Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Second Report


89. HM Treasury provides guidance to Government departments about the information that should be included in their departmental reports. However, Government departments still have considerable discretion about the format and presentation of this content. In previous years, we have commented on the presentation of Defra's Departmental Report and recommended how it could be improved. We are pleased that, on the whole, the Department's report-writers have incorporated most of our recommendations in this area. For instance, last year we recommended that the Department should provide less detail in the main commentary section of the Report and include more web-link references, in order to make the Report more concise.[153] In comparison with the Departmental Report of 2005, this year's Report does indeed make much greater use of web-link references. We commend the Department's report-writers for incorporating many of our previous recommendations relating to the presentation of the Report.

90. However, the sense of narrative which was a feature of last year's Departmental Report was not evident in the 2006 version. This means that the current Report remains a difficult document to navigate. Below we have set out a number of recommendations that we believe would improve future Departmental Reports in terms of their format and the information they provide. Our comments should be taken by the Department as constructive criticism. We believe their implementation would ensure that the Departmental Report becomes a more appealing and accessible read. This is important if the Department wishes to make the most of the opportunity presented by the Departmental Report to promote greater understanding of Defra's work.

Information provided in the Departmental Report


91. The main body of Defra's Departmental Report includes a good deal of information about the Department's policies and core philosophies. In particular, bullet-pointed lists of various Defra policy initiatives appear frequently throughout the Report.[154] Comparatively less information is provided about the outcomes of Defra's policies or how the Department has performed against its stated objectives in the past twelve months.

92. The Departmental Report has 13 pages devoted to Defra's finance, mostly cast in rather general terms. The vast majority of the rest of the pages in the 284-page Report are devoted to policy.

93. We believe the usefulness of the Departmental Report would be improved if it were set out in a style more like that used by quoted commercial companies. The Report should focus much more on the Department's performance in the year in question instead of continuing simply to re-state Defra policies and core philosophies. We recommend that future Departmental Reports include at the beginning of the Report clear information about how the Department has performed against its stated objectives and key performance indicators in the past twelve months. More detailed information relating to Defra's policies and core philosophies should be relegated to the appendices of the Report.

94. Similarly, we recommend that key financial information be included at the beginning of the Report. More detailed financial information can be provided in the appendices.

95. The recent changes to the Defra budget highlight the lack of transparency about how the Department's financial control mechanisms operate. They also demonstrate that the financial information provided in the Departmental Report is not helpful in understanding the reality of the Department's financial situation at a given time. For example, previous Departmental Reports made no reference to the Department's ability to use underspend from previous years, and the pressures placed on this ability from 2005-06 onwards. We recommend that the Department employ quoted company transparency standards to the way it reports its financial situation, and that future Departmental Reports provide more commentary on the Department's overall financial position.

96. Executive summaries at the beginning of a report can be useful in setting out key issues in a clear way. In giving evidence, the Permanent Secretary told us that the Department would "certainly take on board" a recommendation to include an executive summary in future Departmental Reports.[155] We recommend that an executive summary be included at the beginning of the Report, alongside the key performance and financial data. Its purpose should be to highlight frankly and clearly areas of success, failure and uncertainty, and major changes in the Department's objectives in the past twelve months.


97. The Departmental Report provides information about the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) on pages 158 to 160. Eight 'key developments' in 2005-06 are listed in this section but no account is given of the problems experienced by the RPA in this period, and specifically the RPA's failure to fulfil the Ministerial commitment to make the bulk of single farm payments by the end of March 2006.[156] Some further detail about the RPA is provided on pages 124 and 125 of the Report, in the section on 'Reform of the Common Agricultural Policy', which states that "regrettably" the expected increase in the rate of payments during March "did not then materialise".[157]

98. We asked the Permanent Secretary why a more frank account of the problems experienced by the RPA was not provided in the Departmental Report. She told us that it was a matter of timing: senior management had not had the chance to "do the forensic analysis of how quickly we might get out of those problems".[158] She told us that "a very clear explanation of [the RPA's] problems" would be included in next year's Report.[159]

99. We note that Defra's Resource Accounts 2005-06 provides more detailed information relating to problems at the RPA with the Single Payment Scheme.[160]

100. The sub-chapter on the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) in the Departmental Report is of extremely poor quality, owing to the lack of frankness and detail about the RPA's performance in the past year. The Departmental Report would have greater weight, and credibility, if it provided a candid account of the Department's failings as well as its successes. We welcome the Permanent Secretary's commitment that a clear explanation of the RPA's problems will be included in next year's Departmental Report.

