On Monday afternoon and evening a Westminster Hall debate was held where UK MPs discussed the idea that driven grouse shooting should be banned because 123,077 people had signed an e-petition. The e-petition system was set up by Parliament so that the people could bring matters about which they felt strongly to the attention of parliament and ask for action. The threshold of 100,000 signatures to secure such a debate was set up by parliament. It’s a way for the people to influence those with power which stretches back to Magna Carta and beyond. It’s generally regarded, and I agree, that it is a better way of getting the attention of those in power than rioting and other illegal activities. But it does depend for its effectiveness on those in power listening and responding.
Here are a few thoughts on Monday’s debate, through all of which I sat, but I will be coming back to some of these subjects in more detail over the next few days.
- Steve Double MP (he who thinks the Badger is the UK’s largest rodent) behaved appallingly as the MP chosen from the Petitions Committee to introduce the debate. His role might have been to signal that this was a subject of considerable interest but not to parade his uninformed views which were basically saying ‘The people who signed this e-petition are wrong’. I would have no problem with him expressing that view as an individual MP, but not in his role as a Petitions Committee member introducing a subject brought to Parliament by a large number of people. Mr Double was disrespectful of the process and of those who signed the e-petition and he ought to be ashamed of himself. I will come back to this.
- Charles Walker MP, is a very impressive speaker in terms of delivery but traduced my views in his speech. As a holder of a degree in political science he might, perhaps, consider that he is inexpertly qualified to speak quite so dogmatically about science and he was one of several MPs (all Conservative MPs in favour of driven grouse shooting) who referred to me as Mr Avery when in this particular context it might have been more appropriate to recognise my doctorate in science (and a reasonably impressive publication record too). I will come back to this too.
- The Conservative shooters turned out in very strong numbers including the Chair of the Countryside Alliance, Simon Hart; the chair of the APPG on Shooting (and Conservation ha ha), Geoffrey Clifton-Brown; grouse moor owner and GWCT trustee, Richard Benyon; the former director of public affairs for the British Field Sports Society, Nick Herbert; and last, and obviously not least, the disrespectful Nicholas Soames.
- There were no Liberal Democrats MPs present in the Hall at any time through the 3-hour debate (unless I missed them – do tell if I did) and none made a contribution to the debate despite Liberal Democrat constituencies (and ex-constituencies of which there are many more) being strong supporters of the e-petition.
- The SNP were thin on the ground despite Scotland producing a stronger than average support for the e-petition. Let me thank Richard Arkless for making two useful interventions in the debate (and may I thank several of his constituents for encouraging him to take part in the debate) and Lisa Cameron for one and Margaret Ferrier for attempting three times (rather than the one recognised in the transcript) to intervene in the Minister’s closing remarks. Having thanked those three, it was a poor show overall from the SNP who had the ability to make a speech in the closing and passed this up. The Scottish experience, particularly in respect of vicarious liability ought to have been part of this UK debate. If I had a SNP MP I would feel short-changed.
- The Labour Party, of which I am a member, was also thin on the ground. Many thanks to those who turned up and most especially to Rachael Maskell and Kerry McCarthy for their excellent efforts. Angela Smith did quite well but lacks the killer instinct in these debates and as the Hen Harrier Champion might have been expected to get stuck in rather more on their behalf. It was good to see one of the ‘Sodden 570’, Barry Gardiner MP, attend the early part of the debate although he could not speak as he is a Shadow Minister. Thanks too to Stephen Timms for making several interventions, to Holly Lynch for her intervention and to Stephen Twigg for spending some time in the debate. But where were the Labour scourges of the Establishment in this debate, and where were those with large numbers of signatures in their constituencies and where were those with an interest in nature conservation? It was a disappointing turn-out and one which was remarked upon by many Conservative MPs, who were legion, in tones of surprise. I think the Cosnervative shooters were geared up for a bigger argument, but they were given a very easy time.
- It was good to see Caroline Lucas arrive in the debate and make a couple of interventions and I know she had other pressing engagements which prevented her longer attendance – but if she had spoken, then in the allocated seven minutes she would have wiped the floor with the shooters on the other side. It’s a pity cloning is not yet possible and nor yet is proportional representation – I wonder which we will get first?
- the RSPB got quite a lot of criticism (almost as much as Chris Packham and I did) from the Tory ranks, and a little from Labour too, for failing to have a worked-up rather than talked-up licensing system available. but they also got a fair amount of ill-informed and rather random criticism from the Conservative shooters. After being slagged off the RSPB was exhorted to come back into the fold of the Defra Hen Harrier Inaction Plan – the world is a bizarre place.
- there was a lot of nonsense spoken: mostly by men (although Antoinette Sandbach and Therese Coffey obviously didn’t want to be left out) and mostly by Conservatives. I will come back to this, for sure.
- Several MPs were dismissive, or worse, of the views of those who had, through a process that parliament itself had set up, brought this matter to the ancient confines of the Palace of Westminster. Parliament itself set up this process – it asked the electorate to voice its views through this particular system. And very few subjects, certainly very few as niche in the general scheme of things as driven grouse shooting, get the support necessary for such a debate. The least that might be expected of MPs in such a debate is that they might recognise that the subject is one of concern. I have no issue with Conservatives who shoot piling out in droves to speak against a ban on grouse shooting, but that they did so with such deplorable bad manners when the 123,077 people had brought them to this debate is bringing parliament’s own process into contempt. But at least the Tories turned up!
- the minister’s summing up was as complacent as everything else that has come out of Defra in the last couple of years. No change in policy was signalled. No concern about the current state of affairs was mentioned.
Petitions are a much better way of getting the attention of decision-makers than riots, but especially when MPs listen. We need to keep raising the issues. We will be heard.