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.

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

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Here’s everything I learned this weekend at LibDem conference

Fear and loathing in the Bournemouth International Centre.

I spent my weekend in Bournemouth. It’s a lovely place for a weekend away, with gorgeous sandy beaches, beautiful parks and unusually good weather for an English seaside resort – but I didn’t get to enjoy any of that because I spent the weekend shut in a conference centre with a bunch of Lib Dems. Here’s what I learned from the experience.

There are people who think that EU flag berets make a stylish addition to any head

Almost the first thing to catch my eye on entering the Bournemouth International Centre was a cluster of women with EU flags on their head.

I’m not entirely clear whether there were a lot of these guys, or a small group I just happened to notice a lot because an EU flag beret is the sort of thing you’ll almost certainly be able to spot across a crowded conference hall, but either way I kept seeing them all weekend.

Vexingly, they were always women of a certain age. Do young women not love the EU? Do they not make the hats in men’s sizes? What?

Anyway.  If you want to show your support for Britain’s membership of the European Union while looking a bit like one of the mushrooms from Super Mario Bros 3, now you know how. 

You can buy laminated pictures of Tim Farron for £4.25 a throw

Something I would like to know is who exactly the market is for this particular product.

Something I would not like to know is why this product is laminated.

Vince Cable wants to bring house prices down...

The reason I was at LibDem conference at all was because the Young Liberals had wanted someone who wasn’t a politician to join their panel about intergenerational inequality and, basically, shout at everyone about housing. This is how I spend most Saturday nights anyway, so I agreed.

The thing that stays with me about that discussion was something the new(ish) party leader Vince Cable said. I’m paraphrasing, but it was along the lines of: We need to explain to homeowners that house prices have to fall.

At the time, I thought perhaps this was a comment tailored for a young and angry audience – but he said something similar when taking questions from the party at large the next day. He also said that the party needed to take on the NIMBYs that oppose house-building. 

All of which I’m quite in favour of, on the whole. Except...

... but his party night not let him

...at least some of those NIMBYs are members of his own party. One of them is the MP for Oxford West & Abingdon, Layla Moran, who was elected in June on a platform of protecting Oxford’s green belt from the housing development she says neighbouring Tory and Labour councils are threatening to build. 

During our panel debate, Moran explained that she favoured meeting Oxford’s housing need by building in neighbouring Bicester (not, as it happens, a part of her own constituency). She also argued that building on the green belt should be the “last resort”, although since the city already has the most expensive housing in Britain relative to wages it’s not clear to me what the last resort might look like if not this.

At any rate: LibDem policy is set by the members, not the leadership. And Moran will be far from the only LibDem politician who wants to protect their patch from development. For those who favour housebuilding, Cable’s support is A Good Thing – but that doesn’t mean his party will follow him on the issue. 

Political tribalism is personal

Why, I asked people in a panic whenever conversation palled, are you a LibDem? Sometimes, when people seemed particularly annoyed with the party around them, I’d instead ask: why are you still a LibDem?

One of the answers I was given stays with me, because I’d not considered it before. You might hate the leadership, the policies, the coalition. You might not know many LibDems back home. But twice a year you go off to a conference somewhere, and you spend four days with friends from all over the country who otherwise you would hardly ever see. 

Leaving the party doesn’t just mean cutting up a membership card: it means abandoning those friends. 

This, I suspect, goes some way to explain why, even when the party is very obviously in a hole, everyone in the Bournemouth International Centre this weekend was so bloody cheerful.

Shutting a couple of thousand strangers in a badly ventilated conference hall for several days is a great way to incubate all sorts of exciting diseases

I’m a man on the cusp of middle age and I’m sitting here with freshers’ flu and no free drinks parties, how the hell is this fair.

Just because you agree on Europe that doesn’t mean there’s no excuse for a fight

The Brexit debate on Sunday morning was, I was assured, going to be the fight of the conference. I’m a big fan of both pointless political rows and the European Union so I went along.

The funny thing, though, was it was a remarkably difficult fight to understand. Both sides wanted Britain to remain in the European Union, of course (they’re LibDems; they have hats). But one faction wanted to commit the party to an “exit from Brext” referendum on the final terms of Brexit, while the other just wanted to stuff the whole thing. Okay.

It further transpired that actually both sides would probably accept another referendum (either the first or the third, argued former MP Julian Huppert, depending on how you count, but definitely not the second). The argument was really about the meaning of that referendum: if that was lost, too, would the LibDems accept it and back Brexit? Well, obviously not, but in which case what was the point of supporting a referendum? Why not just be clear that you oppose the whole thing as a mess?

Moreover, LibDem policy is meant to represent what a LibDem government would do. In the event of a LibDem majority – pause here for hollow laughter – it’s probably safe to assume that the mood of the British public towards Europe will have changed so radically that we could cancel Brexit without bothering with another referendum. So is LibDem policy a guide to the policy of a majority LibDem government? Or is it a guide to what it would fight for without said government? And since nobody outside the party is likely to read the thing does it actually matter?

Just as I was getting my head around this, someone requested that conference suspend standing orders, the chair said that would be a vote on whether to have a debate about this request, someone else said that standing orders had already been suspended, everyone began muttering, and my nose began to bleed.

In the event, after a long and exhausting debate that left everyone in a terrible mood, the LibDems voted overwhelmingly to keep policy pretty much the same as it had been before. Which, ironically, is a good description of the party’s position on Brexit.

The LibDems love a good singsong

“Oh you have to go to Glee Club,” people kept telling me. “You’ve not seen LibDem conference until you’ve been to Glee Club.”

I promise that whatever you’re imagining right now, the reality is worse. 

It works like this. People rewrite the lyrics to popular songs to make them about British politics, and then a roomful of LibDems sing them like they’re hymns. Here’s a topical one about David Cameron and a pig, sung to the tune of English Country Garden:

Sadly I didn’t make it to glee club – I was back in London before the glittering night – but just so I didn’t feel left out a crowd of LibDems demonstrated the concept to me by singing several verses to the tune of American Pie outside a pub. And just for me. Lucky old me, eh!

Despite the lyric “Tony Blair should fuck off and die”, this, I’m told, actually dated to before Iraq, all the way back to talk of a Labour-LibDem pact in the mid-1990s, long before many of those singing were even involved in the party. The lyrics are printed in a book that expands every year, and you can buy your own copy. So it is that people can confidently sing along with satirical songs dating back to the 90s or beyond. Amazing scenes.

If you ever tweet anything nice about LibDem conference, they will start sending you membership forms

No.

Apart from anything else you people give me the flu.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.