DEFRA: A Failing Department

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After the mishandling of the Foot and Mouth epidemic, the creation of a new department to replace the failing MAFF initially raised hopes that the Government was finally taking rural issues seriously. Yet a catalogue of errors has shown DEFRA to be a department not up to handling the challenges of revitalising the countryside.

The formation of DEFRA was hasty. It is the department of the Environment - yet planning, housing and urban policy are outside its remit. It is the department of food - yet food safety is now apparently a matter for the Department of Health. It is the Department of Rural Affairs yet greenfield development is the responsibility of Transport & Local Government.

Unfortunately Conservative misgivings at the time have proved to be correct as we have witnessed broken promises, missed targets and administrative bungling. The events of the last eight months have seen our rural community become more alienated from a department that cannot get anything right.

Below are just some examples of the departments misguided policies and damagingly inefficient administration.

Foot & Mouth

The Foot and Mouth disaster continued after Blairs election triumph and the demotion of Nick Brown. It soon became apparent that the same incompetent officials were implementing the same ineffectual policies. Calls for a public inquiry from the Conservatives, the Trading Standards Institute and the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, among others, were rejected even as more evidence of MAFFs mistakes came to light.

It is staggering that a disaster that has cost tourism #5 billion in 2001 and the Exchequer up to #3 billion in compensation and lost tax revenues, is not belong subject to an inquiry. In addition to the financial cost, numerous questions need to be answered about the Governments handling of the crisis in order to prevent the same mistakes being made in the future.

Animal Health Bill

The deeply flawed animal health bill blames farmers for the outbreak, gives incompetent ministers draconian new powers, as well as totally failing to deal with the probable cause of FMD - imports.

The legislation is symbolic of DEFRAs failure to understand the rural community. Instead of considering what lessons could be learnt from the epidemic, Margaret Beckett refused an inquiry and rushed through hastily prepared legislation to cover up Government mistakes.

BSE Testing

It emerged in October that the brains that government scientists had spent five years testing were not, as they had thought, sheep but cows. The Independent called this an astonishing mix-up. The mistake has damaged the reputation of government scientists and of course DEFRA.

This staggering display of inefficiency resulted not only in an enormous waste of money, but also meant that the public will not know whether BSE existed in sheep when concerns about the disease were at their height.

Scrapie Testing

It seems that DEFRA and their scientists are in fact incapable of getting any test right. Soon after the brain mix up became public it transpired that tests done to identify Scrapie in sheep could not be trusted because of yet another labelling failure.

In addition to this, delays in returning blood samples have added to producers anxieties. Farmers Weekly remarked, DEFRAs inefficiency could threaten to undermine attempts to rid our national flock of this terrible disease (14 December 14 2001).

Departmental Makeover

Perhaps DEFRA should spend more time on labelling and less time trying to improve their image. Last month it emerged that the department was to pay an image consultant #20,000 for a makeover. This is an app alling waste of money. Rural Britain is still in crisis following Foot and Mouth and DEFRAs response is to waste its money on new logos.

Departmental Strike

It soon emerged that even those within DEFRA are dissatisfied with the department. Since the launch of the department and 14 January 2002, an astonishing 16,201 working days have been lost.

The action is a symptom of the hasty assembly of the department. Former MAFF staff are paid less than those who used to work in the Department for the Environment. Yet more money and time wasted whilst Britains countryside suffers. The strikes mean that support payments to farmers are suffering from severe delays.

The Rural Payments Agency has admitted that in the three weeks since payments began on 16 November only half the farmers in England have received arable subsidy cheques.

BSE Offspring

Controls to prevent meat possibly infected with BSE from entering the food chain have failed for the third time this year, the Government admitted on 14 February. The animals that have reached consumers were born to cows diagnosed with the disease and were meant to be kept under strict movement restrictions by farmers until they could be examined and destroyed by DEFRA.

One animal aged 15 months was slaughtered in December 2001 and put into the food chain; none of the meat is now left. The other, aged 26 months was slaughtered in January and some of the meat has entered the food chain. In addition it was revealed on 14 January 2002 that a 29 month old offspring of a cow with BSE had been slaughtered in an abattoir in Wales.

Eliot Morley has said, It is regrettable that a further two instances have come to light. We are urgently checking to see whether there are any more cases. The Government blames the foot-and-mouth crisis for delays in slaughter. As at February 4, 400 calves were waiting to be slaughtered.

There have been 13 confirmed cases of BSE in animals born after the introduction of the meat and bone meal ban in August 1996. However, the three cases this year have been the first in which the controls have broken down and meat entered the food chain.