Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Second Report


1.We have considered a substantial amount of evidence about the causes of Defra's £200 million deficit in 2006-07. This deficit ultimately resulted in action to reduce, in-year, the 2006-07 budgets of several Defra executive agencies and Non-Departmental Public Bodies (NDPBs) and disrupt a number of important environmental programmes and projects. The evidence suggests that the Department itself has to take much of the blame for the precarious financial situation it found itself in 2006-07. We regard this whole episode to be a serious failure in the Department's financial management. (Paragraph 28)
2.We acknowledge that some minor factors for the deficit, such as costs related to the Spring 2006 avian influenza outbreak, were largely beyond the Department's control. However, many of the financial problems carried over from 2005-06 occurred because the Department had made budgeting commitments based on unsubstantiated assumptions about the generosity of HM Treasury in a tight fiscal period. We believe the Department was irresponsibly over-optimistic and complacent in budgeting on the assumption that, first, it would be allowed its draw-down its full End-Year-Flexibility (EYF) from the Treasury in 2005-06 and, secondly, that it would be able to switch £85 million from non-cash to near-cash that same year. These two factors alone amounted to £110 million of the £200 million deficit. We are not convinced that the Department explored fully with the Treasury at an early enough stage the possibility of making these kind of transactions, particularly bearing in mind the tight financial climate. This complacency had unplanned-for severe consequences. (Paragraph 29)
3.We are particularly unimpressed with the Department's explanation of how the Treasury "re-classification" of near-cash and non-cash spending impacted on its budget. Our evidence shows that no good reason existed for the Department to assume it could make a transfer of £85 million non-cash into near-cash, and to make budgetary commitments based on this assumption. The Department had never made such a large transfer before. No Treasury guidance existed permitting it to do so. This financial pressure was therefore caused more by the Department's self-deception, as well as its misguided assumptions about Treasury rules. To blame the Treasury was on this occasion incorrect. The result was a sudden, unplanned, poorly explained and highly disruptive mid-year restriction on budgets. Defra's agencies and NDPBs—as well as voluntary groups reliant on Defra funding—found themselves with wholly unanticipated financial problems as a result. In its response, the Department should tell us when Ministers were informed by officials about the rule changes and their financial consequences. (Paragraph 30)
4.We also remain doubtful whether the £23 million figure that Defra says the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) contributed to its budget deficit tells the full story. In its response to this report, the Department should state how much the RPA was within or over budget on a monthly basis throughout the financial year 2005-06. The Department must also indicate what parts of its internal budget were affected during this period by financial transfers to the RPA, and the consequences of these financial movements. (Paragraph 31)
5.Our evidence shows that the chaos and disruption caused by imposing budget reductions in-year could have been prevented by the Department. Defra was fully aware by the end of the calendar year 2005 that it was deferring at least £150 million worth of costs into 2006-07. Yet, when 2006-07 budgets were set in January 2006, the Department decided not to revise substantially budgets to take account of these deferred costs. The Permanent Secretary told us several times that it was a "matter of judgement" as to whether the Department could absorb these additional costs within its 2006-07 budget. It is clear to us that this judgement—made by senior Defra officials and ministers—was seriously flawed. The Department was over-optimistic to assume it could cope with the additional deferred costs from 2005-06 and not incur any further significant unexpected costs in 2006-07. The error of this decision was exposed within just two months, when the relatively minor additional costs from the Rural Payments Agency and the Spring 2006 avian influenza outbreak were enough to 'tip the balance'. Given that neither additional RPA running costs or an avian flu outbreak in 2006-07 could have been totally unexpected, the decision not to revise budgets substantially in January 2006 appears even more inexplicable, and unwisely risky. (Paragraph 44)
6.We were taken aback by the Permanent Secretary's acknowledgement that she might have acted more cautiously in January 2006—when setting budgets for 2006-07—if she had been aware that much of Defra's money was spent at the start of the financial year. This decision had severe repercussions for those bodies affected, particularly British Waterways which had little choice in-year but to postpone major works and repairs. The Permanent Secretary was relatively new to Defra, so the blame for her lack of awareness must be shouldered by the Finance Director and his team. (Paragraph 45)
7.The Department's communication about the causes of its deficit has been poor. Ministers should have provided a much more complete and comprehensive explanation about the budgetary changes instead of often placing emphasis on avian influenza and Rural Payments Agency spending and vague references to changes in Treasury accounting rules. (Paragraph 49)
8.We acknowledge that many of the issues related to Defra's budget are complicated and opaque, particularly those related to various Treasury procedures. However, this complexity does not excuse Ministers—who took important decisions and approved much of what occurred in 2005-06 and 2006-07—from blame for giving confusing explanations. This raises some important questions about the understanding levels both within Defra, and outside, about how the Department's budgetary processes operate. Government accounting is complex, but the Department has a responsibility to provide good, clear explanations to help lay-people—including us—to understand these matters. Ministers should also ensure that they master the complex matters within their brief—especially those relating to financial issues. The Department should say what steps it is taking to raise Ministers' understanding in this area. HM Treasury should also try harder to be more transparent in the language and rules it uses. (Paragraph 50)
