Watson has insisted throughout that his Bill should proceed and he has offered to make changes later in the parliamentary process to iron out the problems.

The convener of the rural development committee, Tory MSP Alex Fergusson, will also table an amendment later today.

He will also call on MSPs to throw out the Bill and urge the executive to look at existing laws to see how they can be strengthened to prevent cruelty to animals.

But Mr Fergusson’s amendment does not go as far as Ms Murray’s and is not expected to attract as much support.

Mr Fergusson said last night he hoped MSPs would listen to the debate and not just vote according to their entrenched opinions.

He said: "If the debate is based on the committee’s findings then the Bill will be rejected.

"We should focus on the debate and the report and not on wild accusations."

It has been more than 12 months since Lord Watson unveiled his anti-hunt Bill but tomorrow’s debate will give MSPs their first opportunity to vote on the proposed measure.

And whether Lord Watson’s Bill will succeed or fail is anyone’s guess.