Badger cull’s second day in Parliament
With the e-petition on the UK Government website approaching the figure that would make it the biggest ever, and with several thousand people marching against the badger cull in central London last weekend, the Labour Party called for a debate in the House of Commons. So Team Badger – the coalition of around 20 animal welfare and conservation organisations artfully brought together by Queen guitarist and campaigner Brian May – leapt into action.
International Fund Animal Welfare (IFAW) has been an active member of Team Badger since its creation, and our particular contribution has been to help coordinate parliamentary activities.
Team Badger’s first act was to launch our myth busting report Backing Badgers: Why the cull will fail in committee room 19 at the House of Commons on the morning of the debate. The text had been circulated to all MPs earlier, and we were flattered to see that Defra, the Government department responsible for the cull, had rushed out what it considered to be a rebuttal to our document the evening before the parliamentary launch of our report. There was nothing new or compelling about the rebuttal and it even contained some disingenuous and heavily “spun” assertions.
The launch was a great preparation for supportive MPs to rehearse the arguments they would later make in the parliamentary debate. Together with the photo opportunity we organised for supportive MPs over the road from Parliament, the launch helped create the buzz around another busy day for badgers in the House of Commons.
The last time badgers were debated, the Government chose not to insist upon the attendance of its MPs and so downplayed, and in effect ignored, the fact that the cull was voted down by the MPs who did attend that debate.
This time it was a different kind of vote – one the Government clearly thought it couldn’t afford to lose. The concept of the three-line whip came into play. Those responsible for making sure that MPs in their party turn up, and vote are known as whips. When they want their MPs to know that it is essential that they turn up to vote and vote in line with their party policy, they underline the particular details of the vote three times – a three-line whip. There are times when MPs can vote with their own conscience – not when it’s a three-line whip. In fact, in the past it’s not been uncommon for anyone considering wavering from their party line to find themselves being treated to the not so tender mercies of their whips. Threats varying between suggestions that they will never progress within their party to withdrawal of parliamentary privileges have been known to be made.
In the weeks before the second debate many MPs from the coalition parties had spoken out one way or another about their doubts or open opposition to the proposed cull. However, after a three-hour debate in the House of Commons the cull was confirmed by a vote of 299 for and 250 against. The whips had clearly been busy. Not every coalition MP stuck to their party line. In all, 15 brave souls defied their party line and presumably will have to live with the consequences for standing by their belief that this is a wrong-headed policy that will result in the needless killing of 70% of badgers in the test areas and might even make the awful problem of TB in Britain’s cattle worse.
All is not done. The culls have yet to start. The petition gets nearer and nearer to the largest ever on the number 10 website. Farmers still have to agree to actually take up their guns and go out into the night, or pay others to do so. Police forces have to be confident that the cull can be implemented safely. Large landowners have to be comfortable about the cull happening on their land.
One lost vote, a summer does not make. Unfortunately, it looks like we might be in for a long and complicated summer.