Over the past couple of years or so the subject of Vicarious Liability has figured large within the news, the outpourings on web sites and, in particular, the discussions taking place on the latter and similar Forums. Let's backtrack a little though! The offence of Vicarious Liability had been embraced in legislation in Scotland and was done so as part of the WANE Bill ( Wildlife and Natural Environment Bill ) brought in under the aegis of , then Minister, Roseanna Cunningham. Under the devolved process such legislation had no application, of course, in England or Wales.
Following that I seem to remember a few comments coming forward from the "conservation sector" as to it being unworkable! However, a question was raised in the Houses of Parliament as to why it was not being embraced by Westminster and received a rebuff from DEFRA Minister, Richard Benyon, who said, in effect , that there was already sufficient wildlife laws in existence to do the job!
At some point in time around then , or following it, an independent E-petition was registered by a lady, Chrissie Harper, last October calling for a debate in Parliament on the subject. Chrissie runs an owl rescue centre in southern England and, therefore, has a direct association with raptor persecution issues. All this seems very logical and sensible and utilises aspects of the democratic process we are all now encouraged to utilise. At this point there seems to have been a slight error of judgement, indeed, I feel there may have been a bit of "firing from the Harper hip" that could be held slightly responsible for what then followed. I've made this point before and still feel it has relevance! However, it is a point , not a major criticism. Previous to the E-petition being registered I don't believe any discussions or approaches were made to the RSPB, amongst others, to call for their assistance in generating signatures for the petition. That was a mistake in my view. They certainly were made afterwards, with several E-mails appearing publicly. Many people signed the petition early on in the process, including me, and continued to promote it. However, the RSPB was lukewarm at best, although it got a mention in various Blogs and in their E-newsletter. That is not the same as an upbeat, outward expression of support and they should now be big enough to acknowledge the fact!! A cynic might even conclude that, because they weren't in the driving seat, they'd decided to pursue a separate, independent , but clearly linked line of action attributed to them only.
The E-petition foundered. The low level of signatures is a bewilderingly pathetic expression of the disgust and opposition we so often see expressed on web sites, letters to the media etc., despite attempts to promote it widely. That's an aspect to investigate at a later date, as it involves a large section of our Society pledged , very actively, to a hobby they care passionately about and who express opinions on it frequently, but who somehow remain detached from the democratic process. However, when the RSPB ran a "signature campaign" related to raptor persecution, it secured the interest of over 200,000 people, double the threshold required for an E-petition to be considered for debate in the House. Incidentally, achieving the 100,000 threshold of signatures does not automatically secure a debate; all topics are scrutinized by a Committee first. However, in this case, a large number of signatures on a petition backed by the acknowledged national bird conservation organization in the UK would have assisted greatly. So , why has the RSPB dragged its heels or avoided the issue?
In recent times much has been made of the review of wildlife legislation in England carried out by the Law Commission and which is currently out for consultation. The RSPB are encouraging people to respond and, indeed, calling for them to draw attention to the , yes, you have it, details relating to Vicarious Liability! Now, at the time when their support was being called for the details emanating from the Law Commission weren't public. The RSPB may have suggested the topic to the Law Commission for consideration within their review, but one doubts if guarantees for inclusion would have been given by the latter. So why not offer support to a petition that exhibited the feelings of conservationists within the UK? Perversely, the absence of support from the RSPB would suggest to some that they weren't in favour of it!! We now have what might be seen, charitably, as a somewhat hypocritical position being assumed by RSPB, who are openly promoting the need for Vicarious Liability to be adopted.
Whilst the RSPB, to its credit, has openly attempted to explain its position ( see the correspondence on the Raptor Politics website ) and has admitted the situation revolves around tactics, I think they continue to overlook the interpretation that will be attributed to their more recent position by most people, namely that they avoided an involvement.
So where does that leave the issue? Consultation responses to the Law Commission review are being called for by the RSPB, and doubtless many people will assist. I doubt that, numerically, that number will equate to the number of signatures that might have emerged had the RSPB put its weight behind the E-petition. Can the current situation be improved upon? Of course it can!
In my view it will do no harm at all for the RSPB to be a late hour advocate of the E-petition. A call for action from its members to sign the petition, coupled with press releases promoting its decision, will send an initial message to the Government, to DEFRA and to those administering the results from the Law Commission review, that underscores the value attributed to the Vicarious Liability clause. Note, this is a call for action, not a call for an apology, nor an admittance that they "got it wrong". I'm not a supporter of "hue and cry" politics, or retribution being awarded bruised egos, but what can be demonstrated here, via a single afternoon's effort, is solidarity with a whole host of people calling for an end to raptor persecution. What is needed now is for the RSPB to return to being a campaigning organization, taking pride in its policies and research results, promoting the needs of both, but not by fighting for change whilst being part of the Establishment, which is what appears to have happened. Justified condemnation and criticism is not something to be reticent about, is something to be pursued with confidence whilst standing tall and independent. The overall mission is surely to promote conservation policies with clarity and gain the widest support for change that is possible. Somehow a little bit of confusion has crept in on this issue that certainly needs to be sorted out. We'll see what happens!
A month still remains within which action supporting the petition can be organized. Not to do so, whilst openly advocating that support should be expressed for Vicarious Liability within a consultation exercise, makes no sense. I sincerely hope that, if the RSPB turns its back on this opportunity, the support for Vicarious Liability within the above Law Commission process ultimately works out. If it doesn't then this potential use of the petition process is a wasted opportunity that might otherwise have resulted in a wide debate on a subject we are all concerned about........raptor persecution. Is there a choice really?