DEFRA #omnishambles on peat – who briefed ministers?

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Further to this morning’s blog on DEFRA admitting to being clueless about where the 40cm peat (that they claim they are wanting to protect) can be found, here is another perplexing information response to the talented Guy Shrubsole.

I’ve missed a few things out of the fairly long response but not anything material as far as I can see to the matter of whether ministers got a briefing from civil servants.

You can see that Guy got the brush-off from DEFRA once and couldn’t really believe that a briefing didn’t exist, so he asked again. Good for him, in my view. And then he got the same non-answer.

Guy asked;

You state that “Policy officials did not make any submission containing policy recommendations relating to the announcement of the statutory instrument (The Heather and Grass etc Burning (England) Regulations 2021) being laid.” Am I to understand that the Secretary of State drafted the statutory instrument all by himself, and received no guidance whatsoever on the policy to pursue?

That’s quite witty. And appears to be quite specific.

DEFRA said;

As explained above, I have now re-examined your request in discussion with the policy team who handled your original request. I can confirm that your request is very specific and asked for a recorded submission made to the Secretary of State (and/or other Ministers) containing policy recommendations that led to the decision to announce legislation to prevent the burning of heather on protected blanket bog. I can confirm again that policy officials did not make any submission to the Secretary of State containing policy recommendations relating to the announcement of the statutory instrument (The Heather and Grass etc Burning (England) Regulations 2021) being laid. Therefore the information requested is not held by Defra and the exception in regulation 12(4)(a) applies.

Well, there may be several things going on here, all of which appear to be of great public interest and several of us will be asking further questions as a result.

It surely can’t be possible that civil servants did not brief ministers on the pros and cons of the Statutory Instrument that they were about to lay before Parliament? Surely not? What sort of government department is DEFRA if that is the case? But if it is the case, then who is briefing ministers? It couldn’t possibly be a vested interest could it? Well, not in normal times, no, but the SI is so chronically poorly drafted (as pointed out by the Secondary Legislation Scrutinee Committee and peers in the House of Lords) and so chronically inept at achieving environmental gain (as pointed out by numerous NGOs and myself) that one begins to wonder. And now we know that although the SI stipulates peat of >40cm in depth DEFRA doesn’t have a clue where to find that peat, it does make one wonder. It probably isn’t the case, but it would be scandalous if a bunch of grouse moor owners had provided the main briefing to DEFRA on this subject. Not possible? Let’s see!

The alternative appears to be that there is a briefing, or maybe great piles of them, which were produced by DEFRA civil servants but that DEFRA don’t want us to see them and are splitting hairs to try to avoid making them public. That, of course, makes them seem all the more interesting and will fire us up to chase them down.

DEFRA is a very strange place. It is not doing its job on the environment – quite the opposite, it seems bent on protecting those whose actions harm the environment as much as possible. And it is not responsive to the taxpayer and the public – maybe because we are all suspicious that it is in the pockets of vested interests which do not have environmental progress close to their hearts or minds.

If you think that DEFRA is, and always will be, a wonderful department making great environmental gains and delivering for wildlife then there is absolutely no need to sign the #stateofnature petition calling for legally binding nature recovery targets… but otherwise, please click here and consider signing.

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