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Western Morning News

DEFRA'S 480M CONSULTANTS' BILL

11:00 - 18 July 2005 Slideshow presentations and clipboards now play a bigger role in creating rural policy than the needs of traditional food and farming, opposition MPs claimed last night, as new figures showed the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is spending vast sums on management consultants.

Figures supplied in a Parliamentary answer to the Lib-Dem MP Andrew George show that Defra has spent more than 480 million on "consultants and professional services" in the last three years, with a 180 million bill run up last year alone.

By comparison, Defra's annual report showed the department spent 42 million on disease prevention, 63 million on animal welfare and 36 million on the national parks.

A Defra spokesman acknowledged that the figures had been released but said it was "a complete misrepresentation" to suggest that the money had all been spent on management consultants. He said spending on consultancy was "highly targeted" to improve efficiency.

A detailed breakdown of the figures suggests that spending on management consultants came to around 50 million over the last three years, although a further 60 million was spent on outside project managers, another 27 million on research consultants and 28 million on outside legal advice.

Opposition MPs seized on the figures as a further example of wastefulness at Defra.

Mr George, the MP for St Ives, said there was little evidence that using so many consultants had improved performance at the department.

"The figures are extraordinarily large," he said. "If they are paying consultants at great expense to tell them they are not doing a very good job or that the Rural Payments Agency is not very well thought of then they could save themselves a lot of money. Farmers would tell them that for free. Consultants are usually employed to work on specific, technical projects. The fact that they are using so many year in, year out suggests they are being used to bolster the authority of badly made decisions."

Angela Browning, a former Conservative agriculture minister and MP for Tiverton and Honiton, suggested Defra's use of consultants should be examined by Parliament's spending watchdog, the National Audit Office (NAO).

Mrs Browning, a member of the Commons public accounts committee, said: "It sounds like a large sum, but we probably need the NAO to do an analysis to know if we are getting bang for our buck. The question is does it represent value for money?"

A Defra spokesman insisted that the use of consultants was justified. "We use professional services to help deliver front-line services more effectively and efficiently," he said. "It is important that we do this right and the use of highly targeted consultancy is a key mechanism in achieving this."

The Lib-Dems' environment spokesman Norman Baker was scathing about Defra's use of consultants. "These figures will come as no surprise to farmers, fishermen or environmentalists," he said.

"Defra ministers always insist they are prepared to listen and now we know who they've been listening to.

"With many British farmers struggling to make ends meet and environmental projects crying out for funding, why is the Government throwing so much money at private consultants when it has its own civil servants and independent experts queuing up to give free advice?"