The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is one of the smallest of Government Departments but it has faced among the most substantial budget cuts, which are set to continue up to 2016.
Launching its Report, the Chairman of the Environment Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Miss Anne McIntosh said:
“DEFRA is a small ministry facing massive budget cuts and which relies on a large number of arms length bodies to deliver many significant areas of policy. Ministers must clarify how further budgets cuts of over £300 million over the coming 2 years will impact on the funding provided to these agencies and the ability of the Department to respond to emergencies.”
Recent Christmas Floods
The Chair said: “Recent flooding events over the Christmas and New year period reinforce the Committee's concerns about cuts to the Defra budget and how these will be realised. The Environment Agency is set to lose 1700 jobs in the next 12 months. “
“We have asked the Department to confirm the amount of contributions received from external sources under the Partnership Funding approach and to demonstrate how the Partnership Funding model for flood defences will deliver much greater private sector funding in the future. This will allow the drainage boards to do more of the essential maintenance work of main watercourses using their own resources.”
Delivering the CAP
“Delivery of CAP payments to farmers is at stake”, said the Chair
Among the most significant challenges facing the Department in the next 12 months is implementation of the new Common Agricultural Policy, and there are risks that the introduction of a new digital system for delivering payments to farms will cause problems for those farmers who do not have access to rural broadband.
The Chair said: “Farmers who are unable to access online systems, particularly in areas not yet adequately covered by the Governments own Rural Broadband Programme, must be able to continue to access payments via paper-based systems.”
Commenting on the management of the Department, the Committee’s Report found that the results of the Defra staff survey revealed an increased lack of confidence in the management and leadership of the Department.
Anne McIntosh said: “There needs to be a greater sense of urgency about addressing these issues, especially as the Department is about to enter a period of further budget cuts. Senior officials in the Department must take steps to manage the changes arising from the savings so that staff morale and engagement improves.”
Further challenges facing Defra in the coming year include policy relating to bovine TB and badger culling, its proposals on biodiversity offsetting, the introduction of plastic bag charging, and examining the role and potential of GM technology in food production.
Launching the report, Anne McIntosh said today: “The jury is still out on biodiversity offsetting so ideology must not trump the robust scientific appraisal of sufficient evidence gathered during a pilot designed to test the efficacy of this policy.”