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Prescott interview casts doubt on timing of Bill
By Andrew Sparrow, Political Correspondent
(Filed: 24/07/2004)

John Prescott provoked uproar yesterday after suggesting that hunting would not be banned until after the general election.

Anti-hunting campaigners were horrified when they read his comments, which contradicted many assurances given by ministers that the Government would "resolve" the issue before polling day.

The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister managed to defuse the row only by disowning the words Mr Prescott was reported as saying in an interview with The Independent.

A spokesman for his office claimed Mr Prescott was just giving the standard government response.

But Mr Prescott's comment reinforced the suspicions of those in the pro-hunting lobby who believe the Government will not ban hunting because Tony Blair does not want to take on "Middle England".

MPs voted to ban hunting last year but the Bill failed to get through the Lords. Anti-hunting campaigners want the Government to reintroduce the Bill and use the Parliament Act to make it law before the end of this session of Parliament, which will probably be in November.

According to The Independent, Mr Prescott said the Hunting Bill would not come back until the next session, which starts with the Queen's Speech. "It won't go in now before the next Queen's Speech," he said.

Under parliamentary rules, that means the Government would not be able to use the Parliament Act, and any ban would have to wait for at least another year.

Yesterday one government insider claimed that if Mr Prescott was quoted accurately, he was wrong, because the plan was for the Hunting Bill to go through the Commons in one day in September and for it to become law by the end of the session.

The source said a date had been set for a hunting debate in July, but had been put back because ministers did not want to provoke pro-hunting peers at that time.

Yesterday, The Independent insisted that Mr Prescott had been accurately reported. But a spokesman for his office said the quote was "selective" and "misunderstood".

A spokesman for the League Against Cruel Sports said: "We believe that a ban will happen, but we are not taking anything for granted."

A spokesman for the Countryside Alliance said: "John Prescott's comments fit in with everything we've been hearing. It looks increasingly as if the Government is considering its options."

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