Sweeping changes at Defra and the end of Decc

15th July 2016

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Kerry Horvath

Former energy minister Andrea Leadsom has been appointed Defra secretary and Decc has been abolished in a cabinet reshuffle by new prime minister Theresa May.

Energy policy and most of Decc’s administration has transferred to the new Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) under the former communities secretary Greg Clark. Former Decc secretary Amber Rudd has been promoted to home secretary.

The downgrading of Decc and the appointment of Clark, who was shadow energy secretary between 2008 and 2010, has received a mixed response. Richard Black, director at the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, described Clark as an excellent appointment and said combining energy with business was an opportunity to better align policy: ‘Importantly, Clark sees that economic growth and tackling climate change are bedfellows not opponents – and he now has the opportunity to align British industry, energy and climate policy in a way that’s never been done before.’

But the disappearance of Decc as a government department has raised concerns that the UK’s status as an international leader on climate change might be seriously undermined. Angus MacNeil, chair of the energy and climate change committee, said he was ‘astonished at the prime minister’s decision’. In a statement, MacNeil said Decc’s abolition raised a number of questions: ‘An historic agreement at COP21 in Paris last November still requires ratification, and the fifth carbon budget is still yet to be set in law. To whom falls the central statutory obligation, contained in the Climate Change Act 2008, to reduce the UK's carbon emissions by 80% from their 1990 baseline? Which department will take responsibility for the energy and climate aspects of negotiations to leave the EU? Who will champion decarbonisation in cabinet? Who will drive innovation in the energy sector?’

Greenpeace said it was concerned that the new government would no longer view climate change as a major threat. Cheif executive John Sauven said: 'The energy and climate change change department has been broken up and put back together without the name "climate change". Although, some might say "what’s in a name", there is a very real worry that the progress made on tackling climate change could be relegated to the bottom of the intray.'

However, Clark sought to allay fears that climate change was being downgraded. 'I am thrilled to have been appointed to lead this new department charged with delivering a comprehensive industrial strategy, leading government’s relationship with business, furthering our world-class science base, delivering affordable, clean energy and tackling climate change,' he said in a statement.

Leadsom’s promotion to Defra secretary brings its own challenges. As a prominent campaigner to leave the EU, Leadsom will first need to convince the farming community that the UK government will replace subsidies currently provided by the EU.

Other environmental policies that need ministerial clarity include air pollution. The UK is currently facing a legal challenge over Defra’s failure to meet EU standards for air quality. Environmental campaigners will watch closely how Defra deals with post-EU pesticide and chemical regulations, particularly future decisions over neonicotinoids and glyphosate herbicide. Friends of the Earth chief executive Craig Bennett said: ‘Whatever the outcome of EU negotiations, Leadsom must defend and extend existing nature protections. An early test will be ruling-out the return of bee-harming neonicotinoid pesticides that are currently banned by the EU.’

One piece of news that slipped the headlines yesterday was the announcement by former Defra secretary Liz Truss, who moved to the justice department in the reshuffle, that Emma Howard-Boyd is the government’s preferred candidate to take up the post of chair of the Environment Agency. Howard-Boyd is an active supporter of environmental protection.


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