Rural communities can rest assured that “talented” and “dedicated” civil servants are working to make the best of Brexit for countryside interests, the new director general of the Country Land and Business Association (CLA) said.
Sarah Hendry took over the top job at the rural lobby group last month after more than 25 years working in government, including 12 years as a director at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).
Speaking exclusively to Country Week, she admitted there was a “mystique” about Whitehall policy-making amongst the general electorate but that Defra is well-resourced to deliver agricultural policy as decision-making powers are repatriated.
“There is a bit of mystique about working in government and some of the processes by which decisions are made can seem pretty remote,” Ms Hendry said. “I always felt it was important as a civil servant to come out and meet people and try to demystify how you do your work.”
As reported in The Yorkshire Post, a recent parliamentary Public Accounts Committee report accused Defra of doing too little to help food and farming businesses prepare for Brexit, conclusions that were quickly rejected by the department.
The committee also suggested Defra faced a challenge to get the right staff with the right skills in place to support its work in preparing for Brexit.
Asked about Defra’s capability to deliver effective and progressive farm policy post-Brexit, Ms Hendry said: “There is a very great group of talented and dedicated people working on it.
“It is an unprecedented situation and the amount of work they have to do in a relatively short period of time is enormous, but what has been stressed, and Michael Gove did so recently at the Oxford Farming Conference... he said that he was impressed by the expertise and hard work that civil servants are doing. If you have a Secretary of State saying that, then I think that is a pretty good indication.”
Ms Hendry said it was “inevitable” that people outside of government would be critical of Whitehall.
“If you have a business and that is hugely important to you, you are always going to be concerned that whoever is making decisions isn’t making the right decisions.”
In her new role, Ms Hendry now represents rural businesses and land owners. The CLA has 30,000 members across England and Wales and she sees the organisation as being well-placed to challenge the Government to make sure rural interests are firmly on the agenda.
“We are here to support and root for our members,” she said.
“The CLA can play a role on their behalf and represent their concerns to governments and that was something I saw when I was in government, the way the CLA operated. It was really good at getting into the policy detail and coming forward with constructive, well-thought through options for the decisions that the Government was making.”
She suggested that the Government’s adoption of a proposed Environmental Land Management Scheme that will reward farmers for delivering public goods was one such example after the idea was championed by the CLA.
Hinting as to what she had learned about effective lobbying, she said: “It is not just about having an idea but being able to help civil servants by operationalising how an idea would work on the ground.”
Such constructive input into the decision making processes within the corridors of power will remain crucial as farming and the rural economy enters a new era.
Ms Hendry believes the Government can always get better at ‘rural proofing’ its policies across its wide range of departments.
“I think there are ways in which governments can do it better because it’s not just about any one policy, it’s about making sure a whole range of policies are looked at through the rural lens, and getting that joined up to benefit rural communities is quite demanding.
“I think that can always be done better. I don’t think the Government has quite cracked it yet.
“Our job is to bring a deep expertise to make sure the Government has all the focus it needs to make the right decisions.”
Ms Hendry said she had got a “good insight” into rural Yorkshire’s pride and confidence when she attended board meetings of the York, North Yorkshire and East Riding Enterprise Partnership as a senior Whitehall official.
Having returned to the county to meet CLA members for the first time recently, Ms Hendry added: “Hopefully one of the things I bring to the CLA is a good insight into how government works and how decision making and policy making is done, and I hope we can really use that to the benefit of CLA members.”