Government department Natural England has lost its appeal to withhold information about the wider ecological impact of badger culling. The initial request was made by ecologist Tom Langton and backed by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), following Natural England’s refusal to supply all the details necessary to properly assess the damage the culls may be having to wildlife outside the cull zones.
Natural England argued that releasing all the details would mean protester groups could more accurately identify the cull zone boundaries. They argued that this would lead to an increase in harassment and intimidation of farmers taking part in the culls and to more badger traps being damaged or stolen. However, the tribunal judges found their case to be “unconvincing”, with much of their evidence relating to events not covered by the case or simply not substantiated by fact. Ultimately, the judges decided that even if they were wrong regarding the alleged protester activity, the legitimate public interest in releasing the information outweighed upholding the exemption sought by Natural England.
“This is the second time Natural England have tried to rely on this defence,” says Badger Trust Chairman, Peter Martin who attended the Tribunal throughout. “A strikingly similar case was brought against them by Anna Dale and the ICO in 2015 and their arguments were comprehensively demolished by the judges back then. It’s therefore astonishing that they thought they would succeed this time, not only using the same assertions but also most of the same witnesses.”
“Natural England’s principal witness was a senior official who crumbled under cross examination,” continues Peter Martin. “She was unable to confirm any substantive details of harassment or intimidation such as police arrests or convictions. Her Counsel was forced to suggest that the accounts given in written submission by their other two witnesses could only be attributed to the actions of cull protesters ‘on the balance of probability’. Their case seemed to be predicated entirely on conjecture, exaggeration and anecdote rather than hard fact. To be honest, the whole spectacle was embarrassing to watch.”
“Whilst neither case creates a legal precedent,” continues Peter Martin, “the outcome of both cases combine to put a definitive end to the prospect of government ever again being able to withhold important information based on such a flimsy pretext. The overriding presumption is in favour of disclosure and that is backed up by national and international law. They could appeal but I think that would be clutching at straws and will be seen as a disingenuous attempt to further delay the inevitable.”
“This case raises a number of serious issues for government,” says Dominic Dyer, CEO of the Badger Trust. “Firstly, Natural England’s approach to releasing information was not balanced or impartial, it was entirely c