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After a hiatus following the General Election in which the only statements coming from the Government seemed to concern a desperate need to cut public spending, and specific policies seemed a bit thin on the ground, the past couple of weeks have seen a flurry of statements from Defra ministers seeking to clarify future plans.

Most notable among these is publication of Defra's Structural Reform Plan, which lays down three departmental priorities. These are:

  • To support and develop British farming and encourage sustainable food production;

  • To help to enhance the environment and biodiversity to improve quality of life; and

  • To support a strong and sustainable green economy, resilient to climate change.

According to a Government press release, Structural Reform Plans are ‘the key tool of the Coalition Government for making departments accountable for the implementation of the reforms set out in the Coalition Agreement. They replace the old, top-down system of targets and central micromanagement.’

The reforms set out in each department's Structural Reform Plan are, the press release says, ‘designed to turn government on its head, taking power away from Whitehall and putting it into the hands of people and communities. Once these reforms are in place, people themselves will have the power to improve our country and our public services, through the mechanisms of local democratic accountability, competition, choice and social action’.

According to Caroline Spelman, Defra's Secretary of State, at the heart of Defra's business and structural reform programme is a commitment to make the Coalition ‘the greenest government ever’. In taking the programme forward, it ‘will work in partnership with local communities, civil society, members of the public and businesses, contributing to the Big Society’. The Government, she explains, ‘cannot tackle these issues on its own; its role is to intervene only when needed, respecting the individual's contribution’.

The plan itself outlines various specific actions, along with a number of ‘milestones’ by which progress will be measured. Actions relating to farming and food production include promoting increased domestic food production, and ensuring that consumers can be confident about where their food comes from, using a voluntary approach to encourage retailers and producers to give more details on the origins of their produce. They also include reform of the animal welfare inspection regime, and developing ‘affordable options for a carefully managed and science-led policy of badger control in areas of high and persistent levels of bovine TB’.

The document makes clear that Defra intends to set out plans for ‘animal disease responsibility sharing’ by April 2011, when it also intends to publish recommendations for a ‘more proportionate system of regulation and enforcement for farming’. An independent committee, set up under the previous administration and chaired by Rosemary Radcliffe, is currently looking at ways of sharing responsibilities and costs of animal health. More recently, the agriculture and food minister, Jim Paice, set up a Task Force on Farming Regulation, which has been charged with making recommendations for reducing red tape for farmers.

Few would deny that there is room for reducing bureaucracy for farmers or that aspects of food production might be over-regulated. At the same time, however, there is a fine balance between over- and under-regulation, and the Government should take care not to get too carried away in its enthusiasm for reform. Not everyone in society always behaves as they should, nor is it immediately obvious that all of the aims set out in the Structural Reform Plan, which include enhancing the countryside and safeguarding habitats and wildlife as well as increasing food production, are necessarily compatible. It is nice to think of a society in which everyone, from individuals through business to government, happily plays their full part, but it does rather rely on everyone having a clear idea and agreeing on the bigger picture and everyone doing the right thing.

In the meantime, in the week before Parliament broke for its summer recess, Caroline Spelman announced progress with her review of Defra's 90 ‘arm's length’ bodies, which will result in more than 30 of those bodies being reformed or abolished. It was also announced that the Health Protection Agency is to be abolished as part of a similar review being undertaken by the Department of Health. It is still not quite clear how far the Government intends to go with all this, but MPs will have much to talk about when they return from their summer holidays.

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