Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

Annex 3

The Evolution of DEFRA



  DEFRA has been created in name. It objective, as set out when the Government after the June 2001 election, was to unify the approach to the countryside, and to ensure that all its competing interests were dealt with in a coherent and holistic way.

  Since June, the pressure to reform the CAP and the basis of agricultural support has grown partly through the need to develop a sustainable system in the light of CAP cash limits, the enlargement of the Union, and the preparations for a new world trade agreement.

  Foot and Mouth, and the aftermath of BSE have created a crisis in confidence that the farming industry is not regulated, developed, or supported in the public interest. Large parts of the rural economy feel disenfranchised not only from a perceived urban bias of Government and Parliament, but also from decision making in the countryside itself. It appears to them that they are denied a stake in determining the future shape of the economic countryside, and that the "cosy cabal" of the agricultural establishment with Government continues.

  Equally, there is a perception amongst the breadth of farmers (who would not class themselves as the agricultural establishment) that environmental interests are being pandered to without thought as to the economic consequences for farming and the rural economy generally. The sustainable use of the land to produce economic benefit for rural people seems to have been overlooked.

  Finally, the smaller farmers/processors feel themselves to be under a regulatory burden, which can be sustained only if you are a big operator with large economies of scale. The local processing, distribution and marketing systems have collapsed, and Government seems luke-warm at enabling effective co-operatives to be established which might provide the basis of redressing the economic power and trading imbalance away from national systems run by the relatively few supermarkets.

  The consequence of all this is that there is an essential need to reform the delivery of rural policy, and to develop a means of enabling economic activity to flourish effectively. This needs to include a massive simplification of the system which requires what is basically a sole-trader community, to deal with agencies as diverse as the local Government Office, National Park and local government authorities, English Nature, the Environment Agency, the Countryside Agency, DEFRA officers, Health and Safety, the Food Standards Agency, the Government Veterinary Service, etc etc!


  It is suggested that DEFRA moves all aspects of delivery, and the auditing of those services along with general rural proofing responsibilities to separate executive agencies. The development of policy would remain firmly in DEFRA, but its delivery through support and services would be run as executive agency businesses with clear financial and service performance targets. Under a single Rural Economic Development and Support Agency (REDSA), Government would provide a service that enabled businesses to grow and succeed, acting as an interface with other regulatory agencies, and providing a flexible service which can respond to radical changes in policy.

  The Countryside Agency would loose its service delivery function. It would have the two complementary tasks of auditing the effectiveness of policy and support delivered by REDSA, and to undertake its current Rural Advocacy and Proofing role. Divorced from seeking funds itself for programme delivery, it can become an effective and independent "rural inspectorate".

Reformed Structures

  The basic premise is that Government wishes to see a rural economy—while still based on the economically and environmentally sustainable use of the land—which is much more flexible about the range of business activities that will be created—not just food and farming, but other products related to recreation, landscape and biological diversity, and renewable resources.

  It also presumes that Government wishes to see a move away from production and price support, to fixed investments in a wide range of rural economic activity—through either infrastructure or organisational start-up grants (eg equipment costs for a small scale abattoir, establishment of a food supply co-operative, etc), or the direct purchase of rural products for which there is not a competitive market (eg water and flood management, species conservation, etc). In other words, a British equivalent of the French Land Management contract system, but spreading out into non-agricultural rural businesses as well.

  The pivot of the REDSA will be an individual officer who interacts with a rural business (a farm, livery yard, hotelier, seed merchant). That officer will be the conduit for all submissions for assistance, receipt of payments, and interaction with appropriate regulatory bodies (both those within and outside DEFRA's orbit). This person will look at the business operation as a whole—exactly as a farmer looks at his or her farm. They will be charged with enabling that business, and to assisting in its change and development. Teams of officers on a regional basis will deal with institutions or communities (such as market towns, local authorities, community groups, co-operatives, and voluntary groups such as wildlife trusts). They will deliver the same support as officers assigned to businesses. The team approach will try to create synergy and coherence between institutional and community change, and economic development. The new payments agency established by DEFRA will be separate from the local and regional structure of REDSA for audit and fraud avoidance purposes, but its national director would report to the chief executive of REDSA.

  The pivot of the reformed Countryside Agency would be its Chair as Rural Advocate. Its approach would be similar to that of the Chief Inspectors of Schools and of Prisons. It would monitor and report on delivery measured against not only short-term objectives, but also against long-term Government strategy. It would also review all Government legislative and operational plans across all departments, and report on its likely rural impact ("rural proofing"). It would, on the basis of both these exercises, develop and recommend policy changes.

  This structural approach as been well tried and proven to be successful in a number of large Government operations including social benefits delivery, physical and mental health services, and schools management and inspection.

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Prepared 6 November 2002