Thank you to everyone who has written to their MPs in the last week – there are well over 275 of you so far and you have contacted almost 200 MPs. Fantastic effort. Thank you! If you want to join the gang – here’s how.
To make the most of your contact with your MP you need to establish a bit of a dialogue with them and this post will help some of you do that. This post offers you guidance on how you could respond to your Conservative MP as many of the replies that I have seen use a standard form of words and I will take you through those below.
I will, in future give similar briefings in response to SNP, Labour and Liberal MPs but, fair’s fair, the Tories seem to have been a lot quicker off the mark so far. And most English MPs are Tories, and the responses being sent out by Conservative Central Office via MPs need addressing for relevance and factual accuracy – so we start today with Conservatives.
Here is a standard reply that is being sent out by many Conservative MPs. And below it is the response that I would send if I had been sent this by my MP. The more people reply (along the lines I set out – although the details are of course up to you) the less likely it is that similar letters will be sent out in future because some MPs will report back to their party headquarters and point out that they have been challenged on what they sent and made to look somewhat foolish. You will note that I have not named any MPs – my aim is to improve the accuracy of MPs’ letters to their constituents, not to embarrass individual MPs – but from 1 September I will be prepared to name and shame MPs who continue to send out factually inaccurate or misleading information. Firm briefing!
The elements of the standard Conservative letter (which is basically trying to tell you that you are wrong to have signed the petition):
‘The Government shares concerns over the illegal persecution of raptors and would encourage anyone with information about it to report what they know to the authorities. The Government’s commitment to tackling wildlife crime was highlighted by its decision to fund the UK’s specialist National Wildlife Crime Unit fully until at least 2020.
With regard to concerns about the impact of grouse shooting on moorland, in my view game management can make an important contribution to biodiversity by providing cover for wildlife, and through the creation and care of habitats such as woodland, grouse moors, beetle banks and hedgerows.
You may be interested to know that the vast majority of grouse moors that are sites of special scientific interest are now in favourable or recovering condition, whereas only around half were in that state in 2006. This reflects growing awareness among moorland managers of the importance and sensitivity of upland biodiversity.
Game management plays an important role in the rural economy, generating income and employment in some of our most remote communities. For example, shooting contributes in the region of £2 billion to the rural economy and supports the equivalent of around 70,000 full-time jobs.’
My suggested response:
Dear [name of MP]
Thank you for your response to my enquiry about your position on driven grouse shooting ahead of an expected Westminster Hall debate on the subject following over 117,000 people signing an e-petition calling for this practice to be banned. I am impressed by the speed of your reply but not by its relevance or accuracy. I completely understand that individual MPs cannot be experts on all the subjects on which they receive letters from their constituents. In replying to this letter please tell me from where you received your briefing – was it Conservative Party headquarters or from Defra or from somewhere else – I would like to know. Please go back to the source of your briefing and show them this letter and ask that they do a much better job from now on.
I will go through each of your paragraphs in turn to point out and correct errors and to ask you, please, to seek further clarification from Defra on some of these points.
You wrote: The Government shares concerns over the illegal persecution of raptors and would encourage anyone with information about it to report what they know to the authorities. The Government’s commitment to tackling wildlife crime was highlighted by its decision to fund the UK’s specialist National Wildlife Crime Unit fully until at least 2020.
I comment: Yes but this isn’t working at all is it? There should be, according to a statutory agency publication (A Conservation Framework for Hen Harriers in the UK http://jncc.defra.gov.uk/pdf/jncc441.pdf ), about 2600 nesting pairs of Hen Harrier in the UK, of which more than 300 of them should be nesting in the English uplands. This bird is fully protected by law (since 1954). This year there were just three (not 300, just 3!) pairs of Hen Harrier nesting in the English uplands and in the last complete survey of the UK there were c650 pairs of Hen Harrier in all (not 2600 pairs). Please write to Defra on my behalf and ask the following questions: is illegal persecution the main reason for the lack of Hen Harriers in the English uplands? How many pairs of Hen Harrier were nesting in the Bowland Fells and North Pennine Moors Special Protection Areas for Birds at the time they were notified, and how many nested in them this year? What proportion of satellite-tagged Hen Harriers studied by Natural England staff have ceased transmission or been found killed on grouse moors compared with other habitats?
You wrote: ‘With regard to concerns about the impact of grouse shooting on moorland, in my view game management can make an important contribution to biodiversity by providing cover for wildlife, and through the creation and care of habitats such as woodland, grouse moors, beetle banks and hedgerows.’
