Everyone’s favourite Minister Richard Benyon has been giving evidence at the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee’s inquiry into wildlife crime (see here, here and here for earlier blog posts about this inquiry).
Some of the topics on which Benyon was questioned included #buzzardgate, hen harriers, the introduction of vicarious liability in England, the legislation concerning possession of illegal poison, and the independence of Natural England.
So how did he do?
He started off badly when questioned about the need for legislation to criminalise the possession of certain poisons. The legislation is already in place in Scotland but a loophole in the English legislation means that ‘possession’ (rather than ‘use’) is still not an offence – see here for an RSPB press release last year on this very topic. Bungling Benyon suggested that the current legislation was adequate and didn’t require updating. He was picked up on this a bit later by the Committee Chair, who insisted on clarifying whether there was a difference between ‘possession’ and ‘use’ in the legislation. Benyon chose the safe option and asked whether he could make the clarification in writing at a later date, presumably to give himself time to actually go and read the legislation.
On the issue of whether to introduce vicarious liability legislation in England for raptor persecution crime, Benyon commented that there were no plans to introduce VL but he will watch the impact of it in Scotland. That’s fair enough. Why waste time and funds to introduce something that may be completely useless as a tool to combat raptor crime until you’ve seen whether it can make a difference in Scotland. It was suggested to Benyon that some might say the Scottish government takes wildlife crime more seriously than their English counterparts. Benyon rejected that and said there are wildlife crime measures that are making a difference and the legislation is adequate. Unfortunately he didn’t give any examples.
When asked about #buzzardgate, he basically said he loved buzzards but that some of the people protesting about the ‘study’ had misunderstood the research. Er, what was there to misunderstand? Benyon and his game-shooting cronies wanted to spend our money removing native buzzards from the wild, on private shooting estates, for the benefit of mass-introduced non-native species that are bred for the sole purpose of being killed for sport. “I recognise that it hit a wall of credibility“, said Benyon. Too bloody right it did.
When asked whether he was doing anything specific to protect the hen harrier, Benyon stated, “Yes, we are“. He said he was looking at the possibilty of a project that might work, but he didn’t want to provide any specific details because “it is at a very conceptual stage“. Hmm. Could this be the controversial plan to introduce a so-called ‘ceiling’ for hen harrier numbers, a concept that has been knocking around since 2008 (see here and here)? We’ll have to wait and see.
Benyon was then asked: To what extent are you satisfied that Natural England is making sufficient use of its civil enforcement powers in relation to SSSIs? Benyon’s response: “…….It is also very important that Natural England is an arm’s length body with the neccessary statutory basis that they have, and that they are able to operate the laws and sanctions that they have freely and unencumbered“. Now that’s an interesting statement! If you’ve been following Mark Avery’s superb analysis of what went on in the Walshaw grouse moor fiasco (see here for his 23rd blog entry on the subject), you’d be hard pressed to believe that Natural England acted “freely and unencumbered”. There’s still plenty more to be uncovered about what happened between Natural England and Walshaw Moor Estate but rest assured that Mark Avery will have a good go at getting to the bottom of it. Benyon’s statement may just come back to haunt him.
To read the full transcript of Benyon’s evidence to the Environmental Audit Committee, see here. Bear in mind that this is the uncorrected version; the corrected version should be posted shortly.
The EAC has now finished compiling the written and oral evidence in this inquiry and a report should be published in due course.