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Redacted - a document released by Defra following an FOI request. From
Redacted - a document released by Defra following an FOI request. From
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Paterson 'badgered' - will he last out February?

Lesley Docksey

6th February 2014

Defra's information firewall about the badger cull is slowly crumbling under the onslaught of FOI requests, reports Lesley Docksey. But Defra will be unable to hide the truth for much longer.

Defra is determined to keep any information about the culls as secret as possible. One has to ask - what have they got to hide?

The staff at Defra must rue the day their political masters decided to press ahead with the badger culls.

Call their Press Office to ask a simple question and you can hear mutterings in the background as they try to sort out what they'll tell you (or not) once they've found someone with an (non-)answer.

Never have the phones been so busy, emails snowing on the Defra helpline and scores of letters arriving, all with one aim in mind - to make a Freedom of Information request about the pilot badger culls. Few aspects of the culls have been ignored.

We have achieved a lot already

It is only because of this that we have learnt so much that Defra, Natural England and the NFU didn't want us to know about this dreadful, cruel and unscientific waste of life. For example,

  • there would only be two independent monitors to check the shooting of hundreds of badgers.
  • only 30% of the farms in the cull areas actually had any cattle on them.
  • despite the culls being set up to test "controlled shooting" of free-running badgers, more of them had actually been shot after being trapped and caged.

We are experiencing a high volume of calls ...

At the beginning of December last year I contacted Defra, requesting information under the FOI Act 2000, a simple matter of figures about the number of farms in the cull areas with cattle, and the number of those farms that had suffered an outbreak of bTB.

The website said one could expect an answer "within 20 working days".

On January 24, patience exhausted, I phoned to ask what had happened to my request, seeing the answer was well overdue. An embarrassed officer said she would find out and phone me back.

Surprisingly, she did - three days later and with even more embarrassment in her voice she assured me I would get an answer, but not yet. "We are" she said, "experiencing a high volume of calls, letters and FOI requests concerning the badger cull."

Two years of misrecording - the fallout

They were also experiencing the fallout after having to disclose that their figures for infected farms had not been recorded properly for the last two years.

Perhaps too many requests for information had helped them to discover the problem. Certainly it was another reason why they couldn't supply the requested information.

But why worry, when even a respected and well-resourced organisation like the RSPCA can't get the information it needs?

In July 2013 Gavin Grant, the Chief Executive of the RSPCA, wrote to Environment Secretary Owen Paterson. The RSPCA wanted to know:

Given that RSPCA officers would be either working alongside the wounded badger patrols in the cull areas, or responding to calls about wounded badgers, could the RSPCA, as a matter of public and RSPCA officers' safety, be informed in confidence and in advance of where and when culling would take place?


Information Commissioner's order ignored

Nor would Defra respond to the request for information about the safety, humaneness and effectiveness of the planned "controlled shooting".

The Humane Society International UK (HIS-UK) had already put in an FOI request for this information, information that Defra was working hard to prevent being made public.

But by the time Paterson answered the letter the Information Commissioner's Office had ordered Defra to release the facts to HIS UK, and Defra was refusing to comply with the order.

The correspondence between Paterson's office and the RSPCA came to an end on 17 September with a terse 4-line letter from Defra saying that they would be appealing the ICO's decision.

Defra: delaying tactics

David Bowles, speaking for the RSPCA, confirmed that they had never received the information they wanted, and that the matter was still ongoing. As it was the HSI UK that had put in the FOI request, it was for them to provide further details. Mark Jones of HSI UK explains: 

"In October 2012 the Humane Society International UK had put in an FOI request for information on how the humaneness of controlled shooting would be assessed. Defra had refused to supply this, quoting various exemptions and using whatever delaying tactics it could get away with to prevent the release of the information."

In May 2013, HSI UK having complained to the Information Commissioner, Defra finally produced a reply so heavily redacted as to be useless (also see image).

HSI UK appealed once again to the Information Commissioner who on 6 August upheld the HSI UK appeal and ordered Defra to release the information within 35 days.

Again, Defra ignores Information Commissioner's order

On 16 September, after the 35-day deadline had elapsed, the requested information was still being withheld by Defra. They then said they were going to appeal against the IOC's decision by 23 September, having been granted an extension.

But it appeared they had not first appealed to the Information Commissioner.  It finally became clear that Defra, ignoring the proper protocol for such matters, had done what no one else could do. It had simply bypassed the ICO and gone straight to the Information Tribunal which granted it leave to appeal.

