In Parliament

The Labour Party set out plans last week to save £192 million at DEFRA, Catherine Paice reports.

In response to DEFRA’s 2013-14 expenditure report showing a total outlay of £6.252 billion, including EU funding, Maria Eagle (Lab, Garston and Halewood), Labour’s shadow secretary of state for DEFRA accused the Government of incompetency. “The Tory-led management of DEFRA has been characterised by waste, storing up costs for the future and incompetence,” she said.

Labour’s spotlight first fell on the badger programme, which has systematically been undermined by Labour MPs in the House of Commons as well as protesters on the ground. Ms Eagle said Labour would save an estimated £24.5m a year – over £120m in total – by cancelling plans to roll out badger culls to 10 areas. Instead, they would seek to develop “an effective vaccine”.

The subject produced the biggest spat in the last DEFRA questions before the General Election, less than a week after DEFRA stats revealed over 33,000 cattle were slaughtered across Great Britain last year because of bovine TB, slightly up on last year.

Farm minister George Eustice (Con, Camborne & Redruth) hit back saying the previous Labour government had “put their heads in the sand” and done nothing to tackle bTB.

Labour also claim they could save £40m in the next five years by encouraging more DEFRA-backed agencies to charge for more services in the way the Environment Agency does. Another target is “short-termism” on flood defence, with Labour suggesting they would take a longer term view by bolstering flood defences to prevent high repair costs in future. Nice idea, but is it likely? They propose an Infrastructure Commission, through which flood defence would be integrated into major new project investment, eg by requiring new developments to tackle drainage issues (don’t they already?) and an ambitious target to make sure all new infrastructure projects deliver a “climate adaptation plan”.

Labour would also encourage more farmers to install solar panels by reintroducing EU subsidies that were scrapped by Liz Truss in one of her first policy moves last year. Further plans include saving £20m in improving water quality by “driving better practices” in the farming and water industries.

The EFRA committee, in its analysis of DEFRA’s spending, was more interested in urging clarification on an alleged £80m “underspend” for 2013-14, set out in written evidence, and how that corresponds to the £50m claimed in the department’s annual report. “The Department must be more transparent about where emergency money such as winter floods funding is found and what impact this has on [its]other priorities and policy delivery.”

It also urged DEFRA to publish its own timetable for the development and use of a cattle vaccine, to reassure the public that action is being taken to combat bTB in this way.
Relatively poor staff pay and morality were also highlighted.

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