Neil Parish: “Michael Gove is a great political operator. You’ve got to drill down into what he’s thinking"
Neil Parish has spent long enough in politics to know that interest in the environment can be fleeting. But while the issue is in vogue, the chair of the Efra committee is determined to make it count. He talks to Sebastian Whale
There is nothing more contagious in Westminster than an emerging consensus. The latest accord to grip the collective conscience of SW1A is that Michael Gove is doing a sterling job at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). CCTV in slaughterhouses, a ban on the manufacturing of products containing plastic microbeads, and the unveiling of the long awaited 25-year environment plan, just three examples of Gove’s output since re-entering the Cabinet in June 2017.
But Conservative MP Neil Parish, a farmer who chairs the select committee that shadows Gove’s department, is not rushing to judgment. “The thing with Michael Gove is that he is a great political operator. You’ve got to be absolutely certain that you’re drilling down exactly what he’s thinking in the future,” he says.
What does he mean by a ‘great political operator’? “Because he’s particularly good at presenting a message and a way forward. What my job as chair of a select committee is, is as a scrutineer. I want to be absolutely certain that the policy he’s going to pursue is the one that he is going to pursue and not change it.”
So, is Parish saying he wants to see the substance beyond the style? “Yes, exactly. Michael is naturally a great, big picture thinker – nothing wrong with that at all. But of course, you need people like [Defra minister] George Eustice and [Defra minister] Therese Coffey to be able to come in and actually make sure we’ve got the detailed policy of how that will work.”
We are sitting in his spacious fifth floor office with views of Parliament Square to the right and Big Ben to the left. Parish laughs ironically when asked if this work space was awarded for good behaviour. Born and raised in Somerset, Parish left school at 16 to manage his family’s farm. He speaks with a slight west country accent, his vocabulary void of jargon but laced with honesty and a refreshing level of self-deprecation. Parish also appears to have an endearing repartee with his staff; usually a good measure of an MPs’ character.
He was elected to the European parliament in 1999 as MEP for the South West England region. Parish became MP for Tiverton and Honiton in 2010, and chair of the Efra committee in 2015 having been a member for five years.
Having long banged the drum for the importance of Defra’s work, does he feel a semblance of frustration that it’s now in vogue? “It’s a good thing, and I think the general population is becoming very interested in the environment, more so over the years. The idea that we leave our environment and our planet in a better condition than what we received it is a good way forward. I just want to see now how these aspirations that the Government have can actually be delivered in reality.”
Parish notes that having someone of Gove’s calibre behind the wheels at Defra “elevates” the department. But is he concerned that focus on the environment could be a passing fad? “Yes, there’s always that issue. But I suppose the politician in me knows that if it’s not then actions won’t be taken and so therefore, it’s a case of making sure that we use that to benefit.”
The Conservative party has launched an environment offensive since the 2017 election, in no small part due to the backlash from the public over the possibility of a free vote on fox hunting this parliament (recently ruled out by Theresa May) and watering down of the party’s pledge on a ban on the pre-1947 sale of ivory (now reintroduced).
Though Parish believes that it’s a natural affiliation for the Conservatives to have, part of the party’s repositioning on the environment, demonstrated vividly by MPs’ praise for the BBC’s Blue Planet II, is political. “We’ve had ‘vote blue, go green’, and we’ve had those sorts of slogans before. But I think we also realise that we seem to have had a slight disconnect with the younger voter as well. So, not only is it right for us to be an environmental party, as the Prime Minister said last week when she launched the 25-year plan, ‘Conservative and conservation go together’. It’s a natural course for us to take. But yes, there were political reasons for it as well,” he says.
The very fact that the PM launched the Government’s 25-year plan, which included proposals to eradicate all avoidable plastic waste by 2042, is testament to the party’s renewed commitment to the environment, Parish argues. What did he make of the overall package? “I thought there were some good things in it,” he begins.
“What I’m always interested in with 25-year plans… is how are we going to make sure that we put them into practice with practical ideas.”
“With the environment, you’ve physically got to do things in order to make the environment better; either to take chemicals out of it or you’ve got to manage things in a different way, you’ve got to reduce vehicles from inner cities and polluting vehicles and so on. If you’re going to have electric cars, you’ve got to have the charging points.”
