Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Sixth Report

Administration and expenditure

Management of Information Technology

20. DEFRA clearly understands that Information Technology (IT) can affect and improve all aspects of the way it works. Mr Bender told us that "the technology allows for a whole different relationship between the public sector and the people out there, whether it is the farmer, whether it is the citizen".[41] The Department has said that "e-Business in DEFRA means using IT to improve service to our customers (an outward-looking aim), and to improve the efficiency of our operations, including thorough changes to working methods based on what IT can now offer (an aim associated with internal working)".[42] The way in which such technologies are managed and delivered is about to change: DEFRA has recently decided "to outsource IT delivery to commercial suppliers, and a programme to achieve this is now under way".[43]

21. We were therefore disturbed by Mr Bender's admission that the Department does not yet have an overall IT Strategy: he told us that "the development of what you would accept as an IT Strategy is work in progress".[44] This causes us grave concern. We cannot see how the Department can decide on an e-Business strategy, and decide to outsource IT delivery, without having an overarching strategy to set the context for such decisions. As Mr Bender said himself, the Department's IT Strategy "needs to be a fuller one, more comprehensive, to inform the decisions that will be taken over the period ahead".[45] We recommend that the Department formulate an IT Strategy as a matter of urgency, and delay any decision to outsource IT delivery until the Strategy has been put in place.

Staffing issues

22. The Departmental Report says that one of DEFRA's main objectives is to "attract, retain and motivate the best people".[46] We were therefore disappointed by the revelation that average overall turnover of staff between June 2001 and May 2002 was 9.2 per cent, and that in "the lower grades" average turnover was 18.7 per cent of staff.[47] The fact that turnover of staff in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in the preceding twelve months had been even higher, at 10.5 per cent, is also of concern.[48] Mr Bender agreed that "there is clearly an issue around about how we recruit and retain staff ... I do not want to give the Committee the impression that the figures on turnover are ones that I find satisfactory; there is a cost, plainly, in having a turnover that high".[49] It would also be interesting to know how many graduate recruits to the 'fast stream' of the home civil service put DEFRA as their first choice of Department.

23. One of the problems which has confronted management has been differences in rates of pay of staff of the former Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and those of the former Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. Mr Bender told us that "following the delegation of pay by the Treasury to Departments a decade or so earlier, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food had gravitated, if that is the right phrase, towards the bottom quartile of the Whitehall pay league, and ... Environment, Transport and the Regions, for a variety of reasons, not just enlightened management, were towards the top quartile ... for a variety of reasons and very legitimate concerns, that fed into a strong grievance that became an industrial dispute between the Department and the PCS union".[50] The dispute had included strike action.[51] It had been resolved by an "above average pay settlement for ex-MAFF staff",[52] which had cost about £15 million more than expected.[53] A common pay structure for all staff in DEFRA will be put in place during the course of this year.

24. We welcome the apparent resolution of the pay dispute that followed the creation of the new Department. Nevertheless, the rate of turnover of staff suggests that some difficulties remain. Turnover of staff on this scale in anything but the short term often indicates management failure and unclear objectives and strategies. The staff of the former Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and now of DEFRA, have faced considerable upheaval, first as a result of foot and mouth disease, and more recently due to the creation of the new Department and subsequent efforts to change culture and focus. There is little evidence of current management capability to lead change in such difficult circumstances. We recommend an external review of any Department change plan and the competence available to deliver it. We further recommend that the Department endeavour to set out clear career paths where possible, and survey staff to gauge their assessment of the effectiveness of management and levels of morale. Similar surveys have in the past been undertaken by other Government Departments, including the Treasury.[54] In future we will examine whether the Department is adequately staffed to meet its objectives, including in the veterinary divisions.

Spending on science

25. In the Departmental Report, it is said that "DEFRA is committed to the use of high quality evidence in policy making ... the provision of high-quality scientific advice and expertise drives much of our work and helps us deliver against our key policy objectives and underpinning Public Services Agreement targets".[55] DEFRA's expenditure on scientific research is considerable. English Heritage has commented that "with an annual budget of £250 million, DEFRA's research and development programme is one of the most significant in Government".[56] There are, however, concerns that spending on research has been cut over recent years: the Save British Science Society has repeatedly commented on the "scandalous decline" in scientific investment by the former Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and said that its budget for research and development would need to increase by 80 per cent "to restore it to the level of the mid 1980s".[57]

26. When we asked Mr Bender about scientific expenditure he conceded that spending this year would be slightly lower than last,[58] but argued that it "is not simply a matter of the volume one spends but what one spends it on and how good the quality is".[59] In that regard he pointed out that the Department had begun a review of the organisation of science and scientific research to ensure that its quality was driven up.[60] Obviously we agree with Mr Bender that the amount spent on scientific research is not the criterion which determines its usefulness and quality. Nevertheless we are concerned by reports of the erosion of the amount spent on scientific research by the former Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food over the past twenty years - during which time BSE, foot and mouth disease, genetically modified food and feeds and a host of other issues have signalled just how important science is to the Department. We recommend that DEFRA's review of the organisation of science extend to its funding, and that if it is found that greater funding is essential to meeting the Department's key functions, the Government will make it available without delay.

