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Defra and the cuts

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DEFRA was one of the biggest departmental losers in the Government's Spending Review in 2010, suffering a 30 per cent reduction in its budget over the five years up to 2014/15, and the effects have been felt in the veterinary sphere ever since. One might argue, as the department and its agencies often have, that the enforced belt-tightening has prompted new, improved ways of doing things which might well have been desirable anyway, but there can be little doubt that many of the changes, such as those being made to the arrangements for scanning surveillance in England and Wales, have at least in part been financially driven. Also, at this stage, with the arrangements still very much in transition, it is too early to say whether the new systems will actually lead to improvements. What will happen to Defra's budget after the General Election in May is anyone's guess, but with the main political parties promising further spending cuts across government, while also promising to ring-fence funding in other government departments, it's difficult to see how the situation is going to get better; if anything it's likely to get worse. So, how is Defra doing after nearly five years of cuts, and what might happen next? Although it doesn't provide all the answers, a report last week from the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (EFRACom) looks at Defra's performance in 2013/14 and perhaps provides one or two pointers to what might lie ahead.1

As a department, Defra has a wide remit, with responsibilities ranging from flood defence to safeguarding plant and animal health. Flooding was the big political issue this time last year and, with the Prime Minister promising at one stage that money would be ‘no object’ in the flood relief effort, this journal, for one, expressed concern that animal health should not lose out as the Government attempted to find the necessary funds (VR, February 22, 2014, vol 174, p 180). In its report last week, which is partly based on Defra's annual report and accounts for 2013/14,2 the EFRACom notes that Defra managed to find an additional £130 million to respond to last winter's floods but that some of that funding came from ‘internal re-prioritisation’ within Defra and, despite repeated requests to the department, it had been unable to establish precisely which budgets were cut to provide it. Defra, it says, ‘must be more transparent about where emergency money such as the winter floods funding is found and what impact this has on the department's other priorities and policy delivery’.

Noting that Defra has to find another £200 million in savings by 2015/16, the EFRACom expresses concern that this could lead to ‘salami slicing’ of budgets across a wide range of areas and frustration about a ‘lack of clarity’ about where the axe will fall. In what is probably its most important recommendation, and one which rightly raises concerns about what might happen in the years ahead, it makes the point that ‘Given the breadth of policy areas covered by the department, coupled with the unpredictable nature of emergency events such as animal and plant health disease, it is important that a strong case is made to protect Defra's budget at the next Spending Review.’ Safeguarding animal health and welfare does not seem to have as much pull with voters and politicians as, for example, preserving the NHS or ensuring standards in schools, and it is probably too much to hope that anyone will promise that funding for this will be ring-fenced. Nevertheless, it is essential that the activity and infrastructure needed to protect animal health is adequately supported. One hopes that it won't have to take another foot-and-mouth disease outbreak to convince politicians and the public that capability in this area needs to be maintained.

Discussing bovine TB along with a wide range of other matters falling under Defra's remit, the EFRACom calls on the department to clarify whether it intends to continue culling badgers in Gloucestershire from 2015 onwards, and to publish a timetable for the development of a vaccine for use in cattle. More generally, discussing the results of a staff satisfaction survey undertaken by Defra in 2013, it notes that this gave an overall staff engagement score of 52 per cent, which, although 2 percentage points higher than the score in 2012, was 6 per cent below the Civil Service average. Scores for ‘leadership and managing change’ were, says the committee, ‘particularly low’ and, while it accepts that steps are being taken to address this, it believes there is more work to be done in this area.

Low morale, while perhaps inevitable in times of rapid change, should be of concern in any organisation, both in its own right and because it can all too easily lead to experienced people, along with their expertise, being lost. It could be said to be of particular concern in the animal health field, and to Defra and its agencies, where the specific expertise required can take years to develop. The EFRACom is right to draw attention to this issue, particularly as the process of change looks likely to continue for some time yet. Overall, its report reinforces the impression that five years of budgetary cuts have not been easy on Defra and its agencies, while providing little in the way of reassurance about what is to come.

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