George Eustice makes light of the ‘devaluation’ of his role within the new Defra Ministerial team.
“As a farmer, I am used to doing more work for less money,” he joked as we discussed the significance – or lack of it – of his official title of Parliamentary-Under Secretary of State.
All his predecessors carried the higher rank of Minister of State (MoS), but this has now gone from Defra after Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg decided he wanted his higher ranking Ministers in other departments, leading to claims the role has been ‘devalued’.
Mr Eustice pointed out he has taken on more work than his predecessor David Heath, with the fisheries brief now added to the farming role he now holds.
“I think people get a little hung up on this. I think Minister of State might get a little more money so the only person getting short-changed is me, not farmers or the department,” he said, adding the two roles are otherwise largely ‘identical’.
Whatever his rank, there is no questioning Mr Eustice’s relish at taking on the role he seems ideally suited for, in terms of experience and temperament.
With a background on the family farm, the Cornish MP enjoyed a colourful political grounding from his late 20s onwards, which included standing as a UK Independence Party candidate in European elections and helping co-ordinate the campaign to keep the UK out of the single currency.
Now 42, he has also worked as David Cameron’s press secretary, helping this ‘young unheard of politician’ become leader of his party.
Since 2010 he has served on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee and advised Downing Street on farm policy. So he arrives at Defra with fully fledged views on farming and the political context of the big issues facing the industry – in many cases echoing those of his new boss, Owen Paterson.
The two Defra Ministers’ views on Europe could prove to be particularly significant as Mr Cameron, under pressure from UKIP, seeks a radical re-negotiation of the UK’s relationship with Europe, ahead of his promised referendum on the UK’s EU membership by 2017.
Mr Eustice stressed he no longer wanted to leave the EU, ‘which is why I left UKIP and joined the Conservative Party’.
But he said: “I do want a fundamental re-negotiation and a new settlement because my experience of the euro debate led me to conclude it is better to have control and the ability to actually take a decision than it is to have sit around the table with 27 countries arguing about the interest rate. I think we can learn from that in other areas of policy.”
The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), accounting for about a third of the EU budget, will be near the top of the list as the Government decides where it wants to seize more control.
Defra Ministers have made no effort to hide their belief the CAP deal just negotiated at EU level was good for neither farmers, taxpayers nor the environment and that, having staved off even more ‘regressive’ measures at EU level, are now left to make the most of a bad job at national level.
Mr Eustice said: “Looking forward, the CAP could become more about common objectives such as promoting food security, protecting the environment and promoting animal welfare – but with much more latitude for individual member states to pursue their own policy.”
While flexibility to implement farm policy to suit national needs has its attractions, the concern for farmers is a UK farm policy would be smaller financially and less supportive than the current EU-wide one, for all its faults.
Mr Eustice points out it has been a ‘longstanding aim for UK Governments of all colours’ to get rid of direct farm payments.
“Even the last Government was bold enough to say we should get rid of Pillar One altogether and move all money to Pillar Two,” he said,
“For me, all the good policy innovation we have tends to take place in Pillar Two where there are lots of creative grants to boost farm competitiveness and we have the power to design it nationally.
“All the excessive bureaucracy which people tear their hair out over tends to come from things like cross-compliance measures connected to the Pillar One payment.”
He insisted, it was ‘not necessarily the case’ the Treasury would slash farm spending if it has the chance.
“If Owen Paterson and myself are still around we would probably support farming in a different way, but we both value farming and want a competitive industry,” Mr Eustice said.
In the meantime, the two of them have to make key decisions on implementing the next version of the CAP before Christmas.
On arguably the most controversial decision, Mr Eustice said Ministers were ‘minded to do the full 15 per cent because we think we can achieve more in Pillar Two than we can in Pillar One’.
He said Ministers were listening to farming organisations’ calls to start with a lower rate in the region of 9 per cent, which could then be reviewed in 2017.
But he refuted the suggestion imposing the higher rate from the start, with the New Environmental Land Management Scheme not due to start until 2016, would result in Defra building up a ‘treasure chest’ of unspent funds.
Pointing out money could be used to ‘roll over some of ELS and HLS schemes which were ready to expire’, he added: “There is always a way of spending money in this job. It is much harder to save money and to get support for a new budget.”
As a Cornish MP, Mr Eustice was already well versed in the issues surrounding the badger cull before entering the fray on the front line.
He is adamant, despite the controversy over the pilot culls, badger culling is an essential part of tackling bTB.
Insisting the Somerset pilot has gone ‘quite well’ in removing 65 per cent, he confirmed Government ‘intends to roll the policy out’ to more areas next year. But he said ‘lessons will have to be learned’ from the pilots, including possibly allowing more time for the badger populations to be reduced.
Referring to a farm which has been under restriction for 12 years but ‘happens to have one of the biggest badger setts in Gloucestershire’, he said: “I don’t pretend this is an easy policy. It is very emotive for many people. If there was an alternative to pursuing a cull strategy we would do it.
“You can have all the cattle movement controls and all the biosecurity – but it’s all for the birds unless you deal with that reservoir of disease in the badger population. That is why we have to take this very difficult decision of pursuing a cull strategy.”
He accepts that with his first Ministerial role there will be conflict on issues like this. But he is, he insisted, ‘up for the fight’, citing his time in political press offices as good grounding for the battles ahead.
“I don’t have a problem with that,” he said.