Cabinet life is steady as she goes at the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), where little changed after Thursday’s vote.
Unlike the previous election, when DEFRA itself was created out of the Ministry for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food’s ashes, this year’s cabinet reshuffle barely touched the ministerial team. Margaret Beckett’s perfectly coiffed silhouette will continue to head all things rural. This means that sweeping changes are unlikely to take place at Smith Square, especially as DEFRA insiders have it that Beckett truly believes in her policies.
At junior level, Elliot Morley and Ben Bradshaw also remain at DEFRA, where they will hold the posts of Minister of State and Parliamentary Secretary. Some new faces, however, are making an appearance in the Smith Square corridors.
Alun Michael has moved to the Department of Productivity, Energy and Industry to become Minister of State under the watchful eye of Malcolm Wicks. He leaves a gap in the DEFRA ranks, which will be filled by Jim Knight, the MP for Dorset South, who managed to cling to his marginal seat by 1812 votes against disgraced Tory candidate Ed Matts, guilty of doctoring a photograph in his election leaflet.
Knight is a former Mendip District councillor who ran a West Country publishing company before turning to politics. He first contested Dorset South in 1997 and lost. He was elected in 2001 and became a member of the Defence Select Committee until 2003. Later, he was a Parliamentary Private Secretary at the Department of Health. He has now become Parliamentary Secretary at DEFRA.
Knight has toed the party line on anything from Iraq to university top up fees and unsuprisingly voted for a total ban on hunting. His personal website (www.jimknight.com) states that he doesn’t see hunting a particularly vital issue for rural people, whom he believes are more concerned about jobs, transport, schools, housing and health services. Nevertheless, he consistently supported the ban throughout its journey through Parliament.
“My views are based on my own moral judgement but I value the fact that the majority of constituents who took the time to contact me also supported a total ban,” he writes, adding that “the pro hunting lobby has sought to hijack the rural agenda but this government has already achieved a great deal in supporting rural communities, such as increased policing, increased investment in rural schools and local hospitals.”
Knight’s position on hunting will not endear him to a good part of the countryside. However, he is committed to preserving angling and shooting. “Some animal welfare campaigners would like to see other sports which they consider cruel banned. They are entitled to their views and to promote them. But Labour’s 2001 Manifesto was quite clear. It stated that “we have no intention whatsoever of placing restrictions on the sports of angling and shooting”. I support that position,” he writes on his website.
Knight has also campaigned for affordable housing, safer homes and rural bus services. He has promoted local produce and supported initiatives to tackle climate change and boost environmental protection.
“We’re pleased to see Jim Knight taking the position as Parliamentary Secretary at Defra,” says Mark Hudson, president of the Country Land and Business Association. “Jim has been a valuable friend of the CLA, tabling a parliamentary motion supporting CLA’s campaign for faster roll-out of affordable broadband in rural areas and supporting our launches of affordable housing, tourism and biofuels policies. It’s good to have a fresh face in the department and Jim is particularly well placed as he represents a rural constituency with an urban centre.”
The other new face at DEFRA is Lord Bach of Lutterworth. He becomes the new Parliamentary Secretary for the Lords to replace Lord Whitty of Camberwell, who in turn is moving to the backbenches.
Lord Bach was Minister for Defence Procurement at the Ministry of Defence in the previous government. He held several positions in the Labour Party in Leicestershire and became a peer in 1998. A year later, he was appointed Lord in Waiting and in 2001 he was called to the MOD.
Like Lord Whitty, Lord Bach voted against the amendment put forward by Baroness Ann Mallalieu last November, with which the Lords overturned the complete ban agreed by the Commons. Despite Knight and Bach’s track record on the hunting bill, however, country sports lobby groups are pleased to see some new blood at DEFRA.
“We are happy that Alun Michael has moved on. That in itself is an opportunity for us and DEFRA to have a fresh start and while both Jim Knight and Lord Bach may not have been supportive of all the issues we campaigned for in the past, we will try and work with them to make sure that new legislation does not impact country sports, especially the Animal Welfare [Bill],” says Tim Bonner of the Countryside Alliance.
“It is really good news [that Alun Michael has moved on],” agrees Vote-OK spokesman Charles Mann. “A man who understood the countryside less is difficult to find. Not knowing either Jim Knight or Lord Bach it is unfair to make any comments other than look at their voting record. But the small majority Tony Blair now has gives him the mandate to listen to concerns from all corners. It has got to be a government of concession, thinking and listening.”
DEFRA has yet to release details of each Minister’s responsibilities.
Update – 16 May 2005
DEFRA has named Jim Knight as the new Minister of the Horse.