Natural leader: the George Eustice interview
As the man at the top of Defra, George Eustice is charged with safeguarding Britain’s natural resources. But with issues from flooding to food standards climbing the national agenda, the Environment Secretary has a full in-tray. Adam Payne reports.
George Eustice had an eventful 2021. Whether it was COP26, the Brexit-induced woes of fish exporters, devastating floods or the uproar over Geronimo the alpaca, rarely a day went by when the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs didn’t have his hands full.
More recently, the Conservative MP for Camborne and Redruth, a rural constituency in his native Cornwall, has been tasked with bringing an end to the nationwide culling of pigs, which, when Eustice spoke to The House, had claimed more than 16,000 healthy animals according to industry data. The latest figures puts the number at over 30,000.
A shortage of butchers has meant some farmers have been unable to send pigs to slaughterhouses, creating a backlog of animals that would otherwise have been sold as food, and leading to a lack of space for the animals to be housed humanely.
In October, the government announced measures designed to tackle the logjam, including a visa scheme allowing up to 800 overseas butchers to work in the UK for six months. It has been slow to have an impact, however, with the majority of successful applicants expected to begin arriving this month.
Eustice expects to have “got the situation back into balance” by early spring, insisting ministers “were always clear” there was never going to be a quick fix.
He sought to play down the magnitude of the crisis: “In the context of the total number of pigs that are being slaughtered, which is in the millions, it’s a relatively small number [being culled].”
Culling on farm is never ideal, and obviously it’s distressing.
The financial hit to pig farmers has forced some to walk away from the industry, the National Pig Association has warned, while harrowing reports from affected farms have revealed the stress and misery of their plight.
“Culling on farm is never ideal, and obviously it’s distressing,” Eustice says. “Farmers raise their pigs to go into food production, so to have that waste is something nobody wants to see.”
A major reason why it has taken several months to get butchers into the country from abroad, the minister reveals, is that officials have had to prioritise the visa applications of overseas poultry workers, to ensure there were enough turkeys on supermarket shelves for Christmas. The dearth of poultry workers in the UK is another item on Eustice’s lengthy agenda.Eustice, 50, can’t be accused of lacking relevant experience for the Defra brief, which he describes as his “dream job”.
Born into a farming family, he grew up on Trevaskis fruit farm near Hayle in Cornwall, which nowadays is owned by his brother, Giles, and has a restaurant, too.
It was here the Secretary of State, whom Boris Johnson appointed in February 2020, spent his childhood summer holidays working in the fields. “My parents had a very strong ethos that work is learnt at a young age,” he says. He returned to the farm in a more senior position after finishing his education, with parents Adele and Paul entrusting Eustice and Giles to run parts of the business when the brothers were in their early 20s.
“I was exposed to quite a lot of responsibility,” he says. “I learnt lots about farming, particularly things that can go wrong, like the risk posed by the weather and the vagaries of the market.” He recalls a “difficult couple of years” when the family business had a dispute with Barclays over a loan: “It’s a tough, difficult business, with high risk and tight margins.”
It was an upbringing that taught Eustice the “value of tenacity”. Life on the farm was an education in “persisting with things, redoubling your efforts, always asking questions”, Eustice says. “Throughout my life, whether in politics or beforehand, most of my regrets have come from not probing things enough, not asking enough questions. In politics, if you don’t ask the right questions at the right time, if you’re not careful, you’ll find yourself answering them 18 months down the line at the despatch box when it’s too late because something’s gone wrong.”
Eustice says there was another virtue he had to deploy at the back end of last year: restraint.
In the run-up to COP26, with the eyes of the world scrutinising the seriousness of the UK’s green ambitions, Tory MPs suddenly found themselves in the eye of an environmental storm, accused of voting to give water companies the green light to dump raw sewage in rivers.
One of the most frustrating things in politics is you often don’t get the credit for things you’ve done.
In October, the government said it didn’t back a Lords’ amendment placing legal obligations on water companies to reduce their sewage discharges, on the grounds that sufficient protections already existed. Nevertheless, 22 Conservatives rebelled against the government to vote in favour of the amendment, and public outrage ensued – particularly online, where viral posts accused the government of giving the nod to water companies filling rivers with human waste and condoms.
Ministers produced a compromise amendment which received the support of MPs, including Tory rebels.
However, what came beforehand was unfair, argues Eustice, who believes the work he had already done to pressure companies into reducing sewage discharges was ignored.
“One of the most frustrating things in politics is you often don’t get the credit for things you’ve done. But there’s no good complaining about it, because it goes with the territory,” he says.
Eustice’s refusal to have his own Twitter account makes him somewhat of a rarity in modern politics. “I could spend all my life fretting about what people have said on Twitter,” he says. But the social media backlash over the sewage vote was forced on to his radar and made him very frustrated.
“It was put around on Twitter that Conservatives voted to pump sewage into the rivers, but what they’d actually voted for was a whole package of measures to deal with this problem. The amendment that we didn’t vote for wasn’t even about ending the pumping of sewage into rivers – it was about requiring a reduction. There’s not much fairness when you have social media campaigns of this sort.”It’s not all been doom and gloom for Eustice, though. He says Defra was “really pleased” with what it managed to secure at COP26 in Glasgow, particularly “really tangible” progress on deforestation – an area he is passionate about.
“To get around 120 countries to commit to halt deforestation by 2030, including the big countries like Brazil, Russia and China, was a really big breakthrough. And, crucially, we were able to mobilise the financing to sit behind those pledges, which is another big step forward. We were really, really pleased with that outcome.”
To get around 120 countries to commit to halt deforestation by 2030, including the big countries like Brazil, Russia and China, was a really big breakthrough.
Despite his busy schedule, Eustice manages to get back to his constituency most weekends, where he often visits the family farm: “I’m one of those MPs who is lucky enough to represent the seat where I grew up.”
The Secretary of State would love to one day host a Tory away day in one of the many “beautiful places” Cornwall has to offer, although he’s not convinced he could persuade all his colleagues to trek to the most south-western reaches of the country. Perhaps the tranquillity of a countryside escape is exactly what the Conservative Party needs after the past few months...
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