Judges are set to probe the influence Boris Johnson’s girlfriend, Carrie Symonds, had on the government’s decision to reject the Derbyshire badger cull.
Last year, Defra secretary Theresa Villiers ordered culling licensee Natural England to reject a farmer-led application to cull badgers in the county as part of plans to tackle bovine TB.
The decision, taken at the 11th hour, caused anger and frustration in the NFU and Derbyshire farming community, after it had made full preparations to start culling.
It prompted accusations that Ms Symonds, an outspoken animal rights campaigner, had exerted influence on Mr Johnson that ultimately led to the Derbyshire cull application being rejected. Ms Symonds has not commented on the allegations.
Badger Trust meeting
Dominic Dyer, Badger Trust CEO, told Farmers Weekly that he met Ms Symonds in Downing Street in August. Three weeks later, Defra secretary Theresa Villiers ordered Natural England not to issue a culling licence to farmers in Derbyshire.
“It’s completely legitimate, in my view. She was not the only one I was briefing and providing information to, I also briefed Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith,” Mr Dyer said.
“I made sure that the PM got the message loud and clear. It raises a much wider issue about the right Carrie Symonds has as the partner of the PM to speak out on animal welfare issues.
“She is still a patron of the Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation and is a senior adviser for the US environmental campaign group Oceana.”
Mr Dyer accused the NFU of having an overall aim of trying to reduce the influence of Ms Symonds on the government. “I think it’s an attempt by the NFU to shut down Carrie Symonds to have any influence on the Defra secretary on a range of animal welfare and protection issues,” he said.
‘Expert advice ignored’
An NFU spokesperson said the union had made absolutely no accusations against Ms Symonds and their main issue was that Ms Villiers ignored expert advice when she decided to reject the Derbyshire cull.
Last month, NFU vice-president Stuart Roberts said: “We think that what the secretary of state did is unlawful, and that is why we’re launching this legal challenge. Alongside the Derbyshire farmers, we’re asking the court to rule that the direction issued to Natural England should be overturned.
“It’s come to light that before the secretary of state made her decision, her expert veterinary and scientific advisers told her that a licence should be issued to the Derbyshire area, to prevent the spread of bovine TB. It remains our view that any policy decisions must be based on science and evidence.”
The NFU said the High Court has now granted the union permission to proceed on five of the six grounds of its request to launch a judicial review. The substantive hearing is due to take place on 1 April in Birmingham.
Meanwhile, Defra is expected to release the latest cull data soon, which will show more than 40,000 badgers were removed last year, taking the total to more than 110,000 since the culls started in England in 2013.
A Defra spokesperson said: “Bovine TB remains one of the greatest animal health threats to the UK and the decision to pause the cull programme in Derbyshire will let us look at how the cull and existing vaccination projects in that area have worked together.
“We have been notified about this legal challenge and we cannot comment on ongoing judicial proceedings.”