A department to manage events beyond its control

Posted on: 18th May 2011

Please Note: This article was originally posted on 01/09/03


Being invited to write an article on the performance of DEFRA is the political equivalent of being invited to score an invitingly open goal.

In the circumstances it would be churlish not to hammer the ball in the back of the net with a great deal of gusto. DEFRA is certainly earning its place in Government departmental history as one of the most calamitous of all. Whether it can be entirely put down to incompetence rather than misfortune could be a matter for debate, but the one universal political reality which might constrain an opposition politician from being totally and nakedly opportunistic, is the gruesome reality of having to design a route plan out of this mess.

But let’s briefly remind ourselves of the disaster that is DEFRA.

For a department of rural affairs it can boast that more farmers have left the industry or been put out of business recently than at any equivalent time since the Second World War. Listening to some of the less than guarded comments coming from Government spokespeople you could be forgiven for believing that this a cause for quiet celebration rather than hand wringing (Lord Haskins – Tony Blair’s Rural Tsar – “Farms will get bigger and that is a good thing”).

Since coming to office, the Department and its predecessor has been angling for solutions to the Tory legacy of a declining fishing industry. Although it would be hard to criticise Elliot Morley’s sincerity and knowledge, one could perhaps only congratulate him for achieving “managed decline” rather than the “mismanaged disaster” which preceded him in the Tory years.

Four years ago the Agricultural Select Committee strongly recommended that the Government actually have a fishing policy – a long-term strategy and vision for the industry, which the Department has promised but never delivered. And, in a theme which I suspect will become more apparent, it has been the Prime Minister’s intervention which has got things moving. The Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit is at least now holding talks about producing a long-term fishing strategy. Not before time.

As for the environment, the Department seems to have made sure that it is a sub-ordinate after-thought to be considered after other Government departments (Transport, Department of Trade and Industry, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister) have done what they like with it. Whatever environment is left is for DEFRA to take responsibility for!

Ministers have managed to consult the public about genetic modification before it has completed its scientific trials, thus creating a debate in a vacuum which it could later dismiss at will and has spun the debate so badly that it has generated more suspicion and doubt that it had hoped.

The Rural Payments Agency and farmers’ administrative systems are beyond a joke and its response to the challenge of implementing a new regulation to stop the burial of fallen stock on farms, was to forget to introduce the regulation to Parliament, whilst at the same time browbeating farmers about their lack of response to a Government proposed scheme for the collection of fallen stock.

The fundamental problem with DEFRA is that it lacks vision and executive clout. The fusing together of two Government departments no doubt created some administrative burdens which had to be overcome (different pay scales and conditions of service for staff, etc) but that is no longer an acceptable excuse for the chaos which still goes on

Whilst I have no reason to question Margaret Beckett’s sincerity or commitment to her brief, the Prime Minister has made her a Chief Executive with all of the executive power of a junior manager. His Rural Tsar – Lord Haskins (the real Secretary of State) – has now taken responsibility for all rural and farming strategy and the Prime Minister’s decision to ask his Strategy Unit to draw up a Government fishing policy smacks of impatience. The unceremonious removal of Environment Minister Michael Meacher as the Government approached the crucial last stages of deliberation on the genetically modified seed decision belies the claim that Tony Blair and Margaret Beckett are agnostic.

Even the Department’s accounts are a mystery to Ministers let alone officials.

This country needs a strategic Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs: one which sets the environmental agenda across all Government departments; one which projects a future for agriculture and rural areas and one which is prepared to set long-term strategic goals, rather than be buffeted around by events and piecemeal short-term decision making.

The big questions which the Department should be tackling is whether we have the strength in this country to avoid our countryside being inevitably turned into a landscape of ranch and prairie and whether provision of rural housing can be managed to give locals a real chance, rather than whether its advice and grant making facilities are provided by an arms-length quango, rather than by the Department itself.

DEFRA has to face up to a few big questions rather than supply managing the process of taking lots of little ones.

Andrew George MP Article to Parliamentary Monitor 1st September 2003

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