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.