The MPs chosen to be on the standing committee to draft the hunting bill will meet twice a week until the middle of next month (February) at Westminster. They will thrash out details about the test of “utility” and whether hunting serves a useful.

After only two weeksof meetings, there are already deep divisions. The leading opponent of the draft bill is the Tory, James Gray. A front-bench spokesman for rural affairs he is one of the few MPs who is a member of a hunt.

The MP for North Wiltshire has huntedfor years on Salisbury Plain and is currently a member of the Avon Vale hunt. He said: “We have already put down 200 amendments, hoping to improve the bill. We would like it to be a liberal document that will be acceptable to all sides.”

He also pointed out that his side had drafted a schedule containing a licensing regime that would make it feasible for hunting to continue in much the same way as at the moment.”

So far, there have been no amendments put forward by the abolitionist MPs, although sources say this could be done at the last moment or on the floor of the Commons when the bill returns there towards the end of February.

Alun Michael, Rural Affairs minister, is assisted by one of his team, Elliot Morley, and government whip Nick Ainger in arguing for the bill.

Those who want a complete ban on hunting are led by Tony Banks and include Mark Tami, Paddy Tipping, Alan Whitehead, Judy Mallaber, Diana Organ, Albert Owen, Candy Atherton and Rob Marris and the two of the Lib Dems – Andrew George, the party’s rural affairs spokesman, and Paul Holmes.

Lembit Opik (Lib Dem), Peter Luff (Tory) and Welsh nationalist Hywel Williams are part of the Middle Way group that seeks a compromise rather than an outright ban.

To complicate matters even more there is a breakaway group, led by Michael Foster, the Labour MP for Worcester, who is fighting for a ban on cubhunting, lowland hunting and hare hunting and who put forward his private member’s bill to outlaw the sport in 1997.

Under his ideas, hunts will only be allowed to continue if they pass two new tests assessed by an independent tribunal. One government source said that if lowland hunts passed the utility test, they would certainly fail the cruelty test.

Martin Salter the Labour MP for Reading, has argued that if the utility and cruelty tests go ahead, this would have an affect on fishing and shooting. However, the government has repeatedly emphasised that this bill ispurely to do with “hunting with dogs”.

Nicholas Soames, Tory MP for Mid Sussex, said that since Alun Michael was against foxhunting, he did not expect an open mind from the Labour party. He warned “If the bill is enacted, we will impose a catastrophe on the countryside.”

Read the full story in this week’s Horse & Hound (16 January), or click here to subscribe and enjoy Horse & Hound delivered to your door every week.