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General Election – The Devolution of fieldsports

While us countryside-minded folk are now facing a “rainbow of rosettes” on our doorsteps with Parliamentary candidates vying for our vote at the forthcoming General Election, if you live in England, you may be able to ask the Westminster hopefuls some straight questions about the matters that affect you most. However, if you live in Scotland, Northern Ireland or, as in my case, Wales, you will need to take a very different approach.

All too often, we see or read in the media — the sporting press included — talk about “the Government”. Generically, I suspect this refers to “Westminster”. But, of course, no longer is a London government wholly in charge, as we have three other governments operating in the UK. Each of these makes their own laws and in many cases they follow different policies. So, we are looking at the plural “governments”, not the singular “government”.

These governments are very diverse in their make-up and in their respective powers. As such, you will need to think very carefully when it comes to the future of shooting, fishing and your countryside at this General Election because no longer is it all down to Westminster or one political party. Much of the power to govern the things you do as a shooter lies with the devolved administrations — the operation of general licences, pest control and gamebird welfare all come under the remit of the UK’s separate governments. A good example at the moment is the prospect of different gamebird codes being introduced shortly in England, Wales and Scotland.

Devolved powers

The BBC and ITN were recently (and rightly) hauled over the coals for not being accurate in their broadcasting of news in politics. Following criticism aimed at them from many quarters, they are now at pains to differentiate between the UK’s countries. You will now hear on, for instance, the 10 o’clock News, that “the minister for the environment in England” has made an announcement that affects only England. This is quite a departure from the past whereby little north of Hadrian’s Wall or west of Offa’s Dyke, let alone much about Northern Ireland, was identified as being different. This even extended towards not recognising the existence of devolved Crown ministers.

That has now changed. Indeed, the same criticism came from within the political world and a recent example became front-page news when the view of Welsh politics had been questioned from a Whitehall perspective. The former Welsh First Minister, Rhodri Morgan AM, stated that: “Wales was seen by London as the last colony.” Strong words. His permanent secretary went even further and said that devolution was seen by some in London: “To be an experiment.” Ouch.

Across the UK, the power of devolution grows daily. It is likely that, by the end of this year, a referendum will be held in Wales on the question of whether the country should be granted powers akin to a Scottish-style Parliament. Essentially, if the referendum is won, Wales would no longer have to seek permission to legislate (as it does now) and would be able to pass primary law without referral to London.

Whether future support in a referendum is a good or bad thing will be down to the electorate. However, with polls consistently running at more than 56 per cent in support of more powers, it may point a way to the future, and as early as October 2010.

The rural vote

So what does this all mean to the average countryman voting on 6 May? Where would you want to cast your vote in support of fieldsports or your countryside? The best way to look at this would be to ask how you would want to change the policies and laws that govern us.

If there were “government” changes needed to bring forward different UK-wide policies, we would have to convince all of the devolved administrations and Westminster. Within that comes all the different political colours, coalitions and hues to effect such change. As an example, if it was felt that urban values were far too strong in our schooling systems across the UK and a desire existed to change the curriculum to get the children out of the classrooms and into the countryside, that move would require a change to the four different school curriculums: the Welsh National Curriculum, similarly Scotland, Northern Ireland and England. So, in order for children throughout the UK to gain a better understanding of “the countryside”, you would need to approach ministers separately in Cardiff, Holyrood, Stormont and London. Similarly, if changes were sought to, for instance, the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act, agri-stewardship, enhancements on rearing practices for pheasants, or river quality, a different approach will need to be taken across the UK. This is because the governments in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have different priorities. Of course, the approach would initially be singular if a change was wanted, for example, only in Wales.

Working together

Having said the above, I don’t subscribe to the thought that the General Election is mostly about England. Certainly in Wales, devolution is about working with government(s) at both ends of the M4 motorway. The General Election will be significant in Wales. It is how the government(s) delivery takes place thereafter that is important.

There are different working perspectives in Scotland and Northern Ireland, but I work within Wales. One senior Welsh Assembly Member described to me recently how the separate devolved institutions regard their independent approach to different issues, saying: “We are old enough to make our own mistakes.”

So, when you get that knock-knock on the door and a Parliamentary candidate asks you for support, think very carefully about what you want them to do for you. Seek their commitment on enhancing your countryside, your shooting or fishing. Find out exactly what they intend to and, importantly, can do to benefit a devolved Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and also England, for the General Election is about governments, not only one government.