“Change” is Gordon Brown’s mantra, and his first big change for our industry was the appointment of Hilary Benn to head the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The move was probably not so much an appreciation of Mr Benn’s fittingness for the job as the need to replace the previous incumbent, David Miliband, who became Foreign Secretary at just 41-years old. His parliamentary career has been meteoric since he became an MP six years ago, so it is probably not surprising that he managed to spend a mere year at Defra.
During that time he placed great political emphasis on the department’s work on the environment, particularly on measures to counter global warming. To many in the food and drink industry who work closely with Defra, it appeared that our interests were running a poor second to climate change. Possibly we were being over sensitive because of the downgrading of our industry’s sponsoring department that took place after the BSE and Foot and Mouth disease crises. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) took the blame and a huge amount of political flack over the way these disasters were handled. ‘Punishment’ was handed out in 2001 when Tony Blair decreed that MAFF should be merged with the Department of the Environment (DoE) – thus creating Defra. This took place rather like a reverse takeover on the stock market, where the smaller entity, the DoE, was seen as the senior partner in the merger.
In fact it was touch and go whether or not the word “food” would even appear in the new department’s name at all. This was of course a concern for the whole farming and food industry that saw such an omission as a denial of the importance of our sector. Therefore several trade bodies, including the Federation of Wholesale Distributors, lobbied successfully to have the word “food” retained.
So, now the question is, will Mr Benn’s appointment be good for both Defra and the food industry it represents? Farming interests are said to be disappointed that he is a committed vegetarian with no rural roots or experience of farming. However, there is surely some comfort in the fact that he lists gardening as one of his recreations. And as a highly capable secretary of state for international development for four years, let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and wish him well.
Finally, I have been asked to warn everyone that tables are fast running out for the FWD Annual Dinner and Gold Medal Awards on November 29 at the Caf eacute; Royal, so please get your booking in quickly.