Defra isn’t fit for purpose
SUCCESSIVE governments—labour, Coalition and Conservative—have so decimated the Rural Affairs Department that it is no longer fit for purpose. No single area of its remit can be covered properly because of the lack of money and human resources. We are still waiting for the long-promised 25-year plan for the future of the countryside; we don’t know what Defra plans to do on air pollution and we have no idea what its post-brexit attitude towards agriculture and food production will be. Without any of this strategic work completed, it’s difficult for the department to be held to account on its dayto-day management.
The House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee has lambasted Defra over one of the few strategic plans that it does have. As a result of the hard-fought legislation achieved to set up Marine Conservation Zones, the Government was supposed to designate 127 sites around the country—a commitment in its 2015 election manifesto. To date, however, only 50 have been established and even these are not being properly safeguarded.
The committee heard evidence from conservationists and marine scientists suggesting that the zones are largely ‘paper parks’. Defra has, so far, failed to face down maverick fishermen who are destroying stocks with no regard even for their own future. Chief among the culprits are the scallop fishers, who use steel dredges to scrape the seabed. Their powerful trawlers can haul up to 40 of these 2ft-wide dredges at a time; they leave devastation behind them and yet Defra seems too frightened of the fishing lobby to take decisive action.
Of course, only determined conservation will protect the future of fishing. There should be hundreds of small boats providing income and employment around the coast of Britain, but their future is being jeopardised by the few who put immediate profit ahead of a sustainable catch. The really valuable catches of langoustines or scampi are increasingly threatened as catching methods destroy habitat. Some boats are even using electric pulses to kill Dover sole and others have discarded fishing nets, which destroy life on the seabed. Without proper management, we simply cannot protect and extend the conditions in which shellfish thrive.
All this could change if only the zones were effectively policed and stringent rules enforced, but they need to be established first. If it weren’t for the difficult designation requirements created by Defra’s excessively bureaucratic demands, we could have all 127 zones in place by the end of this year. On current form, we’ll be well into 2019 before they are complete and, even then, there’s not the equipment, staff or money necessary to manage these areas properly. They can only be monitored through modern technology: we must use drones and GPS if the pirates are to be defeated. At the moment, the Government seems entirely unwilling to provide the cash needed to fulfil its own manifesto commitments.
The failure to do this is particularly worrying because it casts doubt upon Defra’s ability to take on the wider remit that Britain’s exit from the EU will demand. If it can’t deal with areas over which we have always had exclusive control, what hope is there that we will be able to have an effective, properly policed replacement for the Common Fisheries Policy after withdrawal? We’ve been complaining for years about this and it really would be a tragedy if ‘taking back control’ made things worse. It’s crucial that Defra proves that it has the capability to do its job and the Government demonstrates its willingness to pay for it.
‘We must use drones and GPS if the pirates are to be defeated
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