The hearing is set for 24 March this year, well after the culls are finished, reports written, decisions made to hold more culls and ... oh yes ... all the evidence in the form of badger carcasses incinerated.

Another target missed

But then, as a result of yet another FOI request, it became known that, while the culls were aiming to shoot 70% of the total population of badgers in each cull area, no more than 25% had been killed by "controlled shooting".

The remainder were trapped, caged and shot, despite the fact that it was the humaneness of controlled shooting that was being "tested" in these culls.

A call to the beleaguered Defra Press Office for more information didn't help. The question itself was simple: "would the badger carcasses examined by the Panel include any badgers which had been trapped, caged and shot?"

Defra: "The Panel has enough data to make an assessment." 

Did I not make myself clear?

Sorry, I'll ask that again. Will the badger carcasses examined by the Panel include any badgers which had been caged and shot among those killed by controlled shooting?

"The Panel has enough data to make an assessment."

But will the number of badgers examined by the Panel include caged badgers?

By this time the Defra spokesperson was getting a little tetchy. "The Panel's report will include the number of badgers they have examined."

But will that number include badgers caged and shot?

"The Panel's report will include the number of badgers they have examined." The script was wearing a bit thin with over-use, and the question remained unanswered.

When in a hole, stop digging

Defra, under the guidance of Owen Paterson and the NFU, has dug its information hole deep and wide - and it's not letting anything out if it come help it, no matter what its legal obligations.

It appears that, despite the obvious and angry embarrassment of those having to deal with inquiries from both media and the public, it cannot now admit to any of the truth about cattle, badgers and bovine tuberculosis.

Defra is determined to keep any information about the culls as secret as possible. One has to ask - what have they got to hide?

Five years of 'provisional' data

They admitted that - due to IT problems - the recording of bTB statistics had been unreliable since September 2011, and that the figures would have to be "revised significantly downwards for 2012 and 2013".

But their data for bTB statistics now list all figures from January 2009 as "provisional". This, according to the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratory Agency (AHVLA), a subsidiary of Defra that provides the figures for them, is "standard practice".

"One always treats the last two years as provisional, because not all figures come in straight away and the data may need updating." But five years of provisional figures?

The next updating of statistics is due on 12 February and the AHVLA has said that the "provisional" descriptor will then only be applied to figures from 2011 onwards. We shall see ...

Missing reports

And then there are the mystery "reports". The statement provided by Defra for The Ecologist about the mention of the Prime Minister's office looking for "an escape plan" said:

"We are awaiting the final independent report on the two pilot badger culls ... "

When the word "final" was queried - "had there been other reports?" - there was a hasty: "that must have been an oversight. There is only the report from the Independent Expert Panel."

But according to Care for the Wild, Defra had already produced a "secret report" on the culls - something that slipped out in Defra's reply (of 18 December 2013) to an FOI request they had made concerning the training of the cull operators.

Letting the cat out of the bag

Hidden among several pages of Defra-speak about why they wouldn't answer the questions, was this reference to a hitherto unheard of 'official report':

" ... the publication of the official report into the pilot culls and the report of the Independent Panel which are expected to be published by February next year. The official report will contain data collected from observations of marksmen in the field."

Its existence was confirmed further down in the letter:

"The pilot culls have now been completed and the official report containing the culls' findings has been prepared. The Independent Expert Panel is examining the report and will present their findings to ministers early next year."

Now the 'secret report' will be published - but too late

But having accidentally revealed the existence of this hitherto unknown 'official report' Defra hastily backtracked.

It was not a report at all, the Department insisted, but merely an audit by the AHVLA to be handed to the Independent Panel. Reference to published minutes of the Panel are themselves remarkable for their total lack of information content.

Defra also agreed to the Audit's publication - but only "after a decision on expansion has been made" - making it impossible for campaigners to question any conclusions drawn from it before the Independent Panel's report - and in all probability, a decision on the cull itself.

Restive Government backbenchers

As The Ecologist reported in January, many MPs are becoming increasingly angry about the culls and the way that the Environment Secretary has ignored both science, and the opinion of the MPs and their constituents.

How angry will MPs be if Paterson decides to proceed with the cull against scientific advice? How would the inept Paterson cope with a full rebellion in the House?

There is a credible rumour surfacing that the now overdue report from the Independent Panel will not produce the result that Defra and the NFU so desperately want.

Could the publication of the Independent Panel's report - expected this month - trigger the execution of Number 10's 'escape plan' - and the abrupt truncation of Paterson's Ministerial career?



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