The environment secretary’s cheery rhetoric hasn’t been matched by convincing policy on the big challenges facing DEFRA, writes David Burrows.
It’s like “putting the fox in charge of the hen house”, said Ed Davey, the former energy secretary, as news broke that Michael Gove was heading back to the cabinet as secretary of state for the environment, food and rural affairs.
He certainly wasn’t the man many (any?) would have chosen as environment secretary, but today marks his first 100 days in the post, so how has he done?
On the plus side, the so-called “big hitter” has drawn attention to DEFRA. Apart from major flood events, a food scandal or a serious outbreak of avian flu, this is a department that tends to fly (see what the Print has done there?) under the radar. Gove could put DEFRA back on the Westminster map, and unlike his predecessors he won’t have to rely on plastic bags and poorly badgers.
No siree. Some of the biggest Brexit challenges will land on the Nobel House doorstep. For example, what will the UK’s fishing sector look like when it is cast outside the Common Fisheries Policy, or farming without the safety net of the Common Agricultural Policy?
So far, Gove has said the right things to the right people, it seems. He has “backed British farming” and admitted that farmers need protecting (though with a caveat that they will need to earn their subsidies through environmental protection).
“Agriculture is an industry more susceptible to outside shocks and unpredictable events – whether it’s the weather or disease,” he said in July. “So financial assistance and mechanisms which can smooth out the vicissitudes farmers face make sense.”
The acknowledgement that British food security is at risk from climate change is certainly a change in tack. In January the Climate Change Committee warned that “there is no co-ordinated national approach to ensure the resilience of the UK food system”, to which DEFRA said it was happy to continue with the suck-it-and-see approach.
“The resilience of food supply chains is regularly tested by severe weather and other events, and consistently performs well … The government takes a more optimistic view of the levels of resilience that are achieved through functioning markets and diverse sources of supply,” the government response reads.
It appeared to have forgotten about Brexit in all this; after all, the UK sources roughly a third of its food from the European Union. The battle over Marmite was merely the appetiser, it seems – from rotting food at borders to rocketing prices and food safety concerns, it’s a potential recipe for disaster. Policy experts warned in July that Britain could be “sleepwalking” into an era of insecure, unsafe and pricey food, as politicians wandered around Whitehall dreaming of booming exports and myriad new trade deals.
This past week or so has shown that farmers, manufacturers, retailers and foodservice businesses are less sanguine about it all. The British Retail Consortium warned late last month of empty shelves, while the British Hospitality Association has long said Brexit could be “catastrophic for our industry” given the gap in labour and skills that could open up.
(Gove has a staffing crisis of his own to deal with, too: having slimmed down its workforce by 17% after the Brexit vote in June 2016, his department is reportedly hunting for dozens of policy experts and a number of media officers).
The picture being painted is dark and unwelcome; not least to ensure that the government listens. It won’t be easy (though he has been touting for input). Gove remains the optimist; his first 100 days have been littered with rhetoric, conviction often hiding contradiction. Food production standards will rise and prices will fall, he claimed recently, suggesting his early words are confected from experience rather than expertise.
Gove doesn’t like experts, of course: people have had enough of them, he said in June 2016. Fast-forward to June 2017 and he was back on the frontline, ducking and weaving as DEFRA’s long-awaited big hitter. Is he really the fisherman’s friend, food industry ally, animal welfare champion and waste warrior? To date, he’s been a political Pollyanna rather than the perfect fit.