Donald Macintyre's Sketch: It’s time for Owen Paterson to cull this abstract language

He skilfully bypassed the question on  whether £1m cheques for large landowners could be justified

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Indy Politics

Has Owen Paterson banned the C-word to protect the squeamish? Today he proudly referred MPs to his written statement on wiping out bovine TB, one which promises to “tackle any significant reservoir of infection in wildlife” but unaccountably neglects to mention that culling badgers is mainly how they’re going to do it. Clearly, his colleague Michael Gove’s departmental directive – “always use concrete words and phrases in preference to abstractions” – has yet to percolate to Defra.

The National Farmers’ Union, of course, was pleased by the bovine TB statement. In the midst of the Coalition’s onslaught on the dreaded Unite, heaven forbid that ministers should notice that their own relations with the NFU are distinctly cosy — Paterson and his junior Richard Benyon own splendid estates in Shropshire and Berkshire respectively.

Tory backbenchers routinely refer, as they have done for generations, to “my farmers” (in Tewkesbury, Stratford, wherever). Paterson assured MPs that British farmers would be pleased with the outcome of the latest Common Agricultural Policy “when the detail is worked out with the representatives of the farming unions.”

And he skilfully bypassed a question from the mild-mannered Liberal Democrat MP Andrew George on whether subsidies, “indeed, £1m cheques”, to “large landowners who do not need the money”, could be justified – all but implying that agribusiness was solely motivated by the charitable goal of feeding a growing population. “We want... an extremely efficient, hi-tech agricultural sector producing food... and welcome large, efficient farmers.”

Later, a Cabinet split on that Gove “would your mum understand it?” directive to his civil servants! The Education Secretary had improbably suggested Jane Austen as a literary model for Whitehall correspondence. Leader of the Commons Andrew Lansley ventured: “My personal preference is for colleagues, when composing answers, to pay more attention to Sir Ernest Gowers than to Jane Austen, but that is just a matter of taste.” Lansley one, Gove nil. Gowers, author of the mid-20th century classic “The Complete Plain Words”, was himself a civil servant and actually knew what he was talking about.

Badgers were not the only creatures under pressure. Tory MP Sir Tony Baldry, Second Church Commissioner, returned to the fray on the desecration of churches wrought by “bat faeces and bat urine” because of a European directive protecting their roosts from removal. “Churches are not field barns; they are places of worship,” he declared. This was not an issue that could just be “managed”, said Sir Tony, who was also obliged to rebuke MPs: “This is no laughing matter.”

Least of all for the bats, if Sir Tony gets his way.