Defra non-exec under pressure to resign for 'interfering in political matters'

Tory MPs express outrage after Ben Goldsmith backs Extinction Rebellions stance against fossil fuels
Ben Goldsmith (left). Photo: Gary Mitchell, GMP Media/Alamy

By Tevye Markson

13 Apr 2022

A non-executive director in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is under pressure to resign after making comments in support of environmental activists Extinction Rebellion.

Ben Goldsmith, a financier and environmentalist, criticised the Labour Party’s call for injunctions against Just Stop Oil and expressed his support for XR in a Twitter comment yesterday.

"Not a good look from Labour," he said. "The protesters are right to be doing whatever it takes to wake people up. The fossil fuel industry is grubby and dangerous. We need to unhook ourselves from our dependence asap. I'm with Extinction Rebellion."

 

Goldsmiths comments, which he has now deleted, have triggered outrage among Conservative Party MPs, with one calling for him to resign as Defra non-exec director or be sacked and others questioning if he can continue in the role.

MP Chris Loder accused Goldsmith of “inappropriately interfering in political matters” and criticised the non-exec’s comments on eagles.

 

He said Goldsmith, who is the brother of international environment minister Zac and has been a non-exec director at Defra since 2018, “should either resign and stand for election or be sacked by [environment secretary] George Eustice”.

The code of conduct for board members of public bodies, including non-execs, states: “You should be, and be seen to be, politically impartial… You should abstain from all controversial political activity… On matters directly related to the work of the body, you should not make political statements or engage in any other political activity”.

Loder also criticised Goldsmith’s response to his own Twitter post on farming issues on Monday as a “shocking abuse” of power.

The West Dorset MP had sought to explain distaste that eagles are being allowed to migrate to Dorset, saying they are “killing our lambs and plaguing our farmers”. In response, Goldsmith said the potential handful of lamb deaths caused by eagles is “a total irrelevance” compared to the 2.5 million lambs which die of natural causes in the UK every year. Loder is “on the wrong side of public opinion and of history,” Goldsmith added.  

Other MPs have also reportedly slammed Goldsmith’s comments about XR in a Conservative backbencher WhatsApp group.

Brecon and Radnorshire MP Fay Jones called the statement “unbelievable”, according to Sky News, which also reported that former cabinet minister Damian Green had said “surely he can’t stay on after that”.

Almost 1,000 Just Stop Oil protestors have been arrested since they began a 12-day campaign blockading oil terminals on 1 April, with the group vowing to continue until they are all jailed.

Labour has called for the government to impose injunctions to ban protests at oil terminals and across Britain’s roads network.

Goldsmith posted another tweet later on Tuesday, retracting his initial comments on the protests explaining that the post was “in a personal capacity” and not the position of the Conservative Environmental Network, which he chairs, or Defra.

He said his “sympathies” with XR protests are due to the escalating climate crisis.

“I recognise the disruption these protests are causing to people's lives and livelihoods,” he said.

“I've always previously stood publicly opposed to the controversial and often bonkers methods employed by [XR].

“That being said, I know I'm not alone in feeling a rising sense of panic as the reported science grows ever grimmer. Awareness and action are not commensurate with the scale of the issue, even if we in the UK are now leading the way globally.”

He also said the CEN’s role in the UK’s “emergence as a global leader on environmental and climate restoration” is “huge cause for optimism”.

Defra and Goldsmith have been approached for comment but neither had responded at the time of publication.

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