Why Defra needs someone with farming experience as Minister - Sarah Todd

Agricultural journalists have had a field day with news of the 10th Minister of State to represent England’s green and pleasant land in a decade. They have rightly reported on the seemingly “revolving door” at Defra (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) as Thérèse Coffey finally resigned and some chap called Steve Barclay replaced her.

It is so disappointing that our Prime Minister had, before taking up residence at Number 10 Downing Street, been immersed in his rural constituency of Richmond in North Yorkshire yet has still failed to get to grips with this particular department.

Out of all the colleagues he has to choose from is there not a single person who has a farming background? It’s only the blink of an eye ago that we had our country’s momentary Prime Minister Liz Truss - who is vegetarian - holding the role that is supposed to champion British agriculture.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The aforementioned Ms Coffey (who looked as much like a countrywoman as Ms Truss) was held in such low regard that she was actually booed at the National Farmers’ Union annual conference.

Steve Barclay leaves 10 Downing Street, London. PIC: Victoria Jones/PA WireSteve Barclay leaves 10 Downing Street, London. PIC: Victoria Jones/PA Wire
Steve Barclay leaves 10 Downing Street, London. PIC: Victoria Jones/PA Wire

Now Steve Barclay is doubtless a very pleasant bloke. But it’s not a good start is it? All the commentators have called his move to Defra something of a demotion from his previous role as Health Secretary. Getting somebody shunted into the role from another job is far from ideal. Whatever happened to politicians having an area of interest and grafting away in junior roles before getting a stab at the top job?

Yes it’s an over-simplification, but if yours truly was Prime Minister the Health Secretary would have some kind of medical background; experience working as a doctor, nurse or in the care sectors. The Chancellor should have had a career in banking and anyone with the remit of transport should have had a high-flying role in aviation, rail or logistics. At the very least, they should be made to do work experience at somewhere like the haulage company Eddie Stobart.

This voter wants somebody heading up education who has had a career at the chalkface and a business secretary that has a proven entrepreneurial background. Foreign secretaries should be multilingual and have relevant experience such as in the diplomatic corps. Defence should be left to a military man or woman.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

It’s an absolute and utter joke to have people holding such offices with no background knowledge. Just because it’s happened this way for a long time doesn’t make it the right way. The thinking must be that an intelligent person has transferable skills that make it possible for them to pick up the reins without missing a beat in any department. But really?

Looking back at the career of Steve Barclay, he did a short-service commission with the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, then read history at Cambridge. He went on to qualify as a solicitor working in various roles for Axa Insurance, the Financial Services Authority, and Barclays Bank. Unlike so many professional politicians who have never had a proper job outside Whitehall, here is a man with a very solid CV. But nowhere does it mention anything to do with health or the environment, food or rural affairs. Surely his skills would have been better deployed in the Treasury or Trade? Defence at a push.

But back where we started with farming. We don’t have a huge acreage and have always resisted getting involved in any subsidy-type schemes. Having somebody coming around with a clipboard - or trying to catch you out from an office somewhere via drone film footage - has never appealed.

Increasingly difficult to do anything with your own land without being registered, the last week has been spent trying - and failing - to work out the Defra website. Nowhere in the small print did it say a degree in computer science was necessary.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

We are heading towards a countryside where it will only be the farmers and fishermen who can complete the forms, or afford some professional to do it for them, who will still be working in our rural and environmental industries.

It would be brilliant to see Steve Barclay taking a turn milking cows, or lifting potatoes from waterlogged land and battling against the elements, and pollution, of trying to land a decent catch of fish.

As well as his wellies - owning a pair should be a prerequisite of the job - could he please bring his computer? Maybe if he saw how much red tape has gone before him, he could start to break eggs with a big stick.