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ALL organisations are subject to some turnover of staff but, by anyone’s standards, the churn rate among ministers at Defra seems milk-curdlingly high. It is, after all, just eight months since Gordon Brown’s previous Cabinet reshuffle resulted in all three junior ministers being replaced, as well as some of Defra’s responsibilities relating to climate change being moved to a new department. Following the resignation of Jane Kennedy from the Government and further reshuffling by the Prime Minister last week, only one of these ministers – Huw Irranca-Davies – remains. Jim Fitzpatrick has replaced Mrs Kennedy and takes on responsibility for farming and animal health, while Dan Norris fills a gap in the team left by Lord Hunt, who has been moved to the Department of Energy and Climate Change. Hilary Benn has quickly become the grand old man of the department, having replaced David Miliband as secretary of state almost two years ago.
It is not just the public who might have difficulty keeping up with these changes; announcing Mr Norris’s appointment last week, Defra’s website initially referred users to Downing Street’s website for biographical details.
This rapid-fire movement of ministers might not matter too much if one could be sure of an underlying stability in government departments. However, after a decade of civil service reforms and seemingly endless reviews, coupled with departmental mergers and the creation of new agencies and the amalgamation of existing ones, often accompanied by a reduction in staff, it is difficult to be confident that this is the case. The latest ministerial changes at Defra come at a time when the department is in the middle of a consultation on sharing the responsibilities and costs of animal health, and on creating a new semi-autonomous body to oversee animal health in England. Quite how this will work with the rest of the UK remains to be seen but, if they go through, the proposals will result in the biggest shake-up in the arrangements for safeguarding animal health in decades. Policy changes like this need to be considered carefully, with a full appreciation of the facts, and a lack of continuity can only be disruptive. Change happens, and needs to be anticipated and accommodated, but it shouldn’t be a policy in its own right.
Despite the apparent turmoil at the centre of government, Defra’s latest annual report, which was published last week, paints a picture of serene progress in challenging times.* In his introduction to the report, which pre-dates the latest ministerial changes, the secretary of state remarks on a year of achievement at Defra. He reports, among other things, that ‘We’ve worked with farmers to deal with diseases like avian influenza and bluetongue, and having made a difficult decision on bovine TB and badgers, we’re now moving towards testing an injectable TB vaccine.’ With its new responsibility for coordinating food policy across government, Defra is also working to keep supply chains secure. Noting that protecting the environment remains a priority, he points out that ‘The next 12 months will be critical, not only because the world will be striving to reach an agreement on climate change at Copenhagen in December, but also because we have the chance now to create a more sustainable and greener society. This will mean being resource efficient, improving our resilience to a changing climate, creating an agriculture sector that is both sustainable and productive, and developing the skills, training and innovation that all of this requires.’
These are all important issues, which makes it all the more essential that a sense of stability prevails.
The ministerial team at Defra is not alone in falling victim to the latest bout of shuffilitis, which has also resulted in a significant change in the structure of government. Having for many years come under the aegis of the Department of Education and Science, and, more recently, after a brief sojourn in the extraordinarily short-lived Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, universities have now been shunted into the newly created Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, raising concerns that their wider educational role could be undervalued. It is worrying that, along with ‘agriculture’, the words ‘universities’, ‘education’ and ‘science’ no longer feature in the names of any government departments. This might be dismissed as mere semantics but departmental names are important and can affect as well as reflect priorities.