Helen Ghosh, Permanent Secretary of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).
The final talk in our Thursday seminar series brought the issues of risk into sharp focus looking at real life problems faced by the UK government. Our speaker was Helen Ghosh, who since 2005 has been Permanent Secretary for the Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (Defra). Defra, which has been called “The Department of Biblical Disasters”, has a wide-ranging brief responsible for dealing with some of the biggest challenges affecting the UK in the 21st Century, including climate change and loss of biodiversity. As well as these “big problems”, Defra also has to deal with many well-publicised high profile risks – notably floods and animal disease. Ghosh described these risks as amongst the tasks on her department’s “license to operate list”, in that failure to handle these fundamental policies and services effectively could potentially result in the resignation of her Secretary of State.
After a general survey of responsibilities and expenditures, with particular comment on the need to tackle climate change and emerging risks, Ghosh took for special illustration the risk areas of flood and animal health, particularly exotic disease. She highlighted the differences in approach and funding to these very different areas. Defra spends around £550m on flood defence per year, with the expenses partly underwritten by partnership with the private sector in insurance. Floods have a potentially very large economic impact (for example, more than £3bn in summer 2007). Animal diseases, on the other hand – into which the Government puts £400m a year – have potentially less overall economic impact and the compensation costs are borne entirely by the taxpayer.
Ghosh highlighted the successes achieved in managing the recent outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease and the summer 2007 floods, both of which built upon lessons learned from previous events as well as relentless contingency planning and modelling work. Many bases needed to be covered to deal with these risks, and science needed to work in conjunction with regulation, communication and response. Ghosh emphasised the “profound basis in science” of her Department, particularly commenting on the fruitful relationships with Defra’s chief scientists Howard Dalton and Bob Watson, and the deep engagement of the Secretary of State in the mission of the Department. But she emphasised that handling risk and emergency events was as much about understanding and influencing behaviour as direct financial support.
In an active discussion session, Helen Ghosh covered the future of farming, cost and responsibility sharing and CAP reform; Defra’s approach to climate change (a five point programme headed by international agreement but also including domestic targets such as carbon trading, technology, deforestation, and citizen behaviour); possibilities for land management; and how Defra needs to stay ahead of the change curve with emerging risks, such as nanotechnology.