Have you ever had a colleague at work who promises everything but consistently delivers work which is of poor quality and usually arrives late too? They’re the worst aren’t they? They may be well-meaning, they may be the life and soul of the party and great fun socially but they are a total waste of space as far as the work environment is concerned. Over-promising and under-delivering work colleagues tend not to stay around for long. DEFRA reminds me of those colleagues. The problem is that we are stuck with DEFRA for years.
Is it really that bad? Well, you decide, but from my partial perspective I fail to see areas where DEFRA is doing a great job. When I say partial I mean it in both ways; yes I am not a wholly impartial observer (I expect this government to deliver badly for the environment because I don’t think it really cares) and I don’t see everything that is happening (but I don’t meet environmentalists who say that everything is going fantastically well in their areas and I must just be unlucky).
At the top of the list is probably the Environment Bill which is promised to give us world-leading environmental standards to replace the often world-leading environmental standards that we are walking away from in the EU. The Bill as it stands will deliver poor environmental governance and this government is refusing to include in the Bill amendments that will make environmental delivery a legally binding promise. It’s a poor Bill and now its passage through Parliament has been delayed by six months.
At somewhere like the other end of the spectrum in terms of importance, this week, DEFRA has failed to publish its consultation on the measures forced upon it on gamebird releases by Wild Justice’s legal action. Wild Justice ended its legal challenge in October when (at the last moment of course, within a week of going to court) DEFRA agreed that it had to tackle the environmental impacts of the situation they had allowed to persist for years and limit the scale of gamebird releases in and around sites of high nature conservation value. A necessary part of that process is a public consultation on the measures that DEFRA has promised the court to deliver and for months that consultation has been promised for this week, to be launched on Monday. It didn’t appear, instead stakeholders were sent an email on Monday afternoon (at 13:08 to be precise) from DEFRA stating;
Dear Stakeholder, Please note that we are not in a position to launch the Gamebird consultation this week as previously advised. We aim to do so as soon as possible in the coming weeks. We will communicate further updates to you.
This doesn’t even blame the dog for eating DEFRA’s homework – in this case there is no explanation and no real indication of when the homework will be ready. Wild Justice is following this up with DEFRA but the real concern ought to be in the shooting community where the rules of gamebird releasing in summer 2021 are entirely uncertain and this is the time of year when decisions on importing chicks and eggs from the continent (from the EU, but that’s another story) are finalised.
In between the Environment Bill and the gamebird consultation the omnishambles is played out across DEFRA’s remit. The Badger cull is spun to the media as coming to an end (not for the first time) but in fact it is to continue at massive scale for years despite the scientific advice. The long-promised ban on burning on peatlands arrived late and inadequately recently. The long-promised England Peat Strategy is months late and is now expected (although not promised) in the ‘spring’ – that season which in parliamentary terms starts on a sunny day in February but lasts long into the summer – and is expected to have a very poor science base anyway. Neonics are back. Government has not responded to the Glover report on National Parks and AONBs but the Prime Minister seems to reckon that our National Parks count as areas where wildlife thrives. The new environmental schemes for farmers are going to take years to be in place and may not be worth much when they are… It’s a consistent picture of poor quality delivered late.
Who is to blame? Ministers are to blame. That’s the way our system works, that elected politicians carry the can even if civil servants have cocked up. DEFRA is a department that few bright ambitious civil servants would wish to enter – it’s a bit like being sent to Siberia. DEFRA is starved of resources (which feeds through to its hapless statutory agencies Natural England and the Environment Agency) and is seen to be at the bottom of the Whitehall pecking order with little clout and being kicked around by all other Departments. The DEFRA ministerial team looks poor, even by recent standards, but they are in a department that their party has knackered over the period of over a decade and so they are reaping the lack of benefits of political decisions by their own party.
On the wider stage it is difficult to see the environmental omnishambles as being anything other than mirrored in other areas of government endeavour. We have very high death rates from a global pandemic and the government’s handling of that pandemic shares the same marks of ignoring the science, promising big and delivering late and small. What is saving us at the moment is that when the scientists dig in their heels even this government does the right thing (late), that UK science (not under government guidance or leadership) has delivered vaccines and that the NHS has been too strong and wonderful an institution to allow us to die in even greater numbers. The bright spots in the pandemic are the areas where government has been unable to cock it up and where public service has remained the bedrock of how the system works despite this government’s incompetence.
And then there’s Brexit. Let’s not get on to Brexit yet. We haven’t seen queues of lorries at the ports (for a while) but that’s because EU firms aren’t bothering to export to us so much now and UK firms are giving up exporting to the EU because of the new red tape and delays involved. Some are even stopping exports within the UK, from Britain to Northern Ireland! Brexit makes many other things more difficult but it, too, is the product of a government that over promises right up until the very moment when its late under delivery cannot be hidden, and then simply moves on to another promise.
We are mired in the consequences of nearly 11 years of Tory incompetence. DEFRA is a particularly failing department but its failure is part of a consistent failure by government as a whole. A culture of promising the Earth but not having the faintest idea how to deliver it, and not taking responsibility for non-delivery pervades every area of government where I cast my eye.
I didn’t vote for this but many of us did.[registration_form]