The Shabby DEFRA domain at Pirbright

The phrase ‘unfit for purpose’ comes readily to mind when thoughts turn to DEFRA, the ministry that has oversight of the farming industry. On top of the appallingly damaging farm payments scheme fiasco we now have the report on the 2007 foot and mouth outbreak which emanated from a Surrey laboratory for which it had responsibility. DEFRA’s incompetence is yet again self-evident.

It beggars belief that the Ministry charged with supervising the upkeep of a laboratory that handles virulent pathogens capable of destroying our livestock industry if mishandled should have been so derelict in its duties that the highly damaging foot & mouth virus was able to escape from its curtilage into the surrounding countryside. It is probably more by luck than anything else that we did not have a major outbreak, though Hilary Benn, the present minister parked in this particular Labour cul-de-sac, was quick to sing his own and his ministry’s trumpet in having contained the outbreak. This will not, however, have much of an echo out in the countryside.

Labour is an essentially urban party whose members have little real experience of the rural economy and scant sympathy for it. Its failure to defend rural post offices and village schools are but grievous symptoms of a calculated disdain for the fabric of rural Britain. It has a neglectful attitude to the countryside which it deems to be full of fox and bunny butchers, rich, greedy farmers and other assorted Poujadists, hostile Tories and people who complain endlessly. It views the countryside as a rather nice museum in which its supporters are to be encouraged to wander at will and as a rather nice place for a second home which might usefully be afforded on those nice allowances doled out by the House of Commons.

Hence the abandonment in the Ministry of a series of jaded and lacklustre second-rate used labour politicians. Blair, for example, planted Margaret Beckett, an unappetizing left-over from the Callaghan government there, as most folk thought, to see out her twilight days. She, together with Lord Bach, presided over the calamitous fiasco of the farm payments scheme which ended up beggaring almost every farmer in the land, a circumstance which produced a notable absence of sincere apology.

In the way of these things Blair rewarded her for her rank incompetence by giving her one of the great Offices of State, elevating her and her caravan to the Foreign Office. Bach, who had not exactly shone at Defence Procurement before his job at DEFRA, was the minister personally responsible for the farm payments mess and it came as no surprise when he was shuffled off to a nice little earner with BAE Systems when sacked by Blair in 2006. Equally it came as no surprise that Brown soon forgave him the shambles at DEFRA and recently slotted him back into the Government Whips Office in the Lords, a job he had had from 1998 to 1999. Quite what you have to do these days permanently to be excluded from Ministerial office under Labour remains totally unclear. I daresay that one day soon one of our government Ministries will be run from Ford Open Prison, a circumstance which will be spun to us by Brown who will not bat an eyelid as he explains the need to make use of all those of talent in politics.

Doubtless there are many between the sewers of Pirbright and the ivory towers of Westminster who bear some responsibility for the state of affairs which led to foot & mouth disease escaping from its premises. None but the barmy will be expecting anyone actually to have to pay for their conduct by leaving their jobs. Civil servants, being largely unsackeable under Labour lest offence be given to the Unions, will simply be moved sideways to another ministry, there to despoil yet more citizen’s lives. Anyone else will left in post lest anyone think that anyone can be identified as being to blame. Besides, if you sack anyone they cease to be part of Labour’s Client State and thus might not vote Labour at a future election, a thing to be avoided at all costs.

Meanwhile the incompetence goes on. The bee-keeping industry in the UK is rightly alarmed at the incidence of what appear to be examples of Colony Collapse Disorder (when whole colonies of bees suddenly expire from as yet undiagnosed causes) which has already caused alarm in the USA and has asked for a thoroughly modest £8 million pounds to fund research. This is a drop in the ocean of government finance (of pinhead proportions when compared, say, with how much the government was prepared to bung Rover at election time or the astronomical sums involved in the Northern Rock debacle) but DEFRA says there is no money in the kitty. This represents but five per cent of the annual value to the fruit-growing industry of free pollination by cultivated honey bees, so it is not as if the apiculturists are asking for a handout.

Yet, though it knows of the risks it is running by doing nothing, nothing is to be done.

With all the talk of a new approach to the whole business of politics (I hesitate to use the phrase ‘new politics’ since that might imply a new set of politicians, instead of which we are going to get a makeover from the old lot), might it not be time for this government, which is mad keen on creating new criminal offences for those it dislikes to commit, to come up with some criminal sanctions for ministers who know that a risk exists that, if they do not take reasonable and timely steps, damage will be caused to someone or something and who fail to take those steps.

Perhaps the sight of a former colleague starting a condign sentence of ten years for misfeasance or neglect in a Ministerial Office might concentrate what politicians are pleased to call their minds on doing the job properly. It might also encourage them to slash the size of their responsibilities so that they can actually begin to manage the important bits properly for a change.

Sadly mediocrity will continue to be the watchword of a governing party which is so devoid of real talent and which thrives on keeping the second-rate in office whatever their faults.