20 July 2023
Clifton-Brown calls on Government to intervene on specific issues affecting shooting and farming

Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown calls on Ministers to overturn the decision to withdraw General Licence 43 for shoots releasing gamebirds on special protection areas and to address the problems that farmers are having in transferring to the new mid-tier countryside stewardship scheme.

Sir Geoffrey said:

Parliament adjourned for recess and we held the annual Summer Adjournment debate now named in honour of the late Sir David Amess who spoke frequently at this debate. I took the opportunity to raise two issues causing concern locally, and called on Ministers to overturn the decision to withdraw General Licence 43 for shoots releasing gamebirds on special protection areas. 

The second issue was raised with me by a number of constituents in the last week. The considerable problems that farmers are having in transferring to the new mid-tier countryside stewardship scheme, at one of their busiest times of the harvest year. The Minister responded that they are aware of some technical changes to the higher-level stewardship and have put support in place, but that she has asked the Department to look at extending the deadline.”

Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (The Cotswolds) (Con)

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to take part in the debate, named in honour of our late colleague Sir David Amess. I participated in these debates with him for many years. Indeed, I participated in an interview with him to promote his book three weeks before he was sadly killed. He was a great friend.

I also pay tribute to my right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart), who is sitting in front of me. It is to the huge benefit of the House that he did not suffer the same fate as his driver and his interpreter in that car. His speech demonstrated, loudly and clearly, to the House and the nation how important it is to have colleagues here with different skills and different knowledge.

Mr Mark Francois (Rayleigh and Wickford) (Con)

May I add, very briefly, to what my hon. Friend has said? We are all aware that my right hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) did great service to his country in Bosnia, for which he was rightfully awarded the Distinguished Service Order. He was far too modest to mention that, but I think that it is worth putting it on the record none the less.

Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown 

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for adding to my tribute.

I now want to raise two urgent issues related to shooting and farming. Before doing so, I should declare my interest as chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on shooting and conservation, vice-president of the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, a shoot partner and a farmer.

I very much regret the necessity to raise the unexpected policy change on the part of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs that will deprive shoots releasing gamebirds on special protection areas with a 500-metre buffer zone of the benefit of general licence 43, forcing each of them to apply to Natural England, which will then advise Ministers on the signing off of each individual licence to release gamebirds. I ask the House to bear with me as I explain the importance of that decision, which DEFRA took in full knowledge of the shooting calendar and communicated to shoots even though birds had already been ordered and were about to be released. It has caused chaos around the country and resulted in an animal welfare crisis, threatened redundancies, shoot closures and the bankruptcies of rural businesses. In short, this is a disaster for rural affairs.

Something similar happened in the spring of 2019 when, after a legal challenge by anti-shooting pressure groups, Natural England revoked the general licences to control pest birds at precisely the point when the protection given by shoots to ground-nesting, laying and fledging birds was critical for their survival. There was a similar outcry from shoots at that time, and the then Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my right hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), reacted very differently. He took over Natural England’s functions, and issued new general licences which allowed the necessary pest control. He was a Minister who knew what was right, and he was not overawed by Natural England. What a difference from the way in which the matter is being handled today!

In this case, it is unacceptable for Ministers to treat stakeholders like mushrooms, promising them consultation and engagement, accepting the need for early notice, and then keeping them in the dark. That is precisely what happened in this case, despite earlier promises.

Shooting organisations were given only a few days’ notice of a significant policy change, with the feeble excuse that circumstances did not permit consultation. Ministers knew that supplies of game birds were ordered in November and December before release in the following June and July. That was contained in their evidence to the courts in the judicial review in 2019, so they should have known that their decision would leave shoots in an impossible position, expecting imminent delivery of thousands of birds that could not be released and could not be culled, with very limited market for resale.

Birds over nine weeks old cannot be kept in pens because they would attack each other—hence the animal welfare crisis to which DEFRA has offered no solutions yet. Shoots have been refused licences, with estates threatened with bankruptcy. Military shoots, which provide social benefits for veterans, have been shut down, and shoots with excellent conservation credentials over decades have been refused a licence even though they protect rare and magnificent bird species that inhabit their land. Who will protect those species if the gamekeeper has been made redundant?

Meanwhile, the application process for a licence is in an almighty mess, with decisions delayed, applications muddled and lost, shoots left waiting for weeks for a decision, and those that have been given licences in some cases subject to unworkable and increasingly bizarre restrictions. It is simply not possible to keep birds ready to be released now until September and to get birds in any numbers at that date, and it is unethical to shoot such young birds when the season starts.

