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Weathering the cuts?

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IT may be revealing that, in his speech to the Oxford Farming Conference on January 7, Owen Paterson, the Secretary of State at Defra, began by apologising for not having been there in the morning as planned; this, he explained, was because he had been in London ‘updating Cabinet colleagues on the recent and continuing floods’. Flood and coastal defences, as well as food and farming, form part of Defra's remit, and his apology served to emphasise the breadth and significance of his department's responsibilities.

Perhaps coincidentally, on the same day, the parliamentary Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (EFRACom) published a report discussing Defra's annual report for 2012-2013 and, in particular, the impact of spending cuts on the department's ability to fulfil its aims.1 Anne McIntosh, the committee's chairman, commented, ‘Defra is a small ministry facing massive budget cuts and which relies on a large number of arm's length bodies to deliver significant areas of policy. Ministers must clarify how further budget cuts of over £300 million over the coming two years will impact on the funding provided to these agencies and the ability to respond to emergencies.’ She, too, referred to the recent floods, commenting, somewhat bluntly, ‘Recent flooding events over the Christmas and New Year period reinforce the committee's concerns about cuts to Defra's budget and how these will be realised. The Environment Agency is set to lose 1700 jobs in the next 12 months.’

The EFRACom's report notes that Defra's budget has been cut by £500 million since 2010 and will be reduced by another £300 million by 2015/16. In percentage terms, this is one of the biggest reductions in any government department. It acknowledges that nearly all government departments face cuts; however, it points out, Defra's remit requires it to have the capacity to respond to a wide range of emergencies ‘such as flooding, outbreaks of plant disease and food contamination, all of which were a feature of 2012/13′ and, it says, savings must not adversely impact on its ability to do this. It also notes that Defra faces some significant challenges over the next 12 months, including delivery of the new Common Agricultural Policy, and questions whether, in practical terms, the department will be in a position to meet them.

Defra is currently working to four priorities that have been set by the Secretary of State. These are: to grow the rural economy; to improve the environment; to safeguard animal health; and to safeguard plant health. The EFRACom comments: ‘While these new priorities are arguably clearer and more memorable than the previous set, they are also less specific statements against which it may be difficult to assess progress on the quite extensive policy areas for which Defra is responsible.’ It suggests that the Secretary of State needs to be clearer about what the budget cuts will mean for the delivery of policy, adding, ‘We understand that how Defra spends its remaining budget will be determined in line with his four priorities, but they are in themselves no clear guide to where the axe will fall.’

The report discusses the pilot badger culls but, apart from that, makes little specific reference to animal health issues or the impact of cuts and changing priorities in Defra on activities such as disease surveillance, prevention and control, or, indeed, on its ability to respond to disease emergencies. Nevertheless, many of the concerns raised will sound familiar to those who have followed developments in the animal health field; for example, those relating to the difference between policy development and policy delivery, and to the effects of all the changes on staff morale.

In contrast to the EFRACom's report, Mr Paterson's speech to the Oxford Farming Conference was decidedly upbeat. Referring, among other things, to the Government's Agri-tech Strategy (VR, August 31, 2013, vol 173, p 174), he described this as an exciting time for agriculture, with new technologies and markets presenting farming with ‘unprecedented opportunities to grow’. Building on remarks at last year's conference (VR, January 19, 2013, vol 172, p 56) he again drew attention to the potential opportunities presented by GM crops, suggesting that, although these were not a panacea, ‘the longer that Europe continues to close its doors to GM, the greater the risk that the rest of the world will bypass us altogether’. In his speech, he placed welcome emphasis on the need to tackle threats to plant and animal health and, while the two are not necessarily synonymous, he also announced changes to the livestock movement rules in line with the Government's commitment to cutting red tape.

It is not altogether easy to reconcile the optimism of the Secretary of State's speech with the concerns expressed in the EFRACom's report, and it will be interesting to see how the Government responds to the committee's comments. In the meantime, care needs to be taken in developing and implementing policy and making sure it relates to what is actually happening on the ground.

1. The EFRACom's report – Departmental Annual Report 2012-13, Ninth Report of Session 2013-14, HC741 – is available at www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201314/cmselect/cmenvfru/741/741.pdf. Accessed January 14, 2014

The text of Mr Paterson's speech to Oxford Farming Conference is at www.gov.uk/government/speeches/opportunity-in-agriculture. Accessed January 14, 2014

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