Farmers could be forced to contribute more towards the costs of animal health control on the back of further cuts to the Defra budget, NFU president Meurig Raymond has warned.
Defra has been asked to make a further £83 million of cuts in 2015-16 as Chancellor George Osborne orders savings of £3bn across non-protected government departments in the current financial year. It comes ahead of a deeper cuts programme to be announced in his July Budget.
The Department’s cuts amount to nearly 4 per cent of its budget, which had already been heavily slashed during the previous Parliament. Its 2015/16 budget of £2.3 billion, before the latest cuts, contrasted with a budget of £3bn budget in 2010/11.
According to the Institute for Government think tank, Defra was second only to the Department for Transport in the severity of cuts as a proportion of its budget.
A Defra spokesperson said the savings would be made through increased efficiencies across Defra and its network and by ‘identifying and stopping any low priority spend’.
He highlighted a £250,000 project committed to tackling problems caused by urban seagulls as an example of where the axe would fall.
“This will not affect Defra’s capabilities to deliver their important deliverables: including the better protection of 300,000 homes through the £2.3bn flood defence scheme announced at Autumn Statement 2014,” he said.
Farming industry leaders were not convinced by Defra’s reassurances about where the cuts will be made.
Mr Raymond pointed out the latest cuts came on top of recent heavy reductions from a budget ‘where there are so many demands’.
He said: “The Department is already under-resourced and we are obviously concerned when you see a reduction of £80 million out of a budget of just £2.3bn.
“It is a fair chunk on money and any reduction is a worry as we don’t know where the axe is going to fall.
“The big concern, with so many demands on Defra, we could end up with more demands for cost recovery for animal health. At a time when the industry is suffering very badly on output values, that would be difficult.”
Defra’s animal health budget, in particular is under immense strain and the Department and the Animal Health and Welfare Board for England has been looking for a while at areas where costs could be passed onto farmers, particularly in bovine TB policy, which eats up a huge chunk of the budget.
Mr Raymond cited TB testing as an example of where the Government might look to recover costs.
“We know the cost of bovine TB is increasing and until the Government delivers the strategy in full to help get the disease under control, it is not going to fall."
Country Land and Business Association president Henry Robinson said the CLA would work with the Department to ensure priority areas were protected.
"Defra is an important department that does crucial work to create a regulatory framework that is a vital factor in how rural businesses make decisions,” he said.
“It also provides an essential administrative role in administering support payments.
“We will work closely with officials to help them understand how they can achieve their objectives and ensure priority work like administering basic payments, tackling animal and plant disease and ensuring regulatory enforcement is efficient and targeted.”