How to lose a job and find real work

Yes, I know April Fool's Day is gone but I promise I am not having you on. One of the longest-serving ministers will leave office on 2 May and head off, not to join the fat cat chorus, but to do good works in Africa.

Baroness Chalker, Minister for Overseas Development - one of only two ministers to have been in office throughout the 18 years of Conservative rule - has announced she will step down, whoever wins. She has no plans to follow so many former colleagues to the chairmanship of a corporation or the board of a newly privatised industry. She has pledged instead to tackle Third World poverty, concentrating on work on the ground, particularly in Africa.

She told me last week that she has not yet worked out the details. I have no doubt that she will pick up some good consultancies, at least, and make a deservedly decent living. But hers is still a radical departure. Just imagine Douglas Hogg resigning to devote his life to animal welfare, Peter Lilley announcing that his future lay with working with the homeless, or Douglas Hurd deciding to serve war victims in Bosnia. See what I mean?

I went along to hear Lynda Chalker's swan-song (and a swan she has been, in a government containing a few vultures, the odd aIbatross, and an awful lot of geese) in a speech to the Royal Geographical Society. Full of memories of her eight years as aid minister (I will never forget the former Roedean head girl bopping in blistering heat with Rio street children), I heard her reminisce about grieving with drought-stricken farmers in Africa, rejoicing at providing clean water in Gaza and hugging her first gorilla in Zaire.

She has graced one of the best, if most denigrated, jobs in government: one where you really can make a visible difference to peoples' lives. Despite repeated, enervating cuts in the aid budget - against which she has fought - she has done her best to try to see that what remains has been well spent.

Her speech looked ahead to an international summit in June which will assess progress (and the lack of it) since the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. It will do much to decide whether the world will, at long last, begin seriously to tackle the gathering environmental crisis. John Major has (optimistically) said he will go. Tony Blair has yet to follow suit.

Nevertheless the greening of Blairism goes on, providing one of the Labour manifesto's few surprises. The environment forms one of its 10 key commitments and pervades it with a kind of feel-green factor.

Specific pledges include tougher regulation of the water industry, an energy-saving push, more action against global warming and a halt to the wholesale privatisation of woodlands exposed by this paper last summer. It supports green taxation, promises a shake-up of the roads programme and effectively rules out heavier lorries and new nuclear power stations.

It is a very long way from last year's "Road to the Manifesto" which scarcely mentioned the environment and much credit is due to the shadow environmental protection minister, Michael Meacher. Even Charles Secrett, the head of Friends of the Earth who two months ago announced that he preferred the Tories, has changed his mind. As he points out, the manifesto far out-distances the Government's promises, though it was outshone by the Liberal Democrats' commitments on Friday. All three major parties have now produced their greenest ever manifestos.

Conservative aid ministers have also got progressively greener, and better, as Lynda Chalker's record demonstrates. Mind you, they could hardly have got worse than the first, Neil Marten, whom Mrs Thatcher put in to slash what she called "hand-outs".

Once, as images of starving children crossed the screen during an African famine, Marten turned to an official and asked: "Tell me, how does the BBC fake those pictures? How do they fake them?" On another occasion, while visiting some tropical shore, he went for a swim, only for an aide to begin fussing that they were behind schedule. A local official concurred, adding that it might be a good idea for Marten to come in as a shark had been seen recently. The aide brightened. "Come to think of it," he decided, "I think we can allow the minister a little more time."