Do you remember this blog published on 12 September?
It featured this question and answer in parliament;
I wrote to my MP on this matter in mid September and he passed my concerns on to DEFRA in late September, to which they replied in a letter dated 5 February for which Mr Pursglove wrote a covering letter dated 8 February and which I received last week.
The reply from DEFRA minister Rebecca Pow faces up to the fact that she is the minister responsible and goes on to say:
I would like to correct the suggestion that Natural England provided Defra with incorrect information in regards to a recent Parliamentary Question…
OK – so that lets Natural England off the hook, it seems. They didn’t give the minister incorrect information – although that is the clear meaning of the middle paragraph of Ms Pow’s answer to parliament.
The letter goes on to claim:
The question was about who had access to the nest for the purposes of monitoring and tagging hen harrier chicks.
This is untrue; the question was not about how many nests the RSPB monitored, nor about how many nests the RSPB visited, it was about primary control of access – a slightly odd phrase, one might say in its use here a slightly loaded phrase, but a phrase with pretty clear meaning. Ms Pow told parliament that the RSPB had primary control of access for land on which ten pairs of Hen Harrier nested last year.
But her long-delayed letter to my MP goes on to state;
Whilst the RSPB does not have management control on all the land on which it undertakes nest monitoring…
This is an admission that the RSPB doesn’t have ‘primary control of access’ on 10 sites, only on its own land at Geltsdale. It doesn’t sound like an admission does it? But that’s what it is. And it doesn’t say ‘Sorry’ does it, though it ought to? What the minister said to parliament last September she is unsaying in these long-delayed letters. She hasn’t corrected things in parliament. And the truth would not have emerged in public were it not for letters from myself and readers of this blog which have now received answers months later.
It’s not the most important thing in the world but it’s a sordid and disreputable little case study. A new Tory MP is asked to ask a parliamentary question about a subject he knows very little about (that’s just a guess on my part, maybe Greg Smith MP wasn’t an unwitting or perhaps willing accomplice in this tale, maybe he is a keen birder) which uses a loaded phrase and which is intended (just my guess) to put the RSPB in a bad light. The minister responsible is given a load of information by Natural England and DEFRA staff (she isn’t going to know the answer herself is she?) and the answer does put the RSPB in a bad light. But months later the minister, because we wrote to her, admits that she wasn’t telling the truth – except she doesn’t admit it, what she does is say that it wasn’t Natural England’s fault but doesn’t take the blame herself.
The question and answer formed a nasty little episode in themselves. This reply to me via my MP should have said ‘Yes, that was a bit misleading but we made an honest error which we are happy to correct here’ which would simply leave us wondering whether the error was or wasn’t an honest one. And that reply should have been sent in September 2020 not in February 202`1.
A correct alternative answer to the question would have been ‘The RSPB has primary access control only over the land at Geltsdale where it has a nature reserve. This year there were two Hen Harrier nests there but both failed when the single male provisioning both nests disappeared unexpectedly. The Geltsdale area has a history of Hen Harrier persecution and a Natural England report A Future for Hen Harriers in England? highlighted that killing of adults during the breeding season was a common form of illegal persecution, particularly on grouse moors, and sometimes takes place far from the nest. The RSPB is also involved in monitoring and satellite tagging Hen Harriers on other sites including in Northumberland where a large number of bodies (including Forestry England and the Northumberland National Park Authority) have succeeded in establishing what is now the most successful nucleus of nesting Hen Harriers in England.‘
I say again, it’s not the most important thing in the world, but the combination of lots of small episodes like this and quite a lot of vastly bigger failures undermine trust in DEFRA and this government as a whole. If politicians want us to trust them then they shouldn’t behave like this – it’s that simple.
Another part of the DEFRA omnishambles.
I know that several readers of this blog wrote to their MPs in similar vein and some received responses similar to mine over the last few days too. Thank you for raising this matter with your MP. I shall be writing back to my MP on this matter.