We need to talk about Defra

Defra plate




Defra – Deathra, the Death-Ray, Deafra, Defer, Defray – just some of the parodic alternative names given to our Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs.

Formed in 2001 under a Labour government, when Margaret Beckett was Environment secretary, during the panic-stricken days of the Foot and Mouth Disease crisis. Its unwilling parents were the Ministry of Agriculture Food and Fisheries or MAFF; and bits of the Department for the Environment Transport and the Regions (DETR). MAFF had long been the plaything of the landowning/farming/fishing unions. MAFF controlled the money which flowed (like hot butter) from Europe into the hands of farmers and fishermen through the Common Agricultural and Fisheries Policies. DETR was itself a bit of Frankenstein created in 1997 when Labour swept to power, from the old Department of the Environment (DoE) and bits of the Department of Transport. As Labour was keen on having regional governance, it needed somewhere to develop “the Regions” (remember them?), hence DET + R.

Defra has lived for nigh on 14 years. Will it survive another 14 weeks?

It was nearly killed off in May 2010, after a successful media campaign orchestrated by Shadow Secretary of State for the Environment Nick Herbert. He wanted rid of Defra, Natural England and all other such meddlers and busybodies who got in the way of decent country folk who wished for nothing more than continuing to receive enormous state hand-outs, for doing exactly what they wanted.

Herbert was also Director of Public Affairs at the British Field Sports Society before becoming an MP and I have no doubt that the hunting ban introduced by Defra, will have been a factor.

I have heard the story from several people so I am assuming it has substance: The Departmental plate was being removed from outside Nobel House, when the news came from Downing Street that Defra was to be given a reprieve. I don’t know who saved it – perhaps it was those nice fluffy people at the Lib Dems. Perhaps it was Oliver Letwin. I guess the truth will out eventually.

Defra survived by the skin of its teeth. But it had to endure the most savage cuts meeted out to any Government Department. As last week’s EFRA Committee report showed Defra budget was £3bn in 2010 and in 2015 it will be £2.14Bn, a 29% cut. Morale amongst Defra civil servants is lowest amongst the entire civil service.

Only 16% of Defra staff agreed with the statement “when changes are made in Defra they are usually for the better”,  and only 28% of staff agreed with the statement that “I believe that the Board has a clear vision for the future of Defra.

In their report the Tory-controlled EFRA committee urged Defra Secretary of State Liz Truss to protect Defra’s future. “We would like the Secretary of State to go out there and really stand her corner about what spending needs to be ring-fenced because in six months’ time it will be too late. Things will move fast after the election,” she told Farmers Guardian.

NFU President Meurig Raymond said “It is a concern, with possible further expenditure, that Defra could lose so much resource it makes it difficult to function,” he said. “We need to avoid that and it is important to have a strong voice around the Cabinet table and in Europe.”

There are rumours circulating that Defra might be merged with the Business Department BIS after the election, but a merger with DECC might also be on the cards (as I understand was planned in 2010.)

Given the appallingly low profile the environment (and especially nature) gets as a result of being within Defra’s remit, it may be an improvement if it landed in a bigger department like BIS. Or perhaps it should sit within the Treasury? This is, after all, where all the really important decisions are made now.

Some, notably the RSPB and Wildlife Trusts, are calling for an Office of Environmental Responsibility, akin to the Office for Budget Responsibility. This proposal was picked up by the Environmental Audit Select Committee in their recent report. But the OBR is only an advisory body,  albeit with political clout. It seems likely the OER would have significantly less clout than the OBR.

Should we mourn the passing of Defra if it does shuffle off its mortal coil in May? I for one won’t. The old cosy relationships between NFU/CLA and their political chums survived the MAFF/Defra transition entirely unscathed. Defra time and again has sided with the Farming/Landowning lobby over issues such as wildlife protection, badgers/TB, bees and pesticides, GMOs, biodiversity offsetting  – need I go on?

Nature does need a voice within Whitehall – a voice that does not sit in any particular department, but has enough clout that all departments, and the Treasury, have to listen. I’m not convinced that an OER will be sufficient on its own, though it may be play a useful role. Perhaps every Department should have a nature unit, testing all new Government policies and legislation for their impact on nature. This could be achieved through a much stronger regulatory impact assessment process which can require policies to be changed where they clearly have damaging consequences for nature.

But none of these things will happen while politicians continue to see nature as a side-issue. Only a change in the way society views nature will lead to a shift in the position of politicians and how they view nature. This is what we all need to work on.

