MPs concerned by impact of Defra cuts

8th January 2014

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The environment secretary must be clearer on which Defra agencies and policies will be affected by continuing budget cuts, say MPs

In its annual report into Defra’s operations, the parliamentary select committee on the environment has raised concerns about the level of budget cuts imposed on the department.

“Defra is a small ministry facing massive budget cuts and one that 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,” said Anne McIntosh, chair of the committee in launching its report.

Following successive spending cuts imposed by the Treasury, in 2015/16 Defra’s budget will be some £800 million pounds lower than in 2010/11, a cut of 36%.

In recent months, the department has confirmed it is significantly reducing its waste policy work, slashing funding for Wrap and closing a scheme that provided grants to the Environment Agency and local authorities to investigate and remedy cases of contaminated land. Meanwhile, the Environment Agency has confirmed it will be looking to make 1,700 redundancies by October, as a result of budget cuts.

The MPs urge Owen Paterson to outline how these changes and future cuts will impact Defra’s ability to deliver environmental policies. “Administrative and efficiency savings will not represent the entire saving. We invite the secretary of state to set out in detail what programmes and policies will be reduced or ended to meet the required budget savings,” states the report.

The committee is also critical of Defra’s approach to biodiversity offsetting, arguing that it should wait until the completion of its pilot schemes in April before attempting to develop a system.

“It is important that policymaking is evidenced based,” states the report. “The government has initiated six pilot offsetting projects and it is difficult to understand why it does not wish to assess these properly before embarking on a wider rollout.”

The MPs recommend an independent evaluation of the pilot scheme is carried out before the government considers implementing Defra’s proposals for a system of biodiversity offsets.

“The jury is still out on biodiversity offsetting so ideology must not trump the robust scientific appraisal of sufficient evidence gathered during a pilot designed to test the efficacy of this policy,” argued McIntosh.

Meanwhile, the report urged the government to speed up the introduction of a charge for single use carrier bags in England. Last September, the deputy prime minister announced that a 5p charge would apply in England from 1 October 2015. A similar charge is already in place in Wales and Northern Ireland, and is due to come into force in Scotland this year.

“We are pleased that the department has finally agreed to impose a charge for single-use plastic bags in supermarkets and larger food retailers, but disappointed that the charge will not come into effect until 2015, despite evidence of its success in reducing plastic carrier bag usage in other parts of the UK. We recommend it be implemented sooner,” states the report.

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