Conservatives in Defra – not doing too well really

I can’t find the Conservative manifesto from the 2010 General Election online but I have my copy to hand.  Here are some quotes from pages 95-97 with my assessment of how Defra has performed in nearly three years of being in ‘power’.

‘The most pressing animal health problem in the UK today is bovine tuberculosis (bTB), which has led to the slaughter of 250,000 cattle since 1997.  As part of a package of measures, we will introduce a carefully-managed and science-led policy of badger control in areas with high and persistent levels of bTB’.  Complete and utter failure, irrespective of which side of the debate you sit on.  Practically nothing has happened except time has passed and things have got worse.  Defra has been useless and ineffective in dealing with this issue.

‘We will take forward the Marine and Coastal Access Act and ensure that the conservation measures are implemented effectively, including the creation of Marine Conservation Zones.’.  Complete and utter failure.

‘We will negotiate for further reform of the CAP to deliver greater value for money…’  Not much success, and not much credit to the UK for what success there has been.

‘We will fight for wholesale reform of the CFP to encourage sustainable practices…’  Some success, but it would have happened anyway.

‘…create a more effective system of environmental stewardship’.  Comprehensive failure despite, or maybe because of, having a bunch of NFU and CLA supporters in charge for nearly three years.

It’s an awful record so far and there is little sign that things will get any better for the next couple of years.  This is not a record of which the coalition government, the Conservative Party nor the Ministers responsible can take any pride.  It’s a dismal record, a shabby record and a hopeless record.

Defra: Dire; Egregious; Failing; Risible and Adrift.

Having said that – would Labour do any better?

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22 Replies to “Conservatives in Defra – not doing too well really”

  1. The voters tend to get the policies they deserve. Most voters are apathetic at best when it comes to environmental issues. It seems to me that given a sporting chance sensible policy is no news and sensationalism takes over. If the anti cull lobby are so sure that the science of a cull I wrong why are they opposing limited trials, and more importantly in my opinion why don't they lobby for marine issues that are far more important. If 90% of badgers were culled the badger would still be a common animal, most marine fauna is severely threatened.

    Voters need to be mobilised on non party lines to deal with all the issues you mention and continue to mention. Keep Fighting for Birds (and other wildlife)!!

    1. I am not sure I understand the gist of this post Mark, the trial culls long since took place and proved...absdolutely nothing! I am aware that proposals were put forward for further trials but were rejected because they couldnot be designed in such a way as to glean the information missing in the original trials. I think it is very important to understand that there are people who opposethe culls on purely moralistic grounds and others who have looked carefully at the scientific evidence. It is often the case that those who shout loudest can get their voices more readily even if what they say is not totally accurate.

      I was amazed to see a chapter in Stuart Winter's recent book praising one LGRE for his good conservation debating. Interestingly, ruddy ducks were mentioned and an alleged incident where LGRE held his ground against Mark at the Bird Fair. I am not sure whether this happened but I imagine Mark would have been polite rather than fully argumentative. However, when DEFRA were sweeping the Middlesex area LGRE and his cronies surfaced again and the arguments used relatedto incidents back during the DEFRA trials and of techniques that were abandoned as a result of those trials. Lo and behold, the very same arguments surfaced in the Lancs/GM area when the cull arrived in these parts except forwarded by new people.

      This fully illustrates why people do not get behind things like the Marine Bill - quite simply they have been given far too many false ideas to think about. I doubt it is apathy or party politics that leads to this situation generally although doubtless this is true for some people. Basically, messages are severely diluted in the first place but a lot of people remain mobilised against things like the badger cull simply because they feel their views are not being heard.

  2. A great post - but I assume most of your readers are aware and would agree anyway. Has anyone got any suggestions on how we (the general public) can change things, apart from emailing our MPs and signing online petitions?

    1. Emma - join a political party and work from the inside to make the environment a bigger part of their thinking. And do keep contacting your MP - it really makes a difference.

      I think the value, if any, of this blog post is to remind people what the Conservative PArty said they would do and how far short they are falling. What will we be promised next time around?

    2. Writing to MPs and signing petitions etc is very important. Your vote only indicates that you broadly prefer party X to party Y but says nothing about where you stand on any single issue, so if you want your MP to support better conservation policies you have tell them directly.
      The more important question is how a greater proportion of the general public can be persuaded to care as, sadly, the fate of the Hen Harrier, the V Moth and all the other threatened species is not an issue that raises much concern in most households. While that is the case many MPs are not going to give conservation very much priority.

      1. Jonathan - you are right, of course (and, as usual).

        Most MPs have safe seats - only a few of them have marginal seats. The battleground is in the marginals and if the wildlife and environmental groups got together and targetted 10 of these seats with environmental messages and questions that might have an influence out of proportion to the effort required.

        And we have to rely on NGOs to influence political party manifestos so that they reflect some real issues of interest to the more general public.

