Natural England has insisted it was “left with no option” but to revoke three General Licences last month following a legal challenge from the campaign group, Wild Justice.
Representatives from Natural England were questioned by MPs from the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee on 21 May and used the opportunity to blame the chaos caused by the decision on Wild Justice and Defra.
Interim Chief Executive, Marian Spain, confirmed that advice was provided from lawyers within Natural England and Defra before taking the decision to revoke the three most important General Licences for wild bird control in England. She said that Ministers in Defra were aware of the situation and knew about the decision to revoke the licences, which was taken by the Board of Natural England on 20 March.
The licences were eventually revoked on 25 April, but this was only communicated to stakeholders two days in advance. EFRA Committee Chair, Neil Parish MP, said “the whole thing has the feel that it was sat upon”, but Ms Spain insisted the month delay between the Board taking the decision and making a public announcement had been used to try and find alternative solutions.
Ms Spain acknowledged that the decision to revoke the licences had caused “frustration” to farmers and others who need to control wild birds. She said that Natural England were aware of “high risk scenarios” at this time of year, particularly damage that could be caused to livestock and crops.
Ms Spain insisted that Natural England had done everything in their power to defuse the legal challenge. She said that “without prejudice meetings” were held with Wild Justice, which included reassurances that a review of the licences was planned for later this year and therefore the legal challenge was not needed.
Asked why new licences could not have been put in place at the same time as the previous licences were revoked, Ms Spain said the “volume of work could not have been achieved by 25 April”, which was the date set for the court hearing. She said that Natural England were working to a “hard legal deadline… set by Wild Justice”.
New Natural England Chair, Tony Juniper, said that his agency’s budget had been “cut in half over past 5 years” and he resented having to spend time and resources fighting legal challenges, although he said that Wild Justice were entitled to challenge decisions made by Natural England. He called on the Government to increase funding for Natural England as part of the next Spending Review.
Deputy Natural England Chair, Lord Blencathra, said that a consultation on the General Licences in 2014 was cut short at the insistence of Defra Ministers. Ms Spain said that Natural England “might have had a better understanding” of the current problems, if the consultation had been allowed to continue.
Asked when the new licences would be published, Ms Spain responded “that is a matter for Defra.” The Secretary of State, Rt Hon Michael Gove MP, resumed responsibility for the licences on 4 May, despite Ms Spain insisting that Natural England had new licences ready to publish on feral pigeon and magpies. She insisted the three new licences published by Natural England were not more bureaucratic, simply more “specific” in order to reflect the concerns raised in the legal challenge.
The EFRA Committee had asked Defra Ministers to attend the evidence session as well, but their appearance has been postponed at Defra's request. The Secretary of State will instead appear before the Committee in June to discuss this issue further.
The Countryside Alliance submitted written evidence to the EFRA Committee to inform the evidence session.
Countryside Alliance statement following the Evidence Session:
“Natural England’s priority seems to be to down play the significance of the decision to revoke General Licences and shift blame onto anyone but themselves. Natural England may have been placed in a difficult position by Wild Justice’s legal challenge, but that was largely because it had failed to carry out its responsibilities. And it was Natural England’s decision to revoke the licences that ultimately plunged the countryside into confusion and chaos.
“It is also incredibly unfortunate that Defra has postponed their appearance before the Committee, since they have now taken over the licensing arrangements. We are still no further forward with the reissuing of the majority of the General Licences, and many of the questions asked by the Committee would have been best answered by the Secretary of State.
“There also continues to be confusion surrounding the three General Licences that have been republished by Natural England. If those responsible for the new licences cannot easily explain the new conditions to MPs, there is little hope for the hundreds of thousands of users.”