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

6  Conclusion

Key achievements

61. It is heartening that many of the recommendations in our reports have been accepted by the Government, in whole or in part, and that action has resulted in a number of respects. It is particularly welcome to note the impact of our work in responding at short notice to crises such as the floods of winter 2013-14, contamination of meat, the emergence of tree diseases, and financial pressures on the dairy industry. Key points where action has resulted from our work include: specific recommendations on the draft Water Bill being incorporated in the final legislation; increased investment in flood defences; improving the profile of the importance of flood defence maintenance funding; and improved dog control legislation. More broadly, the focus of our cross-party political scrutiny, and the attendant raising of public awareness, on issues across Defra's remit has brought pressure to bear on the Government over this Parliament to deliver on its plans and to ensure they best meet the needs of interested parties. We hope this has helped to ensure effective policies from CAP to CfP and from animal welfare to environmental protection.

Key areas for follow-up

62. None the less, there are a range of areas where insufficient action has been taken on our recommendations, including on some recommendations which the Government had accepted in full. For example, there have been warm words from Defra about the role that can be played in improving policy through more explicitly valuing natural capital and the services provided by our environment to supply clean air, water and robust food supplies. This was an approach we endorsed. We made specific recommendations on how to put this into action. But it is not clear that Defra has yet persuaded Ministers across the rest of government to take up the challenge and the broad intentions of the Natural Environment White Paper have yet to translate into actions that will transform the way in which we protect and enhance the natural environment.

63. As discussed above, we would also encourage a future Committee to follow up on some key recommendations in our Report on Waste management in England which were not satisfactorily addressed because of concurrent discussions at a European level. By the end of the year, once EU negotiations on any new waste proposals have substantively concluded, Defra should have sufficient clarity to provide a future Committee with an update on what further action (if any) will be necessary.

64. The unfolding implementation of the new CAP will be a key issue impacting on a wide range of interested parties, not only farmers and landowners who have to manage the outcomes of policy decisions on the ground but also the wider public enjoying the countryside and the benefits of a healthy natural environment. Future Committee scrutiny could usefully focus not only on the practical aspects of introducing a complex new system of CAP payments, including for new countryside stewardship measures, but on the Government's work to influence EU policy in Brussels. The new CAP will not be static: Commissioner Hogan promises reform, and the UK must ensure it influences this process from the outset. A future Committee may wish to press Defra to identify clearly the priorities they will be pursuing with the Commission ahead of its 2017 review. A follow-up review of the role of the Groceries Code Adjudicator in light of our recommendations might be welcomed by dairy farmers and the wider industry who have heard the Government express a willingness to consider action to ensure the effective operation of supply chains.

65. On rural issues, as discussed above, we would encourage a future Committee to continue scrutiny of the progress with rural broadband coverage and indeed rural connectivity in general. The Government and industry have promised a range of coverage targets to ensure broadband and superfast broadband across the country, but no date has yet been set for the achievement of universal superfast broadband coverage. A future Committee may wish to compare the improvements which the broadband rollout has achieved in urban areas with those achieved in more rural parts of the country. We fully support improving connectivity in urban areas but this should not be at the cost of rural areas.

66. A wider example of insufficient action relates to our recommendations concerning Defra's planned expenditure in light of the impact of the 2010 Spending Review. Defra has been required to make a 16.7% real terms reduction in resource expenditure during the course of this Parliament and we raised concerns regarding the lack of transparency about what this meant for policy delivery each year. Our concerns on this issue have not been satisfactorily addressed during this Parliament. In order to enable proper scrutiny of expenditure, we would urge a future Committee to continue to push for as much detail and transparency as possible in the event of any future Departmental budget cuts. Underlying our concerns during this Parliament has been the eroding of Defra's capabilities to achieve its goals and to pursue successfully its agenda beyond departmental boundaries, whether across Whitehall or in Brussels. Future scrutiny of individual policies must bear in mind the need for maintenance of sufficient expertise inside the core department and a firm Ministerial lead on the environmental, rural and agricultural agenda.


67. The majority of issues we have addressed require ongoing action, not simply one-off responses. To support a future Committee in its scrutiny it would be helpful if Defra produced an update to the Government response to each of our reports, one year on, in order to provide Parliament with information on the Department's progress in implementing our report recommendations.

68. Although our work programme has touched the vast majority of Defra's responsibilities in some respect, we have not had the opportunity to address all areas and some topics we have been able to touch upon only briefly, despite their importance. For example, we have not considered as a separate issue the contribution of farming to climate change mitigation or areas of waste policy outside of the management of municipal waste, nor have we had the opportunity to spend much time looking in depth at air quality matters. We have also not carried out separate inquiries on key policy areas such as biodiversity offsetting and marine conservation, although they have been briefly examined as part of our annual review of Defra's performance.

  1. A future Committee will of course face the same pressures as we have faced in attempting to cover the breadth and depth of Defra's work in a limited time. Further, with the Department responsible for handling emergency issues such as flooding, animal and plant disease and food security, crises are likely to emerge suddenly which will demand the Committee's attention but which also add pressure to a stretched work programme. We hope that this review will aid our successors in compiling a challenging and effective work programme for a new Parliament. We wish them every success in their task.

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