A Parliamentary group founded by Sports Minister Kate Hoey to seek a ‘middle way’ on fox hunting is a front for the pro-hunting countryside lobby.
Minutes of a meeting of the Countryside Alliance obtained by The Observer show that country landowners campaigning against the Government’s proposed ban on hunting with hounds last year secretly channelled £46,000 to the Middle Way Group.
The funds were paid via the Wildlife Network, an animal welfare organisation, to cover the group’s running costs and a stand at last year’s Labour Party conference in Bournemouth, where the Wildlife Network promoted the Middle Way’s call for stricter controls on hunts in preference to an outright ban.
According to the minutes of the Alliance’s hunting committee in June last year, the Middle Way, the brainchild of Hoey and former anti-hunting activist Jim Barrington, was ‘a very useful group’.
The item, headed ‘Middle Way Group and Wildlife Network’, continues: ‘Their financial requirement was for £25,000 for running costs and a further £21,500 to cover conference cost … We should endorse Kate Hoey’s group and use it as a vehicle to educate potential Labour sympathisers who might find it acceptable to join.’
Brian Fanshawe, the director of the Alliance’s Campaign for Hunting, confirmed he subsequently met Barrington and authorised the payments, claiming the money went to the Wildlife Network not the Middle Way Group.
‘I have no problem funding the Wildlife Network but we don’t fund parliamentarians,’ Fanshawe told The Observer. But anti-hunt campaigners claimed that the Alliance was ‘splitting hairs’, and that Middle Way Group was ‘nothing more than a front for the Countryside Alliance’.
A spokesman for the League Against Cruel Sports said: ‘The Countryside Alliance has constructed a Trojan horse, put Kate Hoey at the wheel and compromised about an inch. These are hunters with a hunting agenda.’
When the Middle Way Group was launched 18 months ago in a flurry of publicity, one of its first moves was to table a series of amendments to Labour MP Michael Foster’s Private Member’s Bill in a bid to water down his proposals to outlaw hunting with hounds.
Besides Hoey, the group was backed by the Labour pro-hunting peer Lord Puttnam and Labour backbenchers Llin Golding and Gwyneth Dunwoody. Foster’s Bill failed because of lack of government support. But following Tony Blair’s promise last month that he would allow parliamentary time for a ban before the next general election, the pro-hunting lobby is running scared again. Last week the Middle Way Group submitted proposals to the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, in a bid to save fox-hunting by outlawing its most barbaric practices.
Straw, who was Hoey’s boss when she was a Home Office Minister, is considering the plans, which include proposals for an independent statutory body to regulate hunting and the banning of ‘digging out’, one of the cruelest aspects of hunting, in which packs of terriers flush out foxes that have gone to ground.
Hoey said she was surprised by The Observer’s revelations and had ‘no idea who funds the group’. ‘Since becoming a Minister I no longer have any dealings with the group in an official capacity,’ she said. But the group’s Liberal Democrat chairman, Lembit Opik – who is listed by the Countryside Alliance as being on its parliamentary committee – defended the Middle Way, saying: ‘Whether or not we are funded indirectly by the Alliance is not the point. We simply believe there is an alternative to an outright ban on fox-hunting.’
However, Jim Barrington, the group’s secretary and a former director of the League Against Cruel Sports – who quit the anti-hunt organisation four years ago in a row over the best way to regulate hunting – denied that the Middle Way was a front for the Alliance. Claiming that he had only received £20,000, he said the money had been a private donation from a hunt supporter. ‘We are happy to receive money from both pro-hunt and anti-hunt supporters. Indeed, you wouldn’t have a middle way without it,’ he said.
This is not the first time the group has sparked controversy. Earlier this year The Observer revealed that the group broke parliamentary rules by pretending to have the support of 10 Labour politicians, the minimum required to be able to call itself a cross-party group and use rooms in the House of Commons. A number of Labour MPs had no idea they were listed and Tory MP Peter Luff was wrongly identified as a majority party member.
Following The Observer’s latest revelations, Labour peer Baroness Nicol said she would be writing to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards to demand that her name be removed from the membership.
The revelations are also causing ructions among the Alliance’s core supporters. David Harcombe, editor of Earth Dog, Running Dog, a magazine which speaks for the rights of terrier men, said: ‘We raised hell over the hunting committee funding Barrington a year ago, and they assured us they were drawing a line under it. If they compromise, they are signing their own death warrants.’
Published in The Observer, 15 August 1999