Detailed issues

27. As we have said, the most useful part of the Departmental Report is chapter six, in which the Department's performance against its Public Service Agreement targets is assessed. The Report sets out twenty targets, and examines whether or not the Department has met them. In twelve cases the target had been met, or the Department was 'on course' to do so. In this section we have selected three of the targets, and examine in more detail the Department's performance against them.

Condition of nationally important wildlife sites

28. One of the Public Service Agreement targets set in the 2000 Spending Review was to "bring into favourable condition by 2010 95 per cent of all nationally important wildlife sites".[61] The Report says that there has been "some slippage" against the target. That appears to be a gross understatement: the Report says that when the target was set 60 per cent of nationally important wildlife sites were estimated to be in a favourable state, whereas Mr Bender told us that "the latest figure from English Nature is 56 per cent".[62] He blamed previous under-funding and the impact of the foot and mouth disease outbreak.[63] Whatever the reasons for it, we are extremely concerned that, far from being on course to achieve the target set for bringing into favourable condition 95 per cent of all nationally important wildlife sites, in fact fewer such sites are in a favourable condition now than were two years ago. We recommend that the Department make a commitment to achieving the target, and allocate sufficient resources to ensure that the Public Service Agreement is met.

Secondary treatment for sewage discharges

29. Another of the PSA targets inherited by DEFRA is to ensure that secondary treatment for sewage is provided for all sewage discharges from towns with a population of at least 15,000 by 31 March 2002.[64] In fact, by March 2002 only 98 per cent of such towns received such treatments. In its written evidence DEFRA told us that discharges from eight towns[65] did not receive such treatments, and that the target was expected to be achieved by 2007.[66] The last town planned to benefit is Brighton. We are disappointed that the Public Service Agreement target relating to the provision of secondary treatment for all sewage discharges from towns with a population of at least 15,000 was not met. We recommend that the Department take steps to ensure that it is achieved as soon as possible.

Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000

30. Another Public Service Agreement target relates to opening up public access to mountain, moor, and heath and down and registered common land by the end of 2005.[67] The Report says that the Department is "on course" to achieve the target. Earlier in the Report it is said that "significant progress was made on implementation of the provisions [of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000] relating to access to open countryside, rights of way and vehicular access over common land".[68] However, although the mapping exercise that is required is progressing in two regions - in the north west and south east of England - Mr Bender accepted that the exercise had been delayed. He said that "it has slipped; it is a complicated exercise ... We are making progress, but it is slower than I think Ministers would wish".[69] He was unable to give a deadline by which the rights given by the Act would be fully in place. We recommend that DEFRA set as one of its new Public Service Agreement targets a deadline by which the process of implementing the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 will be completed.

41   Q.43. Back

42   e-Business in DEFRA, DEFRA, September 2001; see

43   DEFRA Departmental Report 2002, p.20. Back

44   Q.49. Back

45   Q.47. Back

46   DEFRA Departmental Report 2002, p.17. Back

47   Preliminary questions to DEFRA, Ev 2 (Question 3). Back

48   See Q.27. Back

49   QQ.28 and 32. Back

50   Q.24. Back

51   See, for example, Ministry staff strike over pay gap, Guardian Unlimited, 20 August 2001. Back

52   Preliminary questions to DEFRA, Ev 1 (Question 1). Back

53   See Q.25. Back

54   See HM Treasury, Third Report of the Treasury Committee, HC (2000-01) 73-I, paras.60 ff; the relevant section of the Report can be viewed at

55   DEFRA Departmental Report 2002, p.19. Back

56   Evidence submitted by English Heritage to the Committee's inquiry into The Role of DEFRA, G24, para.15. Back

57   Save British Science Annual Review 2001, The Save British Science Society, July 2001, p.5; see

58   See Q.81. Back

59   Q.82. Back

60   See Q.82, and DEFRA Departmental Report 2002, p.19. Back

61   DEFRA Departmental Report 2002, p.45. Back

62   Q.54. Back

63   See Q.55. Back

64   DEFRA Departmental Report 2002, p.48. Back

65   Dover and Folkestone, Eastbourne, East Hastings and Bexhill, Prestatyn, Torquay, Margate, Broadstairs and Brighton. Back

66   Supplementary memorandum submitted by DEFRA, Ev 33, answer to Question 5. Back

67   DEFRA Departmental Report 2002, p.47. Back

68   DEFRA Departmental Report 2002, p.26. Back

69   Q.8. Back

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