There was anger at the former Environment Secretary during the floods earlier this year. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Badgers may cheer at Owen Paterson's exit, but we shouldn't disregard his achievements

The outgoing Environment Secretary may be an environmentalist's nightmare, but he wasn't all bad.

A white, middle-aged, country man who nevertheless forgot to take his wellies to a flood zone a stone’s throw from one of his infamous badger cull areas, now finds himself culled. Is this how we should remember the Rt Hon Owen Paterson MP, Secretary of State for the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, September 2012 - July 2014?

Paterson’s appointment to Defra was popular with farmers and landowners because he was seen as one of their own: MP for that most rural of constituencies North Shropshire, and a leading figure in the European tannery trade. Defra was badly in need of a safe pair of hands after Caroline Spelman’s disastrous attempt to privatise the Forestry Commission. Moving across from the Northern Ireland brief, Paterson was to prove an able choice in this regard.

That is not to say the Defra tractor ploughed a steady course during his tenure. As well as leaving his boots behind for his slow-off-the mark visit to the flooded Somerset Levels, Paterson persevered to push through two hotly contested badger cull trials. This will perhaps be remembered as his most controversial act – but Paterson should also be remembered as the opposition spokesman who tabled more than 600 questions to Defra on badger control in a quest to understand the issue properly. On this issue Paterson clearly believed that he had the best interests of the dairy farming industry at heart.

He was also a passionate advocate of GM crops and technology, highlighting the problems of potato blight in his speech to the NFU in 2013 – preferring the prospects of GM spuds to repeated applications of pesticide. Paterson also espoused a strong interest in new farming technology, although major funding in this area come from the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills rather than Defra. The horsemeat scandal rattled confidence in the meat supply chain but Paterson could claim that the UK was one of the first EU members to raise concerns, and one legacy of this has been an increased interest in the provenance of meat.

It was also Paterson who commissioned David Fursden, former president of the Country Land and Business Association, to lead the Future of Farming Review, with a view to easing the way for new entrants into an industry characterised by an ageing workforce.

So very much an industry man? The environmental lobby seems to be sighing with relief at the departure of the climate change sceptic, who was rumoured to forbid departmental officials from using the phrase “ecosystem services” in his presence. But this is perhaps the greatest lost opportunity of Paterson’s short tenure.

Here was an environment secretary who was credible with farmers and industry, and his reluctance to square up to the implications of climate change for farming and the rural economy represents a failure of leadership of environmental and farming interests. He is not without environmental credentials – witness his work with the sea fishing industry on conservation of stocks and the impact of the European fisheries policy – and serious engagement with the long-term implications of climate change would have been a compelling legacy.

Defra is without doubt a complex brief and Paterson was in the post for less than two years. Nowhere is this complexity more challenging than Common Agricultural Policy reform, and Patterson’s incumbency coincided with a particularly demanding period of CAP reform. An important legacy will be the CAP modulation rate for England he announced last December: modulation is Euro-speak for the proportion of CAP money which is channelled away from direct payments to farmers and into environmental schemes. Farmers had begged for 9% on the grounds that a rate any higher would ruin them, while environmental advocates such as the RSPB pressed for 15% as better use of public money in the countryside. The Paterson answer was a straight-down-the-middle 12%, with a promise to review it (upwards) in a year or two.

That task will now fall to his successor Elizabeth Truss, MP for South West Norfolk, freshly arrived at Defra from the Department for Education. Considering the importance of irrigation to her farming constituents in East Anglia (Britain’s driest region), Truss should also be well equipped to pick up the remaining work on Defra’s groundwater abstraction consultation.

Let us hope that Truss is given a reasonable few years to make a go of her new brief at Defra before she too, in the words of her famous namesake, “eats shoots and leaves”.

The Conversation

Charles Cowap is a member of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, the Central Association of Agricultural Valuers, and non-executive Director of Management Development Services Ltd. He works as a rural specialist and land consultant for various companies and on various projects developing ecosystem service approaches, and providing training.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Getty
Show Hide image

"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

0800 7318496