Environmental Audit Committee

29 January 2002


A Reorganization Too Far

In its latest report the Environmental Audit Committee criticises the new departmental arrangements for policy on environmental protection and sustainable development which were put in place after the general election.

The report highlights the large transitional costs, the confusion of responsibilities, the opportunities missed and the perception of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs as being overwhelmingly concerned with rural policy.

Mr John Horam MP, Chairman of the Committee, said "This was a botch job.  The way in which the re-organisation was handled does not give me the impression that environmental protection or sustainable development are top priorities for the Government."

Among a series of conclusions, the Committee finds that:

Working on the basis that it takes two years to complete the merger process, which may be optimistic in the case of DEFRA with all the problems of civil service transfers, pay and structures, four out of six years between 1997 and 2003 will have been spent in transition.

The new logic in UK policy organisation has caused disquiet in some quarters, not least because some issues excluded from DEFRA's portfolio-transport, industry, planning and urban regeneration-are those where integration with environmental protection is not only fundamental to making progress on sustainable development but also most difficult to achieve.

The perception that DEFRA is a department concerned principally with rural issues  may result in a lack of engagement over sustainability issues between DEFRA on the one hand and NGOs, international partners and the public on the other

There is also a risk that other Government departments will not, as a matter of course, consult with DEFRA colleagues when developing and implementing policy which may impact on the environment or sustainability and that even the good working practices and relationships developed within DETR will erode over time.

It has taken considerable effort to establish precisely the role of the Deputy Prime Minister vis a vis the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.  If it was difficult for us to do, with our close links with Government and the powers bestowed by the House of Commons, it must have been an almost impossible task for others.

When we examined Mrs Beckett, she convinced us of her personal commitment to sustainable development.

We recommend that significant changes to the machinery of government are in future accompanied by a memorandum to the relevant select committee(s) providing a robust reasoning for the changes and detailed information on their nature.  It is particularly important that policy imperatives which cut across departmental boundaries are not downgraded in departmental reorganisations.

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The Environmental Audit Committee has a remit to consider to what extent Government policies and programmes contribute to environmental protection and sustainable development: to audit departments' performance against targets set by Ministers; and to report to the House.