Defra calls us “customers” – I thought UK was a democracy, not a shop

On 25th June I emailed the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, to protest against the inclusion of Poul Polman, a Unilever executive, in the official UK government delegation to the Rio+20 climate change talks.

A few days ago (ie nearly two months later) some poor sap in the “Customer Contact Unit” in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) emailed me a non-reply. I didn’t know Defra was a shop or business (isn’t that usually where you find customers?). I am most definitely not a customer of Defra, which is a government department working on behalf of the “public” or “citizens”.

This is what the Customer Contact Unit replied – really, they might as well have saved their breath to cool their porridge:

Dear Ms Shepherd,  

UK delegation to Rio + 20

Thank you for your email of 25 June to the Deputy Prime Minister. I have been asked to reply and I apologise for the delay in doing so. 

Stakeholder participation was a vital part of the Rio preparation process, and will be an important part of the implementation. Therefore, the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg MP, and the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Caroline Spelman MP, who both attended Rio+20, felt it was appropriate to have stakeholder representation on our delegation. 

As you are aware we invited two business representatives, Paul Polman of Unilever and Paul Abberley of Aviva, and two NGO representatives, David Nussbaum of World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and Barbara Stocking of Oxfam, to be on the UK delegation. The decision was based on levels of engagement in the Rio process, the mix of issues to be covered, and the levels of reach the individuals have through their respective networks. We will continue to work closely with our broader group of stakeholders, who we briefed regularly at the Conference and whose input will continue to be invaluable.

Defra encourages all businesses to move towards sustainable sourcing of palm oil. Unilever are a founding member of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) and have made public commitments to improving sourcing of sustainable palm oil, as part of its wider sustainable living plan, details are available to view at:

Defra is not in a position to comment on the specific allegation that you refer to but you may be interested to see that Unilever scored 8 on WWF’s 2011 Palm Oil Scorecard.

I would suggest that you also forward your email to the Department of Health (DoH) as it will be able to respond to concerns about health aspects. Contact details can be accessed on its website at: 

Yours sincerely,  

 Wini Kirby

Defra – Customer Contact Unit “


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