A recent tweet on Twitter from Mary Creagh MP, the Shadow Secretary of State for Defra, said that Defra Minister Richard Benyon had described the relationship between nature charities and Defra as ‘edgy’.
The ‘really quite admirable’ Mr Benyon did use that phrase, in a debate, when expressing his pleasure at having his report card scored by a group of NGOs as reported earlier on this blog. How nice or nasty to be to politicians is a tricky thing for NGOs to get right.
Politicians are very sensitive (very very sensitive) about any sort of criticism and we British are all so polite that we don’t like to upset people. No NGO would like to see Mr Benyon’s lip quivering because he’d been criticised by them.
But in fact, the nature NGOs are incredibly polite to, and understanding of, Defra. They always have been – or at least have been for many years – and maybe they always will be. They tend to see Defra as being ‘their’ Department, with ‘their’ Ministers and they work collaboratively with the Department as much as they can.
And there is an element of vested interest involved. Defra can influence, through EA and NE and their own budgets, the flows of money to NGOs and they can favour some NGOs over others in terms of access and publicity too. There are many ways that government Departments can show favour to one NGO over another and make life easier or more difficult for any NGO and so everyone watches what they say – perhaps too much?
And it feels like Defra hasn’t got many friends in government and really needs a bit of a cuddle. Defra gets bullied in the playground by the big boys – Osborne, Pickles and (bollocks) Maude, and the big boys wouldn’t behave like that if the leader of the gang, David Cameron, were solidly behind the Defra team. Even the other green Department, DECC, is rumoured to retain ambitions to swallow up Defra.
If anything, I believe there is a lack of edginess from the NGOs. They are too nice to Defra and to Government as a whole. Although that is too simplistic a way of putting it. The existing NGOs are all playing their roles well but there is something missing – the edgy voice for nature.
There isn’t a voice saying ‘This is hopeless. It’s not good enough at all.’ We don’t need all the existing nature NGOs to say that, but somebody should, because it’s true. And it’s difficult for existing voices to say those things because they don’t want to upset Defra for a whole variety of reasons.
Nature in the UK is getting a raw deal from us – and government (current and previous in Westminster, and devolved parliaments elsewhere) has to carry much of the responsibility for that. More needs to be done to; make fishing sustainable so that nature in our seas thrives; make farming more sustainable so that nature in the countryside thrives; ensure important sites are protected so that threatened species are conserved; fast-track species recovery actions including reintroductions so that wildlife expands and increases; and back habitat creation projects to put nature back in our lives. Somebody has to say it and say it in a convincing way so that it creates the impetus for government to move and to be influenced by its friendly NGO partners.
That strong voice no longer comes, publicly at least, from organisations such as NE since this government chose to silence them and other independent voices such as the RCEP and SDC. Nature does abhor a vacuum and there is a lack of an outspoken voice for nature.