Why has this happened? DEFRA’s justification for this disaster is the prevention of avian influenza, AI, but that justification is deeply flawed. No game bird has ever been released when infected by AI. There is no record of any wild bird being infected by the release of game birds. Outbreaks of AI in the UK do not correlate to the areas in which game birds are released and do not occur when game birds are released. The Netherlands has similar levels of AI, yet it has no game birds released. This is not a game bird issue. The shadow habitats regulation assessment provided by Natural England to Ministers in January 2023 has not been shared with the people whose livelihoods and businesses are now being destroyed. Will the Minister undertake to publish and share it with all those affected?

If the assessment justified such a drastic change in policy for shooting, presumably DEFRA requested similar assessments for other activities that occur in special protection areas. For example, did Ministers request assessments on waterbird feeding events, seabird tourism events, and birdwatching events such as the call to come and see two wonderful bee-eaters at Trimingham? That event attracted more than 15,000 birdwatchers. That is fantastic, but it must have carried a risk of transmitting AI. Furthermore, public access to the coastal path and bird-ringing activities all carry a risk of transmitting AI.

If Ministers did not request assessments for those activities, will today’s Minister explain why shooting was singled out? I am told that the decision to change the policy was made as late as 12 April—it should have happened many months earlier—but shooting organisations were not informed for over a month. I am also told that civil servants were under an explicit instruction not to communicate any changes to the shooting organisations ahead of time. I wonder whether that was an instruction from officials or Ministers.

Let me give the House some examples of the impact on shoots of DEFRA’s decision. A colleague told me this week that a syndicate shoot rented by working men in the north that has been the only shoot in the area to protect nesting hen harriers for years has been refused a licence. A community shoot operating around military firing ranges involving veterans, some of whom have post-traumatic stress disorder and welcome the social engagement that the shoot provides, was also refused a licence.

Here are some quotes from people who run shoots:

“Disaster, we have the first day shooting on the 20th October, no chance the birds will be hardy and fit. We will have to refund guns £14,000.”

“Unsustainable loss for us and Court action with suppliers and possibly death by gassing for a lot of healthy birds.”

“Believing an October release date would be a workable solution for any shoot just shows the lack of knowledge and understanding the people processing these licences have. Shoots will be forced to close leading to catastrophic consequences, not only to jobs and businesses in these areas but also to conservation.”

“It will bankrupt the shoot, two gamekeepers will lose their jobs, just not practical at all.”

Given that these people had a legitimate expectation that DEFRA would honour its promises to

“engage early and consult with the industry”,

and a legitimate expectation, when they ordered the birds, that the licensing regime would not change, will the Minister commit to providing compensation to those shoots that have and will lose out entirely because of DEFRA’s decisions?

The Minister knows that I, and many colleagues, sought assurances on numerous occasions that this problem would be sorted out, and we were given those assurances. I very much regret the necessity to say that those assurances have not been honoured. In the light of that, and the catalogue of mistakes and injustice, will the Minister not take the obvious decision that addresses the problem that the Department has created for itself and others, and immediately renew general licence 43 for all shoots located on specially protected areas? That general licence has subsisted for decades and I cannot see why we need it to be withdrawn at this juncture.

Secondly, I would like to raise the urgent issue of the higher-level stewardship scheme, which a number of people in my farming constituency have contacted me about in the last week. The deadline is approaching for many to transfer from the higher-level stewardship scheme and apply for the new mid-tier countryside stewardship scheme. The main difficulty in completing the application is that the Rural Payments Agency and DEFRA website is not functioning properly in relation to the new scheme.

To exacerbate the delays in moving to the new scheme, the RPA is providing little to no communication with those farmers who have queries about how to apply for the scheme, meaning that desperate constituents, trying to apply before the deadline, are contacting my office for help and support. The deadline for many is coming up in the middle of next month and I urge the Department to provide the communication and support required to help those trying to transition to the new scheme, as they have been advised to do.

This is causing great consternation for my constituency farmers and, no doubt, many other farmers up and down the country, at their busiest harvest time of year. In view of these communication problems with the RPA, will the Minister consider delaying the deadlines for applications to the mid-tier countryside stewardship scheme? That seems only fair, considering the difficulties people are having with communicating with the RPA.

In closing, Mr Deputy Speaker, I wish you, Mr Speaker, colleagues, all our very hard-working staff and the hard-working staff in the House, a happy recess and a chance to recharge their batteries.


The Vice-Chamberlain of His Majesty’s Household (Jo Churchill)

We then went to the beautiful Cotswolds. The issue of GL43 and SPA is quite complex, so if my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) will forgive me, I will say only that I noted his comments and they will have been heard by the Department. DEFRA may decide to modify the GL should the situation change. We are aware of some technical changes to the higher level stewardship and have put support in place, but I have asked the Department to look at extending the deadline as my hon. Friend requested.

Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown 

I thank my hon. Friend on behalf of my farmers, who are very troubled by this, as are farmers up and down the country. It would be really welcome if that were to be put back, even by a few weeks.

Jo Churchill 

I note my hon. Friend’s comments.