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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Government challenged on Badger cull

From yesterday's Business Statement:

Peter Black: Minister, would it be possible to have an urgent statement from the Minister for Rural Affairs on the way in which the Government is implementing the cull of badgers in north Pembrokeshire? You will be aware from newspaper reports that there has been great consternation in the area about Assembly contractors going around the countryside wearing masks, accompanied, mob-handed, by large numbers of police officers, thereby intimidating residents. In response to that, the Minister claimed that landowners had been notified in advance of visits by Assembly Government staff and their contractors, when, in fact, although landowners are told that there will be visits, they are not told when they will happen. In some instances, female pensioners who live alone have had to insist on being given a date. Last Tuesday, a disabled gentleman in his 80s, in a wheelchair and losing his memory, was alone when he was visited by masked contractors and a police van full of police officers. He was left shaken and visibly shaking as a result of that visit. You will also know from having watched the videos of those visits that the Minister’s claims that the contractors are wearing masks because of attempts to intimidate them are clearly not true. On a number of occasions, the contractors have gone around wearing the masks even though there were no cameras present or demonstrations taking place. I have mentioned the example of the gentleman in his wheelchair; another is that, earlier this week, a couple were stopped at the top of their drive by police officers and masked men, who were apparently Welsh Assembly Government employees, when that drive leads to only two cottages and a holding that had already been inspected for badger setts.

There are also concerns about the methods being used by contractors who are not prepared to allow their identity to be verified before going onto people’s land, and about the fact that, in some instances, proper biosecurity measures have not been taken by the contractors in pursuing their duties. It seems that all the trappings of a police state have been put in place in north Pembrokeshire by the Assembly Government. It is urgent that the Minister for Rural Affairs answers questions on the regime that she has put in place, how she is implementing this cull and how she will deal with some of the concerns raised by residents in this regard.

Jane Hutt: As you said, the Minister has responded to these issues. They are being addressed and handled in the preparatory stages of the pilot that is being undertaken. I am sure that she will want to put the record straight on any issues that have been raised in the Chamber today.

And a bit later:

Lorraine Barrett: Minister, I would like to support what Peter Black has said and ask you for a statement in the Chamber to update us on the current survey of badger setts in north Pembrokeshire. I, too, have seen video footage of men in balaclavas turning up to undertake the surveys, but who are not prepared to show the landowners and residents any photographic evidence of who they are. While they were accompanied by an official—who, I presume, was a Government official—and police officers to verify that they were who they said they were, there were many distressed and emotional people, quite a few of whom were quite elderly, and Peter has given us some examples.

You have said that the Minister has replied, and I have seen that in the press, but her officials describe the objectors as a tiny minority, but they are not. There are at least a couple of hundred, and many who have not made themselves known because they are living on their own in isolated areas and are a bit nervous. I just wanted to say that it is intimidating to have men in balaclavas turning up at your gate, supported by police vehicles, waiting to gain access when you have had a day’s notice, or perhaps less than that.

Jane Hutt: I refer you the response that I gave to Peter Black earlier in answer to his questions. The Minister will be aware of the issues that have been raised today in the Chamber.

Not much of an explanation by Jane Hutt then. The planning and organisation of this cull, whether necessary or not, seems to have been extraordinarily misconceived; surely opposition was to be expected and who decided that a good way to calm down a controversial situation was to shroud it in secrecy and sending in balaclava'd 'exterminators'!
I don't understand why WAG appear hell-bent on coercing protesters in any case. Sir David King's report, which seems to have informed the decision to implement the cull, stressed that the aim in culling badgers 'is not to eliminate badgers ...references to removal in this report are to reducing the number of badgers in an area rather than to removing them completely'. So why insist on removing them from land belonging to objectors, at enormous expense in terms of police time, public funds, loss of citizen goodwill and respect for WAG, stress to both landowners and contractors, etc.etc. ?

During the consultation process, did WAG ever seek out or consider the opinions and wishes of the many landowners in the area who do not agree that a cull is necessary, or that it will be an effective way to control TB in cattle, and who deeply appreciate the presence of badgers on their land? Why are these people being treated as second-class citizens, whose views do not count?
We are continually told by WAG and the Minister for Rural Affairs that there are very few landowners who have objected to the procedures for the cull on their land and yet Lorraine has said there are a couple of hundred at least. If this is the case, this is not a small minority. Is it possible to have an exact number? This is a very important issue, particularly as during the Badger Trust judicial review WAG confirmed that 6-9% is classed as SUBSTANTIAL and this was fundamental in the Judge's final decision. So, If more than 6% or more landowners in the cull area are against the cull, this must therefore be classed as a SUBSTANTIAL number of landowners so surely WAG must now be prepared to be more flexible and make appropriate compromises?
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