Opinion: the Lib Dems should have have more influence over the environment, food and rural affairs

Recently, I have started taking an interest in the government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). My MP is one of their ministers. He seems to spend an awful lot of time on marine affairs, coastal defences and the natural environment. So, as a good citizen, I feel I ought to take an interest. For example, recently, I read through all the questions and answers at Thursday’s the DEFRA session in the House of Commons. Well done Andrew George and Duncan Hames for speaking. But, apart from their three queries, it was a Tory controlled zone.

DEFRA is unusual in that it has no Liberal Democrat ministers. (It shares that predicament with the Departments for International Development and Culture, Media and Sport, plus the Northern Ireland and Wales offices.) So what influence do the Liberal Democrats have on this very busy department which, for example, is central to the green policies which are so important to the Liberal Democrats?

We have a committee, co-chaired by Andrew George MP and Lord Greaves, to feed the views of LibDem MPs and Peers into DEFRA. It would be rewarding to know what successes this committee has had.

Is that enough? One feels uncomfortable. That discomfort was underscored by the Institute for Government’s report “United we stand”, published last September [PDF]. The report recommended that “at the next reshuffle, the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister should appoint Liberal Democrat junior ministers in the three major departments where the party is currently entirely without representation” (DEFRA, DfID & DCMS).

As a party, the Liberal Democrats are currently running the risk of sharing the blame for things over which they have no influence. For a department with such a hugely broad remit such as DEFRA, you can take your pick of disasters waiting to happen: Food poisoning, an agricultural disease epidemic or widespread major flooding. By being part of the government in those circumstances we’ll get blamed. But we’ll play very little, if any, part in preventing or managing such disasters.

Alternatively, look at the situation positively. The Liberal Democrats could play a hugely beneficial role for the whole government by having a minister in DEFRA. Take the example of the Common Agricultural Policy. The government has reversed Labour’s policy of ending direct subsidy payments and is against a cap for them. Despite the highest integrity of the individual ministers in DEFRA, it is very hard not to notice that the family of two of them have farms which have benefitted from the CAP subsidies. Would not the influence of a Liberal Democrat be healthy in forestalling any concerns the public may have about such links?

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