George Eustice was Defra’s longest-serving Farming Minister ever, staying in post for five-and-a-half years before resigning over Brexit, but what did he really make of his time at the department?
A lot has changed over the past three years, but one thing which has stayed the same is George Eustice’s firm belief in Brexit.
The former Farming Minister’s views remain so strongly-held that when asked about his proudest achievements, he lists his role in the leave campaign and putting the Agriculture Bill together before anything else.
Mr Eustice’s ongoing confidence in the Brexit process has been bolstered by Defra’s extensive planning, which covered everything from ensuring an operational law book to preventing problems at the Dover-Calais crossing.
“One of the things I find deeply frustrating is a narrative was allowed to enter public discourse which said we were not ready for no deal,” he said.
“That might be more true of some departments, but Defra, partly because of the Ministerial team it had, but also just because of its can-do nature when it turns its head to something, was ready.”
He also praised the preparedness of logistics companies and retailers, which had plans in place to prevent disruption, but acknowledged individual farmers could do little to get ready and had to trust in Government to get things right.
This faith in Defra and the industry’s planning has led Mr Eustice to believe the proposed seven-year agricultural Brexit transition will not need to be extended, and could even be accelerated.
Concerns about the IT supporting the new Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS), raised by Government watchdog the National Audit Office (NAO) and farm groups, were batted away.
“The NAO I used to find frustrating in that they court media attention,” he said.
“They are very good at putting out crass press releases to try to capture a headline, but I never thought there was much rigour to their approach.
“They will not actually understand any of the concepts of the new scheme at all, or even bother to try to understand them.”
Mr Eustice went on to claim there would be no need for sophisticated IT with the kind of scheme he envisioned.
“We need to get back to that human touch of a local adviser, whether an independent person accredited by Defra, or a Natural England officer on the ground, to simply walk the farm,” he said.
“If you do that, you do not need much of an IT system, you can use land registry mapping, and you would just have the back-end of the current system, which is a simple payments engine.
“I do not think you need much more new at all.”
Though Mr Eustice takes pride in much of the work he did at Defra, he does have some regrets – chief among them a failure to do more to tackle non-stun religious slaughter.
“We are lagging behind the rest of the developed world in terms of our regulation on religious slaughter,” he said.
“There has been a worrying growth in non-stun slaughter of sheep and this is an area where we could change the regulations.
“We have not because this is a contentious area, people have concerns about impact on community cohesion, so Governments of both colours – Conservative and Labour – have in the last 10-15 years tended to shy away from change.”
One other area he could not secure the reform he wanted was in the establishment of a new seasonal agricultural workers’ scheme with 20-30,000 places – something he blamed on ‘reticence’ in the Home Office.
But aside from EU law, which Mr Eustice described as ‘by far the largest constraint’ at Defra, the Treasury was Mr Eustice’s biggest frustration, because it would block certain decisions Ministers would like to make.
He cited the example of wanting to offer bridging payments to farmers in January, rather than April, but having his plans rejected.
“The Treasury has for some time now been too powerful,” he said.
“Under [former Labour Chancellor] Gordon Brown they got far too big for their boots, bringing in policy advisers who were effectively there to second-guess the rest of Government.
“It does mean Treasury can be quite a dysfunctional force at times, because they are trying to adopt policy positions where they do not understand the policy well enough to have a view on it.”
Despite these problems, Mr Eustice feels he did a lot to change the culture in Government on farm payments by refusing to sign off draconian penalties and forcing the Independent Agricultural Appeals Panel to accept appeals.
Moving the dial on this was a long-term project, which the former Minister worked on for the full five-and-a-half years he was in post.
During that time, he saw four Defra Secretaries – Owen Paterson, Liz Truss, Andrea Leadsom and Michael Gove – come and go, who he described as having ‘different strengths and approaches’.
Mr Paterson was said to have ‘passion for the countryside’, while Ms Truss was more ‘focused on technology’.
“Andrea Leadsom, to be fair, really wanted to start shaping agriculture policy, but was permanently frustrated by Number 10 blocking progress,” he said.
“I felt sorry for her.”
Though Mr Eustice refused to be drawn on who his favourite boss was, he reserved most praise for current Defra Secretary, Michael Gove.
This is unsurprising, given he backed Mr Gove for the Conservative leadership, classing him as ‘head and shoulders above the rest of the candidates’.
“I always found him able to unblock problems I had, or push forward ideas we had formed for many years,” he said.
“He was one of the few Secretaries of State who when told by Treasury ‘no, we are not going to allow that’, would go to Number 10 and overrule them.
“It was the first time it happened in my time that the Defra Secretary was more powerful in Government than the Chancellor, as an individual.
“It put Michael Gove in a unique position to get things done.”
Despite these new-found benefits under Mr Gove, it was during his time in office that Mr Eustice decided to resign over the Government’s decision to allow a vote on extending Article 50.
He was criticised by some in the industry at the time for jumping ship when he could have had more influence on the frontbench, and for leaving before the Agriculture Bill had been passed.
He said after considering stepping down when Theresa May’s deal was published, he stayed in post for these very reasons, but in February, he reached the point where he could no longer defend what the Government was doing.
“The Prime Minister deliberately opened the door to delaying our departure,” he said.
“She never had any intention of leaving without a deal if necessary. She did not want to and it suited her to blame Parliament rather than level with people. I did not feel that was right, so I did not feel I should stay.
“And the Bills were not going to go any further anyway. It was obvious from the moment Article 50 was delayed that everything in Defra would be put in the deep freeze.”
Unlike Theresa May, Mr Eustice was, and remains, confident that UK agriculture could survive a no-deal Brexit.
He pointed to the £150 million compensation scheme which had been put together for the sheep sector as evidence.
When questioned about whether this would be sufficient, he said Defra and the NFU agreed the economic impact of EU tariffs on the UK lamb market would be within the £100-£150m range.
Modelling from the department showed lamb prices would rise by 20 per cent in Europe, leading to decreased demand and increased supply on the UK market, depressing prices – but crucially, only to levels seen in late 2015.
“That was a low point, the lamb sector was in a terrible state in 2015, but it is not quite the catastrophe some people paint it to be,” said Mr Eustice.
“It then becomes relatively easy for Government to plug the gap. We designed the policy to do that for the first 12 months of a no-deal scenario.”
During the time Mr Eustice was at Defra, there were no plans for similar compensation schemes for other sectors – only protection through the no-deal tariff schedule set by Ministers.
This includes the beef sector, which has already seen prices fall as a result of Brexit planning from processors, who put product into storage in preparation for a drop in Irish imports.
The former Minister believes this would not affect farmers’ ability to survive, because global agricultural trade is already more liberalised than most people claim, given the existence of Tariff Rate Quotas (TRQs), which allow certain amounts of agricultural produce to be traded with low or no tariffs.
But what of Mr Eustice’s ability to survive? Does he see himself returning to Defra any time soon, perhaps as the man in charge?
“I have always loved Defra as a department,” he said.
“First, I love the policy brief. The diversity of issues Defra deals with is extraordinary.
“And second, the people who work there. If someone joins Defra, it is because they are doing it for the right reasons.
“Yes, it is a department I am passionate about.”
Watch this space.