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Defra criticised for lack of budget transparency

MPs from Defra’s watchdog committee have criticised the department for a lack of transparency on its budget and limited actions to improve staff morale.

In its assessment of Defra’s performance in 2013-14, the environment, food and rural affairs (Efra) committee urged the department to clarify how it had found the additional £130m it had used to address floods in winter 2013.

The MPs said they could not reconcile figures provided by Defra and that they wanted more details on an “internal re-prioritisation”, which the department had cited as a source of additional funding. Defra said it was “not possible” to identify specific budgets that were reduced as part of the move.

The Efra committe also renewed its calls for further clarity on how the department intended to carry through planned budget reductions next year when funding from central Government will be cut from £2.6bn in 2014-15 to £2.3bn.

“It is frustrating that our concerns about the lack of clarity surrounding pending budget reductions have not been addressed,” said the committee report. “We reiterate our previous recommendation that the secretary of state must be clearer about where budget cuts will fall and what impact this will have on Defra’s policy delivery.”

The committee feared that, given the department’s wide remit, the cuts may be across the board rather than part of a strategic plan.

But Defra permanent secretary Bronwyn Hill assured this would not happen, saying: “It is certainly not a case of salami-slicing. It is about focusing more on the outcomes and not doing things that do not achieve those outcomes and objectives.”

The Efra committee also urged Defra to do more to improve staff engagement after the latest survey indicated morale had improved in comparison with 2012, but was still below the levels of other departments.

In the 2013 poll, only 35% of staff said they believed Defra was well managed, up six percentage points from the previous survey but nine percentage points below the average among civil servants.

The committee welcomed a series of actions that Defra had taken to tackle the issue, including setting up training programmes for employees, but criticised a lack of monitoring for such activities.

“This is not the first year that the department’s staff survey results have been disappointing and, in addition to taking responsibility, senior managers need to commit to taking action to address these results,” the report said.

Hill was quoted in the report acknowledging that further measures were needed.

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