Lobbying for animals at the UK Tory Conference
I was very pleased to arrive in Manchester on the last Sunday in September with my Conservative Party conference pass swinging from my bright blue lanyard.
Security, as always, was tight for the main party sharing power in coalition with the Lib Dems. But this year's conference felt smaller - fewer people and a smaller secure area. It could be, in a new era of fixed five-year term parliaments, that the conferences in year four will always be a bit smaller than usual as everyone looks forward to the pre-election conference in year five.
Pre-election conferences always have a bigger political buzz and a sense of urgency about them.
That's not to say that the parties didn't use this year's conferences to make some high profile policy announcements that have at last begun to illustrate that there will be some blue, yellow or red water between the parties in the General Election in 20 months' time.
I was in Manchester to raise two issues with the main party in power - Wildlife Crime and Badgers.
The international illegal trade in endangered species has really hit the international news of late. It started about nine months ago when Hillary Clinton announced that this trade was not only further threatening endangered species but also financing organised crime syndicates and terrorist groups in Africa and Asia.
Shortly afterwards, President Obama raised the ante by addressing the subject once more in the Rose Garden at the White House. In May this year I attended an event at Royal residence Clarence House where Prince Charles and his son William explained that they were so concerned by this illegal trade that they were calling for a heads of state summit to come up with the necessary solutions to an illegal trade that is decimating the planet’s dwindling populations of elephants, rhinos, tigers and countless other species.
A month or so ago the EU Commission also got in on the act and made this a priority area. Last week, William Hague, UK Secretary of State for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, announced at the UN General Assembly that the UK will be hosting the London Conference on the Illegal Trade in Endangered Species next February.
IFAW has been banging a drum about this illegal trade for many years.
We've pointed to the increase in killing of both animals and the rangers who work so hard to protect them. We've produced countless reports of heavily armed poachers, often from failed states such as Somalia, hoovering up the ivory and horns from thousands of elephants and rhinos guarded by woefully under-resourced protectors like the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS).
We've also repeatedly drawn attention to the links between organised crime and terrorism. Ironically, my colleague and good friend James Isiche, the IFAW East Africa Regional Director, spoke at a KWS event a couple of months ago and warned that the sale of illegal ivory was helping finance such dangerous groups as al-Shabab.
Pleased that the world was finally listening to our message, we continued to push it home at the Tory Conference by organising a fringe event on the subject.
I chaired the event, and we had two speakers - Justin Tomlinson MP for North Swindon and Charles MacKay, former head of the UK Border Force department responsible for catching wildlife crime smugglers.
The audience was gripped by Justin's commitment to the subject and Charles' passion for bringing those guilty of smuggling to justice. Since retiring from the Force, Charles has helped IFAW by providing training for enforcement officers in China, Azerbaijan, Tanzania and Ethiopia so he was also able to illustrate his talk with many colourful anecdotes.
I brought the event to an end by reminding everyone that IFAW has two political asks on this subject. The first is that the UK Government takes a "joined up approach" to the issue.
Defra, the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, cannot tackle this subject alone. To successfully make a difference the Development, Foreign and Home Offices all need to work together to combine tight resources and target them efficiently and effectively.
At home in the UK, we also need to lead by good example. It would be deeply embarrassing, I said, if the UK Government were to host a global summit on wildlife crime whilst still not committing to multi-year funding for the UK National Wildlife Crime Unit.
I pointed out that IFAW has been calling for confirmed long-term funding for this Unit for the past five years and now the subject of illegal wildlife crime has gained such prominent and international attention at the highest level it would seem very strange for the Home Office and Environment Department not to announce such a commitment before the London conference begins. Everyone at the event sagely nodded their heads.
On badgers, I met with Anne Main, MP for St Albans. Some time ago she had the foresight to place a motion which enabled supporting MPs to join her in a call to have a proper debate in the House of Commons before there was any possibility of rolling out the badger cull to the rest of the country.
I found Anne a dedicated MP who certainly seemed to know what she was talking about, and I look forward to working with her on animal welfare issues in the future.
One thing that particularly impressed me was that she was originally motivated to look more closely at the badger issue after one of her constituents called her to voice his concern over the proposed cull.
Anne looked into it and, dissatisfied by what she found, put forward a motion that just might stop the cull from going national.
It goes to show the power of getting in touch with your MP...