In the hot seat: Owen Paterson

Where were you when you got the call from David Cameron to be DEFRA secretary?

I was called by Downing Street the night before and told to see the prime minister the next morning at 8.45am. So I knew I was going to be dropped as Northern Ireland secretary, kept in place or given something different.

This is a reshuffle, rather than a change of government, so broadly speaking the policies will remain the same. But can we expect a change of emphasis?

It’s a coalition government and we have now got a Liberal Democrat DEFRA minister in David Heath. Yes, the broad strategy will remain the same, but I will bring my own experience – and I hope enthusiasm – as well as a small push and shove in the right direction.

What will you do differently?

The drive is to improve and help expand and promote the rural economy. I come from a rural seat – north Shropshire – dependent on agriculture and food production, so I have a background in adding value to basic agricultural raw materials.

On food production, there is a big job to be done in exporting. [Former farm minister] Jim Paice did brilliantly by going to China to sell pork. There is also a real job to be done promoting dairy products, promoting food production and adding value.

“There is a real job for DEFRA to get out of people’s hair – to help businesses start up and prosper in all sorts of small ways”
Owen Paterson

In the other direction, we need to encourage import substitution. There is a huge dessert deficit in this country. We have a huge opportunity to replace imported desserts with desserts made here.

More generally, there is a real job for Defra to get out of people’s hair – to help businesses start up and prosper in all sorts of small ways. But basically to make it simple, to encourage the kaleidoscope of business ideas across the countryside.

Your predecessor Caroline Spelman said she favoured phasing out farm subsidies. Is that something you agree with?

I entirely agree. My ideal end destination – and I wouldn’t want to put a tight timescale on it because we have to negotiate it as part of the CAP – is that food production should be left to the market.

The market will tell farmers best what the most appropriate food is to grow and what the appropriate price the market should stand. All that stuff about market intervention and subsidy ended up with huge surpluses of products that customers didn’t actually want.

But there is a very clear role for public money to be spent compensating farmers and landowners for the work they do on the environment – to provide a significant public good, which is the basis of our rural tourism industry. It is entirely legitimate there should be a payment for that.

That is the place I would like to be: leave food to the market but have a properly managed – and I hope a simple and easy to understand system – of compensating people for environmental goods.

How are payments best made to farmers – direct payments from Brussels or rural development payments via the UK government?

At this stage, I want to keep it very broad and strategic. This will come out of negotiations. I have already had a conversation with European farm commissioner Dacian Ciolos and put my ideas to him. But right now I do not want to get into the detail.

You didn’t go to the informal EU farm council meeting in Cyprus this week.

No, I didn’t. But we were represented. In my first week, I felt I should be here.

You were shadow agriculture spokesman while in opposition almost 10 years ago and you developed a big interest in bovine TB. Is that something you’ve maintained.

I can guarantee to you that I am the only MP who has had two pet badgers. I’ve a very clear view, which emerged from my time as shadow agriculture spokesman, that we want to establish healthy cattle living alongside healthy wildlife. I asked over 600 parliamentary questions on bovine TB, which was the all-time record by any one MP on one subject.


Were were you born?

Whitchurch, Shropshire. I have never lived more than 15 miles from there.

Interests outside politics?

Horses, racing and eventing, architecture, trees and history.

Where was your last holiday?

This year I went to France, which was much more comfortable than participating in the Mongolian derby, which I did last year.

Favourite cuisine?

I am strongly in favour of local produce, so it would be Shropshire beef or Shropshire lamb. But it is an inland county so when it comes to fish I would say good old British fish.

Last book you read?

The History of MI6 by Professor Keith Jeffery. All 752 pages. Because I thought I was going to carry on being Northern Ireland secretary. Actually it is very good.

Finally, a question that got Jim Paice into a spot of bother: how much is a pint of milk?

If you go to the corner shop, it is about 99p per litre. If you divide that by 2.2 you end up with about 46-47p per pint.

From that, emerged the policy that sadly we need a badger cull. I went to America and saw what they had done with white-tailed deer in Michigan. It is absolutely clear: you have to remove a reservoir of disease in wildlife alongside a whole lot of other measures – like cattle controls and all the rest of it.

It has been done with buffalo in Australia’s Northern Territory, and it has been done with possums in New Zealand. It is really no exception here.

I would like to see a flourishing, healthy badger population. I simply do not understand the mentality of people who want to encourage a very large badger population in which vast numbers tragically die of a disgusting disease. This policy actually began when I was shadowing agriculture with Jim Paice and I will certainly be continuing it.

How disastrous would it be if there was no pilot cull as planned this autumn?

It would be a major setback. We are killing 25,000 of what should be healthy productive cattle a year. We are heading for this disease costing £1bn. We can’t live in Wind in the Willows sentimentality – we have to live in the real world.

You cannot let this disease keep increasing in wildlife until we get a vaccine. Obviously, down the road that gets us all off the hook. But sadly, as we’ve seen in the three countries I’ve mentioned, you have to remove the disease if it is in wildlife.

You have a reputation for being a climate change sceptic. Are you?

I’m practical. I’m really amazed by the way this has all blown up. There has been significant opposition in my part of the world to inland wind farms – for the sensible reason there is no wind there.

But I am clear that climate change is happening – climate change has been happening and will continue to happen. And it is quite obvious there is a man-made element to that.

What I want to see is the right measures in the right place delivering the right results.

From my own direct constituency experience I don’t personally think that inland wind farms are effective at reducing carbon. I don’t even think they are effective at producing energy.

Where does this leave us in terms of on-farm renewable energy – wind turbines, anaerobic digestion and solar panels?

I think anaerobic digestion is really interesting. The original concept is absolutely right. We have a horrendous volume of food waste in this country. It is right that it should be brewed up to generate power. It is an absolutely sensible thing to do.

What is not sensible is that when those who have got anaerobic digesters – possibly with subsidies – start poaching good agricultural land and outbidding dairy farmers £50 an acre extra for maize. That is not a sensible way to go ahead.

So I am quite prepared to do a review on all of this. I am very keen to get across that it is very much horses for courses. There are areas where renewables are thoroughly compatible, work with nature and are a thoroughly good thing.

But there are some renewables that are inappropriate in certain circumstances – it depends on the geography and the circumstances.

Johann Tasker on G+

More on this topic

Owen Paterson appointed as DEFRA secretary

See more