About Miles King

UK conservation professional, writing about nature, politics, life. All views are my own and not my employers. I don't write on behalf of anybody else.
This entry was posted in Defra, General Election 2015 and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to We need to talk about Defra

  1. David Dunlop says:

    When it was set up some of the young farmers in Lancashire were calling it the “Department to End Farming Right Away”, I think in the light of the alleged belief of its first Secretary of State, Margaret Beckett, that UK farming was unnecessary as we could import all our food more cheaply. How times change. I also seem to remember each UK Government department was supposed to have a ministerial biodiversity champion; but one never heard much of that after the initial announcement and I presume they faded away…

    • Miles King says:

      thanks Dave. Yes I remember the idea where every Govt Department other than Defra (imaginatively called the OGD’s) were supposed to have their own biodiversity actions, which, magically, when added to together would create a seamless whole of Biodiversity-friendly policies and actions. In the event, only a couple of OGD’s ever bothered to do anything, while the whole exercise passed by the Treasury without anyone there noticing.

  2. John Kay says:

    Departments act for their ministers, so they have limited scope. Handed down from Becket or Paterson or whomsoever – crapola of red, blue, yellow – or purple as it may be.

    I get the RSS feeds from Defra – this one today is the latest in a long series of FOI responses typifying the way their time – and therefore our money – gets wasted by the public. If I were them, I would always send a two-word answer. But I’m not …


    • Miles King says:

      Thanks John.

      Actually the Christmas card list is quite interesting and would not have taken more than a few minutes to collate the information and fill in the pro forma letter…and why shouldn’t the public have access to information about what our civil servants (and politicians) get up to? FoI has been a hugely useful tool for the environmental sector, opening windows where only brick walls existed before.

      • John Kay says:

        Yes the list is interesting. It’s especially useful to know there is a monkey sanctuary in Kew, and that Lordy Mauley sends cards to them. I agree that FOIA is very useful but my objection is to any frivolous abuse – is there a FOIA equivalent of a vexatious litigant?

        While I’m here – Rampisham: I occasionally wonder why the Environmental Damage (Prevention and Remediation) Regulations 2009 are not (apparently) invoked more often, if ever. These were announced with some fanfare – or a tootle at least – as the means to get egregious wrongs righted. The damage to the SSSI at Rampisham would seem a legitimate case for remediation – with costs paid by the perpetrators.

      • Miles King says:

        There is indeed a vexatious request clause in the FoI Act (section 14(1). Not that it has been used against me.

        My very limited understanding of the Environmental Damage Regulations is that they apply to pollution incidents in water. The damage caused to Rampisham would fall under the Wildlife and Countryside Act and subsequent Acts such as CROW and NERC. I would imagine Natural England are waiting to see the outcome of the Call-in request and ultimately the decision whether to proceeed with the development or not, before deciding what action to take regarding the works arleady undertaken. If the permission is given the go head, the damage done to date will pale into insignificance compared with what’s to come. And if it is refused, then enforcement will proceed by the council (and possibly NE).

  3. John Kay says:

    As far as I can see EDR goes wider than water: damage to species and habitats; damage to water; risks to human health from contamination of land.
    Guidance (150pp.) is here: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/environmental-damage-prevention-and-remediation-regulations-2009-guidance-for-england-and-wales

    See p51 for a quick look – applied to Rampisham my interpretation of that page is “Remediation required for species and habitat”

    • Miles King says:

      It does in theory, but I’m not sure that it adds anything beyond the available protections for SSSIs.

      • John Kay says:

        In which case – I wonder at the purpose of the EDR, which I thought was intended to make the polluter pay for environmental damage when there was otherwise no prosecution. When EDR were announced there was an illustratory scenario (which I can no longer find) which went thus: a third party saw a tractor driver spreading slurry on what the observer knew to be a SSSI. Following his reporting this incident, the contractor and the landowner were hit for the cost of consultants’ assessments of the damage, and future assessments, and for implementing a remediation plan. The enhanced nutrient status would persist for some time so there would be “some time before the natural resource recovers to, or towards, the baseline condition and for complementary measures to take effect. Therefore, there will be a period when the natural resource will be “out of action” – a period when the public and other natural resources will not be able to benefit from the damaged resource. The Regulations aim to compensate for this “interim loss” of natural resources. This is called compensatory remediation and is a new and, arguably, radical concept in English environmental law.” (quote from an article by Mills & Reeve, 2009)

      • Miles King says:

        I suspect that, like most EU environmental Directives, it was transposed into English law on a de minimis basis ie get away as doing as little as possible, and ideally, nothing. And guess where these minimalist approaches are dreamt up? Nobel House.

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