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EDITIONS
Thursday, 14 November, 2002, 15:28 GMT
Defra 'fails to promote rural interests'
Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
The department was only set up last year
The Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is failing in its primary role of promoting the interests of rural areas, says an all-party group of MPs.

Bad management, a lack of focus and confusion about its own role within the department have all contributed to Defra appearing to be "a jack of too many trades and master of none", according to the MPs.

The hard hitting report from the environment, food and rural affairs select committee into the role of Defra says the department has failed to do enough to influence other areas of government to take account of rural needs.

Headed by Margaret Beckett, Defra was established as part of a government shake-up after last year's general election and following heavy criticism of the government's handling of the foot-and-mouth crisis.

Culture unchanged

Defra rose from the ashes of the discredited Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, taking on most of its former responsibilities, along with the green areas of the former environment, transport and regions "superministry".

Margaret Beckett
Margaret Beckett is the cabinet minister for the department
The aim was to lead renewal in rural areas and streamline decision-making.

But according to the report, the "significant change to the culture of the department is far from complete - indeed it has barely begun".

The committee urges the department to tackle a high turnover of inexperienced staff, and to take action to "make clear to them that their twin objectives are sustainable development and the protection of rural interests" - but adds that "we remain concerned about the ability of senior managers to ensure (the changes) take place".

The MPs call for regular reports from Defra on progress of the internal overhaul already under way within the department, "particularly the action it takes to rectify any deficiencies in the skills of senior managers".

Lack of priority

The report voices concern that the focus on promoting sustainable development has led to a lack of priority for rural concerns, and questions the effectiveness of Defra's influence on other departments.

"It is vital that, as with sustainable development, mechanisms are put in place to enable Defra to exercise influence over other government departments to ensure they take account of the rural dimension in policy-making," said the committee.

The department should make clear the "equal importance" of the rural aspect of its brief, and also "recognise its responsibility to help explain to urban Britain the issues for which it is responsible".

'Pessimistic'

Even with sustainable development, however, the MPs state that they "are pessimistic about Defra's ability to ensure that government departments will do more than pay lip service to the objectives of sustainable development".

The report also states that overlap between the department and other government bodies, such as the Countryside Agency, has contributed to a lack of focus at the expense of rural areas.

"Confusion about the respective roles of Defra and the Agency is affecting the delivery of services in rural communities."

Just last month, Prime Minister Tony Blair himself ordered an investigation into the running of the new department.

See also:

26 Oct 02 | Politics
01 Oct 02 | Politics
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