Yesterday in Parliament witnessed an all-day debate about whether the Gov't's targeted pilot cull of badgers (taking place to establish whether it would help control bovine Tb) should go ahead or not. Interest was heightened because we had Dr Brian May in attendence. After the opening statements the debate was mainly a series of prepared speeches, with very little actual 'debating'. Opinions were being put forward as 'facts' and just repeated ad nauseum, even when it was pointed out they were not factual at all. Mr Owen Paterson, Secretary of State at Defra was reported to have left after 20 minutes having taken as much of it as he could stand - though he claims it was due to diary commitments. What we do know is that around 30,000 cattle are slaughtered every year as a result of the Bovine Tb eradication programme. We also know the cost to Gov't is around £100 million per yr (£1billion over next 10 yrs) and the human cost to livestock farmers in terms of stress and mental pressures is massive. And we also know that badgers suffer from bovine Tb and are carriers of the disease. What we do not know is what part (if any) badgers play in spreading the disease - which is why the Gov't intends to carry out a pilot cull targeted in two parts of England where the disease is most rife in order to find out.
But this post is not about Bovine Tb itself, but about what yesterday's debate teaches us about how to put forward a case to MPs. Its clear that those of us who share my approach to countryside issues have to completely rethink our strategy. Lets look at what happened. I received perhaps 100 emails from constituents opposed to a badger cull in any circumstance. Most emails were exactly the same and had clearly been prepared by some central agency. I did not receive one single constituency email in support of a cull - though I did receive well argued submissions from farmer representative organisations. I suspect every other MP was in the same position - and that everyone who spoke in favour of a cull yesterday was speaking completely against his or her constituency postbag. It's no longer enough for the NFU and others to send us excellent briefing material. They must immediately establish a unit which gathers together a million email addresses and asks them all to write to their MPs on issues that matter to them. No good complain about 38 Degrees. They do a great job for those who have signed up to their agenda. The need is to fight fire with fire. I've already told my local NFU that without a change of tactic, they might as well wind up their parliamentary lobbying altogether.
And its worth a word about how the Gov't whips handle these issues. Yesterday's debate was a 'Backbench Debate' - and the Whip's Office reckon these debates should not be whipped. This means that since the 'payroll' do not vote on unwhipped motions, the Government will almost always lose if the motion is opposing Gov't policy. It seems the view is that since the vote is not binding, the Gov't should not be concerned. (though I do wonder whether a backbench motion of no confidence in a Gov't minister would remain unwhipped!) I had thought that this did not matter too much because the Gov't could always simply not push it to a vote. But yesterday, Labour got around this by voting both for and against the motion, forcing a division all on their own. Truth is we were comprehensively stuffed. Most Coalition MPs had left the building. I spoke near the end of the debate but had just gone when the division bell rang. The result was a 147-28 defeat for Gov't policy to proceed with a cull. Now theoretically, this has no actual impact on Gov't policy at all, but I'm not at all sure that those who watch proceedings can have a clue what's going on. Personally, last night's vote reminds me of a cross between 'Yes Minister' and 'Monty Python's Circus'.