Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Tenth Report


(a)Putting sustainable development, particularly concern for the environment, at the heart of policy-making is vital. We welcome the fact that DEFRA has adopted as one of its primary roles the promotion of sustainability. There is no intrinsic reason why taking responsibility for sustainable development and the environment away from the old Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions and locating it in DEFRA should have removed it from the heart of Government - provided that mechanisms are put in place to ensure that DEFRA is listened to, and that its proposals are acted upon by other Departments. Whether or not those mechanisms will operate effectively is rightly the matter of some concern, a point we return to later in this Report (paragraph 12).
(b)Rural areas face challenges which differ from those facing urban areas. It is important that the particular issues of rural areas are taken into account in Government policy-making, and we welcome the fact that DEFRA's second primary role is as the champion of rural areas. Although the Department is responsible for many aspects of policy which affect rural communities, it is vital that, as with sustainable development, mechanisms are put in place to enable DEFRA to exercise influence over other Government Departments to ensure that they take account of the rural dimension in policy-making. It is the effectiveness of such mechanisms which are of concern, a point which, again, we return to below. In addition, we are concerned that DEFRA should recognise that it has two principal roles: as the advocate of sustainable development, and as the promoter of the interests of rural areas. We recommend that the Department now acknowledge explicitly that these are its primary roles, and that they are of equal importance to its work. DEFRA should also recognise its responsibility to help explain to urban Britain the issues for which it is responsible (paragraph 14).
(c)Whether it likes it or not DEFRA is more than just an interlocutor for agriculture and a wide range of other, related, industries: it is a funder, regulator, negotiator and mediator. It is important, therefore, that DEFRA makes clear the central role played by agriculture in delivering a host of its objectives, and in particular those relating to rural communities, the countryside and sustainable development (paragraph 18).
(d)We are pessimistic about DEFRA's ability to ensure that Government Departments will do more than pay lip service to the objectives of sustainable development. It is essential that the Department vigorously seeks to promote across Whitehall the importance of putting sustainable development at the heart of policy-making. We are not content to wait for a year to see what progress the Department has made. We recommend that the Department now publish details of all agreements, protocols and concordats it has reached with other Departments in relation to sustainable development. It should also describe each year in its annual report the influence it has had on the policies and activities of those Departments, and the progress they are making towards achieving their sustainability objectives. This is doing no more than asking the Department to substantiate the main claim for its existence (paragraph 24).
(e)Like the Environmental Audit Committee, we recommend that the Government invite the Sustainable Development Commission to publish in the annual report on performance against the headline indicators of sustainable development its own assessment of progress made across Government (paragraph 26).
(f)We recommend that the Department report to us annually the results of its audit of its own ability to put sustainable development at the heart of its policy-making (paragraph 27).
(g)We recommend that the Government recommit itself to the Rural White Paper, and where other Departments have received budget allocations to deliver specific rural initiatives and do not appear to be doing so DEFRA should advise the Cabinet Committee responsible for rural affairs about this failure to use correctly their budget allocations. It is vital that it ensures that the policies and initiatives the White Paper sets out are put into practice in rural communities (paragraph 29).
(h)We recommend that DEFRA and the Countryside Agency clarify their respective roles in the process of rural proofing and, above all, make clear which of them takes overall responsibility for the rural areas. Confusion about the respective roles of DEFRA and the Agency is affecting the delivery of services in rural communities (paragraph 31).
(i)We support rural proofing to the extent that it is the only currently available mechanism through which specifically rural issues can be reflected in decision-making across Whitehall. We urge DEFRA and the Countryside Agency to continue encourage the use of the rural proofing mechanism at the earliest possible stage in the decision-making process in other Government Departments and agencies. We recommend that the Government reply in detail to the annual reports of the Countryside Agency on rural proofing, setting out how shortcomings will be put right. We recommend also that Government promote awareness of rural proofing at senior levels in all Departments, and that the Countryside Agency undertake a detailed audit of such awareness as soon as possible. Without greater impetus behind rural proofing we are concerned that as with sustainable development Departments will pay little more than lip service to the process (paragraph 34).
(j)DEFRA should set an example to other Departments in its adoption of rural proofing. We therefore recommend that DEFRA, as a matter of urgency, ensure that it improves awareness and use of rural proofing in its own work. We require that the Department, by the time of the next annual report into the matter by the Countryside Agency, have the best record in rural proofing its policies and decisions of all Government Departments (paragraph 35).
(k)It is apparent from DEFRA's own statements and from the evidence we received that significant change to the culture of the Department is far from complete - indeed it has barely begun (paragraph 41).
(l)We note that DEFRA has reviewed its plan for change, the Developing DEFRA Programme, and that the review has identified priorities for the next stage of the programme, including an assessment of the skills and competence of senior managers. We welcome that work, which tallies with the recommendation we made in our earlier Report. We recommend that the Department report back to us regularly on its progress in implementing the Programme and, particularly the action it takes to rectify any deficiencies in the skills of senior managers. We also recommend that the Department address seriously the comments made by Dr Anderson about fostering abilities in operational and project management, husbanding leadership skills, and develop ever closer links with its stakeholders, and report back to us the steps it intends to take to make progress in these areas (paragraph 42).
(m)We welcome the efforts made by DEFRA to engage with interested parties. We urge it to continue to develop these important links with others, and use such contacts to develop a closer understanding of their needs, and to learn from them in order to become more customer-focused (paragraph 44).
(n)We recommend that DEFRA publish now a breakdown of the number of staff employed in each of its Directorates and units, as well as details of the number of unfilled posts in each. It is important, not least for its ability to deal properly with other organisations and individuals, that the Department is fully staffed. We recommend that the Department set out its policies for recruiting and retaining staff, to ensure that staff shortages and turnover are reduced (paragraph 47).
(o)DEFRA must work hard to build up close contacts with businesses and others. One way of doing so might be to organise regular secondments for staff into businesses - and indeed into other organisations - and of staff from outside into DEFRA. We recommend that the Department actively explore the possibility of setting up a programme of such secondments. We believe that a properly structured programme of secondments will help promote mutual understanding between DEFRA and those with whom it inter-relates, and will also encourage cultural change in the Department (paragraph 48).
(p)It is apparent that DEFRA continues to face a difficult period of change. It must bring its staff together, in both structural and cultural terms. It must make clear to them that their twin objectives are sustainable development and the protection of rural interests, and put in place work practices which support those goals. And it must ensure that the Department has the means and the confidence to project those objectives across Whitehall and in other agencies. Achieving such changes to its mission and its practices will not be easy, and we remain concerned about the ability of senior managers to ensure that they take place - concern borne out by the comments of our witnesses and others on the performance of the Department in its first year. We look forward to the rapid changes which will be needed for the Department to fulfil its new role (paragraph 49).

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