As the speech made by the Environment Secretary, Liz Truss, at this year’s Tory conference showed, her focus remains very much on the business side of food and farming, and the need to increase productivity, innovation and exports. This is all well and good, but there is much more to her brief, and other issues to which she should also be devoting her attention.
My first challenge to her would be to face up to the problem of air pollution and its impact on public health: heart attacks, strokes, lung cancer and respiratory disease, leading to an estimated 50,000 early deaths a year.
After being taken to court by Client Earth and ordered by the UK Supreme Court in April to bring forward plans to clean up our air ‘as soon as possible’, Defra did launch a half-hearted consultation on air quality. It proposes devolving responsibility to local authorities, but with no new powers or money attached. And Liz Truss has had nothing to say about the Volkswagen scandal since it was first revealed.
We know that tackling air pollution is a matter of social justice, falling most heavily on the poorest, who live along the busiest roads, whose children are growing up with impaired lungs. It should be much higher up the Defra agenda.
The Government is due back in court next month to be forced to face up to its responsibilities again, this time over its failure to protect some of our most important rivers and lakes from agricultural pollution. Their preference for a voluntary approach won’t meet our legal obligations, and has meant we’re far from the “polluter-pays” principle for the cost of clean water.
The Government has also backtracked on the pre-election promise it made during the passage through parliament of the Infrastructure Bill not to allow fracking in water protection zones, as well as some of our most important wildlife sites and even our national parks. Again, this is something on which Labour is determined to hold them to account.
And our seas also need protection, from over-fishing, environmental degradation and pollution. The last Government reneged on ambitious plans for an ecologically-coherent network of 127 marine protected areas around UK shores, and has so far designated only 27, with the next tranche expected early next year. It is clear that this will not be enough to restore dwindling fish stocks and to allow the marine environment to recover.
We know that Defra ministers are separately working on two 25 year plans, one on food and farming, and the other on biodiversity. But the two should be very much inter-connected. To take just one example: the decline in pollinators, and the use of neonicotinoid pesticides in farming. The Government effectively gagged its independent advisory body in lifting the EU ban on neonicotinoids, despite clear evidence of their harm to bees, but not much evidence of their claimed benefits to crop yield.
And on food, the Government hasn’t learnt the lessons from the horsemeat scandal to stop it from happening again. The changes the last Government instituted to the Food Standards Agency has fundamentally weakened its ability stop food fraud and improve safety.
We need a food and farming policy fit for the 21st century, which meets wider environmental and public health goods; this is something to focus on when it comes to the review in 2016-17 of EU farming subsidies.
We also need to move towards a more resource-efficient society, to address the challenge of natural resource depletion. As Labour’s 2015 Manifesto recognised, this also presents considerable economic opportunities. The EC publishes what I hope will be an ambitious circular economy package in December, which we can then build upon.
Finally, whether the referendum on our continued membership of the European Union comes in 2016 or 2017, we need to start making the pro-European case now. Much of the progress that has been made on environmental protection, clean air and water, animal welfare, food standards and much more within the Defra brief has been as a result of our membership of the EU. We need to ensure that these issues are very much at the forefront of the Labour Yes campaign.
Kerry McCarthy MP is Shadow Secretary of State for the Environment, Food & Rural Affairs