As Alun Michael braves the rural fray for the first time since last week’s Commons debate on the Bill to outlaw hunting with dogs, he has come under renewed fire from the Countryside Alliance for misrepresenting police advice.
One of Michael’s most high-profile absences last week was at the Right to Roam launch, when he had been due to head a symbolic tramp across private land. This, he stated, was because Lancashire Police had advised him that the event could turn violent.
“The police were quite clear they would defend my right to be there”, Mr Michael told the BBC, “but it would involve an enormous police presence and possibly it might be innocent bystanders, rather than me, who might be the subject of violence.”
The Lancashire Police have, however, categorically denied this. Stating that they had not suggested to Mr Michael that the event might turn violent, they did give Mr Michael advice that their might be protests.
This incident will only help to further undermine the trust in the Minister for Rural Affairs, and serves to indicate just how nervous Mr Michael is of the very people whose livelihoods he is meant to protect.
Mr Michael missed several rural appointments last week, today fulfilling a commitment in the countryside for the first time since the drama of last Wednesday.
The Minister was attending an Association of National Park Authorities meeting in Exeter, where he also spoke at a news conference. With several hundred hunting protesters waiting outside, Mr Michael conceded that he was “ruling nothing out” as far as the hunting Bill was concerned. This comment is likely to add fuel to speculation that the licensing of hunting is very much the Government’s preferred option.
Baroness Mallalieu said today that in her view, Blair is hoping to delay facing the issue again until after the conference, but she believes that a compromise could still be reached.
“Blair is waiting until after the Labour conference in Brighton is over, so that his grassroots MPs do not get worked up over the issue, and after that it seems to me that he is willing to enter discussion about producing a workable piece of legislation, and the Lords will certainly do their best to make this happen. And there are a number of ways this could happen if there is the will to do it.
“The Bill I would like to see is a sensible bill which allows for licensing of everything, hare coursing, stag hunting, the works, run on the principles of cruelty and utility,” she added.
Meanwhile, Brighton police have agreed to an organised protest at the Labour Party Conference on Tuesday, where Tony Blair is due to talk in the afternoon. After lengthy negotiations, they were even persuaded that the presence of protesters dogs could serve to temper the demonstration.
“Hunt supporters would have gathered to protest in Brighton whatever happened,” explained Countryside Alliance spokesman Tim Bonner, “and it’s clearly much more sensible therefore that it should be an organised protest.
“People are proud of their hounds and dogs, and want to show the Labour Party what they are really doing with this Bill. And popular to contrary belief they won’t use them to attack the police!”