Angry protests as MPs debate Bill on whether to ban hunting
A British Bill which could ban hunting with hounds last night cleared its first major hurdle, with MPs voting overwhelmingly to allow it to continue to progress through parliament.
The House of Commons agreed to give the Hunting Bill a second reading by 373 votes to 158, a majority of 215.
Earlier, a crowd of about 1,500 countryside protesters staged an angry vocal demonstration outside parliament.
Police vans blocked off the entrance to the Commons as the demonstrators massed, and mounted police joined colleagues on foot in keeping order.
MPs were voting only on whether to allow the Bill to proceed through its next parliamentary stages.
It contains three options - an almost total ban on hunting with dogs, compulsory licensing of hunts, or self-regulation.
MPs will get a free vote on the options, though that choice will not be put before them until the Bill's committee stage early next year.
It is expected any move to ban hunting will spark fierce opposition in the Lords, making the legislation a possible casualty if a general election is called in the spring.
Leading off last night's debate, the British Home Secretary, Mr Jack Straw, told MPs that the passions aroused by the hunting issue had been reflected in the 100,000-plus letters on the subject sent to the Home Office since the 1997 general election.
Mr Straw himself came out in favour, not of an outright ban, but of regulation of hunting through a licensing system.
Mr Straw, who has never voted one way or the other in previous bids to ban hunting during 21 years as an MP, came off the fence to tell the Commons that he would support a scheme of regulation, as put forward by the Middle Way Group of MPs.
Under the scheme, hunting would become a licensed activity, with anyone wishing to take part having to apply to a Hunting Authority for a licence.
Tory spokesman David Lidington told the Commons that Conservative MPs would have a free vote on the issue.
But he said that in his opinion the Bill was "misguided and unnecessary".
Former Tory prime minister, Mr John Major, accused Labour of staging the Hunting Bill to win votes by turning the nation against a minority of "red faced toffs".
But Michael Foster, the Labour MP for Worcester, whose Private Member's Bill to ban hunting was supported by 411 MPs in November 1997, told colleagues that the "beginning of the end" of fox hunting had arrived.