Defra cuts are 'tip of the iceberg'

CUTS of £162 million to Defra’s budget announced this week could just be the tip of the iceberg, farmers have been warned.

Defra’s cuts, amounting to 5.5 per cent of its £3 billion budget, were the third largest in percentage terms, as Chancellor George Osborne and Chief Secretary to the Treasury David Laws unveiled £6.2 billion worth of savings across Government on Monday.

The Ministers said the focus of these cuts was on ‘driving out Whitehall waste’ and insisted the ‘quality of key frontline services’ would not be affected.

Defra released only broad details of the ‘efficiencies’ it will be making, including a reduction in funding for Regional Development Agencies (RDAs). Others include:

  • Limiting recruitment and reducing the number of non-permanent staff;
  • Operational savings in IT, estates and procurement;
  • Efficiencies in flood management while maintaining an increase in expenditure;
  • Savings within the delivery of selected programmes.

But the clear message from the coalition Government this week was that these ‘efficiency savings’ are merely the prelude to more sweeping cuts from 2011 onwards, which will be outlined in an autumn Spending Review.

Tuesday’s Queen’s speech began by stating that the Government’s ‘first priority’ was to reduce the record £156 million deficit and restore economic growth.

NFU president Peter Kendall said the cuts were ‘only a taster of what’s to come’, referring to predictions from some commentators of cuts of 20 to 30 per cent from 2011. If applied to Defra, this would mean most current areas of spending would be ‘up for discussion’, including the animal health budget, research and development work and funds for environmental projects.

There would be also be major implications for Defra’s agencies, which face being reduced in number or size, in line with wider Government policy.

“There’s no pretending that the farming sector can escape the impact of the massive cutback in public spending this country faces,” Mr Kendall said.

He said the NFU would be ‘working with Government departments and agencies’ to ensure spending that enhances the competitiveness of the farming industry is prioritised, which, in turn, would help restore the nation’s economic growth.

He highlighted the lack of a commitment in the Government’s policy programme, published last Thursday, to investment in long-term agricultural research and development as an area of concern.

Country Land and Business Association (CLA) policy director Allan Buckwell said the extent of the cuts Defra faces would depend on its, and the industry’s, ability to make the case to protect priority spending areas.

He highlighted rural development expenditure, including agri-environment schemes and support for diversification and renewable energy initiatives, as a priority for the CLA. “It would be very odd, having said rural development funding is the future over the past five years, to then slash the budget,” he said.

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