The Government’s proposed ban on importing fur and foie gras is to be shelved, as the Environment Secretary says she wants to be the “voice of the countryside”.
In her first interview since being appointed to the role, Therese Coffey told The Telegraph that animal welfare is important – but said: “We need to think through priorities.”
She said the Government stands by its animal welfare action plan, but pointed out “there’s only so [much] time” ministers have to push through legislation.
Her remarks will be seen as the nail in the coffin for plans that were drawn up under Boris Johnson’s premiership to ban a range of practices that were deemed harmful to animals.
Critics claimed that Mr Johnson’s animal welfare agenda was influenced by his wife Carrie, a passionate environmentalist.
Fur farming and the production of foie gras, which involves force-feeding ducks or geese, are already banned in the UK. However, campaigners argue that around 200 tons of foie gras and tens of millions of pounds worth of fur continue to arrive on British shores each year.
Banning fur and foie gras imports had been part of the Animals Abroad Bill, which was scrapped amid opposition from ministers who deemed it “un-Conservative”.
But last year Lord Goldsmith, then environment minister and a close friend of Mrs Johnson, pledged that he was “completely committed” to pressing ahead with the bans, despite the legislation being axed.
‘We need to think through priorities’
When asked about the proposals, Ms Coffey appeared to pour cold water on them, saying: “Animal welfare is very important. All I would say right now is that we need to think through priorities. We stand by the welfare action plan but there’s only so [much] time that we can get the legislation and stuff like that.”
She added that the Government will continue to support plans to ban trophy hunting imports and live animal imports.
England will, however, not follow Scotland’s lead in outlawing fox hunting with more than two dogs apart from in “exceptional” circumstances.
“Of course we have the name Rural Affairs and we are the voice of the countryside across government,” said Ms Coffey.
A government source did not deny that the foie gras and fur import ban will be mothballed, citing a “limited amount of parliamentary time” and the need to “prioritise certain things”.
But the source added that the UK has “some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world”.
Earlier this week, it was announced that wood-burning stoves will face tighter restrictions in pollution hotspots under government plans to improve air quality.
New stoves will have stricter limits on how much smoke they can emit every hour in official smoke control areas, as part of new five-year green targets. Ministers will also put pressure on councils to curb illegal burning in smoke control areas, and will discourage the burning of wet wood outdoors.
The changes were part of the first five-yearly review of how the Government is implementing its 25 Year Environment Plan targets to boost nature, improve air and water quality and cut waste.
Offering a glimmer of hope to owners of wood-burning stoves, Ms Coffey confirmed that she has no plans to ban them altogether and admitted that she has one at her family home. She said she still has an open fire, which she uses “three or four times a year, if that, normally around Christmas”.
“There’s always something primaeval about seeing fire,” she said.
“I’m not considering banning [them] because I don’t think we need to. My preference is to be a lot more educational. We don’t create all these things just to generate money – far from it – it’s to try and change some behaviours.”
Asked how green she is in her own life, she admitted that she is no “heroine” but said: “I do try and use the reusable cups, I do try and be very good at recycling, being careful with water, those sorts of things.”
When describing her agenda for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), Ms Coffey listed reducing carbon emissions, overseeing the transition of agricultural funding and pursuing scientific advances such as gene edited crops.
Another focus will be cracking down on water companies that illegally dump raw sewage into rivers. Ranil Jayawardena, her predecessor as environment secretary, promised that fines for water companies who seriously breach rules by dumping sewage in rivers and seas will be increased 1,000-fold, from the current upper limit of £250,000 per incident to £250 million.
Ms Coffey said this proposal remains under “very active consideration”, adding that: “We may be going further.” This could include even larger fines, as well as making it easier to issue penalties to water companies where a breach does not reach the threshold for prosecution.
She said “nobody should be alarmed” at reports that the largest ever outbreak of bird flu has started spilling over into mammals.
“Avian flu is not new,” she said. “All the science indicates that there’s no evidence of any of that sort of thing [genetic transmission] happening.
“I think what may be happening is that some animals are picking things up in their consumption.”
While we should remain “alert” to it, she does not believe bird flu will transfer to humans and turn into the next pandemic.
Ms Coffey, who was elected as MP for Suffolk Coastal in 2010, first joined the Cabinet in 2019 when Mr Johnson promoted her to work and pensions secretary.
A close friend and political ally of Liz Truss, Ms Coffey was by her side throughout last summer’s leadership race and was made health secretary and deputy prime minister under the former Tory leader’s brief time in Downing Street.
When she was made health secretary, an old photograph was circulated online which showed her with a glass of wine in her hand, a cigar in her mouth and a stain on her top.
Ms Coffey, who has developed a reputation for her love of partying and karaoke, was unrepentant, saying she was “not the role model”.
Ms Truss’s South West Norfolk patch is close to Ms Coffey’s Suffolk Coastal constituency, giving them a local as well as a rural affinity.
The pair, who became known in Westminster as “Liz and Tiz”, both went to Oxford, but several years apart. They first met as young Conservatives, campaigning together and attending Tory events before finally being elected as MPs under David Cameron in 2010.
“I was very proud to help Liz Truss become prime minister,” Ms Coffey told The Telegraph. “She still has very strong support for wanting to get growth in our country, that’s what we all want as Conservatives.”
Ms Coffey, aged 51, grew up in Liverpool, where the radical Left-wing council clashed with Margaret Thatcher. Her parents, both of whom were teachers at local schools, were made redundant when she was 13, along with almost all other council employees.
“And that’s when I realised politics mattered,” she said. “I remember my mum reassuring me, saying: ‘Don’t worry, this is just so they can balance the books.’ But I thought it was pretty shocking to basically send out redundancy notices to every single council employee bar about two people.
“And that’s when I thought Margaret Thatcher was running the country better than Labour were doing to my city, which has taken decades to recover from that awful time.”
Ms Coffey won a place at Somerville College, Oxford to read chemistry but did not complete her studies there, instead graduating from University College London, where she went on to get a PhD.
Speaking about her time at Oxford, she said: “It’s not something I tend to dwell on. I passed my university exams and without going into too much detail, for whatever reason, I had to do extra internal exams.
“All I’ll say is that experience and how I was treated by that college strengthened my resilience. You learn a lot about yourself and how you recover from setbacks. While it was not an enjoyable part of my life, at that time it certainly strengthened me in many ways.”
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