Thursday, 26 February 2015

The badger cull comes here?

This week, Liz Truss, the Conservative Environment Secretary, promised to continue the existing badger cull in Somerset and Gloucestershire and then extend it across England. Thousands more badgers would be shot if the Conservatives won the general election, she said, as the Tories were committed to a 25-year strategy.

I’ve made no secret of my opposition to this cull. In 2011, I went to 10 Downing Street with the Badger Protection League to hand in a large petition against it. I believe that we have responsibilities for animal welfare and obligations to treat animals, wild and domestic, humanely.

I’ve followed the evidence. The last report of the Independent Expert Panel (IEP) said that the badger culls in Gloucestershire and Somerset had been both ineffective and inhumane. It was no surprise that the Government stopped all independent oversight and scrutiny of its policy.

As Dominic Dyer, the chief executive of the Badger Trust, said: “The cull policy should stop as it has clearly failed on scientific, humaneness and cost grounds. The transmission rate of TB from badgers to cattle is less than 6 per cent. The key route of infection is cattle-to-cattle transfer.” He noted that the Welsh government strategy, which involves badger vaccination and controls on cattle movements but no culling, had halved new herd infections in the past five years.

On this issue, the Conservatives, supported by the Liberal Democrats in Parliament, have consistently put posturing before good policy, secrecy before transparency, conflict before consensus, and prejudice before science. The badger cull is both discredited and embarrassing.

What is needed is continued work with farmers, wildlife groups and leading scientists to take forward an alternative strategy to eradicate bovine TB.  This would include badger vaccination and enhanced cattle bio-security measures.

Your vote at the general election will actually decide the fate of local badgers. Vote Conservative and the badger cull comes here, quickly followed by a return of fox-hunting with the repeal of the Hunting Act. It’s a clear dividing line.

Monday, 23 February 2015

Getting back on track

Almost 20 years on from the botched privatisation of the railways, it is clear that our rail system isn’t delivering a fair deal for the taxpayer or for passengers.  They’ve been left footing the bill for a system that is 40% more costly than in other European countries.

The costs of building and maintaining the tracks are too high. The costs of leasing trains from monopoly providers, who have enjoyed profits margins of over 30%, are far too expensive. A flawed franchising system has failed to get the best deal from private operators for much of this period. The privatised structure created unnecessary costs which, if tackled, could produce savings of between £450m and £1bn by 2020.

Yet, despite all the additional complexity, there is no strategic body responsible for setting the goals of the railways, planning investment and ensuring good outcomes for passengers. It’s no wonder that more than half of passengers believe they’re not getting value for money from the price of their ticket.

Against the backdrop of tough financial times and a cost of living crisis for many passengers, the rail system needs urgent reform. There are four key changes required to get a better deal for taxpayers and passengers.

First, a new strategic body for the railways which will have a strong passenger voice at its heart.

Secondly, we need to replace the existing franchising system, which is simply not fit for purpose.

Third, learning the lessons of the East Coast Mainline - where we saw the benefits of a not-for-dividend operator running rail lines – we need to change the law to allow a public sector operator to take on and challenge for new lines.

And, fourth, there must be a new legal right for the passenger to the offered the cheapest possible ticket. With all the ticket complexities, it is extraordinary that the rail companies are not obliged to do so, now.

If we do these things by 2020, we can get start to get our railways back on track.