Congratulations on your new ministerial appointments. You have an unpredictable time, but no more than 568 days (less holidays, the run up to the General Election, time off sick and being moved on or sacked) to make a difference. Given the uncertainties of Ministerial tenure you can’t count on lasting all those days so, if you are going to make any difference at all to the world through being a Minister, you’d better get on with it! Most Ministers, I would say, spend too much of their time trying to keep their noses clean so that they might get another ministerial job and not enough time actually using their opportunity to make the world a better place.
It’s not your fault, because you have just arrived, but you join a Department, Defra, whose reputation with the environment movement, and maybe with the public, is at an all time low. Caroline Spelman was good, but did not receive appropriate support from the rest of Government, whereas Owen Paterson is hopeless but seems to be well-supported by the PM and the likes of George Osborne. As junior Ministers there is only so much that you can do to rescue the reputation of the coalition government on nature conservation and sustainable agriculture – you have quite a task on your hands.
Your boss, Owen Paterson, has looked foolish on the subject of climate change, is anti-EU, was isolated in EU discussions on neonicotinoids, is wildly enthusiastic about killing badgers despite the impracticality and futility of the current approach and seems to think that Defra doesn’t have an ‘e’ in its name. You may find that your boss is absolutely sure that he is right about everything despite all this evidence to the contrary – good luck!
You follow two ministers of different stature. Richard Benyon had been long in the role as a Shadow Minister and government Minister, and did some good things, and is a nice man, but he sometimes looked like the government wing of the CLA, Moorland Association and Countryside Alliance rather than a Government Minister – you should try to do better than that please. And David Heath, the only previous LibDem Defra Minister, leaves an invisible legacy, so it is up to you, Mr Rogerson, to try to prove that LibDem Ministers can do good for the natural environment.
Please try to remember that you don’t work for the NFU – that’s the GM-supporting, biofuel-supporting, neonicotinoid-supporting, badger-cull supporting NFU. Every time the NFU nips around from next-door in Smith Square to give you your instructions make sure you ask them for the scientific evidence that underpins their case – that’ll slow them down a lot. And then why not publish what they give you and ask proper scientists to evaluate it? You need all the help you can get, and it needs to be impartial, not from a vested economic interest. And just ask yourself, how many voters are farmers? How many voters are members of wildlife conservation organisations? You work it out.
Here are some hints as to how you could do a good job, and I wish you well:
- badgers: what is the endpoint of your current policy? How many badgers will there be in the TB affected areas in 2020 if you proceed along the lines you are going now? And what will be the incidence of bovine TB? Please let us all know for we are paying for this policy – it’s our money that you are wasting. Ask yourself why the quickest possible dash for vaccination of badgers and cattle is not the best solution. Ask the NFU why they are not keen on cattle vaccination and then decide whether it is the economic costs of lost exports rather than any higher motives that determines their position.
- agri-environment schemes: these schemes cost us, we taxpayers, far more money each year than does bovine TB. The ELS does not deliver good enough environmental outcomes for wildlife and that is entirely the fault and responsibility of Defra. You, as new ministers, have the opportunity to make things better and gain some credit for having done so. Listen to the RSPB, IEEP, the Wildlife Trusts, Butterfly Conservation, Plantlife, Buglife and the National Trust on this subject – they are land owners too.
- CAP reform: your boss, Mr Paterson, does get some things right and this is the thing! In a time of austerity, when budgets are cut right across the public sector and many are suffering hard times, then it is unacceptable for subsidies, that are basically income support for farmers, to be maintained at current levels. CAP subsidies should be switched away from income support to agri-environment spend (provided you sort out ELS too – see above). A good thing to do would be to cap CAP subsidy payments for individual owners – the CLA are sound on this but wildlife NGOs are a bit flaky as the larger ones gain from these payments and don’t want them capped.
- wildlife crime: do something when the Law Commission report comes out. Licensing of grouse moors and the introduction of vicarious liability for wildlife crimes would be modest moves in the right direction. This isn’t the most important aspect of government policy – just don’t edge things in the direction of vested interests from the shooting industry. Read the Environmental Audit Committee report on this subject.
- neonicotinoids: if, and I say ‘if’, neonics really aren’t worse than other pesticides on offer – then they are all very damaging, aren’t they? What are you going to do about it?
- read the State of Nature report produced by wildlife organisations earlier this year – will the measures be heading up at the end of your 568 days? If not, why not, please?
- read my book, Fighting for Birds, to get a unique perspective on nature conservation in the UK – there’s plenty more advice there.
You’ll get lots of advice from lots of people. Just remember that all that advice from ‘industry’ is often self-serving advice. Who should you trust?
After the initial thrill of being made a Minister you will now be settling into the worrying task of having to do something! Decide what you want to do, for you (not your civil servants) are in charge, and then please set about making the world a better place for all and not just for some.