Parish would also like to see further details over the creation of an environment watchdog, as the UK prepares to leave the European Union. “At the moment you’ve got the ability of the European Commission to be able to fine the British government. We’ve got to be certain that this watchdog has got enough teeth and is able to say to government, ‘you’ve got that wrong and put it right’. It’s got to be a genuinely independent one,” he says.
“Will it go to the extent of being able to take its own government to the Supreme Court? These sorts of things need to be looked at.”
The Efra committee is one of four parliamentary bodies carrying out a joint inquiry into air quality. An October report by The Lancet found that around 8% (50,000) of deaths in Britain in 2015 were estimated to be linked to pollution. From 2020, Oxford will impose a ban on petrol and diesel vehicles from the city centre as part of plans to bring in what could be the world’s first zero-emissions zone. Would Parish like to see this replicated in other cities, such as London?
“We’ve really got to have clean zones… but it’s not just our private vehicles. It’s our delivery vans, it’s our buses, our taxis and that’s just as important as a private individual,” he says. Parish argues that a ban in certain areas must be coupled with investment in the required infrastructure for electric vehicles and support for people who can’t afford the cars.
He adds: “Air quality in particular is about aspiration, it’s about zones, it’s about the way we manage our traffic. But it’s also very much about the actual vehicles we use both to go on public transport and on our own private transport.”
Does he think the issue has been taken seriously enough by government and City Hall alike? “It’s beginning to be taken seriously enough. It’s been ignored by successive governments, it’s not just this government that’s been guilty,” he says.
He adds: “The one issue that I don’t think we’ve really grappled with and I don’t think the Treasury has ever really grappled with is that yes, it is a cost, but of course there is also a big cost to the health service now in the effect on people’s health. Sometimes I don’t think we factor that into the equation enough.”
Parish supported Remain at the referendum, and though cautious about the course the country has chosen for itself, believes it’s an exciting time for the food and farming sector, with ministers in the process of producing a Fishing Bill and Agriculture Bill. Gove also recently outlined plans for replacing the Common Agricultural Policy and a new “public money for public good” approach to subsidies for the sector – proposals Parish will dig into with his committee.
One issue that has become ground zero in the debate over standards post-Brexit is that of chlorinated chicken, the sale of which is currently banned under EU rules. Gove has insisted that there would be “no compromise” on animal welfare and environmental standards after the UK departs the EU in possible trade agreements with the United States. Parish fears a race to the bottom if such protections are put on the negotiating table.
“We want to see very high animal welfare standards. The chlorinated chicken, or the chlorinate-wash that they use, the chicken is perfectly safe to eat. The issue really is that those poultry are kept under much poorer conditions and in much more dense conditions... So, it’s really an animal welfare issue,” he says.
“From a trade point of view, it’s going to be quite a difficult argument. But from my point of view, if you’re going to bring farming quite rightly in this country to higher and higher standards, good, but you can’t then allow lots of other production in the lower quality that will undermine the industries.”
If standards are lowered, then the chlorinated-washed chicken is likely to undercut UK produce here in Britain, Parish argues. “Naturally, there’ll be people that either can’t afford the higher priced chicken or choose to buy the cheapest chicken in the shop. In the end, that will be your American chlorinated-washed chicken,” he says.
This speaks to a wider truth about people’s attitudes to green issues, he continues. “A lot of people… they want to be green but they object to paying for it. If you’re not careful, their hearts are on the left and their pockets are on the right. That’s the issue as we deal with the environment, that we take people with us, not only from what they want to see happen to our environment, but they also realise that there are some cost implications to it as well.”
After 10 years in the European parliament, Parish asserts that an appetite among some officials to create a “super state” would in fact have meant there was “always going to be a parting of the ways”, referendum or not.
“Now I see that we’re on that road, let’s embrace it. It will depend really a little bit on the trade deals we get, availability of labour, all of these things, there’s huge issues out there. But they’re not insurmountable, and they must be dealt with,” he says.
“I’m a great believer [that] once the people have spoken we get on with it. I’m not a great believer in a second referendum, I think one was more than enough for me.
“As far as this is concerned, I wouldn’t want to be put through this process of these amendments day-in, day-out, for another time. I think I might lose the will to live at that stage.”