Part of our democratic tradition is the right to protest and the freedom of expression. Charities have a rich and long history of influencing change in policy, law, attitudes and behaviour - the RSPB's own campaigning roots date back to our origins in 1889 and the ultimately successful campaign against the use of feathers in the hat trade while we also fought a decade long battle to ban the use of DDTs - a class of pesticides that was harmful to birds of prey.
I have been involved in a number of campaigns which resulted in changes in the law: to improve the management of our finest wildlife sites (Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000), protect the marine environment (Marine and Coastal Access Act, 2008) and set legally binding targets to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (Climate Change Act 2008). Each of these landmark achievements were hard fought and were the culmination of many years of campaigning and each required manifesto commitments before legislative reform was secured.
Since 2011, there has been a formal way of securing parliamentary profile with the Number 10 petition system established to enable parliamentary debate for petitions attracting more than 100,000 signatures. 39 petitions have secured such a debate and the latest took place today as a result of Mark Avery's campaign to ban driven grouse shooting. As most readers of this blog will know, the RSPB believes that a licensing system for driven grouse shooting should be introduced as an effective way of improving our uplands. In the run up to the debate, we shared our knowledge of the environmental consequences of driven grouse shooting.
My colleague, Jeff Knott, witnessed the debate and sent me this rapid assessment...
"There was lots of interest and a ticketing system had to be introduced because so many people came to listen: about 50 individuals which was approximately twice the capacity of the room. Equally, there was lots of interest from MPs with about 50 MPs attending at least part, with a majority speaking.
Overall, it was an interesting debate with a variety of contributions from MPs, varied in subject, opinion and quality. There was lots of agreement that biodiversity conservation is a major imperative. That is clearly good news! Yet, there were also various references to hen harriers doing better on driven grouse moors than off them. This simply isn't true. Several MPs said hen harriers are increasing. While they have increased from a historical low 100 years ago, the UK population declined between the last two national surveys. And clearly, it will be interesting to see what this year's survey says.
It was questioned why there are no hen harriers on RSPB reserves. There are! In 2015, RSPB nature reserves across the UK provided a home to over 60 pairs of hen harriers in 2015, about 10% of the UK population. And this year, one of the three pairs that successfully nested in England was on our Geltsdale reserve.
There was lots of support for greater enforcement of laws to prevent illegal killing of birds of prey, but this was short on detail. It was striking that the only real argument against licensing was that it would be bureaucratic. Indeed several MPs stated it was an option. This is easily solvable and we'd be very happy to work with parliamentarians to develop a streamlined system.
Clearly, there is huge interest in this subject, both from the public and from MPs, so it is vital that the Government sets out how it will enable further debate leading to action and real change."
While there will be some that will be downhearted that the parliamentary debate did not lead to an immediate commitment for legislative reform, I think that it would be a mistake to ignore the voices of more than 100,000 people wanting reform. The public anger about ongoing persecution of birds of prey and the state of our uplands will only grow unless action is taken. And, the RSPB will continue to make the case for reform both in England and in Scotland, where licensing will be considered through a similar petitioning process.
Change may take time, but it will come.
I think it was fairly obvious that those with invested interests would attempt to drive a wedge between the RSPB and supporters of the petition. To be fair to Martin Harper and Mark Avery they did their best to mitigate against this at the initial hearing. The subsequent "debate" was farcical of course. Hopefully those who share the same conservation objectives will continue to work alongside each other, even if they can't agree on the best way to achieve them. The good cop/bad cop partnership can be very effective!
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