Brexit a "golden opportunity" for Defra, says department's former chief

Former Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs perm sec Bronwyn Hill tells CSW that Brexit offers the chance to rethink UK's rural subsidy system

By Civil Service World

15 Feb 2017

Britain's looming exit from the European Union offers a "golden opportunity" to reset the country's approach to agricultural policy, according to the former permanent secretary of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Defra currently distributes some £3bn a year of European Union Common Agricultural Policy funds to farmers in the UK, with an entire organisation – the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) – set up to oversee this task. 

The department's own analysis suggests that a quarter of the 1,200 EU laws in force in the UK relate to Defra's work, while the ministry also has a key role to play in upholding EU-wide environmental standards.

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Despite the department's major role in implementing Brexit and designing a new subsidy system for farmers, a number of commentators have pointed out that Defra's funding has been drastically reduced in recent years, with recent Institute for Government analysis showing that the department's budget is now 17% down on 2010 levels.

The department is also part-way through a major transformation programme kicked off by last year's Spending Review, which will see its central London presence shrink over the next three years.

But, speaking to CSW, Bronwyn Hill – who stepped down as Defra's top official in 2015 after four years at the helm – said she believed the department was up to the job.

"I’m confident my colleagues in Defra will rise to the challenge, but it’s certainly true that Defra has one of the most challenging jobs ahead, given how much law and regulation comes from Brussels, and how much interest there will be in preserving the good things about environmental protection whilst making us implement it in a cheaper, quicker, more effective way," she said.

And the former perm sec also sought to highlight the opportunities presented by Brexit, saying: "I used to bang my head regularly against the wall in trying to get reform of the Common Agricultural Policy in Europe. Twenty-seven member states: it’s quite difficult to change.

"I think Defra does have a golden opportunity to think through Brexit into: how do we support and encourage good quality sustainable food and farming while protecting the environment?"

Hill's view chimes with that of her successor Clare Moriarty, who wrote late last year that EU exit was a "unique moment" for Defra that allowed the department "to create new approaches that fit the needs of people today in this country".

"I’ve been seeing our policy and delivery professionals at their best, going back to first principles and relying heavily on evidence to make recommendations to ministers," she said.

"It is hard to overstate how professionally exciting this is for all of us and I look forward to leading my first-class team here at Defra in helping to build the future."

But the scale of the challenge facing the department was once again highlighted by MPs last week, with the Public Accounts Committee warning that the Rural Payments Agency's recent troubles in administering EU payments did not bode well for the post-Brexit world.

"The Department's record of failure when developing systems to support subsidy payments to farmers does not inspire confidence in its ability to cope with the challenges associated with Brexit that lie ahead," the committee said.

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