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Defra defends its line on watchdog’s criticisms

The Government has responded to concerns raised by Defra’s watchdog on the upcoming plastics bag levy and low morale among the department’s employees.

In its Ninth Report of Session 2013–14, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee said a 5p charge on single-use carrier bags in England should be implemented sooner than the current 2015 deadline, following the success of plastic bag levies in Northern Ireland and Wales.

In its response to the committee’s report (file right), Defra said it needed time to prepare the introduction of the levy.

“The charge will not come into effect until 2015 because of the time needed to prepare secondary legislation and work on details, such as exemptions, and the time needed for retailers to prepare for the change.”

The department reiterated it was working on including an exemption for biodegradable bags, but this would be done only after the completion of studies on decreasing the environmental impact of plastics polymers and on separating biodegradable bags from the waste stream.

“This work will run in parallel to the work on a charge and will not delay the introduction of the charge in 2015. We will legislate for the biodegradable bag exemption once a suitable bag is developed and standards are set,” said Defra.

The EFRA committee had also raised concerns over Defra’s management of its staff, reporting evidence of low morale, lack of confidence and even bullying.

The committee noted that an annual survey of people employed within government departments known as the Engagement Index indicated that Defra’s staff morale was in decline and lower than in other departments in 2012.

Defra responded that it had seen “some improvements” as the 2013 survey suggested the employee engagement score had increased from 50% to 52%.

“However, we acknowledge there is more work to do,” said the department. “Defra and its executive agencies are developing action plans to sustain and improve on this, with a particular focus on vision and purpose, communications, leadership and change, and learning and development.”

The EFRA Committee had also said it was “surprised” by the discrepancy between the bonuses Defra paid to senior staff and junior staff and suggested a review of the practice could help improve the sentiment among employees.

Defra responded that the discrepancy resulted from rules set by the Cabinet Office that did not allow the transfer of funding from the Senior Civil Service (SCS) non-consolidated performance pay pot to that for staff below SCS.

“If we were to use the 1% envelope available for the annual pay award for bonuses for staff below SCS it would result in lower consolidated pay increases which would adversely affect staff morale. We will draw the Committee’s concerns to the attention of the Cabinet Office,” said Defra.

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