Improving Defra’s National Pollinator Strategy: Government Response

Back in March Defra released the draft National Pollinator Strategy for consultation. The broad aims of the strategy, to “safeguard pollinators and their essential pollination role, reflecting their importance and the many pressures they face”, were initially received as a welcome step in the right direction for the future protection of pollinators. However, in their report on 16 July, the Environmental Audit Committee highlighted a number of potential improvements to the strategy, including most notably a change in attitude of the Government. The Government has now published their response to the Committee’s report.

The Committee’s report, which provided a collection of very strong recommendations for Defra to work on, has been met by a resilient response from the Government which reaffirms their initial position on many aspects of the Strategy.

Much of the Committee’s criticism was directed at the government’s stance on neonicotinoid pesticides. In 2013 MPs memorably voted down proposals to ban three neonicotinoids despite a recommendation from the Committee for precautionary measures to do so while the full effects of the pesticides were investigated. The European Commission subsequently imposed a two-year ban on using the pesticides on bee-attracting crops, despite UK opposition. The Committee’s report called on Government to “draw a line under the neonicotinoid ban by making it clear that the UK accepts the European risk assessments underpinning the ban.”

However, in their response the Government state that they disagreed with the Committee’s conclusions about the rationale for a ban on neonicotinoid pesticides and rejected the call not to challenge the EU neonicotinoid ban when it is reviewed in 2015. The response states “we opposed these [EU] restrictions because our assessment was (and remains) that the evidence did not point to risks to pollinators that would justify the proposed restrictions.”

The Committee were also highly critical of Defra’s reliance on industry to fund vitally important research. They highlighted concerns that commercial industries were being empowered to generate research that is intended to contribute to a review of the ban on neonicotinoids. The Committee echoed the reservations of many witnesses, fearing that the research might be seen by the public as “biased”. The Committee called for the Government to ensure that independent controls are in place to monitor research and that the results are peer-reviewed and published without delay.

The Government’s response to this matter stated that they have emphasised the need for commercial industries to follow EU rules on research done for regulatory purposes and that they acknowledge the “value in having the key regulatory studies in the public domain” and are “considering how this could best be done”.

The Government has, however, stated that it agrees with the Committee’s call for the Strategy to set a baseline for monitoring the plight of pollinators, the need for clarity about Integrated Pest Management, and the importance of public engagement.

Yesterday a general debate on the National Pollinator Strategy took place in the House of Commons Chamber. The debate, which was scheduled by the Backbench Business Committee, was opened by Sarah Newton MP who stated that “there is absolutely no doubt of the need for a national pollinator strategy”. The Conservative MP for Truro and Falmouth later said that she would like the government to ensure that they “do not override some decisions on the basis of a reliance on commercial rather than scientific research” and to also “put greater emphasis on taking pollinators into account in its planning guidance”.

Dr Alan Whithead, Labour MP for Southampton Test, urged “a rapid passage towards a final national pollinator strategy”.