By Suzannah.Brecknell

19 Aug 2010

Defra will rely on joint working to achieve many of its aims, reports Suzannah Brecknell, and secretary of state Caroline Spelman is keen that its expertise is shared as widely as possible.

Defra’s draft strategic reform plan (SRP), published in July, outlines three priorities: to support and develop British farming, and encourage sustainable food production; to enhance the environment and biodiversity; and to support a strong and sustainable green economy. Secretary of state Caroline Spelman tells CSWthat all three priorities should be considered equally important, and inter-related.

The SRP emphasises joint working with other departments. Plans to regenerate rural areas will involve working with the culture department to roll out broadband to rural areas, for example, and Defra officials will be working across the public sector to encourage procurement of food produced to British or equivalent standards. Spelman says there is a particular focus on the NHS, and reports that health secretary Andrew Lansley is “very enamoured” by the idea. Noting that Defra is “by definition a cross-cutting department”, she says she has been very impressed by the “particularly good relations” that Defra civil servants have with officials in other departments; these links, she adds, have been particularly demonstrated during planning for the spending review.

Joint working will also be needed to meet the coalition’s pledge to work towards a zero-waste economy. Defra will lead a review of waste policy, formally launched at the end of July, to consider how government can work with local councils to improve the “frequency and quality" of rubbish collections, and how power and responsibility for waste services could be devolved to local communities. In keeping with earlier announcements, the review will favour incentives, not directives, to encourage individuals, businesses and communities to produce less waste and recycle more.

Speaking to CSW, Spelman highlights the negotiations over the Common Agricultural Policy and Common Fisheries Policy as priorities on the international stage and draws attention to a “suite of inter-related conferences” coming up in the autumn: the Millenium Development Goals summit in September, which will have a day focusing on biodiversity; a biodiversity summit in October; and a climate-change summit in December. At these conferences, Spelman wants to encourage “linking up understanding about climate change with biodiversity”, she says. “At the moment the conferences themselves are separate, whereas in reality these issues are inextricably linked.”

At Spelman’s instigation, Defra and the Departments for International Development and Energy & Climate Change will be creating a single team of civil servants to cover the conferences. She often points European counterparts to the expertise available within Defra and, like the prime minister, would like to see more civil servants spending time in European institutions.

The ministerial team

The emphasis on working with organisations outside Defra is also reflected in ministerial team meetings. The four Defra ministers share weekly breakfasts and also have two formal weekly meetings, attended by two MEPs – a Conservative and a Liberal Democrat – and a representative of the Local Government Association. Liberal Democrat MP Andrew George will also be joining future meetings, Spelman told CSW, as he has just been appointed as the department’s link to the Liberal Democrat parliamentary party.

Spelman has experience working in two pan-European organisations, has a relatively pro-European outlook and is a member of the left-of-centre Tory Reform Group, which boasts justice minister Ken Clarke as its president. Her experience in agri-business had Spelman well-prepared for the Defra brief, but also caused controversy when anti-lobbying campaigners raised concerns about the biotech lobbying firm she founded with her husband in 1989, and of which she was a director until 2009. Her husband has now dissolved the company, which had been dormant for some years.

Agriculture and food minister Jim Paice served as a parliamentary private secretary and then a minister in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries & Food between 1989 and 1993. He then spent 10 of his 13 years in shadow cabinet with the farming and agriculture brief. In opposition he was critical of over-regulation of the farming industry and of the much-maligned Rural Payments Agency, which he is now reforming.

Richard Benyon, parliamentary under-secretary for natural environment and fisheries, previously worked with Paice in the shadow environment and agriculture team. An MP since 2005, he still runs a large family dairy farming business. The team is completed by Lord Henley, a life peer who first took his seat in the Lords in 1977.

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