A former environment secretary is one of dozens of prospective Conservative Party MPs who have declined to discuss their plans for tackling climate change with constituents at local pre-election debates.
Two weeks after DeSmog first revealed that Conservative candidates were missing from climate hustings across the country, campaign group Extinction Rebellion has compiled a list of 50 that it said had declined invitations to appear, in addition to 13 that did not appear at one event that covered the whole of the Black Country.
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Extinction Rebellion, as well as other environmental and social organisations, have been organising local hustings to grill their candidates on climate and environment issues before the general election on Thursday.
In a tweet, Extinction Rebellion UK stressed that it does not endorse particular candidates or parties, but it does “call out reckless inaction… such as the Conservatives repeatedly refusing to engage with hustings” on the climate emergency and ecological breakdown.
A number of hustings organisers replaced absent candidates with bowls full of ice that melted as the evening progressed.
One of those bowls was Owen Paterson, former Environment Secretary and incumbent Conservative MP for North Shropshire. Paterson was sacked by former prime minister David Cameron for fear his view that climate change was not a serious problem would cost the Conservative party votes in the 2015 general election.
In 2014, Paterson gave the annual lecture for the UK’s premier climate science denial campaign group, the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF). It later emerged that his speech was written by hereditary peer and GWPF advisor Matt Ridley, who is Paterson’s brother-in-law.
Also represented by a melting bowl of ice was former health minister Stephen Hammond, Conservative candidate for Wimbledon.
Hammond told DeSmog that he had hoped that, as in previous general election campaigns, there would be one single hustings “which generated a high level of interest and a good attendance”. But he will be attending another event arranged by local churches on Tuesday “where I am extremely happy to answer any climate-related questions”.
In the marginal seat of Lewes, East Sussex, Maria Caulfield was replaced by Conservative councillor Nancy Bikson at a local climate hustings after saying she was too “busy” to appear. Bikson gave a statement but would not answer audience questions and had an embarrassing exit that involved clambering over bins and scaling a fence.
Another Conservative absentee at the Waveney constituency hustings was former Environmental Audit Committee member Peter Aldous.
Aldous, who chaired a roundtable on ‘energy and climate change priorities’ at the start of the previous parliament in 2017, told his local paper that he would not attend because the event organisers - the Waveney Trades Union Council and climate groups - were not impartial.
“It is very important that husting events are run by impartial organisations like the press or churches,” he said. “The people running this event are members of a group with political leanings and it is not appropriate.”
On 5 December, Conservative party leader Boris Johnson was empty chaired at the climate hustings in his Uxbridge and South Ruislip constituency after declining to appear.
That was not altogether surprising since he had refused to attend a televised national leaders debate on the environment on Channel 4 the previous week. In a symbolic gesture, the broadcaster replaced Johnson and Brexit party leader Nigel Farage, who was also absent, with melting ice sculptures.
In an environmental analysis of party manifestos, Friends of the Earth found Conservative commitments lacking compared with those of Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party. The NGO said the Conservative manifesto was “missing significant commitments in numerous areas, inadequate policies in others, with actively damaging policies in transport”.
While the absences were not as widespread, there were some notable examples of candidates from other parties missing hustings.
In Hackney North and Stoke Newington, incumbent Labour MP and Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott was accused of “disrespecting” constituents by the local Brexit Party candidate after a spokesperson said she was focusing on her “national obligations” and would be spending all day at the launch of Labour’s race and faith manifestos instead.
The hustings was attended by Conservative candidate Benjamin Obese-Jecty, alongside Green, Brexit and Renew party candidates.
Image: Owen Paterson. Credit: Policy Exchange/Flickr CC BY 2.0