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The strange case of the disappearing department

Has anyone heard from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs?

Of all the government departments to lead, you might think the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is a bit of a cushy number. You could hardly say it's high profile. You might know that Caroline Spelman is the Secretary of State, but I challenge any of you to pick Richard Benyon, Jim Paice or Lord Taylor of Holbeach out of a line up. I've just done a Google image search of all three and I'm still not entirely sure I can.

But as it happens, there's a case that Defra might be one of the more challenging ministerial portfolios. It has a nasty habit of biting politicians in the backside. Feather-footed through the plashy fen passes the questing minister, calmly scuttling off on relaxing away-days to Cumbria and Cornwall, when suddenly - splat. An almighty political combine harvester creeps up behind them and the next thing they know they've been sliced to a bloody pulp.

Back in 2001 the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maff - Defra's predecessor) was serenely going about its business when it was hit by the Foot and Mouth crisis. The department's media officers, who until that point had little more strenuous to do than draft press releases about EU fishing quotas, were suddenly elbowed aside by a cohort of thrusting Number 10 media advisers, stomping all over their patch like the FBI containing an alien invasion while telling the town sheriff to keep his nose out of it. A year later, as a result of the department's inability to cope with the farrago, Maff had been brutally and swiftly dissolved: Defra was born.

And it's a department that's still tussling with some of the issues that led to its creation. It spent £113m on land for the disposal of animal carcasses as a result of Foot and Mouth. Last year Private Eye reported on the news that land it had bought at Throckporton for £3.8m had been sold for £831,000, to a man who'd previously been jailed for dumping contaminated waste. Whichever way you look at it, that's probably not a great deal.

Caroline Spelman's combine harvester moment, of course, was the sale of Britain's forests. It made so much sense on paper, didn't it? The Forestry Commission was one of those quangos that was regulator, owner and sole profiteer - it was stagnant, and devoid of incentives to do anything new or exciting. Time to hand that land over to communities and charities.

How gaping the gap between political theory and reality. In practice the Forestry Commission is no such thing. In practise the shoddy presentation of the plan meant it managed to enrage sandal-wearing environmentalists, marmalade-dropping Telegraph readers and everyone in between. Even I was annoyed, and I don't even like forests that much. Spelman was forced into a U-turn the scale of which hadn't been seen since Napoleon fled Moscow, apologising for getting it totally "wrong" and even "thanking colleagues for their support during what's been a difficult time," as if admitting to some secretly-held drug dependency.

It's interesting to look at this retreat in retrospect. There was no determination from Number 10 to fight for the bill as there has been with the NHS reforms. It was a bad bill, but that's never stopped governments trying to get them passed before. And how interesting to learn a few months later that the National Trust and the Wildlife Trust had actually presented Spelman with "shopping lists" - of 171 areas of woodland that they considered perfectly suitable for purchase thank you very much. Doesn't seem to square with Dame Fiona Reynolds of the National Trust's public pronouncements: "We were created by three Victorian radicals who were not afraid to stand up and say society needs beauty and fresh air. It is wonderful to remember that," she said, fingers no doubt tightly crossed behind her back.

At the time of Spelman's retraction, so mealy mouthed had it been, there was acceptance she'd taken one for team Cameron. She has previous in this regard. She prostrated herself before the Cabinet upon getting the job by offering a 30 per cent cut in four years - from £3bn to £2.2bn - by far the largest. The cuts will largely impact on civil servants and quangos (reduced from 92 to 39). The U-turn and departmental shrinkage appear to mean we have a Department that, for us muggles, is doing a passable impression of the Ministry of Magic. We've heard it's there: we just can't see it. Departments - even under Tory rule - are supposed to bother us with initiatives and pronouncements. It's infuriating: but it's their job. Look at this! Do this! Don't do that! From Defra we hear almost the opposite. Don't mind us; we've got everything under control. Ooh look over there; a squirrel.

Perhaps it's because there's a bigger storm around the corner. If you think the print publishing industry is a basket case, it's nothing on farming. The average farmer relies on subsidies - the EU Single Farm Payment (SFP) - for their annual income. It was supposed to be an interim measure, and is paid to farmers per acre of land they farm - whether they produce food or not. And for many livestock farmers, they may as well not bother. Despite rising farm outputs, incomes are declining due to rising costs in feed and fuel. Three quarters of arable farmers need the subsidy to make a profit.

It counts for 36 per cent of the EU's annual budget. New legislation aims to reinstate payments linked to production where there is evidence of so-called "slipper farming" (faking the production of food), but God only knows how Defra will ensure farmers abide by regulations given they're haemorrhaging civil servants. And last year the department's own study showed the UK would be the worst affected of any of the 27 EU member states if the SFP vanished - 75 per cent of livestock farms would trade at a loss.

Last year Spelman produced another U-turn: it got much less attention than the forest sale, but it was no less significant. Early in 2011 she told the Oxford farming conference she wanted to end farmers' dependence on subsidies. You can imagine how well it went down. Soon she was "clarifying her position" once more - she didn't want "dogmatic" scrapping - she wanted "reform" so that farmers "could stand on their own two feet". A far more (pardon the pun) friendly speech at the corresponding event this year generated no headlines.

Mind you, some farmers could be forgiven for thinking subsidies have already been scrapped. The Rural Payments Agency, an executive agency of Defra, was formed to pay out £1.7bn a year in subsidies to English farmers in the form of SFPs. Last year we learned £300m was paid out in extra staff to sort out backlogs in payments, and £327m to the EU in fines because of SFP errors. The Commons Public Accounts Committee met in November hoping to hear of improvement - instead it heard about £53m set aside for EU disallowance fines relating to SFP. These late payments have left farmers in penury. A quarter of them live below the income poverty line of less than £20,000.

It's a tough enough time to work in agriculture- not only is your union spineless (witness the complete lack of support it gave during the supermarket milk price war), but you're overseen by a department that seems to be doing little to help. Even on badger culling, Defra has first wrung its hands and left it to the farmers (the Big Society option), before it delayed the decision till May. The department's recent food and drink export plan was well-received and a step in the right direction for a sector that could really boom if it's able to tap into the Russian, Chinese, Indian and Brazilian markets, but there is so much to be done. At present none of them figure in the top ten countries to which we export agri-food and drink.

After you've downsized, there's a problem with laissez-faire policies, and more so with delays: you might stay out of the headlines, but sooner or later people who take any interest will start to think there's nothing happening at all. Whether it's the badger cull or reform of the Common Agricultural Policy in 2013, there's a simple point - a department might be able to keep a low profile for a while, but it can't disappear.

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National & TLS. He lives in London and tweets as @aljwhite. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture, republished this year.