Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Sixth Report

Summary of conclusions and recommendations

Presentation of the Report

    (a)Even though the Departmental Report is available for no cost on the internet, not all those interested have access to that medium. We therefore recommend that the Department ensure that the Report is in future more reasonably priced (paragraph 9).

    (b)To be of use to Parliament and other stakeholders, an Annual Report by a Government Department should primarily contain information about the performance of the Department over the previous twelve months - and the information must be presented in a meaningful way. The correct balance has not been struck in DEFRA's Annual Report between the sections introducing the new Department and dealing with its 'achievements' and aspirations in extremely vague terms, and the more useful sections dealing with expenditure and performance against set targets. The Department should also ensure that all aspects of its work are dealt with in the Report, including agriculture and fisheries. In future we recommend that the Report contain more 'hard' financial data and information about performance against measures such as Public Service Agreements, and less waffle. We further recommend that, even if new Public Service Agreements are reached as part of the Spending Review, performance against outstanding Agreements continues to be included in the Departmental Report - the current targets should not just be abandoned. Moreover, when the Department gives evidence to the Select Committee it should ensure that the necessary expert witnesses are available to answer our questions (paragraph 12).

    (c)We recommend that in future Departmental Reports more space is allocated to the provision of financial data, that the figures provided are broken down to indicate in more detail how resources have been consumed, and that much fuller explanations of the data are given (paragraph 14).

    (d)We recommend that the Department look again at whether the level of detail it has provided tallies with the Treasury guidelines, and whether those guidelines prevent greater detail being provided. If they do we recommend that DEFRA urgently discuss amendment of the guidelines with the Treasury: the level of detail currently given is not acceptable (paragraph 15).

    (e)It is extremely difficult for Parliament and others to keep track of the expenditure of the Department if the figures in the Annual Report are inaccurate. We recommend that DEFRA as a matter of urgency examine the accuracy of the data in the Departmental Report, and issue corrigenda as necessary. We trust that the errors made in this year's Report will not be repeated (paragraph 16).

    (f)The omission of data relating to planned spending, particularly in the current financial year, is wholly unacceptable (paragraph 17).

    (g)Since the Permanent Secretary of DEFRA is not the accounting officer for the two bodies, we recommend that data about the work of the Forestry Commission and the Office of Water Services no longer be included in the Departmental Annual Report, but is instead published in separate annual reports of the two bodies, and if necessary their accounting officers made available for questioning (paragraph 18).

    (h)We trust that in future the style and above all the content of the Departmental Report will be considerably improved (paragraph 19).

    (i)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 (paragraph 21).

    (j)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 (paragraph 22).

    (k)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 (paragraph 24).

    (l)In future we will examine whether the Department is adequately staffed to meet its objectives, including in the veterinary divisions (paragraph 24).

    (m)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 (paragraph 26).

    (n)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 (paragraph 28).

    (o)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 (paragraph 29).

    (p)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 (paragraph 30).

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