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Could do better

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When the Coalition Government was formed after the General Election in 2010 it promised to ‘turn government on its head, taking power away from Whitehall and putting it into the hands of people and communities’. Quite a few things seem to have been turned upside down over the past five years but how much power has been transferred to people and communities is, perhaps, debatable. With the current Parliament about to be dissolved and the country bracing itself for another General Election, the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (EFRACom), whose role is to scrutinise the activities of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), has produced an end-of-term report discussing some of its activities over the past five years and how well Defra has performed.1 The purpose, it says, is to provide a guide to some of the areas where Defra's policies and practices have the most impact and to identify issues that will merit scrutiny in the next Parliament.

As its title suggests, Defra, as a department, has a wide remit. This is reflected in the breadth of activities discussed in the EFRACom's report, which range, for example, from tree health and plant biosecurity, through water and flood defence, to waste management and fracking. A chapter on food considers issues such as food safety and food security, while a chapter on ‘rural issues’ considers matters ranging from CAP reform to the availability of broadband, as well as the Government's efforts to cut ‘red tape’.

‘Animal issues’ are the subject of a specific chapter in the report, which discusses vaccination against bovine TB, dog control and welfare, horse welfare, the use of wild animals in circuses and the keeping of primates as pets. As the EFRACom points out, it is not possible for its report to cover all of the issues involving Defra that have arisen over the past five years. However, given their likely impact, it is disappointing that there is not more discussion of matters relating specifically to safeguarding animal health. There is, for example, no mention of the changes in the veterinary surveillance structure in England and Wales, or in the arrangements under which private veterinary surgeons will be expected to provide TB testing and other official veterinary services on behalf of the state.

Looking back over the past five years, it is interesting to reflect on how much in the animal health field has changed. One of the most immediate changes, following the Government's review of its arm's-length bodies soon after the General Election in 2010, was the merger of Defra's agency Animal Health with the Veterinary Laboratories Agency to form the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency (AHVLA), which has subsequently been merged again to form the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA). The same review in 2010 resulted in changes to the Food Standards Agency, which precipitated a decision by the Scottish Government to form its own independent agency. Before the General Election in 2010 there were plans for an Animal Health Act which would have established a new non-government departmental body to be responsible for animal health (but, bizarrely, not animal welfare) and for taking forward government plans for cost and responsibility sharing – in other words, transferring more of the costs for animal health to the industry. Those plans were soon dropped and, instead, an Animal Health and Welfare Board for England was established to advise the Government on strategy. These days, there is less specific talk of cost and responsibility sharing, though responsibilities have been transferred and government funding in areas such as disease surveillance has been cut. By reducing its spend on TB testing through its recent tendering exercise, the Government has, in effect, transferred some of the costs of TB testing to veterinary practices.

Most government departments had their budgets cut as a result of the Government's Comprehensive Spending Review in 2010, but Defra suffered a bigger percentage reduction than most. The EFRACom's end-of-term report notes that Defra has been required to reduce resource expenditure by 16.7 per cent in real terms during the course of this Parliament and calls for more clarity on what this has meant for policy delivery. With the main political parties promising further spending cuts across government in the next Parliament, and Defra being one of the departments for which funding hasn’t been ring-fenced, there must be concern about what lies ahead.

Despite its wide-ranging responsibilities, Defra, the EFRACom points out, is ‘among the Government's smaller departments’, with more than 80 per cent of its expenditure being delivered through executive agencies and arm's-length bodies. This arrangement is clearly of some concern to the committee, which remarks: ‘A common theme across a large part of our work has been the negative impact of policy formulation and delivery resulting from the hollowing out of Defra's core functions.’ It believes there needs to be ‘a more robust central body of expertise driving forward the department's aims and balancing the strength of the arm's-length bodies, with firm ministerial leadership’. It also expresses concern about relatively low levels of staff engagement in Defra, as measured by staff surveys, which, it says, is consistently lower than the Civil Service average.

As the General Election looms, it is not clear at this stage what shape and form the next Government will take, let alone government departments. However, given all the upheaval of the past five years, and the promise of more cuts, it seems certain that Defra will continue to change during the next period of Parliament, as will its activities in relation to animal health.


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