Anti-hunt petition handed in on eve of vote to ban hunting with hounds

LONDON, March 2 (Reuter) - Campaigners against blood sports handed British Prime Minister John Major a million-strong petition on Thursday backing a draft law to ban fox-hunting.

But Major rebuffed an offer to support the bill, which will be debated on Friday, declaring that the issue was up to members of parliament to decide.

"This has traditionally been the responsibility of individual MPs and their individual consciences. I will not be here to support you," Major said at question time in the House of Commons.

Major will be at his country home outside London on Friday for a policy session with ministers, his aides said.

The Wild Mammals (Protection) Bill, sponsored by opposition Labour MP John McFall, would outlaw "traditional" hunting and protect species such as squirrels and hedgehogs.

Veteran Labour MP Tony Benn, noting that a similar bill was defeated three years ago by just 12 votes, said he was confident this time there would be even stronger support.

"It is simply that cruelty to animals offends many people," he said. "And I think the tide of public opinion is shifting."

Another backer of the bill, Conservative Sir Teddy Taylor, said: "I think we will win (the debate) without a doubt."

McFall's bill is not sure of becoming law even if MPs vote for it on Friday. The measure's fate depends on the willingness of the government, which controls parliament's timetable, to put aside enough time for it to be scrutinised in committee.