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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Richmond is a victory for hope - now let's bring change across the country

The regressives are building their armies. 

Last night a regressive alliance was toppled. Despite being backed by both Ukip and the Conservative Party, Zac Goldsmith was rejected by the voters of Richmond Park.

Make no mistake, this result will rock the Conservative party – and in particularly dent their plans for a hard and painful Brexit. They may shrug off this vote in public, but their majority is thin and their management of the post-referendum process is becoming more chaotic by the day. This is a real moment, and those of us opposing their post-truth plans must seize it.

I’m really proud of the role that the Green party played in this election. Our local parties decided to show leadership by not standing this time and urging supporters to vote instead for the candidate that stood the best chance of winning for those of us that oppose Brexit. Greens’ votes could very well be "what made the difference" in this election (we received just over 3,500 votes in 2015 and Sarah Olney’s majority is 1,872) - though we’ll never know exactly where they went. Just as importantly though, I believe that the brave decision by the local Green party fundamentally changed the tone of the election.

When I went to Richmond last weekend, I met scores of people motivated to campaign for a "progressive alliance" because they recognised that something bigger than just one by election is at stake. We made a decision to demonstrate you can do politics differently, and I think we can fairly say that was vindicated. 

There are some already attacking me for helping get one more Liberal Democrat into Parliament. Let me be very clear: the Lib Dems' role in the Coalition was appalling – propping up a Conservative government hell bent on attacking our public services and overseeing a hike in child poverty. But Labour’s record of their last time in office isn't immune from criticism either – not just because of the illegal war in Iraq but also their introduction of tuition fees, privatisation of our health service and slavish worship of the City of London. They, like the Liberal Democrats, stood at the last election on an austerity manifesto. There is a reason that we remain different parties, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn't also seize opportunities like this to unite behind what we have in common. Olney is no perfect candidate but she has pledged to fight a hard Brexit, campaign against airport expansion and push for a fair voting system – surely progressives can agree that her win takes us forward rather than backwards?

Ultimately, last night was not just defeat of a regressive alliance but a victory for hope - a victory that's sorely needed on the back of of the division, loss and insecurity that seems to have marked much of the rest of this year. The truth is that getting to this point hasn’t been an easy process – and some people, including local Green party members have had criticisms which, as a democrat, I certainly take seriously. The old politics dies hard, and a new politics is not easy to forge in the short time we have. But standing still is not an option, nor is repeating the same mistakes of the past. The regressives are building their armies and we either make our alternative work or risk the left being out of power for a generation. 

With our NHS under sustained attack, our climate change laws threatened and the increasing risk of us becoming a tax haven floating on the edge of the Atlantic, the urgent need to think differently about how we win has never been greater. 

An anti-establishment wave is washing over Britain. History teaches us that can go one of two ways. For the many people who are utterly sick of politics as usual, perhaps the idea of politicians occasionally putting aside their differences for the good of the country is likely to appeal, and might help us rebuild trust among those who feel abandoned. So it's vital that we use this moment not just to talk among ourselves about how to work together but also as another spark to start doing things differently, in every community in Britain. That means listening to people, especially those who voted for Britain to leave the EU, hearing what they’re saying and working with them to affect change. Giving people real power, not just the illusion of it.

It means looking at ways to redistribute power and money in this country like never before, and knowing that a by-election in a leafy London suburb changes nothing for the vast majority of our country.

Today let us celebrate that the government's majority is smaller, and that people have voted for a candidate who used her victory speech to say that she would "stand up for an open, tolerant, united Britain".  But tomorrow let’s get started on something far bigger - because the new politics is not just about moments it's about movements, and it will only work if nobody is left behind.

 

Caroline Lucas is the MP for Brighton Pavilion.