Time to rename Defra the Ministry of Agriculture and Fieldsports

no longer appropriate

While all talk of the Greenest Government Ever (anyone remember that?) has been quietly abandoned, another question arises.

Is the fieldsports lobby getting unprecedented access to ministers in the Environment department and are the Environment NGOs being squeezed out of ministerial access?

I have crunched the numbers for you.

Andrea Leadsom

Our Secretary of State for the Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs is Andrea Leadsom. She has overall responsibility for all the elements of DEFRA, which are very wide ranging. But Environment is the first word in Defra, and it would be reasonable to expect our Secretary of State to meet external organisations whose primary interest was the environment.

Available figures for her first six months in office indicate that of her 30 recorded meetings (excluding 4 roundtables):

  • Farming industry 8
  • Food (inc retail) industry 7
  • Fishing industry 1
  • A pro-Brexit fisheries pressure group 1
  • A neoliberal academic 1
  • A neoliberal thinktank 1
  • An ex-Tory Special Advisor now running a PR agency 1
  • A fieldsports pressure group 1
  • A religious group 1
  • A right wing newspaper 1
  • An animal welfare pressure group 1
  • A nature NGO 1
  • A horticulture NGO 1

From this we can see that, contrary to what one might expect, our Secretary of State does not feel the need to meet Environmental Organisations, preferring to focus on the Food in Defra, or perhaps the Farming in MAFF. Yes our Secretary of State met the Countryside Alliance, but the only environment NGO she met (other than where they attended Roundtables) was the Woodland Trust.

She also met a pro Brexit pressure group, a former head of research at a pro-Brexit thinktank that Leadsom was closely involved with, who now runs their own PR consultancy; and a representative from a neoliberal thinktank funded by a New Zealander billionaire based in Dubai.

George Eustice

George Eustice is the Defra Minister responsible for food, farming, fisheries and better regulation. He has been busy with 43 meetings in that 6 month period. Of those (excluding 3 roundtables)

  • Farming industry (23)
  • Food industry (5)
  • Fishing industry (5)
  • Farriers industry (1)
  • Fieldsports pressure groups (1)
  • a pro Brexit pressure group (1)
  • Environment NGOs (2)
  • A neoliberal academic (1)
  • Agroindustry academics (1)

It should come as no surprise that our farming minister has mostly met representatives from the farming, fishing and food industry. As well as meeting pro Brexit pressure groups and neoliberal academics he also found time to meet the chair of the Farriers Governing body to discuss a Bill passing through Parliament. Farriers shoe horses. Eustice was also able to meet 3 marine conservation NGOs before attending an EU fisheries Council; and met CPRE to discuss their farming after Brexit report.


Lord Gardiner

Lord Gardiner who, some of you will remember as former Deputy Chief Executive at the Countryside Alliance,  is the Defra Lords minister. He is also responsible for rural issues, climate change adaptation, animal health and welfare; litter, national parks, the Pollinator Strategy and various other bits and pieces.

You might expect that he would have met with some of the Bee Coalition members, as Pollinators are such a hot political topic. Lord Gardiner held a rather modest 13 external meetings in 6 months. Of these, excluding a roundtable:

  • Dogs (2)
  • Horses (1)
  • The fieldsports lobby (1)
  • animal health (1)
  • Bishops (1)
  • Food industry (1)
  • National Parks (1)
  • Local Authorities (1)
  • Litter (1)
  • Telecoms industry (1)
  • Kew Gardens (1)

So although Lord Gardiner found time to meet his former workmates at the Countryside Alliance, he held no meetings with anyone on bees or other pollinators. And his climate change adaptation responsibilities had to play second fiddle to more important things like dogs and horses.

Thérèse Coffey

Dr Thérèse Coffey is Defra minister responsible for the natural environment (including biodiversity) rural opportunities (including rural childcare), floods, air quality and other things. After a quiet first 3 months she got busy with 23 meetings in the 6 months to the end of 2016.

Despite her remit she still found time for meetings with the farming industry (2), food industry (2), forestry industry (1), cleaning products industry (1), waste industry (1), insurance industry (2) and the rural childcare industry (2). She also found time to meet Paul Stephenson, former Open Europe head of research, former SPAD to Philip Hammond who now runs his own PR consultancy. Presumably Andrea Leadsom had told Coffey to meet him.

Among a wide variety of other meetings she did find time to meet an academic to talk about Lion conservation, a food waste campaigner; and a wildlife trade NGO. UK conservation NGOs didn’t figure much at all on the list, aside from The Woodland Trust and an introductory meeting with Wildlife and Countryside Link.

So apart from the Woodland Trust, which appears to be gaining some access to Defra ministers, the UK conservation movement is remarkably absent from these meetings, while the fieldsports lobby has done very well. Is this unreasonable, disproportionate access though?

Countryside Alliance Chief Exec Tim Bonner thinks not.

“Well obviously we’re very good, but the 100k members & being widely accepted as the voice of the countryside helps too.”

Bonner also claimed that the CA “met lots of other ministers too”, but I had a good look through the ministers meetings for relevant departments like DCLG and DCMS and even BEIS and DFE, but I found no meetings with the CA in the period Oct-Dec 2016. There was one meeting with Brandon Lewis at the Home Office in September 2016. Perhaps others might find some elsewhere (Foreign Office? MoD?).

