Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Whitehall's Worst Department

The soaraway winner

These days the selection of Whitehall's very worst department is a tricky one. The Department for Work and Pensions will be the choice of many, with its 120,000 staff presiding over a shambolic unauditable £125bn morass of incomprehensible state hand-outs.

Then again, there's the Department of Health, that's managed to double spending in five years only to produce a cash crisis and a further collapse of service standards. Not to mention that crackpot £50bn super-computer.

Or maybe it's the Home Office, relentlessly pressing ahead with its multi-billion Big Brother state for law-abiding citizens, while totally failing to grip the violent crime rampaging through our streets.

But despite such stiff competition, one of the old favourites is still very strongly in contention- the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs.

Let's start with the their website. That currently has a special feature proclaiming "Defra encourages travellers to reduce their effect on the environment" (nice pic reproduced above). And yet it turns out Commissar Beckett is actually one of Britain's most frequent flyers, presumably accompanied by the usual retinue of Defra bureacrats:

"Mrs Beckett, whose department is responsible for reducing carbon emissions and air travel across government, has cost the taxpayer more than £100,000 on 110 flights in three years. Her department has not offset the carbon emissions from the flights. Other than ministers with an overseas brief and Tony Blair, Mrs Beckett cost the taxpayer more in flights than any other minister.

She has made repeated public statements about the environmental dangers of air travel. In November 2004 she told a conference in Berlin: “I am advised that, by 2030, in the UK alone, emissions from aircraft could represent a quarter of our total contribution to global warming.” That year Mrs Beckett used the RAF’s VIP services to travel to Greece, Sweden, Belgium, Luxembourg and Italy at a cost of more than £51,000."

Then there's Bird Flu. According to Magnus Linklater, if Defra had been doing its job properly we could have tested that illegal immigrant dead swan in hours rather than the scary eternity it actually took:

"There is a device called a Rapid PCR machine to carry out instant diagnosis of diseases such as swine fever, foot-and-mouth and avian flu. It costs about £40,000 per machine, with each individual test costing £3 a time. It can be operated by any trained vet. Professor Roger Breeze, former head of the US Department of Agriculture’s laboratory at Plum Island, looking at the tests carried out in Britain after the discovery of the Cellardyke swan, has calculated that just nine of these devices, located across Scotland, would have cost less than £500,000 and done the job of testing 1,000 suspect birds in a tenth of the time that it took to ship them south to Weybridge."

£500,000. Compare that to Defra's annual budget of £6bn.

Then there's the fiasco at Defra's Rural Payments Agency (see previous post). As we know, Defra's insistence on some ludicrously overcomplicated admin system means that the vast majority of English farmers have not yet received CAP payments for last year. Yes, of course, we're all opposed to CAP payments, but cutting them purely by means of administrative shambles is less than ideal. Not only could the farmers sue, but it now turns out that unless we pay by end-June, the EU will fine us:

"After [30 June], one per cent a day of the outstanding payments has to come from the Treasury [rather than the EU]. After three months, all of it will have to."

And it could be up to £1.5bn.

In a fantasy world of political integrity, Commissar Beckett would have resigned long ago. In the real world of Labour government, there's zero chance that will happen.

And in some extraordinary sense, you end up thinking maybe it's best if she doesn't go. Defra has always been a bureaucratic shambles, a second division department fundamentally conflicted in its responsibilities to both farmers and consumers. Moreover these days, it is actually little more than an executive agency of the EU: a National Audit Office report in the wake of Defra's fridge mountain fiasco found that two-thirds of departmental regulations are actually EU regs, suitably "gold plated" by Defra bureaucrats for infliction on us.

Airtour freebies, plague swans, EU fines, fridge mountains, BSE, foot and mouth...on any basis Defra is a strong candidate for Worst Whitehall Department. And having one of Westminster's least appealing politicos at the helm seems entirely fitting.

Now, if we can just get those pesky voters to draw the obvious conclusions...

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