Length of report and key issues

101. In the previous two years, we have commented on the length of Defra's Departmental Annual Report and recommended it be made more concise in future years. This year's Report—at 284 pages—is indeed considerably shorter than the 372-page Departmental Report in 2005.[161] However, this year's Report remains one of the longest departmental reports to be found across Government.[162] The length of Defra's Departmental Report contributes to the reader's difficulties in navigating the document and, particularly, in identifying the Department's key messages.

102. This year's Departmental Report is still too long, despite a welcome reduction in the number of pages since last year's report. The sheer volume of writing often serves to hide rather than reveal the Department's key messages and data. We recommend that future Departmental Reports make greater use of simple devices in order to prioritise key issues and to signal these to the reader. For example, a 'key issues' box could be included at the start of each chapter or section.

Long blocks of text

103. On a number of occasions within the Departmental Report, several consecutive pages consist solely of text with no accompanying tables or graphs to aid the reader. For example, there are fourteen consecutive pages of text between pages 205 and 218 of the Report. Long blocks of text are off-putting to readers and can obscure key information. We believe tighter editorial control should be employed to sift essential information from that which can be relegated to appendices or presented in less detail. More information could also be presented in graphical and tabular form. We recommend that the Department aim, in the style and readability of its report, at something which mirrors a magazine such as 'The Economist'.

Long chapters

104. As with last year, the bulk of the text of the Departmental Report is included in one very long chapter, Chapter 3. This chapter is 117 pages long: nearly as long as some departments' entire departmental reports.[163] The long chapters of the Departmental Report, such as Chapter 3, contribute to the difficulties experienced by the reader when attempting to navigate the Report. The Departmental Report would be more user-friendly if it were split into a greater number of shorter chapters, each beginning with a clear contents list.


105. The Departmental Report suffers from unnecessary repetition. For example, the 'Shared Services agenda' is explained on page 199 and then again on page 214. Whilst it is sometimes necessary to mention some key issues more than once, repetition in the Departmental Report should be kept to a minimum. We recommend that tighter editing be used to ensure repetition occurs only when absolutely necessary.

Use of numbers

106. A large amount of numbers illustrating costs, funding and performance are included within the main text of the Departmental Report. Some of these could be better presented through simple tables or pie charts. For instance, the following information on 'Expenditure on production linked CAP [Common Agricultural Policy] market support schemes' is given on page 122:

This could easily have been presented as a pie chart or in tabular form, which would have made the numbers and their relative proportions much clearer.

107. Embedding numbers into long blocks of text makes them difficult to assimilate easily. Numbers are generally better presented in charts, graphs, tables or bullet-pointed lists. We recommend that the Departmental Report make more use of these kinds of devices in order to help the reader identify and understand key statistics. We also recommend that comparative statistical data be incorporated in the Report to enable the reader to establish a clear view about the trends encapsulated by the published numbers.


108. The Departmental Report suffers from a lack of good cross-referencing. For example, page 21 states that more information on Defra's work on sustainable consumption can be found "in Chapter 3". Chapter 3, however, is 117 pages long: the reference is therefore not particularly helpful. The Permanent Secretary acknowledged that the Department perhaps needed to "think again about how we do … signposting" in its Departmental Reports.[164] The Report's index—in common with those of departmental reports from most other departments—is also less than helpful. For instance, a reader trying to find out from the index what the Report says about the CAP is given simply an undifferentiated list of the 24 occasions in which the CAP is mentioned in the Report.[165]

109. We recommend that cross-referencing in the Departmental Report be improved by making references more specific, directing readers to a specific page number. Cross-referencing would also be improved if sections or paragraphs were numbered. The report would also benefit from an index which differentiates between passing references and significant data or discussion.

153   Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Fourth Report of Session 2005-06, The Departmental Annual Report 2005, HC 693-I, para 6 Back

154   For example, p 79 -80 Back

155   Q 5 Back

156   Defra, Departmental Report 2006, pp. 158-159 Back

157   Defra, Departmental Report 2006, p 124 Back

158   Q 39 Back

159   Q 39 Back

160   Defra, Resource Accounts 2005-06, November 2006, HC 1643, pp 35-36 Back

161   Defra, Departmental Report 2005, Cm 6537, June 2005 Back

162   2006 Departmental Reports by the Home Office and Foreign and Commonwealth Office are 135 pages and 167 pages long respectively (CM 6818; Cm 6823). Back

163   The Home Office's Departmental Report 2006 (Cm 6818) is 135 pages long. Back

164   Q 5 Back

165   Defra, Departmental Report 2006, p 279 Back

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