AS AN astute politician, the Defra Secretary Michael Gove is aware of the issues that grab positive headlines.

High on his list is animal welfare, and he has announced bans on the sale of puppies by pet shops and collars that give dogs a small electric shock when they are being trained. These have gone down well with the mainly urban English electorate they were meant to impress.

It is unfortunate that farming is not deemed as worthy of attention. Eight months from when we could have a hard, no deal Brexit, future arrangements for agriculture remain an unknown.

Legislation to improve the lot of pets is worthwhile, but it is a strange definition of priorities. Agriculture underpins thousands of jobs across the economy and it is vital to the environment and the countryside. It is understandable that a government under pressure seeks easy headlines, but even over animal welfare it is sending out mixed messages.

Pets make for good publicity, and Gove has promised special interest groups he will link animal welfare to future farm support payments. He says he wants UK farming to have the highest possible animal welfare standards.

This makes it ironic that, like ministers before him, he is continuing to duck a huge welfare issue, raised by the British Veterinary Association and others. This is the right of consumers to know whether meat comes from animals slaughtered humanely or without stunning to meet halal regulations. This could be applied on supermarkets shelves and in restaurants, but the government is reluctant to follow the lead of others. This is not about banning a technique some cultures deem vital, but about giving consumers transparency to make rational choices.

Animal welfare in agriculture cannot be a pick and mix, with farms expected to deliver high standards while more sensitive issues are avoided. Insisting on this would also give UK meat protection against the cheap imports that will flood the market when post-Brexit trade deals are done. The industry needs points of difference that justify premium prices. Assurances about the environment and how animals are treated along the supply chain could be a key element in persuading people to support local supplies.

This is a tough ask and soft legislation for companion animals makes easier headlines. However ministers are paid to do what is right, rather than what is easy. Gove needs to do what is right for agriculture. Until he makes some moves the devolved administration cannot get off the starting blocks.

The government probably believes the technical note on what will happen in agriculture if there is no Brexit deal in action. It is in fact the opposite, in that it underlines how unaware it is of the many issues that have to be tackled. A vague assurance that support payments will continue for the lifetime of this parliament is not much of a commitment to an industry that depends on long term planning.

We know now that even with a hard Brexit we will continue to face EU-style inspection and compliance rules, which would leave people wondering what then was the point of Brexit? The government did concede that it would stick with EU policy on GM crops until it can make its own decisions on product approvals.

There are no signs yet that a list is being drawn up of the issues to be tackled, and that will be a long list when it does emerge. The government position is that it does not expect the hard Brexit outcome to emerge – but Gove, as someone who would be happy with a no deal Brexit, seems to be using hope as a fig leaf for inaction on agriculture.

He would do well to look at what the farming lobby said about the government's no deal preparations. NFU Scotland's president, Andrew McCornick, said it left farmers none the wiser and with the same unanswered questions that were there before. The English NFU said the document was a 'sobering reminder' of what is at stake. The Welsh farm union took the toughest line, saying the document failed to address the 'mammoth task' that lay ahead, adding that it underlined how unprepared for Brexit the government at Westminster was. That is perhaps why Gove prefers the easier task of legislating for pets, even if its not the priority he should have if he is truly interested in the future health of the UK economy.