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11:00 - 29 July 2004

Shadow Rural Affairs Secretary Tim Yeo savagely attacked the Government's rural record yesterday, as the Conservatives unveiled plans for deep cuts at the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Speaking at the launch of the Tories' latest analysis of Government "waste", Mr Yeo said there was huge scope for cutting unnecessary bureaucracy and trimming costs.

The review suggested that almost 500 million a year could be slashed from Defra's budget, losing more than 4,000 jobs, without having an impact on core services.

Coming on top of the Government's own plans for "radical" reform of Defra, the latest move will increase pressure on a department which has been heavily criticised in the Westcountry for failing to get to grips with the problems facing farming and rural communities.

Mr Yeo, who has held the post for just six weeks, but is a former Environment Minister and Shadow Agriculture Minister, said he was shocked by the department's failure to adjust to the changing problems of farming and the countryside.

"Coming back to the Defra brief after several years, I am struck very forcibly by how little things have moved on," he said.

"The questions, and lack of answers, seem to be almost entirely the same. There are few areas of Government where the clients of the department - whether they are farmers, rural businesses, fishermen or environmentalists - are more frustrated and dissatisfied with its performance."

Mr Yeo's comments came as the Tories released the latest findings of a review of Government waste conducted by the troubleshooter businessman David James, who was brought in by Labour to turn around the fortunes of the ailing Millennium Dome.

The review called for major cuts in Defra's spending and role, including scrapping the Food Standards Agency's advertising budget, slashing core staff by 1,200, cutting Environment Agency staff by 1,300 and selling 424 million of surplus land owned by British Waterways.

Last week, the Rural Affairs Secretary Margaret Beckett launched the Government's own package of efficiency measures at Defra, which will see 2,400 jobs go over the next three years.

Ministers last night poured scorn on the Tory review, saying many of the proposals were unworkable.

Rural Affairs Minister Alun Michael said: "Defra's efficiency programme is amongst the toughest in Whitehall. The Tories' proposals are uninformed and potentially disastrous."