The Department of Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) must clarify its strategic approach for achieving the necessary reductions in its budgets for the next Spending Review period, a committee report has urged today (15 December).
The challenges facing Defra are first whether the reduced budget available to it is sufficient for its task, and second how to make the correct policy choices so as to allocate smaller funds effectively, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Efra) Committee has said in its 2014/15 review on Defra performance.
Defra’s budget for day-to-day spending is to be cut by 15 percent over the next four years, which the report says will be difficult to achieve because the total budget reductions of about a quarter during the last Parliament have already identified easily achievable savings and removed the more obvious inefficiencies across the Defra family.
Efra – “We have so far received only the barest details of how Defra intends to provide services against budget cuts over this Parliament and on whether it can find all the necessary savings from administrative efficiencies or if it will also need to alter the services it delivers or how it charges for them”
The report is therefore urging Defra to publish its strategic approach for achieving the necessary reductions in its budgets for the next Spending Review period, along with detailed plans for implementing this, including how administrative savings are to be made.
“We have so far received only the barest details of how Defra intends to provide services against budget cuts over this Parliament and on whether it can find all the necessary savings from administrative efficiencies or if it will also need to alter the services it delivers or how it charges for them,” the Committee report states.
Defra is one of the smaller government departments, with Exchequer funding of just over £2bn, but it performs vital functions.
The report states that Efra endorses the Defra Secretary of State’s vision for a world-class food and farming sector, a robust rural economy and an enhanced natural environment, and it says that managing environmental and rural economy issues together can help deliver that vision. But it requires adequate resources.
“Protecting the nation against, for example, flood and animal or plant diseases carries multi-million pound costs; the costs to the economy, society and the environment of not doing so may, however, be even greater,” it says.
“To be re-assured, we need evidence that Defra can provide firm leadership, a clear and well communicated strategy, and robust relationships with its disparate set of delivery bodies…
“We and our predecessor Committees have struggled to clarify with successive Secretaries of State and senior Defra officials their strategy for determining which policies and priorities will be altered by repeated spending reductions.
Given the scale of savings required under the Spending Review, Efra says it is highly likely that difficult strategic choices will need to be made, particularly as the more “achievable” cost-efficiencies have been made in response to budget reductions during the last Parliament.
It says successful delivery of vital environmental, agricultural and rural services will not be possible without strong leadership and a sharp focus on priority areas.