The general election was tough on the shadow environment, food and rural affairs team. I lost five of my hard-working and talented colleagues in one night. With four new bills and a raft of other issues for Defra on the horizon after Brexit, I stepped up to lead the team so we could continue to hold the government to account.
It’s a dream job for me. I want Labour to be proudly red on the outside and passionately green on the inside. I want us to foster cross-party working on the environment. We have to work together to solve the climate crisis and make sure our animal welfare standards are as high as they can be. This is more important than party political advantage. I want us to be relentless in pursuit of the radical climate policies in our manifesto and committed to a Green New Deal.
Whether you liked him or not, there was no denying that Defra was at the heart of government when Michael Gove was Environment Secretary. Borrowing Labour’s policies on animal welfare helped Gove rehabilitate the Tories’ image – despite the cruel badger cull. Nearly 70 consultations on anything he could think of dazzled a right-wing media, which lapped up policies contrary to traditional Tory thinking on the environment. Little was delivered, yet the buzz around Defra was clear for all to see.
But under Theresa Villiers, the current Tory Environment Secretary, Defra is a department lost in the doldrums. We have such a tremendous opportunity to take on a role as a true global leader on the environment and climate in the run-up to the UN COP26 conference in Glasgow this November. This risks being missed, however, because of the pedestrian approach being taken by ministers. The drive of Michael Gove has been replaced by a dreary managerialism, and a type of bureaucratic approach that is more grey old suits than Green New Deal.
Instead of leading the debate, responding fiercely to the climate emergency, and pushing the boundaries of what is possible, the trilogy of Defra bills currently before parliament have missed the mark entirely. The Agriculture Bill has no legal guarantee that our food standards won’t plummet in a post-Brexit trade deal. The Fisheries Bill sets up yet more disappointment for the fishing communities, who have been promised so much but let down time and time again. And the Environment Bill looks more like a collection of headlines than a meaningful action plan to address the climate and ecological emergency and our woeful air quality in urban areas. Few think Theresa Villiers will last long in the job. But before Boris Johnson sacks her in the upcoming reshuffle, the chance for truly radical change may have been lost.
That is is why today Labour MPs will be challenging ministers to put the Prime Minister’s soundbites over animal welfare standards and environmental protection into law when MPs scrutinise the Agriculture Bill. The Agriculture Bill doesn’t have a single legal guarantee that prevents British farm and food standards being undercut by cheap, US food, grown to poorer standards. No protections against chlorinated chicken or hormone-treated beef. Nothing. None. It is because we don’t believe the Prime Minister’s promises that nothing less than legal guarantees will do.
I won’t recommend to colleagues supporting any law that fails to protect our farmers from US intensive farming. Labour will not vote for a bill that fails to uphold animal welfare standards and environmental protections.
This is the first bill that parliament will debate since the UK’s exit from the EU on Friday. And it underlines the dilemma at the heart of this government. They have promised much to deliver Brexit and here is a chance to lock in their promises in law – but will they? Why would Boris Johnson not want his promises set in law? Could it be that he wants to drop them to bag a trade deal with Donald Trump? That’s the fear of British farmers and all those who care about our environment. The Tories may have lost their way on all things green, but I am determined that they won’t get away with it.