The future viability of Defra has again been cast into doubt after Chancellor George Osborne announced plans to cut some departmental budgets by up to 40 per cent.
Defra’s budget has already been cut to what many observers believe to be its limit since 2010, as the Chancellor as battled to reduce the huge Government budget deficit.
In June, it was asked to save a further £83 million in 2015-16, taking its budget to around £2.2 billion, compared with £3bn in 2010/11.
This pales into insignificance compared with what could be to come.
On Tuesday, Mr Osborne launched the 2015 Spending Review setting out plans for a further £20bn of savings over the next five years.
He has asked non-protected Departments, which include Defra, to draw up plans to deliver between 25 and 40 per cent of cuts to their resource budgets by 2019/20. Final details will be announced on November 25. “We’ll deliver more with less,” he said.
Mr Osborne said: We’ll invest in our priorities like the NHS and national security.
"Elsewhere in government, departments will have to find significant savings through efficiencies and by devolving power, so people have a greater say over the issues that affect them and their communities. We’ll deliver more with less."
NFU president Meurig Raymond described the potential cuts as ‘absolutely frightening’ for a Department of Defra’s already-reduced size.
With Mr Osborne having indicated a willingness to protect flood spending, Mr Raymond said the cuts would leave Defra ‘very bare for carrying out its responsibilities’ such as driving its food and farming strategy, regulation and animal health policy.
"We are trying with Government to develop a 25-year food and farming strategy, including championing British food at home and abroad. If resources are going to be cut by that amount you question whether the Department can function correctly and play that role,” he said.
But he said the ‘biggest fear’ was the prospect of Defra ‘looking for cost recovery’ on bovine TB control and other regulatory areas to recoup its losses. “That would be unacceptable at a time when every sector is suffering huge financial pain,” he said.
He said was vital Defra made the necessary investment in controlling TB, including rolling out the badger cull, in order to get on top of the disease and start reducing its annual £100m cost.
Asked whether Defra’s future was in doubt, he said: “I would urge the Government to consider the long-term of the industry. Without the resources and without a championing Department it is impossible to deliver on food security and growing the rural economy.
"Every other country has that Department championing food and farming and I expect the same from our Government.”
National Sheep Association chief executive Phil Stocker said he possible cuts were a ‘real concern’.
“Defra is already pared back to the bone and if we are not careful it is going to have to cut back on essential services like disease surveillance and control. The Government needs to invest in an industry that is crucial to our future," he said.
Andrew Bauer, NFU Scotland’s deputy director of policy said “We accept that savings need to be made but it will be important that key services to farming and the environment are not undermined.
"Similarly it is vital that Defra’s commitment to review CAP budget convergence decision is not undermined or derailed due to this decision, and NFUS will continue to push Defra Ministers to set out a clear timeline for this review of CAP budgets across the UK.”
Maria Eagle MP, Labour’s Shadow Environment Secretary said: “Defra has faced some of the deepest cuts of any department over the last five years, forcing the Government to scale back important work on climate adaptation and waste management.
A Defra spokesman said: “Flood defence targets to better protect 300,000 households will not be affected.”