I comment: This is a ridiculous statement and you should send that message back to the person who supplied it to you. It makes you look rather foolish and that is unfortunate as it’s clearly not your fault. My letter was about grouse shooting – grouse shooting occurs on heather moorland on hills such as the North York Moors, the Peak District and the Pennines. Grouse shooting depends on open expanses of heather which are burned regularly to produce unnaturally high densities of Red Grouse for people to shoot for fun. Grouse shooting does not help create or protect woodland – in fact trees are not welcome on grouse moors. Grouse shooting does not create beetle banks – these are conservation measures in arable fields. Grouse shooting does not protect hedgerows – these are not a feature of grouse moors. Take out those errors and your letter says ‘grouse shooting provides grouse moors’. In your reply to me please assure me that you will no longer send out factually inaccurate information such as this.
You wrote: ‘You may be interested to know that the vast majority of grouse moors that are sites of special scientific interest are now in favourable or recovering condition, whereas only around half were in that state in 2006. This reflects growing awareness among moorland managers of the importance and sensitivity of upland biodiversity.‘
I comment: I think that you will find that any improvement is not due to the good will of moorland owners but due to the legislation of the last Labour government in bringing in the Countryside and Rights of Way Act, backed up by taxpayers’ money. You may be interested to note that too much of the progress on unfavourable condition is on paper and not on the ground. ‘Unfavourable recovering’ means there is a plan in place – not that the habitat actually is recovering. Those plans may not be being implemented and when we leave the EU after the Brexit vote the funding for many of them is uncertain. But in any case, are you aware that the RSPB and local residents in Hebden Bridge have a ‘live’ complaint being investigated by the European Commission about moorland management in the UK (and Defra in particular) because of evidence of widespread poor management of upland areas by grouse shooting interests? Please write to Defra on my behalf and ask for clarification of how that complaint is proceeding and what steps Defra is taking to remedy the situation.
You wrote: ‘Game management plays an important role in the rural economy, generating income and employment in some of our most remote communities. For example, shooting contributes in the region of £2 billion to the rural economy and supports the equivalent of around 70,000 full-time jobs.’
I comment: my enquiry, and the e-petition I supported, was solely about driven grouse shooting – not about all forms of shooting. This fourth paragraph is as off the mark as the second paragraph. The £2bn to the rural community includes clay pigeon shooting (I did not write to you about that), pheasant shooting (ditto), wildfowling (ditto), partridge shooting (ditto) – my letter to you was about one form of gamebird shooting that causes environmental damage and is underpinned by wildlife crime. The figures of economic benefit given by the Moorland Association (the grouse moor owners – see http://www.moorlandassociation.org/) are that their members spend a mere £52.5m per annum. As these are industry figures they are unlikely to be underestimates. In fact the industry figures have been criticised by academic economists (http://www.league.org.uk/~/media/Files/LACS/Reference-material/4pp-Shooting-Briefing-paper.pdf ) as being overestimates. The industry only counts the ‘spend’ and ignores the economic costs felt by the rest of us of increased flood risk (home insurance bills), increase water pollution (increased water bills) etc. Grouse shooting is a hobby for the rich few but a financial burden to the rest of us. And in any case, as a Conservative, I assume you are very strongly in favour of the rule of law – how much wildlife crime would you be happy to see for what economic benefit (and I don’t believe there is an economic benefit to society as a whole – just to a very few).
To summarise: thank you for your rapid response but it was not a relevant or accurate response. Please feed my comments back to the source of your briefing so that they do not continue to provide misleading information to others. Please assure me that you will not use this inaccurate briefing in future. Please ask the questions indicated above of Defra on my behalf. I look forward to your response and in any case I will write back to you once a date is set for the Westminster Hall debate.
PS I thought I would just remind you of our new Prime Minister’s first speech in the job – stirring stuff, and this issue is entirely relevant:
‘We will do everything we can to give you more control over your lives. When we take the big calls, we’ll think not of the powerful, but you. When we pass new laws, we’ll listen not to the mighty but to you. When it comes to taxes, we’ll prioritise not the wealthy, but you. When it comes to opportunity, we won’t entrench the advantages of the fortunate few. We will do everything we can to help anybody, whatever your background, to go as far as your talents will take you.‘
I will post the standard Labour response at 12:30 this lunch time – it is miles better than this Conservative version.