Parliament in Perspective

warners_pos_cmykThe Chancellor made no bones this week in making it clear that the government’s goal was focus on rebalancing public finances in the next Parliament, as he announced that Brexit had slowed growth forecasts for the UK and made it “more urgent than ever” to address long-term economic weaknesses, Catherine Paice writes.

The Autumn Statement presented by Philip Hammond (Con, Runnymede and Weybridge) in Parliament left no doubt that DEFRA is to continue to face budget constraints in the coming years. Departmental spending plans (ie, budgeted constraints and cuts), the Chancellor said, will remain in place and department expenditure in 2021-22 will “grow in line with inflation”.

To recap, in last year’s Autumn Statement, it was announced that DEFRA would have its annual budget cut by 15% (£300 million) for 2016/17, with a further £100 million budget cut every year until 2020.

Parliament’s Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) has, moreover, recently criticised the Treasury for putting short-term priorities over longer-term sustainability schemes, including waste and recycling, which it says could cause greater costs to the economy in the future.

This was the last Autumn Statement as an update to the government’s budget , as Mr Hammond announced he was abolishing it and would be making his main budget announcement next autumn. An update from the Office of Budget Responsibility (OBR) will be presented in the spring, but will not be accompanied by a government response in the form of budget alterations.

The impact of Brexit on DEFRA was thrown into relief in Parliamentary questions, when Catherine West (Lab, Hornsey and Wood Green) asked how many projects in operation in the Department are related to the UK’s exit of the EU. DEFRA is the domestic department most affected by the exit from the EU, farm minister George Eustice (Con, Camborne and Redruth) replied, with some 80% of its work framed by EU legislation and a quarter of EU laws applying to its sectors. “A majority of policy staff within the core Department are now supporting EU Exit related work,” Mr Eustice went on to say, with a special unit set up to co-ordinate and manage this programme.

With the spotlight now once again falling on Rural Payment Agency deficiencies,  Eustice dragged his heels for over a week before responding to what should, given the amount invested in RPA computers and communications, have proved a fairly straightforward written question from Kerry McCarthy (Lab, Bristol East) about how much in total was paid under the Basic Payments Scheme in England in 2015 for (a) lowlands, (b) severely disadvantaged areas and (c) moorlands. Also, for each of those areas, she wanted to know, how many farmers received such payments and what the (i) average payment per farmer was and (ii) maximum and minimum payments were in each English county.

It was not that Mr Eustice was actually finding out the answer, either: DEFRA, it turns out, cannot answer this question “within the usual time period”. An answer is being prepared and will be provided as soon as it is available. Watch this space.

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