Lord Haskins wants to break up the agriculture department to
give better value for money and help reduce bureaucracy
Peter Hetherington, regional affairs editor
Sunday July 13
Farming and country stewardship in England is
facing its biggest shakeup for more than 50 years. Pressure is mounting for a
new land management agency and the breakup of the two-year-old Department for
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).
Senior ministers will be
told shortly in a report they commissioned from the Labour peer Lord Haskins
that a radical overhaul of agriculture and countryside policy is needed to give
the taxpayer better value for money and to reduce bureaucracy.
Haskins' concern has been underlined by another report from three leading rural
academics, to be published shortly, which accuses the government of failing to
learn the lessons of the 2001 foot and mouth outbreak by continuing to support
farming at the expense of the rural economy.
It says neglect of this
wider dimension in the continuing debate about farming is a "worrying
indication" that the government has yet to come to grips with the state of the
The reports come amid concern that the livestock population
is rising much faster than anticipated, with little sign of the anticipated
shake-out in the industry after the foot and mouth epidemic.
have taken advantage of generous government compensation to restock, raising
fears that supply could eventually exceed demand again. This has led to some
farming experts accusing ministers of storing up problems by writing farmers a
Under Lord Haskins' proposals, a string of quangos, from
the countryside agency to English Nature and the forestry commission, would be
merged into one organisation. It would also have overall responsibility for 10
national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty.
review, which began last September, has set alarm bells ringing in parts of
Whitehall because he is likely to recommend that many centralised services
should be devolved to the regions.
His key recommendation will involve
slimming down Defra to purely a policy department, with its delivery functions
going to regional development agencies.
Lord Haskins, the former boss of
Northern Foods, has been feeding his proposals into a review of civil service
dispersal currently being undertaken for the government by Sir Michael Lyons,
who has been asked by ministers to identify which Whitehall departments, and
government agencies, can be moved out of London.
Lord Haskins said
yesterday that unless radical changes were made in the delivery of rural
support, the present system would be unable to cope with changes in the EU's
common agricultural policy.
He said he would be offering "strong, clear
opportunities for the regions" by taking delivery functions away from Defra.
"That is a message not just for Defra, but right across Whitehall ... nobody
quite knows when things go wrong whether it's a policy or a delivery
On the wider rural front, he envisages that a new land
management agency will take over statutory responsibility for a string of
agencies. He has identified 77 different funding streams in Defra alone. "The
complaints I get _ are that people are completely confused about what they are
The report by rural academics complains of a policy drift in
Whitehall after the 32-week foot and mouth outbreak, which cost the country
£8bn, according to the national audit office.
compensation payments to farmers for more than 6 million slaughtered livestock
put at £1.4bn, the NAO has pointed to both farmers and the wider
agricultural industry ripping off the taxpayer with inflated livestock
With farming swallowing up so much cash, the report from a
team led by Neil Ward, professor of human geography at Leeds University, bluntly
warns: "The neglect of the rural economy dimension in the formal learning
process is a worrying indication that wider rural policy lessons from foot and
mouth may not be learned."
Lord Haskins' report comes as the government
tries to move faster than other EU partners, particularly France and Germany, in
reforming Europe's £30bn annual support regime, which has led to
overproduction and "dumping" subsidised food in developing countries. Two weeks
ago EU farm ministers agreed only a diluted version of proposals for slashing
production subsidies. Consumer groups accused them of missing a golden
Their concerns gained new momentum at the weekend after the
resignation of the Home Office minister Michael Wills, who described the CAP as
a "grotesque protectionist racket".