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MPs request clarity on Defra policy-making

The decisions and evidence underpinning certain Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs policies have been questioned by a group of MPs.

In its report on Defra, the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee asks the department to evaluate certain policies, including the controversial cull of badgers to stop the spread of bovine TB and biodiversity offsetting, to include further evidence.

Published on 7 January, the committee’s report notes that while a decade-long randomised badger-culling trial found that 70 per cent of badgers in an area must be removed for the cull to reduce TB in cattle, the government’s pilot culls last year killed only 65 and 43 per cent of badgers in the pilot areas and were still declared a success. Conservative Defra minister Owen Paterson announced on 2 December that the pilots laid the ground for a full, four-year cull.

The report also questions the reductions made to the government’s badger population numbers—the figures were revised downwards twice since the announcement of the pilot culls. "Accurate estimates of the local badger population are crucial if the success of a cull is to be accurately judged," the MPs state. "Repeated revision of those estimates undermines confidence in the process." The reports also adds that one pilot cull was granted more time by Defra to help it reach the 70 per cent target against the advice by David Macdonald, chairman of Natural England’s science advisory committee.

The report calls for an evaluation of the cull to include evidence of whether badgers left cull zones and spread bovine TB into neighbouring areas. "We invite the government to set out why the first year of the pilots failed to achieve the target figure in the allotted time and what changes are required in order for the planned future culls to be effective,” says the report, adding that the “committee will continue to monitor developments in this area”.

The report also questions why the government is going ahead with plans for biodiversity offsetting when the results of related pilots are not yet known. The pilots are due to conclude in April 2014, but the government has said that interim results are already influencing its policy on biodiversity offsetting. “The government does not want to delay the introduction of biodiversity offsetting if it can deliver more for the economy and the environment,” the government has stated in a green paper. The committee, however, argues: “The government has initiated six pilot offsetting projects and it is difficult to understand why it does not wish to assess these properly before embarking on a wider roll-out.”

The chairwoman of the committee, Conservative MP for Thirsk and Malton Anne McIntosh, said: “The jury is still out on biodiversity offsetting so ideology must not trump the robust scientific appraisal of sufficient evidence gathered during a pilot designed to test the efficacy of this policy.”

The committee also addresses the issue of charging customers for single-use plastic bags, questioning the government’s decision to wait until 2015 before introducing this policy. “We are disappointed that the charge will not come into effect in England until 2015, despite evidence of its success in reducing plastic carrier bag usage in other parts of the UK and Ireland…Given the evidence elsewhere, we recommend the early introduction of the charge.”

The MPs’ criticism follows that of 41 nature and environmental organisations that said in November 2013 that Defra had a “disregard for sound science”. Writing in Research Fortnight in September 2013, Defra’s chief scientist Ian Boyd said that the department was reviewing how it commissions and uses research.

The report also notes the low morale among staff in the department, and urges Defra to do something about this. It adds that almost 10 per cent of staff have reported bullying or discrimination.

Finally, MPs urged Defra to decide the future of its Food and Environment Research Agency. The department announced in November 2013 that it was seeking a commercial partner to help run the agency, a move that has caused concern among staff.