Sir Jim Paice questions Government commitment to farming
THE removal of Ministerial rank from the Defra farming role following the surprise sacking of Farming Minister David Heath has been condemned by his predecessor Sir Jim Paice.
Mr Heath was sacked after just one year in the role, as Prime Minister David Cameron and his deputy Nick Clegg reshuffled their Ministers on Monday. Also gone is Richard Benyon, who had held the environment and fisheries briefs since 2010.
Into their places have come two Cornish MPs, Conservative George Eustice, Mr Cameron’s former press secretary, and Liberal Democrat Dan Rogerson.
Their roles and responsibilities have still not been finalised, although it appears Mr Eustice – a euro-sceptic and vocal supporter of the Government’s badger cull policy – will take on much of Mr Heath’s farming brief, and possibly fisheries, with Mr Rogerson focusing on the environment.
But while Mr Heath, as did his predecessors in the role, carried the rank of Minister of State and was effectively a deputy for Secretary of State Owen Paterson, the two new members of the Defra team both carry the lower rank of Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State.
This has placed Defra alongside the Department of Culture Media and Sport and the Welsh and Scottish Offices as the only departments lacking the Minister rank.
No explanation has been given for the demotion of the rlole, although one theory doing the rounds is that Mr Clegg preferred to see his higher ranking Ministers in higher profile Departments. It has also been suggested Mr Paterson is keen to take on more of the farming brief.
Sir Jim Paice, whose own shock sacking paved the way for Mr Heath to become the first Lib Dem Defra Minister in September 2012, said the move raised questions about the Government’s commitment to food and farming.
“I am personally sorry for David Heath, who was putting his all into the job. But I think the removal of Minster status from the post is extremely concerning. It’s a great shame the Agriculture Minister is not a Minister of State.
“It raises questions about, frankly, how important the department is seen as by Government. I do think there should always be an automatic deputy for the Cabinet Minister,” he said.
Sir Jim stressed, however, that he saw Mr Eustice as a ‘very good appointment’ and described as a ‘very able man with strong roots in the countryside’.
NFU president Peter Kendall paid tribute to Mr Heath, highlighting particularly the ‘steely determination’ he showed from the start when dealing with the issue of bovine TB and badgers.
But he said the industry ‘ought to have an explanation’ over the apparent downgrading of the farming role in Defra.
“It looks like we have lost the ministerial rank, which I think would be enormously disappointing in light of the importance of food production and the challenges we face,” he said.
Mr Kendall also expressed frustration at the constant ‘Ministerial churn’ seen at Defra over the years. He said no other Department in Whitehall appeared to suffer from the same rapid turnover of Ministers as Defra.
This made it hard for industry and Government to achieve continuity on the big, long-running issues like CAP reform and bovine TB.
Defra’s new faces
GEORGE Eustice pledged to ‘champion the interests of rural communities’ after Prime Minister David Cameron appointed him as a junior Defra Minister.
The appointment of the 42-year-old, who grew up and worked on a family fruit farm in Cornwall, has generally been welcomed. His time at Defra is unlikely to be dull.
A eurosceptic, who was campaign director for the anti-euro ‘No Campaign’ between 1999 and 2003 and stood unsuccessfully as a UKIP candidate during the 1999 European Elections, is understood to share his new boss Owen Paterson’s desire for radical CAP reform.
The Conservative MP for Camborne and Redruth has spoken out strongly in favour of the badger cull, highlighting the impracticalities and cost of badger vaccination, in the Commons debate on the subject in June.
Mr Eustice also jointly hosted a Parliament event in support of Friends of the Earth campaign to encourage the Government to take ‘urgent action’ to address the decline of bee populations.
He was elected to Parliament in 2010, winning by just 66 votes. A member of the Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee until Monday, he grew up on his family fruit farm, at Gwinear, and worked there for a number of years before entering the world of politics.
He was David Cameron’s press secretary from June 2005 until the end of 2007 and was part of his campaign team during the leadership contest.
He said: “I have spent 10 years working in the farming industry and policies relating to water and the fishing industry are particularly important to Cornwall. I am really looking forward to working with colleagues within Defra to champion the interests of rural communities.”
Expected to take on the environment brief, Mr Rogerson has spent much of his political life campaigning for a ‘fair deal for Cornwall’, notably fighting post office closures and against the ‘unfair Council Tax’.
The Liberal Democrat MP for North Cornwall arrives at Defra as a veteran of the Commons Efra Committee, which scrutinises Defra affairs. He joined soon after he was elected to Parliament in 2005 and was still a member until his appointment on Monday.
He has served as Liberal Democrat Shadow Minister for the environment, housing, arts and heritage and, most recently, local Government.
He has also chaired the Parliamentary Cheese Industry Group, is vice-chair of the Rural Services Group and a member of the Hill Farming Group. He voted for the badger cull in the most recent debate.
He is married with three children.