In the Hot Seat: DEFRA secretary Caroline Spelman

How are you working with the Liberal Democrats to reach agreement on agriculture and rural issues?

• The good news is that this is an area where the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have a huge amount of common ground. The terms of agreement between the two parties will come out in a formal coalition agreement. But there happen to be no areas of controversy between the two parties in the subject areas that DEFRA covers.

Before the general election, both parties agreed that bovine tuberculosis was one of the most pressing issues facing farmers. Will you honour your manifesto pledge to introduce a badger cull to combat bovine TB?

• I was last involved in this brief when Professor Krebs was doing his report [into badgers and TB in 1997] so you can see how far back I go.

Since then the disease has penetrated much more widely into the badger population. That makes finding a solution much more difficult because it covers a much wider geographical area.

I am clear that we’ve got to really have a science-based approach here – that there isn’t an easy answer and that the problem is not contained on the scale that it was when Professor Krebs was pronouncing on it.

Hilary Benn, your predecessor at DEFRA, also chose to adopt a science-based approach. But his interpretation of the science led him to rule out a badger cull. So I ask again, will a badger cull be part of your policy?

• I am not going to rule options in and out. What we need to do is look at the science.

The Welsh are going to have a pilot [cull] and we will look at the conclusions from that. I am a great believer in evidence-led decision-making, so let’s first of all look at the science – all options need to be looked at.

Over and above that, I have really nothing more to add.

 Spelman’s brief

• Overall responsibility for departmental policy

• Strategy, budget and finances

• Legislative programme

• Emergencies

• EU and international relations

• Environment Agency

• Natural England

• Particular interest in CAP reform, biodiversity and climate change

You’ve already mentioned that you want better value for taxpayers’ money from CAP reform. Will that mean less money for farmers?

• There are four constituencies we need to satisfy when we’re talking about CAP reform – and obviously farmers are one of them.

Farmers need a good deal from CAP reform. So, too, do consumers, taxpayers and the environment. It is a four-pronged approach to how we reform the CAP.

I was encouraged from my first meeting at the agricultural council in Brussels this week. I heard some encouraging noises – limbering up if you like from the other member states as to where they might be looking to move in terms of CAP reform.

A number of ministers said they would like to lighten the regulatory burden. I am sure that will be music to farmers’ ears, and I think it will be a feature of the future CAP.

You speak fluent French and German – that must put you at an advantage during negotiations?

• I had a very good conversation with German agriculture minister Ilse Aigner precisely on the point of lighter regulation and I also spoke with French minister Bruno le Maire. We agreed to a further bi-lateral meeting shortly.

I think by the June agriculture council the direction of travel will be much clearer. But the hard times across Europe mean every minister is having to look realistically at how taxpayers’ money will be spent in future through agriculture.

The good news from the UK’s point of view is that, for some time, we have wanted to reform the CAP so that it works better for farmers, consumers and taxpayers. I think these hard times might deliver that opportunity into our hands.

It’s easy to say but difficult to do – lots of politicians talk about the need for CAP reform but not many achieve it in any great measure.

• Let me reiterate what I said in front of all the other agriculture ministers – that the new coalition government wants to be a positive participant in these European negotiations.

That was well received by the other ministers.

We want to engage very constructively in this process.

Will we see a bonfire of the quangos – a streamlining of DEFRA agencies associated with farming?

• I am not a huge fan of big structural change. In my experience, messing around with structures can end up costing money as well as saving money. It is not my top priority.

What is your top priority?

• My top priority is to get moving on the direction of travel for the CAP and to improve the quality of life in rural areas.

There are a number of things I want to focus on – including affordable housing and rural broadband. They are both things to which we attach a lot of importance.

I also have to navigate the department through the financial constraints that the whole country is facing.

We are not an area of protected expenditure. Only three departments have protected expenditure and DEFRA is not one of them.

I have to help the department meet Treasury requirements to fill the black hole in Britain’s finances.

One of the big drains on resources has been the much-criticised £350m IT system at the Rural Payments Agency – a system run by your husband’s company Accenture. How do you intend to manage that conflict of interest?

• I was absolutely open with DEFRA permanent secretary Helen Ghosh when I arrived here. I explained to her that my husband works for a very large company and I want to make sure that my interests are dealt with absolutely in the correct way.

She has made it clear to me that the way I have gone about it and the way I am going to approach it will ensure there is no conflict of interest.

Given that you’ve also had interests in the sugar beet sector, will you be excusing yourself from talks that have a bearing on the sugar industry?

• As I recall, the department does not get directly involved in those negotiations. It is the NFU that negotiates on behalf of all sugar beet growers directly with the monopoly processor. It is not something that the department is involved with.

What about the biotech lobbying firm you set up with your husband – a company from which you have since resigned but which he still runs?

• On arrival at DEFRA, I was completely open about all my interests. I will make absolutely sure that the way I handle all of them is completely in line with the ministerial code. There is no conflict of interest.

Spelman in a minute

• MP for Meriden since 1997. In opposition, Caroline Spelman served in the shadow cabinet, where her senior posts covered the environment, international development and communities and local government portfolios.

• Before entering parliament, Mrs Spelman had an extensive career in the farming sector, with 15 years in the agriculture industry. She was NFU sugar beet commodity secretary from 1981 to 1984. She was deputy director of the International Confederation of European Beet Growers in Paris (1984-89), then a research fellow for the Centre for European Agricultural Studies, now the Centre for European Agri-Environmental Economics (1989-93).

• She met her husband, Mark Spelman, in Paris and they set up a biotech lobbying company. She resigned her interest in the firm last year, but he remains a director.

• Born in Bishop’s Stortford, Hertfordshire, Mrs Spelman attended Herts and Essex High School for Girls. She holds a BA First Class in European Studies from Queen Mary College and has three children.