Why is hunting in the West dictated by Scottish MPs?
Tim Bonner, campaigns director of the Countryside Alliance, on the hunting ban repeal ‘West Lothian question’.
On Boxing Day Defra Secretary Owen Paterson said there would not be a vote on the repeal of the Hunting Act this year and told the Western Morning News: "The intention is to find time at the appropriate moment. But we are currently facing some very severe problems such as one of the largest deficits in Western Europe. That is currently taking priority."
While numbers for and against repeal in the House of Commons are undoubtedly very tight, the Countryside Alliance believes a vote on repeal could be won this year, especially after a debate which could only highlight, once again, the prejudice and pointlessness of the Hunting Act.
Such a debate would not be straightforward, though, and given other pressing priorities we understand the Government's position.
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What Mr Paterson did not say, however, was that a very significant part of the opposition to repealing the Hunting Act comes not from MPs in England and Wales, but those in Scotland – 41 of the 59 Scottish MPs in Westminster are Labour and every one of them is committed to voting against the repeal.
That might not seem particularly notable until you understand that Scotland has its own hunting legislation, the Wild Mammals (Protection) Scotland Act which was passed by the Scottish Parliament in 2002 – two years before the Hunting Act affecting England and Wales was passed by Westminster MPs.
The Scottish law is less draconian than the Hunting Act and allows hunts to carry on managing the fox population by shooting. No Scottish hunt has ever been convicted of an offence under it.
In England and Wales, by contrast, the police and the courts still have to waste time and money investigating and prosecuting this most illiberal, illogical and confusing of laws while support for repeal amongst Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs remains stronger than ever.
In 1992, 27 Conservative MPs backed a Private Member's Bill to ban hunting. Barely half that number supports a ban now. The reason the Government has decided not to hold a vote this year is because it knows that Labour MPs from Scotland would try to block it.
So 41 Scottish Labour MPs, whose constituents are not affected in any way by the Hunting Act, whose country has its own hunting legislation, hold a veto over the resolution of the issue in England and Wales. Westcountry MPs have no say on hunting north of the border and I am sure they would not want to impose themselves on a debate about how Scottish foxes are killed. Why, then, do Scottish MPs feel it necessary to dictate how we hunt in the Westcountry?
Scottish Nationalist MPs take a principled position on any Westminster legislation which does not affect Scotland and simply do not vote on it.
There is absolutely no reason why Scottish Labour MPs could not do the same – if they believe this debate is about foxes, hounds and wildlife management, rather than petty party politics or some remnant of the class war.
In 1977 Tam Dalyell, Labour MP for West Lothian, asked: "For how long will English constituencies and English Honourable members tolerate ... members from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland exercising an important, and probably often decisive, effect on English politics while they themselves have no say in the same matters in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?"
The veto of Scottish MPs on the repeal of the Hunting Act is a classic example of what has become known as the 'West Lothian question'. Unfortunately, for those of us who believe that the current situation is fundamentally undemocratic and unfair, the question has not yet been answered.