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Balancing the books

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AFTER a month in which life in many parts of the UK has been severely disrupted by floods, a recent report from the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (EFRACom) seems remarkably prescient. Commenting on Defra's performance in an end-of-year report published on December 15,1 the parliamentary select committee drew attention to the role of Defra in protecting the nation from natural threats such as floods and animal and plant diseases and warned that, after significant cuts to Defra's budget over the past five years, further cuts planned for the next four years must not put vital flood protection work at risk. It also made the point that protecting the nation against floods and animal and plant diseases carries multimillion-pound costs, but that the costs of not doing this can be even greater. Noting that Defra has responsibilities across a wide range of policy areas, it pointed out that ‘a complex cost-benefit calculation must be made in each policy area on how upfront investment can provide value for money by minimising the long term costs.’

This is not the first time in recent years that floods may have contrived to complicate Defra's fiscal planning. At the beginning of 2014, when floods also dominated the news, the Prime Minister said that money would be ‘no object’ in the flood relief effort (VR, February 22, 2014, vol 174, p 180). There has been no such promise this time around. However, with the Government having so far indicated that it is investing £200 million to help recovery from the recent storms, and with the current focus so firmly on flood defence, there must again be concern that, as Defra seeks to balance a diminishing budget, investment in preventing animal diseases could potentially lose out.

At 15 per cent, the cuts to Defra's budget over the next four years are less than anticipated before the Chancellor's Autumn Statement in November. Even so, they are not insignificant. This has not escaped the notice of the EFRACom which, in its report, points out that they will be difficult to achieve because total budget reductions of about 25 per cent over the past five years ‘have already identified easily available savings and removed the more obvious inefficiencies across the Defra family [Defra and its agencies]’. Defra has indicated that it can achieve these further savings by ‘sharing back-office functions like IT, human resources and finance with its network bodies to reduce unnecessary bureaucracy, and devolving roles to the local front line to ensure effective service delivery’. It has also indicated that its settlement with the Treasury will allow it to ‘press ahead with [its] vital work to protect the country from floods and animal and plant disease, put in place stronger protections for our natural landscape and deliver on our commitments for a cleaner, healthier environment which benefits people and the economy’ (VR, December 5, 2015, vol 177, p 555). However, as the EFRACom points out, exactly how it intends to achieve all this has still to be made clear. Not for the first time, the select committee complains about a lack of detail about which areas of Defra's activities will be affected by the cuts and about how priorities might change or be negatively affected as a result of continual reductions in funding. In some ways it is reassuring that animal disease prevention remains a priority for the department; unfortunately, however, it is in the nature of modern politics that priorities can change almost as often as the weather.

The EFRACom also draws attention to Defra's plans to develop a smaller ‘core’ and work more strategically with its agencies, and to fill some funding gaps by identifying funding from outside government. The core size of Defra has already been reduced in recent years, and this raises the question of how small a core can get before it stops being effective. On the matter of outside funding, the select committee appears unconvinced, citing a shortfall in partnership funding for flood defence as an example. Noting a suggestion from Defra that revenues could be increased from service users such as farmers, it draws attention to concerns that many farmers are currently experiencing financial difficulties because of volatility in the prices they receive for their products and suggests that additional financial burdens could exacerbate these difficulties.

Referring to staff morale, the EFRACom says that it is to the credit of staff working for Defra and its agencies that they have risen to the challenge of enabling services to be delivered despite reducing resources. At the same time, it expresses concern that, in staff surveys, Defra and some of its agencies score below the Civil Service average in terms of staff engagement and asks Defra to keep it informed about its strategy for maintaining staff morale and for ensuring that valuable expertise is not lost. This last point seems particularly pertinent in the veterinary field where expertise is quite specific and often rests with individuals: once lost, it can be hard to replace.

Although it is in the nature of parliamentary select committees to pick over details, the point is well made in the EFRACom's report that, fundamentally, for all the talk of efficiency savings and the need to balance priorities, protecting the nation from natural hazards requires adequate resources. Hopefully, it won't take a major animal disease outbreak to demonstrate this, in much the same way that the recent flooding has again demonstrated the need to invest in flood defence.

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