What do we know about new Environment Secretary Steve Barclay?

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has chosen Steve Barclay as his new Environment Secretary. Here, we look at the environmental voting record and likely immediate priorities for the man replacing Therese Coffey.

What do we know about new Environment Secretary Steve Barclay?

Image: Steve Barclay MP

Sunak began a Cabinet Reshuffle on Monday morning (13 November) after ousting Suella Braverman as Home Secretary. Braverman was sacked after referring to homelessness as a ‘lifestyle choice’ and making comments that emboldened far-right protestors to take to the streets at the weekend to clash with marchers out to support Palestine. She was also in the firing line for her plan to deport migrants to Rwanda; the Supreme Court will rule on whether this is lawful in the coming days.

After selecting James Cleverly to replace Braverman, Sunak made a string of other changes such as appointing David Cameron as Foreign Secretary. Time will tell how the former Prime Minister approaches the upcoming COP28 climate summit.

For the UK’s green economy, the big change has been the replacement of Therese Coffey with Steve Barclay at the helm of the Department for Food, the Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra).

Here, we look at his past record on green policy, and at the tasks which should be at the top of his to-do list.

Click here for edie’s news story explaining all the key moves in the Cabinet Reshuffle.

Barclay’s background

Barclay is a former corporate lawyer and has served as the Conservative MP for North East Cambridgeshire since May 2010. He has served in several Ministerial positions over the past 13 years.

Most recently, he has been Secretary of State for Health and Social Care under Rishi Sunak, since October 2022. Barclay was implored, in this role, to collaborate more closely with policymakers on nature and climate briefs, in recognition of the negative impacts of a deteriorating natural environment on human health.

Before taking up the mantle at the Department of Health and Social Care, Barclay was Chancellor of the Dutchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet office for around nine months. He was chosen for that role following stints at the Treasury and the Department for Exiting the European Union.

The turnover of Ministers at Defra has been increasingly rapid since Barclay became an MP. He is the tenth Environment Secretary since 2010.

Despite his long list of Ministerial titles, Barclay has never held a post relating directly to environmental policy. Coffey was undoubtedly the more experienced of the two, with two stints at Defra totalling four years.

Barclay has, however, been vocal on issues relating to farming, given that there are thousands of farms within his constituency.

Barclay advocated for Brexit partly on the grounds that stronger standards could be set and different incentive schemes could be launched outside of the EU. He backed the National Farmers Union’s ‘Back British Farming’ campaign from 2020 onwards.

He was then accused of hypocrisy for voting against measures designed to ensure that the UK’s animal welfare protections and other food standards would be embedded in post-Brexit trade deals on a non-negotiable basis.

Looking at Barclay’s broader voting record on environmental issues, he has broadly voted in line with his party.  This means he has voted against a ban on fracking; a net-zero stress test on subsidy packages and a ban on peatland burning. He also voted in early 2021 against enhanced environmental principles for public bodies and Government departments. Such principles have now been introduced in any case, through the Environment Act.

Barclay does not currently sit on any Committees or All-Party Parliamentary Groups (APPGs).

Current priorities

Towards the beginning of 2023, MPs quizzed Coffey on how she intended to end a ‘culture of delay’ at her Department.

Coffey was grilled about the post-Brexit watchdog’s conclusion that the UK was not on track to meet any of a list of 23 key nature targets.

Questions were also raised about delays to implementing key parts of the Resources and Waste Strategy since its publication in 2018, plus the Environment Act, which took around two years to progress through Parliament.

Since then, resources and waste policies have had further delays confirmed including a UK-wide Deposit Return Scheme for drinks packaging; the introduction of weekly food waste collections for all homes in England, and reforms to Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) regimes for sectors including packaging and textiles.

Defra is also undergoing a major digital systems upgrade, itself the victim of delays.

Barclay has been urged by WWF to “hit the ground running” with so much to catch up on and, also, many key projects on the horizon.

Friends of the Earth has similarly stated that Barclay “is picking up a brief that has been neglected throughout the majority of his party’s time in office – there is a lot of lost time to make up for”.

The most pressing issue for any new Environment Secretary looking to respond to public concerns is undeniably improving sewage management. More than half of UK adults have stated that the Government’s handling of an increase in combined sewage overflows will influence their voting at the next general election.

The Office for Environmental Protection has asked Defra, plus the Environment Agency and Ofwat, to prove that they have not broken environmental law in how they have been regulating to address the issue. Defra has denied any law breaking and is complying with this request; we can expect more details in early 2024.

In the meantime, Defra is insisting that its plan to gradually improve and reduce overflows is more ambitious than the prior approach.

Another pressing piece of work is improving climate resilience. The UK did update its National Adaptation Plan this summer, setting out interventions through to 2028, but the Climate Change Committee is not convinced that it is sufficient. Concerns have only mounted following a string of storms in recent weeks.

Other workstreams for Barclay to oversee include:

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