The recently knighted Sir John Randall MP is a birder. Having stepped down from being Deputy Chief Whip he is now enjoying the freedom of the backbenches and the freedom to speak up for nature (note this speech he made in the Christmas adjournment debate from 1:40pm onwards where he touches on various subjects including the plight of the hen harrier and vicarious liability).
John Randall led the way in 2001, when heading the Private Members’ Ballot, in setting out the bones of what was needed for marine protection for wildlife (see pages 223-4 in Fighting for Birds).
But yesterday he secured a Westminster Hall debate on farmland birds, and because I was in London for other reasons, I attended the debate as one of about half a dozen members of the public. Westminster Hall debates give backbench MPs the opportunity to raise issues of importance and for them to be aired and explored and the government replies to them. Yesterday’s debate was a mere 30 minutes, and George Eustice was the Defra minister responding, and covered the ground very well.
Do read the transcript here.
John Randall’s speech was very good – and very fair, I thought. Why not drop him an email (email@example.com), particularly if you are a constituent of his, and tell him to keep it up because we need more voices like his in Parliament? He would have made an excellent Defra Minister, at least his heart would have been in the right place, and it’s a shame that never came to pass – one wonders how he would have got on with Mr Paterson!.
The Minister was not bad either! His speech greatly resembled the letter from his colleague Lord de Mauley but then consistency is a good thing and we all approve of recycling.
I would say that George Eustice’s speech was a very fair and honest assessment of the situation. I welcome, particularly, his statement that Defra would have liked a higher uptake of those valuable options within ELS that are actually known to work. A move to fill the ‘hunger gap’ is to be welcomed too as most but not all farmland birds are resident species and the time , coming up, when the knackered state of our farmland means that the food simply runs out, is important. Filling the winter hunger gap won’t solve the problems for Yellow Wagtail or Turtle Doves, of course, but then I am always being told that you can’t have everything.
In particular I welcome this paragraph from the Minister:
‘Biodiversity is among the things that I want to promote as we design NELMS. I want to make sure we have those directed options, so that there must be certain options, from a particular list, that will prioritise the recovery of farmland birds. I want us to look at that closely as we develop the approach. The directed option choice will enable us to encourage farmers to maximise the environmental outcomes on their land, in response to the agreed environmental priorities in their area, rather than simply seeking the lowest-cost or most convenient options. In addition, we shall adopt a landscape-scale approach to establishing NELMS. I hope that that will result in some critical mass and wildlife corridors, and a concentrated improvement in habitats to sustain the recovery of certain bird species.’
These are issues that I have been banging on about in this blog and in my previous distant existence at the RSPB and so I am glad that we are promised progress in the future – let’s wait and see what happens but encourage this move.
I hope Mr Eustice enjoys his visit to Hope Farm.
As you will see from the transcript, Jim Shannon MP (DUP, Strangford) praises the Countryside Alliance and BASC for work on Yellowhammers in his constituency (and later asks a question about ‘vermin’ control when he must have been talking about killing wildlife). I’m delighted if these two organisations are leading the way these days on Yellowhammers in that part of Northern Ireland but I well remember having a little to do with setting up an RSPB Yellowhammer project in that part of the world back in the early 2000s.
Richard Benyon, the former Defra Minister, sat through the debate too, and made an interjection on behalf of one of his farming friends, rather than giving us the distilled wisdom he acquired whilst a biodiversity Minister.
Simon Hart MP, ex Chief Executive of the Countryside Alliance also sat through most of the debate and you will see that the other interventions were all by Conservative MPs.
There was not a Labour or LibDem MP in the room for the whole 30 minutes which rather reinforces my worries about whether Labour has a rural agenda or not. Maybe the whole Parliamentary Labour Party has nothing to say on disappearing farmland birds. Perhaps they will all be reading this blog to catch up? Perhaps they would like a Guest Blog here?
But Sir John Randall is clearly determined to work hard as a backbencher and has made it his mission to raise the profile of biodiversity issues – the man should get a knighthood! Oh, he already has one.