Beckett attacked for inefficiencies

By Robert Uhlig, Farming Correspondent
(Filed: 24/07/2003)

Margaret Beckett's department is not operating efficiently and is still
failing to recruit and retain staff with the right mix of skills, a
committee of MPs said yesterday.

An all-party Commons committee delivered a withering assessment of the
Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs' performance, although it
conceded that its latest departmental report showed a great improvement over

It said: "Our principal concern continues to be that Defra lacks the
capacity to deliver adequately across its very broad remit and particularly
that it lacks the ability to recruit and retrain staff with the right
mixture of skills."

The MPs were told by Sir Brian Bender, Defra's permanent secretary, that the
skills required of civil servants had changed a great deal in the past 30
years. He said leadership, project management skills and the ability to work
in partnership with others had become increasingly important.

But the MPs said yesterday: "The report does not adequately reflect this,
and does not explain what Defra is doing to ensure these partnerships work

"In general, it is still too hard for the reader to garner from the
departmental report how the department has used its resources in terms of
both finances and skills, to achieve its objectives."

The select committee's report comes as the Prime Minister's most senior
rural adviser is finishing a report on the role of Defra. It is expected to
recommend a break-up of the department and a radical overhaul of rural
policy to give better value for money.

Lord Haskins's report, which will be delivered to Tony Blair this month and
published in the autumn, contains 35 recommendations he believes will lead
to the greatest shake-up in rural policy for 40 years.

Although Defra's role is to promote sustainable development across
Government, Lord Haskins believes it is still too preoccupied with farming
and over-centralised to deliver its objectives.

Yesterday's report by the environment, food and rural affairs select
committee backed Lord Haskins' findings, pointing out that Defra's ability
to meet many of the 10 targets set last year is not directly under the
department's control.

The MPs said: "Public service agreements are only helpful for Parliament's
scrutiny of Government if they relate to measurable, attributable outcomes.

"This is not the case for many of Defra's targets and we recommend that
Defra move towards PSA targets that are more readily auditable."