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Power to the people?

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THERE was barely a mention in the national press, but DEFRA celebrated its fifth birthday this month. On June 8, it was five years to the day since, at the height of the foot-and-mouth disease crisis and immediately after the General Election, the new department was born out of the old Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Department for Environment, Transport and the Regions. Marking the big day in his ministerial blog*, the secretary of state, Mr David Miliband, listed some of the department’s achievements and remarked, ‘I’m told five-year-olds can get a bit stroppy. Hopefully, DEFRA will be passionate, rigorous and effective. That is my aim.’

This is all very worthy, but the minister’s remark does raise the question of what DEFRA intends to be passionate, rigorous and effective about. There is no doubt that the department’s priorities have changed over the years and that, in recent months in particular, environmental issues have come to the fore. There are certainly significant challenges in this area, so this, it might be argued, is no bad thing. However, the attention rightly being devoted to climatic change and other environmental issues should not be at the expense of the effort that must continue to be devoted to other areas that fall within DEFRA’s remit, of which ‘a sustainable farming and food sector, including animal health and welfare’, is an obvious example. The dangers were illustrated in a response to the minister’s comments in his blog, from a Mr William Smith: ‘DEFRA was born in the wake of foot-and-mouth disease for all the right reasons. Farmers like me saw it as a new start and putting food and farming within the context of the environment and the consumer as a more sensible approach to policy. However, five years on, the perception – whether fair or not – is that DEFRA’s not here for them. This is a problem.’

It certainly is a problem, and one that DEFRA would be advised to address. Using a more traditional means to express his ideas, Mr Miliband gave a speech last week to the National School of Governance. In a talk entitled ‘Public services and public goods: lessons for reform’, he made much of the idea of tailoring public services to the needs of citizens, and shifting power to individuals and communities. He called for ‘a shift from public services that are organised around traditional professional functions to one where they join up either around people and places, individuals or communities’. A sustainable environment, he argued, was a public good, not a public service, and needed the engagement of the public for its delivery. Engaging citizens meant empowering those citizens, and this could be achieved through information and incentives, and by making local, national and global institutions more accountable, transparent and responsive.

There was no mention of agriculture in the minister’s speech, but it is worth considering how well those arguments apply to the farming community. The single payment debacle has not helped in all this but, setting that aside, it seems fair to say that farmers do not feel exactly empowered at the moment. This could go some way to explaining why, five years after DEFRA was formed, they do not feel it is on their side. If people become disillusioned they become disenfranchised and, if that happens, there is a real danger that government policies, however well intentioned, will fail. For DEFRA to be truly effective, it must work hard to demonstrate that it remains interested in and values agriculture, and the various sectors associated with it.

It can be hard to make the mental jump from high-level strategy to what is actually happening on the ground, but what happens on the ground is important and ultimately determines whether strategies succeed or fail. Some of the practical issues confronting livestock farmers and veterinary practices were highlighted last week by the BVA President, Dr Freda Scott-Park, in a speech to opinion formers attending the BVA’s annual Scottish Dinner. Discussing the importance of getting vets on to farms in the context of Britain’s Animal Health and Welfare Strategy, she drew attention to falling farm incomes, problems of succession both on farms and in rural veterinary practices, and the realities of a situation where, in many cases, farmers are unable to afford the veterinary services on which their livelihoods may depend. She also drew attention to recent job evaluation and grading exercises affecting veterinary surgeons in government service which, together with slow progress in negotiations on contracts for local veterinary inspectors, suggested that the role of veterinarians working in the public sector was being undervalued by the Government. DEFRA describes itself as ‘the department that deals with the essentials of life’. As such, it must continue to take an interest in farming and food, develop appropriate policies and, as the minister suggested, empower citizens and communities to work together for the public good and a more sustainable future. In doing so, it should not neglect the people helping to deliver those policies, or underestimate the vital role that they play.

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