If having 100,000 members qualified the Countryside Alliance (which remember is not a Charity, and has just had its application to become a charity rejected by the Charity Commission), then on that basis the RSPB with over a million, should have had 20 meetings during that time period, and the National Trust, with 4 million members 80 meetings. That is of course absurd, but given that neither the RSPB nor National Trust had any (recorded) meetings in such a critical 6 months for UK nature, does raise questions. If membership/supporter numbers is a poor indicator, perhaps subscription income is a better measure. Countryside Alliance subscription income from the most recent available accounts  (2015) is £3.2M. This compares with £8M for the Woodland Trust, or £48M for the RSPB. So that’s not a great indicator either.

Perhaps Tim Bonner is right, and it is just down to the Countryside Alliance being a brilliantly effective campaigning organisation. Perhaps he is also right that Defra ministers regard the CA as “the Voice of the Countryside.”

It may also true that the UK conservation NGOs have stopped putting too much effort into gaining access to Defra ministers, on account of their being not in the least bit interested in nature, the environment or biodiversity. This seems unlikely though (the former rather than the latter.) as UK nature, especially the EU laws that have to some extent stemmed the tide of decline these last 40 years, are under direct threat thanks to Brexit.

The evidence, such as it is, does point towards the fact that the fieldsports lobby and the Countryside Alliance in particular, are gaining disproportionate access to Defra ministers.

Perhaps of greater concern and what is incontrovertibly true though, is that the Farming and Food industries have full and free access to Defra ministers. In this regard, it is probably best to call Defra by one of its previous name, the Min of Ag.








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 Andrea Leadsom, blood sports, countryside alliance, Defra, farming and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Time to rename Defra the Ministry of Agriculture and Fieldsports

  1. Thomas says:

    Either they need to rename themselves to honestly reflect what they are about, or they need to recalibrate their priorities (the latter would obviously be preferable). They way the people in question now behave brings the name DEFRA very close to infringing the trades descriptions act.

    • Miles King says:

      thanks Thomas. I’m still slightly surprised that Defra has survived all this time, given the number of threats to its existence over the past 7 years.

      But it’s also a shell of its former self, having lost so many good staff in the cuts and having lost 1/3 of its staff since 2010.

  2. David Dunlop says:

    It was the agricultural department, already, in the previous PM’s mind. Here’s his response to a question from the previous leader of the opposition.

    “The right hon. Gentleman has had all summer to think of a question. Is that really the best he can do?

    “Let me explain to the right hon. Gentleman what this reshuffle is all about. It is not that there are two economic Departments in our country, the Treasury and Business; I want every single Department to be about the economy. I want the Transport Department building roads; I want the Communities Department building houses; I want the Culture Department rolling out broadband; and I want the Agriculture Department backing British food. This is a Government who mean business, and we have got the team to deliver it.”

  3. Richard Byatt says:

    Hi – have you asked the groups that have not had access whether they have requested it and been turned down.

    • Miles King says:

      thanks Richard. I have only used the data provided by Defra.

      If an organisation had approached a Defra minister asking for a meeting, it is highly unlikely that they would be turned down. They just wouldn’t be invited.

  4. Julian Jones says:

    Many thanks for this Miles. It has pretty much always been thus since the dawn of civilization … centralized, remote, sometimes well meaning but so often poorly informed or corrupt elites messing it all up for the rest of us.

    Everything that Schumacher tried to address with Small is Beautiful (1), and notably the earlier Peter Kropotkin (2), among others.

    ‘Well-being for all is not a dream.’ It is now an imperative.

    1. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2011/nov/10/small-is-beautiful-economic-idea
    2. https://www.penguin.co.uk/books/272099/the-conquest-of-bread/

  5. Accidental Activist says:

    Defra have been nothing more than a Government department of the NFU and CA for a long time. While Bonner and his chums like to believe they are the “voice of the countryside” they are clearly severely deluded. They are the voice of those who like to kill animals and birds for fun, nothing more.

  6. foxy512 says:

    Lets not forget Simon Hart MP, ex CEO of the Countryside Alliance, who by his own admission went into politics to repeal the hunting Act. He never misses a chance to criticise the RSPCA because that org is really the only private prosecutor who can take on illegal hunting cases and win. He has currently just had a pay rise from the Countryside Alliance and now earns a staggering £47,000 for eight hours unspecified work a week. He is also on the EFRA committee and he is always there at any discussion about curtailing field sports. Its a massive conflict of interest and totally undemocratic to have ministers and MPs on committees where they can massively further their own interests and the interests of their chums. Remember the outcry when the shadow DEFRA post was to be originally filled by a vegan. There is something rotten about DEFRA but they are all so thick skinned and brass faced that they pay no attention to the majority in the UK. Our petitions and polls go largely ignored. If we want humane laws we must elect humane lawmakers, and they certainly isn’t to be found in the Tory Party

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  8. John Walker says:

    Thanks for this Miles. Sadly predictable. The almost total lack of engagement with horticulture/gardening doesn’t bode well for future targets – such as the complete removal of peat from gardening in England by 2020. Most of the gardening industry is concerned only with expanding profit, choosing to fail the environment on almost all fronts. I don’t detect any forceful approach being made to DEFRA to keep the peat-free target (or any other positive environmental initiative) on track. Mostly we see lobbying by the Horticultural Trades Association et al, for a retention of the status quo. Gardening also suffers from having a media that seems to have zero understanding that part of its job is to hold big business to account, rather than act as its unpaid marketing department…

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  12. Wild Chat says:

    Classic example of money having more imporrtance than the environment. Hard to believe Leadsom was given any position of responsibility at all really.

    I’m from Scotland and I know that SEPA are getting more powers to enforce and prosecute wildlife offences. This is partly due to the fact that there is no one external, such as DEFRA, helping and so they are having to go it alone. Luckily they are very capable and really value the environment but it is a worry when the authorities who are supposed to protect what we have are the ones responsible for it being lost.

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