Former barrister Theresa Villiers MP has been appointed secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs, during a cabinet reshuffle on Boris Johnson’s first day as prime minister.
The Conservative MP takes over from Michael Gove, who was made Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.
One of Gove’s most notable policy decisions since becoming Defra secretary in June 2017, was to introduce a system of paying farmers ‘public money for public goods’ under the government’s new Brexit agricultural policy.
Villiers was secretary of state for Northern Ireland from 2012-2016 and transport minister from 2010-2012. She has previously argued that the UK should leave the EU with no deal if problems surrounding the Irish backstop cannot be resolved, prompting a number of farming organisations to voice their concerns about her appointment to Defra.
The Country Land and Business Association (CLA) commented: “We’ve noted Mrs Villiers’ recent comments on a no deal Brexit, but we know there are many farmers across the country with grave concerns. Currently 60% of our food exports go to the EU. Were draconian tariffs put in place, world class British produce would become uncompetitive in our largest market overnight.
“Having said that, there are also tremendous opportunities. We are global leaders in producing quality food to high environmental and welfare standards. As landowners we are key to meeting ambitions on climate change and the environment. The rural economy has extraordinary potential ready to be unleashed. But only an ambitious, creative and robust policy platform will support all of this.”
Meanwhile, the National Sheep Association (NSA) said it was “frustrated” to have a new face at the helm of Defra during such a critical time for the industry. Chief executive Phil Stocker said the risk of leaving the EU without a deal placed the sheep sector in “unjustifiable danger” and urged the new PM and Defra secretary to ensure the progress made to date is not “swept aside”.
National Farmers Union (NFU) president Minette Batters congratulated Boris Johnson on his election as Conservative party leader and urged him to do everything in his power to ensure a smooth and orderly Brexit, with “free and frictionless” trade with the EU.
In a letter to the new prime minister, NFU highlighted five policies for the government for prioritise.
- Stimulating farm business competitiveness and innovation, resulting in a more resilient and advanced sector.
- Rising to the challenge of tackling climate change.
- Promoting high standards through trade policy. This would ensure high standards of animal welfare and environmental protection are not undermined by trade deals allowing imports of food that would be illegal to produce in the UK.
- Ensuring an adequate supply of labour by delivering a ‘fit for purpose’ immigration system.
- A long-term budgetary commitment for food and farming, through a new policy that offers farmers fair rewards for delivering public goods, as well as supporting stability and resilience.
CLA president Tim Breitmeyer said the “rhetoric” of no deal must not be allowed to become the “political default option”.
He added: “The UK has a growing global reputation for its food production. In any future trade discussions our high standards must not be up for negotiation. Quite the opposite. They are our biggest selling point, and the Government must fly the flag for British produce loudly and proudly.”
In the long term, he said it will be possible for rural businesses to adapt to the changing political landscape as they always have. In the immediate future, however, the uncertainty is “deeply concerning” and highlights the need for a long-term funding settlement to replace the Common Agricultural Policy, to provide much-needed reassurance for farmers.
Commenting on her appointment on Facebook, Theresa Villiers said she is “honoured” to take up her role at Defra:
“I have championed a number of the issues covered by the department, including animal welfare and improving air quality,” she added. “My new responsibilities will therefore complement many of my local campaigns in my constituency, such as protecting our green spaces. I am already hard at work preparing for DEFRA questions in Parliament tomorrow morning.”
What’s your opinion? Email [email protected]