Speech given by Sue Hayman MP, shadow environment secretary, at the launch of Prospect's State of Natural England report, House of Commons, 11 March 2019
I would like to thank Prospect union for producing this brave, informative and incredibly sobering report and for organising this event today.
It says so much about this government’s short-termist and ideologically driven austerity agenda that this even needs to be produced.
What is so critical about this report is not just the warning shots fires about the environmental impact of cuts to Natural England, but the real life, heart-breaking testimonies from so many members of staff.
Dedicated, knowledgeable and experienced staff who are doing their best under extremely trying circumstances. I wanted to draw out some of the direct quotes from staff that really struck me.
One member of staff said: “I don’t have as much loyalty to the job anymore…morale is at an all-time low.”
Another said: “I live in constant dread of paying the bills.”
And this last one I feel really highlights the deterioration of the health and wellbeing of staff: “When I was promoted I shared various work areas with another colleague. He left and was not replaced. His workload was added to mine, which (combined with other factors) led to months of sick leave due to a stress-related illness.”
It is deeply shocking that 25% of all absence days taken in Natural England are due to mental and behavioural disorders and that 69% of respondents to the last Prospect staff survey reported lowered morale, demotivation and a feeling of being significantly undervalued.
This work does so much to shine a light on the bleak reality behind the veneer of Mr Gove’s press releases, rhetoric and endless consultation launches.
The government cannot credibly claim to be making the preservation and restoration of the environment a priority while the very institutions responsible for delivering this preservation and restoration are at breaking point.
What is going on at Natural England provides one of the clearest, most measurable pieces of evidence of the impact of austerity on our natural environment.
The chronic under-resourcing and neglect of Natural England could not have possibly come at a worse time because we know that our environment is in deep crisis.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warning that we have only a short window of time to be able to halt climate catastrophe has played a big part in helping to shift political and public consciousness as well as recent studies like WWF’s Living Planet report and the global scientific review of insect numbers which showed that 40% of species are undergoing dramatic rates of decline around the world.
As your report states “Natural England’s work has been undervalued and underfunded by government for too long”.
During the most recent DEFRA questions in the chamber I personally pressed Ministers on the issue of cuts to Natural England.
So to Prospect and all staff members at Natural England – your evidence, stories and insider knowledge are valuable in holding this government to account regarding their high rhetoric, but lack of action, on the environment.
Labour’s message is: we hear you, we see you and we stand in solidarity with you coming forward and speaking out on this shambolic state of affairs.
You have my commitment today that my team will continue to hold the government’s feet to the fire on what is going on at Natural England and that we will use every opportunity possible to make sure your concerns are heard.