9.We are extremely concerned by the Permanent Secretary's statement that funding will continue to be extremely tight for the Department, and its agencies, over the next few years. Although we recognise that this reflects the financial reality across the whole of Whitehall in the next few years, it raises the question that if expenditure on environmental work remains a departmental priority, what then will happen to other areas of Defra responsibility. Defra must publish as soon as possible what its spending priorities will be and how much will have to be met from further efficiency savings. In the tighter financial environment that is likely, however, Defra has not helped its case for a good settlement from HM Treasury for the Comprehensive Spending Review 2007 period with its poor financial management in the past two years. (Paragraph 53)
10.We are extremely concerned about the changes in accounting rules whereby the Department will now bear the costs of EU disallowance directly from 2006-07 onwards. This could have a serious impact on Defra Departmental Expenditure Limit (DEL) budgets in the future, in a period when the Department will already be under increased financial pressure. We recommend that the Department keep us informed at an early stage, by means of a ministerial letter, about any future EU disallowance which could potentially affect Defra's DEL budget. (Paragraph 57)
11.We are extremely disappointed that the Department will not meet its efficiency headcount reduction target by the end of 2007-08, and will most likely miss this target by some margin. This is yet another example of how the Rural Payments Agency debacle has had wider negative repercussions across the whole Department. The Department is more optimistic about meeting its financial efficiencies target by 2007-08. However, gaining the remaining financial efficiencies necessary to meet the target may be more difficult than anticipated because the Department will be operating in a much tighter spending environment over the next couple of years. At the same time, the tighter spending environment only increases the importance of making these efficiency savings, so that money can be freed up for other purposes within the Department. We consider it imperative that the Department does not lose focus in attempting to meet its financial efficiencies target of £610 million by 2007-08. Failure to achieve both the financial and headcount efficiency targets would amount to another major embarrassment for the Department. Defra should now provide a clear statement as to how these efficiencies will be made and the timescale to achieve them. (Paragraph 63)
12.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. (Paragraph 67)
13.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. (Paragraph 68)
14.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. (Paragraph 72)
15.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. (Paragraph 73)
16.The Government, and the Department, often reiterate their commitment to 'sustainable development'. Sustainable development, however, is a complex concept and is embedded within a vast range of policies across Government. Although bodies have been created specifically to monitor and promote sustainable development across Government, Defra is ultimately responsible for overseeing this work. From the information available—in the Departmental Report and elsewhere—it is unclear how successful the Department has been in carrying out this responsibility. The Department has also failed to communicate clearly how it takes the lead in ensuring sustainability is embedded in other Government departments' work. We recommend that future Departmental Reports include a more coherent and free-standing 'mini cross-Government sustainability report', including objective performance measures for both Defra and other Government departments. The mini-report should comment on the Sustainable Development Commission's conclusions about Government departments' Sustainable Development Action Plans. (Paragraph 77)
17.We welcome the Permanent Secretary's candour that the Department needs to improve the rigour of its approach to biodiversity and related issues. A broader understanding of biodiversity and its value, as well as eco systems, can only improve the formulation and enactment of Government policy in this important area. We look forward to seeing evidence of such a new approach soon. (Paragraph 82)
18.We believe that several of the Department's current Public Service Agreement (PSA) targets are inappropriate, and we have made similar criticisms in the past few years. Many of the targets are too vague. We recommend that careful consideration be given to the formulation of new PSA targets for the next Comprehensive Spending Review period. The new targets should have much clearer outcomes and performance indicators, and be able to be measured appropriately. We look forward to receiving draft copies of the targets for comment. (Paragraph 88)
19.We commend the Department's report-writers for incorporating many of our previous recommendations relating to the presentation of the Report. (Paragraph 89)
20.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. (Paragraph 93)
21.We recommend that key financial information be included at the beginning of the Report. More detailed financial information can be provided in the appendices. (Paragraph 94)
22.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. 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. (Paragraph 95)
23.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. (Paragraph 96)
24.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. (Paragraph 100)
25.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. (Paragraph 102)
26.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'. (Paragraph 103)
27.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. (Paragraph 104)
28.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. (Paragraph 105)
29.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. (Paragraph 107)
30.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. (Paragraph 109)

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Prepared 23 February 2007