Tuesday, 07 January 2014 10:31

Budget cuts 'threaten Defra response'

Written by  Ruralcity Media
Budget cuts 'threaten Defra response'

MASSIVE budget cuts threaten Defra's ability to respond to future emergencies, MPs have warned.

Adequate responses to issues such as flooding, the delivery of financial support to farmers and even low low staff morale are all under threat

The House of Common's Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee published its Defra departmental annual report on Tuesday (7 January).

Defra is one of the smallest of Government Departments but has faced among the most substantial budget cuts, which are set to continue up to 2016, says the document.

Committee chairman Anne McIntosh said "DEFRA is a small ministry facing massive budget cuts and which relies on a large number of arms length bodies to deliver many significant areas of policy.

"Ministers must clarify how further budgets cuts of over £300 million over the coming two years will impact on the funding provided to these agencies and the ability of the Department to respond to emergencies."

Recent flooding events over the Christmas and New year period reinforced the committee's concerns about cuts to the Defra budget and how these would be realised, said Miss McIntosh.

The Environment Agency was set to lose 1700 jobs in the next 12 months, she added.

The committee had asked Defra to confirm the amount of contributions received from external sources under the Partnership Funding approach.

It had also asked the department to demonstrate how the Partnership Funding model for flood defences will deliver much greater private sector funding in the future.

This would allow the drainage boards to do more of the essential maintenance work of main watercourses using their own resources.

On the issue of farming, budget cuts meant delivery of Common Agricultural Policy payments to farmers is at stake, said Miss McIntosh.

Among the most significant challenges facing the department in the next 12 months was implementation of the new Common Agricultural Policy.

There were risks that the introduction of a new digital system for delivering payments to farms will cause problems for those farmers who do not have access to rural broadband.

"Farmers who are unable to access online systems, particularly in areas not yet adequately covered by the Governments own Rural Broadband Programme, must be able to continue to access payments via paper-based systems."

Commenting on Defra management, the report found that the results of a staff survey revealed an increased lack of confidence in the management and leadership of the department.

Anne McIntosh said: "There needs to be a greater sense of urgency about addressing these issues, especially as the Department is about to enter a period of further budget cuts.

"Senior officials in the Department must take steps to manage the changes arising from the savings so that staff morale and engagement improves."

The full report can be downloaded here. Defra is expected to issue a formal response to the document in due course.

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