Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Second Report


Defra's relationship with its delivery bodies

64. In 2006, Defra experienced a high-profile disaster in the performance of one of its key delivery bodies, the Rural Payments Agency (RPA), because of delays with the implementation of the Single Payment Scheme. In our Sub-Committee's inquiry into the RPA, we have heard criticism about the handling of the relationship between the RPA and core Defra.[104] We will be making a separate report on the RPA in due course. We also held an inquiry into the Environment Agency in 2006, in which stakeholders told us that poor communications between Defra and the Environment Agency (the Agency) sometimes resulted in the Agency making decisions "on the hoof" about the enforcement of regulations.[105] In evidence to the inquiry, the Agency acknowledged to us that it "from time to time fills a policy void" owing to "incoherence and inconsistencies in legislation".[106] Another major delivery body, Natural England, was established on 2 October 2006.

65. We asked officials what lessons Defra had learned from its experience with the RPA and how it aimed to improve the management of its other delivery bodies. The Permanent Secretary told us that the Department was still at a "developmental stage" in terms of its relationship with its delivery bodies.[107] This was partly because a large number of Defra's delivery bodies were still relatively new, so their governance procedures and financial controls were not as mature as some others.[108]

66. The Permanent Secretary acknowledged, however, that the Department had often been "lacking in confidence" in its past relationships with its delivery bodies.[109] She wanted the Department instead to establish "more sophisticated" and "nuanced" relationships.[110] For example, she disagreed with the Department's past tendency to employ a "uniform, arm's length approach" to its delivery bodies, because the occurrence of "crises, pressures, [and] new policies" would inevitably require core Defra to be more involved than in a business-as-usual scenario.[111]

67. Defra is responsible for a large number of delivery bodies. It is of paramount importance that the Department has the appropriate resources and robust management information structures in place to monitor effectively all its delivery bodies. The serious failings in the performance of the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) in the past year have raised concerns—which we share—that such systems and structures are not fully in place. The recent creation of an important new executive non-departmental public body—Natural England—which will have a crucial role in the delivery of many of Defra's primary responsibilities, only adds to our concerns. We will report soon specifically on the problems experienced by the RPA.

68. We are pleased that the Permanent Secretary acknowledges the need for the Department further to develop its relationships with its delivery bodies, and we support her view that the Department should be ready to adopt a more interventionist approach to its bodies as circumstances require.

Working across Government

69. Much of Defra's work requires the co-operation of other Government departments and agencies. In previous years, we have expressed concern about the Department's ability to influence other 'actors' across Government and to demonstrate sufficient clout to be taken seriously by other departments in framing their key policy decisions.[112] Last year, we expressed disappointment in our report on Climate change: the role of bioenergy that much of the evidence we received suggested "a distinct lack of 'joined-up Government concerning bioenergy". We concluded that Defra appeared to have "all of the targets and none of the levers".[113]

70. In our July evidence session, we asked the Permanent Secretary whether Defra's 'clout factor' had improved in the previous twelve months in its dealings with other Government departments, particularly in relation to its work on climate change. She told us that the Department's clout had increased "markedly" in this time.[114] She gave four examples from the previous twelve months which she believed demonstrated the Department making a difference on climate change. They were:

  • the outcome of the negotiations on the EU Emissions Trading Scheme—Defra had worked "very effectively" with other Government departments during the negotiations for the scheme, at both the political and departmental level;
  • the Government's Energy Review—the Department's "excellent evidence and skills base" and "good networking and influencing skills" had ensured the Review was "an extremely well-balanced package";
  • the Montreal talks on climate change—the Department's "very effective joined-up working across Government", particularly with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Development, had helped the former Secretary of State's success at the talks in engaging the United States;
  • the Climate Change Programme Review—the Review was a "good example of cross-departmental working", although it still "fell short" of some of the Department's climate change aims.[115]

71. We wanted to know how the Department could further improve its relationships across Government. The Permanent Secretary said it was particularly important that the Department improved its relationships with local government, Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) and the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) in the near future, in order to deal with some "very tricky" issues relating to the appropriate use of land and the rural services and economy.[116] The Permanent Secretary also wanted the Department to be "even more engaged in the local government agenda", with a "greater knitting together" of policies being developed by the DCLG around city regions, local area agreements and for economic development with RDAs.[117]

72. On several occasions in the past we have stressed the necessity of effective 'joined-up Government' in achieving Defra's aims, and expressed concerns that Defra lacks sufficient 'clout' to be taken seriously by other Government departments in framing their key policy decisions. We agree with the Permanent Secretary that Defra has had some success in influencing some major decisions at the highest level in recent times, and in working effectively with other Government departments. However, we are still concerned that Defra's ability to influence other departments on a number of issues it considers important—such as bioenergy—remains limited. We recommend that the Department works to take full ownership of the decision-making process for those areas for which it has overall policy responsibility. This is especially relevant for climate change issues where Government as a whole has still to put a Cabinet-level minister in overall charge of policy in this area.

73. We were also disappointed at the lack of concrete examples provided in the Report about policy co-ordination across Government, and the Department's role in this co-ordination. In particular, we believe that the Report should include more information about the important work carried out by the various Cabinet Committees that deal with areas of Defra's remit. We recommend that future Departmental Reports provide information about what has been achieved through these mechanisms.

104   For example, see the comments made by the Tenant Farmers Association in oral evidence to the Committee on 24 April 2006 (HC 1071-i, Q 2). Back

105   Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Seventh Report of Session 2005-06, The Environment Agency, HC 780-II, Q 119 Back

106   HC (2005-06) 780-II, Ev 164 Back

107   Q 34 Back

108   Q 34 Back

109   Q 34 Back

110   Q 34 Back

111   Q 34 Back

112   HC (2003-04) 707, Recommendation 8. Back

113   Environment, Food & Rural Affairs Committee, Eighth Report of Session 2005-06, Climate change: the role of bioenergy, HC 965-I, para 168 Back

114   Qq. 11, 12 Back

115   Q 12 Back

116   Q 14 Back

117   Q 14 Back

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Prepared 23 February 2007