by Kevin Meagher
If there’s one thing that united Northern Ireland’s republicans and unionists alike, it was relief in seeing the back of Owen Paterson as secretary of state. His Tory grandee shtick didn’t play with either side, but it was more than his air of lofty patrician indifference, he was disliked because of his poor grasp of detail.
In that respect, he left the frying pan to jump headlong in to the fire. Reshuffled to Defra last September, Paterson is currently floundering, trying to respond to the corruption of our food-chain security which has seen horsemeat turn up, well, everywhere it shouldn’t; while Muslim prisoners have been eating non-Halal pasties. Further scandals are promised.
Paterson is suffereing because of two problems specific to Defra. The first is that the everyday substance of policy there is detailed, pernickety and hard to grasp. It favours clever, assiduous ministers like Michael Meacher or genuine enthusiasts like Elliot Morley with a personal interest in the department’s stock-in-trade. (He was a twitcher before, alas, serving a spell of bird). Assiduous and enthusiastic are not words to describe Paterson’s performance over the past couple of weeks.
The second is that the department is like a portmanteau case, opening out to include powerful vested interests. There’s quangos like the Environment Agency. The privatised water companies and their independent regulator, Ofwat. And the farming lobby. And the landowners. And the animal rights people. There are plenty of well-organised groups to fall out with and Paterson needs to do just that, firing a rocket at powerful food producers and retailers.
I remember asking a former boss of mine who had worked in the gas industry why the old department of energy was folded into the department of trade and industry. His answer? The department was simply a focal point for powerful corporates in the oil and gas industries who button-holed ministers with their own particular gripes. Better to have an energy minister in a department with a wider mandate to dilute their influence on policy.
So, too, it is with Defra. Amalgamating the old Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food (MAFF) with the Department of Environment after the 2001 foot-and-mouth outbreak simply aggregated-up the knotty issues and vocal lobbies.
The basic problem with Defra is that when things are going well, no-one notices. But it’s the kind of place where if something goes sideways on your watch it usually means it falls on you like a giant redwood tree. Also, ministers are, literally, responsible for acts of god like flooding and ash dieback disease.
When we manage to get past the horsemeat puns there are serious questions about the integrity of our food production supply-chain. Paterson has so far looked utterly bewildered. He is probably not the man to ask them. In a bid to wrest back the initiative, he is today hosting what the BBC is reports is a ‘horsemeat summit’ with food industry leaders. Asking them what went wrong and exhorting them not to allow it to happen again is about the limit of what will be achieved.
Such are the illusions of office, which might have been enough in pre-Thick Of It days, alas, Owen Paterson is not the man to sell small advances as decisive breakthroughs. But he needs to get a grip on things fast. Somewhere in the bowels of Nobel House there is someone weaving him a hemp, bio-degradable coffin.
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut