Work of the Committee: 2010-15 - Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Contents

1  Scrutinising Defra

The work of the Committee

1. The Committee's core task is to scrutinise the administration, expenditure and policies of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the bodies for which its Ministers are responsible. In doing so throughout this Parliament, we have sought to combine our approach, both focusing on individual policy proposals as they arise and providing more thematic investigations into major areas within the Department's remit. Over the past five years, we have conducted some 60 inquiries across the gamut of policy areas for which the Department has responsibility. We have taken oral evidence from some 345 organisations and individuals, and received over 1,000 pieces of written evidence.

2. In addition, we have examined draft legislation: one of the core tasks identified by the Liaison Committee for departmental select committees to undertake. We looked at proposed Bills on: reform of the water industry; managing dangerous dogs; prohibiting wild animals in circuses; and the establishment of a Groceries Code Adjudicator. We held pre-appointment hearings and endorsed the appointments of Chairs of four key Defra agencies: the Environment Agency (EA), Natural England (NE), the Water Services Regulation Authority (Ofwat) and the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA). Our scrutiny of policy has frequently involved a review of progress on the implementation of legislation and its impacts, such as on floods and water management, although we have not conducted post-legislative scrutiny into a specific Act—another core task for departmental select committees. With much of the legislation relating to Defra's remit originating from EU requirements, we have repeatedly focused on key EU policies relating to agriculture, fisheries and the environment, looking at how Defra is both influencing development of policy and implementing the outcomes in the UK.

3. The aim of this report is to provide our successor Committee with a short review of our work over this Parliament. Given its range and depth, we cannot reflect all of our work in detail nor provide an exhaustive list of all the issues which we consider important. We hope, however, that future members of a scrutiny committee will find this report a helpful guide to some of the areas where we consider Defra policies and practices have the most impact on the UK's environment, food systems and rural communities. We also identify significant issues which merit continuing scrutiny beyond dissolution of this Parliament.

4. We are grateful to the large number of individuals and organisations who have given us evidence in writing or in person and to the special advisers and staff who have supported us in our task.

The work of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

5. Defra is among the Government's smaller Departments.[1] More than 80% of its expenditure is delivered through executive agencies and arms-length bodies, among the biggest of which are the Rural Payments Agency (RPA), the EA, and NE. A common theme across a large part of our work has been the negative impact on policy formulation and delivery resulting from the hollowing out of Defra's core functions: there needs to be a more robust central body of expertise driving forward the Department's aims and balancing the strength of the arms-length bodies, with firm Ministerial leadership including to deliver environmental objectives across government. The engagement of staff employed at Defra, measured via annual staff surveys, is consistently lower than the civil service average, with staff repeatedly reporting absence of clarity about their managers' vision and their own prospects for advancement. In combination, this arms-length distance from policy delivery and comparatively poor staff morale raises questions about the Department's effectiveness, which are amplified by the consistent failure of the Department to meet goals it sets itself. Two examples of that are: the waste of around £600 million over the years in EU fines because of the RPA's failure properly to implement the 2005 Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) settlement, and repeated 'moving of goalposts' over the numbers of badgers to be culled in trials designed to reduce bovine TB. Balancing budgetary pressures against Defra's future budget and its capacity to manage delivery of its policy objectives by bodies at a distance will continue to be a major challenge for the Department. We would anticipate this being a key focus of future scrutiny by our successor Committee.

1   For the most recent report into Defra's performance see Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Eighth Report of Session 2014-15, Defra performance in 2013-14, HC 802 Back

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Prepared 24 March 2015