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Political Print: More jokers than aces as Sunak shuffles pack

Can new Defra secretary Steve Barclay move the department beyond scandal and stagnation? Don’t bank on it, says David Burrows

A cabinet reshuffle often has me scrolling through Wikipedia to refresh my memory of ministers past and present. And so it was on Monday when I found myself staring at a list of recent Defra secretaries. The table ran from top (2001, Margaret Beckett) to bottom (2023, Steve Barclay). 

Whether it has been listed that way to show how policies relating to environment, food and rural affairs, and the politicians overseeing them, have got progressively worse over the years, I wouldn’t like to say. 

The fact that Owen Paterson, Liz Truss, and Andrea Leadsom have all held the post tells its own story. Ranil Jayawardena is in there too. He lasted for 6 weeks – under Truss’s equally short stay as Prime Minister – and spent most of it trying to convince everyone that the government was up for protecting the environment. George Eustice managed two-and-a-half years but all I remember from his tenure is that he is a farmer. 

Now we have Steve Barclay, freshly demoted (in departmental budgetary terms at least) from health secretary and no doubt chomping at the bit to swot up on rural affairs, extended producer responsibility (EPR), farm subsidies and sewage. Yesterday’s ‘big read’ in the FT was headlined: Can Barclays move beyond scandal and stagnation? I clicked only to realise it was ‘Barclays’, the bank, not Barclay, the new Defra secretary. 

It works as a story either way, though. After all, Barclay spent most of his time as health secretary dealing with rolling strikes, and he will face similar fires at Nobel House (Defra HQ). Low pay has left the department “haemorrhaging staff”. Earlier this year ENDSreported that political churn has resulted in advice from officials being “ignored” (as has evidence from consultations on new waste policies, as well as the independent, expert advice on a national food strategy).

Barclay is the fifth environment secretary since Michael Gove, and his much-hyped (and long overdue) resources and waste strategy of 2018. Since then targets have been missed, consultations have dragged on, and pretty much everyone has felt deflated as the brief momentum built during Gove’s tenure died away. 

Coffey stimulant

Barclay replaces Therese Coffey, who resigned this week as Rishi Sunak reshuffled his pack (including what at first appeared to be a joker in David Cameron’s return to the front bench). Many had hoped Coffey, a former Defra minster with responsibility for resources, would stimulate waste and packaging policy after stagnation under Eustice. But it didn’t turn out that way. 

Policies relating to packaging have limped on in the past 12 months under Coffey’s stewardship (and she has failed to get a grip on wider delivery of policies as she had promised). There are some more bans on plastic items (which don’t appear to be very well enforced, according to the Foodservice Packaging Association), and she recently presented plans for more consistent recycling collections. EPR for packaging and a deposit return scheme (DRS), the other two major packaging policies the government has been working on since 2018, remain stuck in what appears to be an ever-lasting consultation cycle.

EPR has proven to be complicated. DRS has proven to be political. Asked about all this by MPs on the environment, food and rural affairs (Efra) committee just a couple of weeks ago, Coffey said packaging “is a very high priority”. Is it? Look at the delays to the various consultations, responses from which often come after 12 months rather than the 12 weeks recommended in the government’s own consultation principles

Coffey has been largely distracted by the controversy surrounding water pollution and sewage discharges, which has been headline news. The rest of her time has been spent goading farmers. She leaves with few real wins, a department that is in disarray and a government that is keen to cut the green crap (Perhaps that is why Cameron is back, albeit as foreign secretary?) or serve it up. “You can try to find another government in the world that are doing what we are achieving as a government on nature and net-zero,” Coffey told the Efra committee. 

Green groups put on a brave face. “Steve Barclay has an army of willing allies to make sure he succeeds,” wrote Ruth Chambers, in a blog for Green Alliance. She called on him to roll up his sleeves and engage with stakeholders like Gove had. He must, “remind colleagues of the long term importance of the environmental agenda when short termism risks clouding judgement”. 

I am not sure if there is something clouding Chambers’ judgement though, as she went on to say: “If Steve Barclay can truly unleash the ‘decade of delivery’, promised by his predecessor, he will leave a strong legacy for a government that promised to give us the most ambitious environmental programme of any country on earth.”

You have to admire the unrelenting, glass half full approach, of the green lobby. But with an election just a few months away and environment policy clearly now a wedge issue, I am not banking on Barclay to make a difference at Defra. He has no power, little political credit and a workforce that is more desperate than any for a change of government. Stagnation would actually be a decent outcome.