  3. Mark - how much of this dire record is down to the Conservatives being in 'power' and how much to Defra son of MAFF inertia (to borrow a phrase from a past Roderick Leslie comment)? Is the problem a regressive or incompetent ministerial team or senior civil service still stuffed full of Sir Humphreys? You've written previously of how Caroline Spelman was actually quite a good Sec of State, for example. Do you have a copy of the 2005 Labour manifesto to hand, and how did they get on at Defra delivering what they promised?

    1. MK - I think good Ministers can get the right things done. And even bad Ministers can get the wrong things done. It takes a certain type of Minister to get nothing done.

      Slashing the budget of NE and getting rid of friendly critics like the SDC and RCEP will now look like shooting themselves in the foot to Defra. And, of course, a lot of civil servant posts will have disappeared too.

      The proper comparison with Labour would probably be the first Labour term where the CROW Act (which gave greatly improved management to SSSIs) came in in 2000 after the 1997 general election. This administration will have nothing similar to point to. And then there was the Climate Change Act and the Marine Act as time went on.

      I always expect a Labour Government to be rubbish on wildlife and am usually slightly surprised by what they actually achieve; in contrast I always expect the Tories to be quite good and am always disappointed.

  4. One hard example from the Labour years: EN's SSSI target which galvanised real action & real focus on what was wrong with our SSSIs - it came with real money to do the job, gave bodies like FC and MOD a clear political mandate and was a measureable target. And, despite the many sceptics at its launch, it worked.

    I think a fundamental problem with MAFF (and a number of its civil servants are still around) was that it was never set up to do real policy: it was effectively an administrative Department with its main role handing out first UK then EU money to farmers. It was responsible for negotiating the UK position within the CAP but as we see all too clearly now this is and always has been a matter of degree rather than any fundamental shift in philosophy.

    Standing back and looking at Defra today, I feel one actually sees a Department bobbing like a cork on the surface of forces far more powerful than it was ever set up to cope with - on the one hand, biological - the growing force of climate change, globalised and traditional diseases; on the other, reaping the logical rewards of the 'cheap food' disaster, with globalised supply chains spinning out of control as the food industry, and especially the supermarkets, struggle for FTSE dominance.

    1. Thanks both. To add to Defra's record, consider the overall record of the meanest government ever - a revival of road building, failure by the Home Office to fund NCWU until the very last minute (and continuing uncertainty beyond that), the shenanigans over the feed-in tarriff and lack of any meaningful decarbonising of the economy; it all adds up to a lot of bad ministers doing the wrong things.

      Perhaps instead of looking at the future of NE we should keep it and just abolish the rest of Defra instead?

  5. "remind people what the Conservative PArty said" - The parties are not Defra. Too much shooting of the messenger.

    "Having said that – would Labour do any better?" - No. Didn't you see the two Eds on telly last night?

  6. You seem to have touched nerve today Mark at least in my body which in itself is something of an achievement.

    First of all how many people do you think read a complete manifesto? Very few I would suggest and what is more fewer and fewer are voting now. To sort the latter out maybe we should follow Australia and make voting compulsory.

    Why do we think politicians will ever have much interest in nature conservation and even if they do they cannot take a sustainable view They can only look forward at best five years and in a coalition there is bound to be considerable watering down of views. We need a nature conservation vision for 100 years at least.

    We do have a number of nature conservation NGO's with very substantial memberships some even have more members than any political party. So why do the declines go on and on. Are the NGO's only pointing the finger at politicians and if so are they taking a step back and wondering if they have adopted the right strategies over the years?

    Over the last couple of decades there had been an enormous amount of time and money spent on environmental education and involving people of all ages in the enjoyment of wildlife and conservation. I heavily subscribed to this direction when woking with the Wildlife Trusts. It has certainly increased membership but has it worked in arresting the decline of our wildlife? I would suggest with hindsight probably not.

    So is it not time that the NGO's put aside their differences (if there are any) and consolidated their resources to take a new path. Online petitions have proved to be very efficient in the short term and maybe the NGO's should be driving these.

    There is no doubt that nature conservation is much lower on the political agenda than even a decade ago. Despite the huge membership of some NGO's it seems these people will not make any great effort individually. They are happy to pay their money and leave it to hard pressed staff. With probably 2 million members of NGO's we ought to be able to do better.

    The truth of the matter however much it hurts is that nature conservation is probably a bit down on their agenda too. Lovely to look at wildlife but I will not give up my multi-consumption life to improve their lot.

    A lot of people pick up an interest in wildlife from the TV. We see a lot of wildlife programmes on the telly mostly about foreign wildlife but most if not all of them paint a picture of how everything is so fantastic and never talk seriously about the enormous threats and whose to blame. That is not considered good television. Many of us who have been fortunate to have travelled to many of the areas featured will know how much the camera (and directors etc) can lie. In additon when have we seen a nature conservationist on Question Time?

    I agree that we need to get more people into politics who are nature conservationists. Not since John Gummer began to see the light and the sad demise of Elliot Morley have we had anyone really banging the drum. Come on Mark why don't you get the Labour Party to get you a safe seat in the next election? You could be Environment Minister in no time. You are still young enough.

