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Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs: Structural Changes

Volume 702: debated on Wednesday 11 June 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What are the priorities for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs following the structural changes to the department implemented on 1 April, as set out by the Permanent Secretary in the publication Whitehall and Westminster World 2 on 26 March.

My Lords, the department’s mission is to enable everyone to live within our environmental means. That is underpinned by two public service agreement objectives: to secure a healthy natural environment and to lead the global effort to avoid dangerous climate change. In addition, the department has eight strategic objectives, of which two examples are: a thriving farming and food sector, and stronger communities. The structural changes in question are designed to enable Defra to meet these objectives more effectively. My priority remains what it has been for the past two years: the operation of the Rural Payments Agency and the single farm payment.

My Lords, while I am grateful to the Minister for that reply, is he not disappointed in some ways that the two main strategic objectives are in fact dealing with climate change and diverse natural environment? Surely, in the age of food security and food shortages, the very department that is responsible for food and farming should highlight that. However, it does not; indeed, it does not even include farming in its name.

My Lords, this is rerunning history. Food, farming and rural affairs are still our priorities. Climate change is a priority, but it encompasses a lot of these other issues. The way we farm and manage the land, and the things farmers can do to mitigate and attack climate change, are a major contribution, as was said during the debates on the Climate Change Bill in this House. Just because the word “farming” is not in the title does not mean that it is not a top priority. As I have just mentioned, one of the department’s strategic objectives is a thriving farming and food sector.

My Lords, with the worldwide changes in the food commodity market during the past 12 months, as reflected in the international food conference last week, does the Minister agree that a reassessment is required of his department’s budget in the Government’s priorities? I declare my interest in the food and farming industry.

My Lords, the reassessment will come from the Strategy Unit and the Cabinet Office later this summer, as we have had a review of the food sector and the overall holistic contribution that it makes to both climate change and the cost of living.

My Lords, I am pleased that the Minister has mentioned the eight objectives. It is interesting that on his website, where they are listed, it says at the bottom that further information can be found on the Treasury website. Does that not rather suggest the subservient nature of Defra to the Treasury, particularly after the severe budget cuts there have been? What does the Minister intend to do to reassert Defra’s strength against the Treasury?

The public service agreements are with the Treasury. That is how and why departments get the money, so we have an agreement with the Treasury about how we spend it. We are trying to get value for money by restructuring the department, as is mentioned in the article referred to in the noble Baroness’s Question. As a result of the flexible working, I might add, we have saved 800 jobs, in the sense that we are 800 fewer than we were; we are working a lot more smartly; and Work Wise UK, a non-profit initiative that aims to make the UK more competitive, has made Defra not only the first government department to receive accreditation for its quality mark in terms of flexible working but the first public sector organisation in the country to do so.

My Lords, the article contains a delightful picture of the Permanent Secretary scanning London’s horizons. Does the Minister agree that wildlife is a sentinel to climate change and to animal health in this country? Why have wildlife surveillance and research fallen off Defra’s horizons, in that they get very little funding, if any at all? DfID probably contributes much more to wildlife research in Africa than ever happens here.

My Lords, the noble Countess mentioned the article in passing. I am not sure if that was a dig at the Permanent Secretary, who has visited farms and nature reserves across the country. Wildlife surveillance and research have not dropped off our agenda. Not everything is a top priority, but we are still working in that area. We have reprioritised the department but we have not jettisoned or walked away from the host of wildlife work that she referred to.

My Lords, given the successful debate last Thursday on the EU Committee’s report on the reform of the CAP, what importance does the department give to that subject and what resources are dedicated to such reform?

My Lords, they are major, simply because reform of the CAP is crucial. The health check documents have been published. It is hoped that the matter will be settled by the end of the year. I hope that that will lead to simplification of the common agricultural policy and its being less of an imposition. Within five years, when the next budget review takes place, there may be complete reform of the CAP.

Part of the health check is simplifying the single farm payment arrangements, which is a top priority. I am very pleased to announce today that we have met our European Union target of paying the 96.14 per cent of the total budget, which was announced this morning at 96.27 per cent, and we have paid 94.86 per cent of the farmers. I pay tribute to the rural payments agency, because that is a remarkable transformation in the past two years. The people in the office have worked their socks off, in co-operation with farmers and our stakeholders. It gives us a much better chance to make next year, the 2008 payment year, the first normal year of the single farm payment system, which is what we always predicted.