Hunt Vote Postponed After SNP Move

Essex and Suffolk Hunt

A vote to relax the fox-hunting ban in England and Wales has been postponed after the Scottish National Party's decision to take part in the division made defeat almost certain.

The controversial vote, scheduled for Wednesday, would have brought the law south of the border in line with that in Scotland, where an unlimited number of dogs can be used to "flush out'' a fox to be shot, compared to just two in England and Wales.

The SNP's 56 MPs agreed on Monday to break with their normal practice of not voting on England-only matters and join Labour in opposing the proposal. Together with a number of anti-hunting Conservative MPs, who have been granted a free vote on the issue, this was expected to be enough to block the change.

SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon directly linked the move to the Government's plans for "English votes for English laws'' (EVEL). And she warned that her party would be prepared to vote on other issues where Scotland is not directly affected in the months ahead.

Downing Street left no doubt that it was the SNP decision which prompted the delay in the hunting vote.

A source said: "This happened because Nicola Sturgeon has done a 180-degree u-turn. Her actions speak for themselves. That's why we are in the position we are in.''

Number 10 had previously indicated that Prime Minister David Cameron intended to vote in favour of the reform.

The postponement of the vote was announced as animal welfare activists prepared to stage a rally outside Parliament against any amendment of the Hunting Act, which outlawed the hunting of wild mammals with dogs in England and Wales in 2004, two years after similar legislation in Scotland.

High-profile animal welfare activists including Queen guitarist Brian May were joining the "Team Fox'' coalition of animal welfare groups, including Animal Defenders International, to urge MPs to keep the ban intact.

Celebrities including Ricky Gervais, Morrissey, Sadie Frost and Stella McCartney have joined the campaign against the proposed change, which has prompted accusations that the Government is trying to sneak fox-hunting in through the back door, knowing it would not win a free vote to repeal the Hunting Act in Parliament.

A ComRes poll for BBC2's Victoria Derbyshire programme found that 74% of voters were opposed to legalising fox-hunting, against 20% who supported it.

Speaking before the vote was postponed, Ms Sturgeon said the SNP's decision was a reminder to Mr Cameron just how slender his Commons majority was.

"Since the election David Cameron's Government has shown very little respect to the mandate Scottish MPs have. On the Scotland Bill reasonable amendments backed by the overwhelming majority of Scottish MPs have been voted down,'' she told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.

"The English votes for English laws proposals brought forward go beyond any reasonable proposition and look to make Scottish MPs effectively second-class citizens in the House of Commons.

"So if there is an opportunity, as there appears to be here, and on an issue where David Cameron appears to be out of touch with majority English opinion as well, to actually remind the Government of how slender their majority is, that is an opportunity we will take.''

The SNP decision drew an angry response from Conservative MPs and is likely to lead to demands for ministers to press on with EVEL, as more power was devolved to the Scottish Parliament in the wake of last year's referendum vote.

Senior Tory backbencher Sir Peter Bottomley said: "The Scottish National Party risk making themselves look foolish, unprincipled and unwise by voting against making English law similar to Scottish law.

"This action is naive - it makes them look silly and is perhaps the first major mis-step by Nicola Sturgeon.''

A Conservative source said: "Hunting is a devolved issue. The SNP's decision to vote on a draft law that does not affect Scotland at all shows exactly why Conservatives committed in our manifesto to ensure laws that only affect England can only be passed with the consent of English MPs.''