    We have to face up to the fact that despite a lot of effort by NGO's we have at best slowed up the decline but we have not been able to arrest the loss of so much. In most cases farming only makes a contribution because of European handouts, selfish and ignorant people still persecute wildlife without fear of prosecution and it goes on and on and on.

    It is us the nature conservationists who have to have a good hard look at ourselves. Where have we failed and what should we do about it?

    1. Derek - thank you. I'm glad I can rely on your vote - ha ha!

      Closer working between NGOs is clearly required.

      Thanks v much for your thoughts.

    2. Hi Derek/Mark,
      actually Radio 4's Any Answers last Friday had someone from Greenpeace (Ruth Davis) she in a botanist who has previously worked for the RSBP and Plantlife. This was rather refreshing and surprising. I thought she was very good - knowledgeable about all the questions, not just those in her field, which did her credit. I don't watch Question Time on TV, but the radio version almost never has questions about wildlife/biodiversity, so they are not very likely to pick nature conservationists to be on the panel (just thinking though, George Monbiot has been on, I think, and possibly a few other well-known environmentalists).

  7. The only way I have found to have an influence at an individual level is by setting up and chairing a conservation group on publicly owned open space and then demonstrating what can be achieved to Councillors, going to Council and speaking and lobbying assiduously to raise the profile of biodiversity issues including challenging the way that Councils manage open spaces. After nearly 6 years of exhausting effort I am just being listened to. The recent Council Plan for the next 5 years now has in it a priority for biodiversity including the words "Protecting, restoring, reconnnecting and expanding .....". In April the Council has said it will publish Objectives for Council Cabinet members and that will be the real test. The Government has through the NPPF given Cllrs more say about the management of the local natural environment but mostly they do not realise it. Cllrs mostly do not understand the subject or know what information they need to understand the issues. Planners and senior managers do not have the knowledge to understand what might be possible or provide Cllrs with information that can be debated. They are even reluctant to do so. Planners look for convenient tick boxes not hard information on habitat and species losses or the need to save and restore them. If high minded conservation charities fail to engage with Councils and Cllrs but stay above the fray in the way they seem to then they will get short shrift from people like me.

  8. Defra on TB, new figures out today on the cattle culled in 2012.

    Rise from 28,000 to 35,000 excluding Dec-12 figures which have yet to be added.

  9. Just really reminding us that the Conservatives have done nothing really since getting into Government and worse still Labour and Libs would be just as bad or worse.
    The Badger problem is a complete fiasco as although I would now think a cull is impossible and would hate to see one there is no doubt in my mind politicians have failed the cattle farmers,Badgers and other wildlife as it appears at least 35,000 cattle slaughtered for BTB last year whereas the policy previously was working whatever anyone says because with very limited culling in 1986 only 235 cattle slaughtered because of BTB.(Unless of course this figure of 235 is incorrect).i find it incredible that any Government could let this happen and of course includes both major party's.

    1. 638 actually - go visit - and weep

  10. One additional thing we can do is to respond to the various government public consultations that they are so fond of at the moment. They do actually read our comments - I was chuffed to see myself quoted in the report on the Forestry Commission and open spaces recently. Whether they actually act on it is a different matter, but at least your views will be known.

    I find it hard to keep up with what consultations are active though and just hear about them by chance. I wonder if there is an alert system? Currently there is one on Marine Conservation Zones, which Mark mentions above. If you feel strongly about the progress on these, have a look:

    There may be others I don't know about though...

  11. Sorry, missed an important link in my last post - here are all the current DEFRA open consultations. Note one on bee health - wonder if we can mention neonicotinoids on this?

  12. I thought the blog was interesting and the comments that have followed seem to sum up pretty much how I feel about politics/enviroment issues at the moment. I was glad for political fairness you raised the question if Labour would fair any better and Filberts point about the two Ed's is spot on. Labour are incapable of doing any better in respect to the stewardship of the countryside and enviroment around us. Sadly Labour I feel will face strong resistance from the "rural" set and things would just be made "hard" to implement, but on the flip side could DEFRA be doing any worse under Labour then the CON/LIB coalition...ironic the Eastleigh by-election will probably feature the "enviroment".
    No for me the problem does lay at the feet of not only politicians but you and I. Issues such as the enviroment/economy/welfare/education and crime shouldn't be based on "party politics" and "point-scoring" against each other..such is the level of debate in this country our politcians act like how I would imagine a school assembly at Eton would be like. A bunch of shouting, yelling and cat calling during any debate it the commons makes it a farce to use a well worn phrase "act your age. not your shoe size SIR!". But you and i are no better, who do we vote for in any election, is there any REAL party REALLY concerned about the enviroment sadly it seems only when elections come on by do they "care". Do enough people vote? No, but making it compulsory to vote seems to be somewhat "undemocratic" plus you'd then have to say anyone in prison gets a vote too, if politicians actually got out and went to the door of the voters it might make more of impact. When was the last time Mark and any other readers remember seeing their politician at their door/neighbourhood asking for your vote (is your answer in decades/years/months/days)...


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