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.


7 Replies to “Omnishambles”

  1. A great summary of the situation Mark and right bang on the button.
    This Government is a 100% total shambles. OK they have had the pandemic to deal with but if they had left it much more in the hands of the medical officers and scientists things would have been much better ,at least they could not have been any worse.
    Time and time again they demonstrate by their actions or lack of them that, despite their words they don’t care a toss about nature and it’s wildlife.
    I think this shambles of this Government as a whole reflects the disgrace that is Boris Johnson. As we expected, Brexit is turning into a complete disaster despite all the flamboyance and showmanship from Johnson. There is no substance behind this guy.
    In addition this Government continues to spend billions of pounds on HS2, purely for political reasons, and even when the the need for it, if there ever was a need for it, has completely disappeared due to the big advances in on line communications driven by the pandemic. Just think how the money spent on HS2 could so much be better spent elsewhere.
    There are some small gleams of where things are not so bad and one of these must be Scotland. I think much credit must go to Nicola Sturgeon for her performance in Scotland. Dealing with this rotten Westminster Government can’t be easy and to be frank I fully understand and her support her desire for Scottish independence. Scotland would fare much better all round being a separated from this mess in WestMinster.

    1. I just looked at train journeys from Falkirk to Southampton last night and the time was about 7 hours 45 minutes. That’s incredibly fast compared to the time it took in the 1970s as I recall. As you say say with on line communications is it that important to make high speed rail a bit faster? I watched a promotional video for HS2 and the impression I got was it is so people with an interview in London or Birmingham could get there a bit quicker, and so a CEO can meet the design team they’ve contracted. I’m struggling to get enthusiastic about that or see it as strategically important funnily enough. What’s wrong with facetime, skype, zoom, teams etc?

      I’m pleased and surprised to say the Scottish Greens have come up with a plan to dramatically improve rail services in Scotland including reopening rail lines and stations which to me at 22 billion quid is an infinitely better way of spending money than HS2. What good is HS2 to someone who lives in one of the ludicrously high number of places that don’t even have a train station? A billion pounds is still less than one percent of the projected costs of HS2, but it could reopen hundreds of miles of the canal network doing everything from being a catalyst for brownfield development and a wildlife corridor for otters.

  2. The only thing I find surprising in all this is that for the past 10 years the conservation sector has continued to behave as if it was ‘business as usual’ as under the previous Labour Government. they have gone along with the 25 year plan which is now proving what was obvious from its launch – a delaying tactic. Ministers aren’t failing at all. They are doing exactly what they have been asked to do by the PM but more particularly the Treasury. Think of Michael Goves time – unlike his entirely negative predecessors he piled in to doing some good things – like supporting Beaver trials BUT all his initiatives were quick (he wasn’t going to be there long anyway) and involved effectively no money at all. The one thing the Conservatives have clearly done is unwind the the very real positives (which even Labour doesn’t crow about) achieved by the previous Government, such as the SSSI restoration programme.

  3. “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.”

    You’ve hit the nail on the head here Mark. Though it’s actually slightly more tragic than this as a number of ambitious new staff joined the department when Gove invested some political capital in raising Defra through the Whitehall pecking order. It now seems to be in the process of forgetting itself again.

    Those who have stuck in post are now working in extreme frustration at the rhetoric without substance (COP26 and coal mines, nature recovery network but no funding), doublespeak (badger culls in preparation for a ban on culls, higher standards that look a lot lower) and all of government STILL putting short term politics ahead of sustainability.

  4. A complete and fair summary of this tragic, for the country government. I didn’t vote for them and never would vote for this party of folk whose only interest seems to be to facilitate private business and their pals in it to line their pockets at public expense. Its not that they don’t care especially for the environment they largely don’t care about anything except themselves, their political dogma and staying in power. Yet Labour a party that should all about hope and being competent barely makes head way, have we a bloody death wish? We seem to be governed and managed by aa privilege system of nods, winks and back handers between folk who all went to the same few non state schools and bought their way through university and suffer hugely from the feeling of entitlement. Not one of these intellectual pygmies is worth the same as a hours work from a nurse, doctor, teacher or anybody else who works for the benefit of society. It makes me so angry, frustrated and feeling helpless wanting to change it all, yet at the ballot box will we give them the bums rush they so richly (with our money) deserve, sadly it is open to debate.

  5. Entirely agree, you are spot on with your analysis. It has been quite clear that this government does not really care about the environment, either that or its definition of the environment is very different to yours and mine! There can be no other explanation but on balance the first is more likely than the second.
    Now this indifference to science has overflowed into other spheres. Their handling of the pandemic has been woeful with the exeption of the rollout of the vaccine but since that was managed by the NHS I don’t think they can claim that as one of their successes.
    Their management in either case is predicated on a political agenda that seems to benefit them and their friends and not the population at large.

  6. I’m sure our new environmental regulations will be world-beating, just as our test and trace system is.

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