Don’t trust DEFRA

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.


8 Replies to “Don’t trust DEFRA”

  1. Well done Mark for tying this piece of “slippery soap” down. As you say it is not of critical importance but it is very much symptomatic of not only Defra but of this Government as a whole. In other words, to not tell or give the whole situation, to give misleading statements, and to shift the blame when caught out.
    Of course politicians have always been inclined to do this but this Government has taken this tendency to a much more extreme degree, copying, in many ways, Trump in the USA.
    It all means that ministers start to lack any credibility and trust is lost.

  2. This blog is a perfect illustration of how much you’ll be missed, Mark. Thank you for the many hours you’ve spent keeping us informed. It has been hugely appreciated!

  3. I suppose that no politician is ever that keen to accept responsibility for things that are wrong but Boris Johnson’s government is characterised by particularly slopey shoulders.

  4. The ministers original misleading statement is typical of the biased way both DEFRA and various DGS lobby groups characterise the RSPB involvement with Hen Harriers, misleading and deliberately so to show RSPB in their terms is not up to the job. This failure to apologise properly in my view is part of the whole problem. The government, OUR government, is wholly biased in the reporting of and management of Hen Harriers, a bird that should be almost if not more common than Kestrels on our upland moorland but clearly isn’t and has been in trouble for years because of persecution by criminals within and employed by driven grouse shooting. These same folk in the grouse cabal are Troy voters and many are powerful supporters of the Tories. This is why we have the B awful recovery project involving brood meddling.
    This was not an accident or slip up by DEFRA and the minister it was deliberate by somebody in the chain of information and in every sense it is deliberately misleading, another word for it is CORRUPTION.
    Of course the cabal want it both ways as always when harriers do well on UU land in the Forest of Bowland its down to their grouse shooting tenants, when they do badly its the fault of RSPB. Their are other biases in this reporting but I’ll save them for another day. But the take home message is appalling DEFRA is CORRUPT and cannot be trusted or believed, but there’ll be no resignations!

  5. It’s not even in their best interest to behave like this. Have you ever see ‘The Big Short’ (film – very good, and it’s on iplayer at the moment). In it, the lead character objects to the banks being dishonest not so much because it’s cheating people but especially, as he says, because in the last 10,000 it’s never ever worked. (I think he’s a bit optimistic myself, but there you go.)
    Certainly in the this case all they’ve done is show they are dishonest, rather than, as you say, admitting/claiming an honest mistake. But then it probably wasn’t any sort of honest mistake was it? The whole thing was an attempt to smear the RSPB and make it look like shooters are the protectors of wildlife. How stupid do they think everyone is? As stupid as them presumably.

  6. Trivial at one level, Hugely important at another. Looking across Government, there is a slide towards this sort of thing becoming the ‘new normal’ – an expectation of half truths and distortion which at one level may just be sloppy but at another adds up to a calculated attempt to reduce the Government’s accountability. Just look at Boris Johnsons refusal to answer questions at PMQs – It is an absolutely fundamental attack on his Government’s accountability and on the very basis of our democracy.This Government has already taken a range of actions that suggest it feels it is above the rules that protect our democracy. It is at one and the same time a weak Government but one that feels entitled and as such represents a real danger to democracy. And, yes, it does start with sloppy, biased answers about Hen Harriers.

  7. I’m probably caught out by the dreaded shifting baseline Thang but I have the feeling that parliamentary corruption has become worse since the live broadcasting of parliament which encourages grandstanding and appeal to cult followers in a manner that is detrimental to the common good. No political party is innocent of this. IIRC there was a bit of a Hooha some years ago about cash for questions – planted questions are cheeks of the same arse and not even feebly camouflaged as in the case in point today. This is certainly corruption – couldn’t agree more with PVI above.

    It’s maybe not on the same point on the Richter Scale of Corruption in Public Office as election fraud, data fraud, evidence fraud, looking the other way fraud, lying by omission fraud, pretending it isn’t happening fraud and fraud fraud but it’s part of the corrosion of Integrity which is diminishing our lives at an accelerating rate.

    Up with this we should not put

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