Defra’s decade of waste

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IT IS sometimes forgotten that the prime reason for Defra’s creation was that its predecessor, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, coped so badly with the foot-and-mouth outbreak of 10 years ago that its very name, Maff, became a byword for incompetence, inefficiency and waste.

One of the reasons why Maff has been all but forgotten, however, is because its successor has carved out a reputation almost as bad as that of its predecessor. The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was supposed to be a super-efficient super-ministry, under which the growing link between agricultural production and environmental protection could be fostered and developed. Yet it has proved to be too big, too unwieldy and frighteningly cavalier in its handling of taxpayers’ money, as the horrendous saga of the Rural Payments Agency has shown only too clearly.

The news that Defra has spent nearly £70m making almost 1,800 people redundant, therefore, while simultaneously recruiting 500 new staff, sounds all too typical of this beleaguered organisation’s past behaviour. Unsurprisingly, Defra itself disagrees. The redundancies are part of a programme of cost-cutting and streamlining, according to officials, and are aimed at correcting the wastefulness of the past, rather than repeating it.

As the demise of Maff demonstrated, however, public perception has an important role to play when it comes to managing ministries. And, as Thirsk and Malton MP Anne McIntosh, chairman of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs select committee, points out, Defra has a very poor record when it comes to manpower.

This is something that Miss McIntosh would be well advised to monitor closely. For the very least that long-suffering farmers deserve to know – not to mention residents who are continually being denied proper flood defences – is whether or not Defra , at long last, has started using its resources wisely.