Despite the importance of rural constituencies to the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary ranks, DEFRA (Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs) is one of the few government departments with no Liberal Democrat ministers. That makes the wording of the coalition agreement on policy in this area particularly important.
In content it is very similar to the energy and climate change section; that is, a long list of Liberal Democrat policies, with some amenable Conservative ones added in. In this section there is no nuclear like twist at the end; instead the twist is hunting.
Therefore in this section we have plans to plant more trees (how many Focus leaflets equals one tree I wonder…), plans to curb the importation of illegally cut down timber, plans to protect wildlife corridors, plans to improve flood defences, plans to improve farm animal welfare and more.
There are even some nods in the direction of working constructively with Europe on the environment with a commitment to “work towards full compliance with European Air Quality standards”.
Farmers get some special attention,with a change to risk-based regulation, extra support for hill farmers and reviewing the ways in which outbreaks of disease are handled.
Improved local accountability for the management of national parks repeats a common theme through the rest of the document – moving power out from central government.
Badgers face “carefully managed and science-led” controls, whilst dangerous dogs face targeting by enforcement agencies. As for hunting, the section promises a free vote on repeal of the Hunting Act.
Given that there is only a minority of Conservative MPs, you may wonder why some anti-hunt campaigners in the Labour Party think the sensible response to a free vote is to shout betrayal at Liberal Democrat MPs. After all, only some of them have to vote against repeal for it to be defeated – which means smart campaigners would be wanting to persuade people to agree with them, not set off to first antagonise them with histrionic accusations of betrayal that skip over the point that a minority Conservative government would have introduced a free vote anyway. We’ll see whether saner voices prevail…