Floods not the only worry for Defra

tide Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Storm surges and high tides have caused flooding problems across the UK

Given the furious storms and relentless flooding that Britain has endured over the past two months, it is little wonder that reports about MPs criticisms of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) should focus on budget cuts and their impact on flood defences.

But the Departmental Annual Report 2012-13 covers much more than just soggy ground and surging tides, and it deserves some attention.

Secretary of State Owen Paterson has been in charge of Defra since September 2012 and with the ash dieback crisis, the horse meat saga, the badger cull and extreme weather, he has rarely been out of the headlines.

All these events have made running a department with a diminishing budget much more difficult.

But the MPs are worried that perhaps the limited money in hand is not being spent in the wisest manner.

They are worried that staff morale in Mr Paterson's department is well below the average for the civil service. They point to the fact that 25% of senior staff received performance related bonuses of between £10,000 and £12,000 last year.

"We are surprised, however, by the discrepancy between the amount of bonus paid to senior staff and that paid to more junior staff," the MPs write.

Many observers might be surprised that bonuses were being paid at all, given the cuts of £500m the department has been asked to make since 2010.

The MPs also look closely at a number of critical policy issues, including the controversial badger cull to curb bovine TB.

Cull questions continue

They are troubled by the fact that both trials carried out last year failed to reach the 70% reduction in badger numbers that was said to be needed to reduce incidence of TB.

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Image caption Villages like Muchelney in Somerset, have been cut off for days

"We invite the Government to set out why the first year of the pilots failed to achieve the target figure in the allocated time," says the report.

They are also concerned about the accuracy of badger population estimates, which were twice substantially reduced.

"Repeated revision of those estimates undermines confidence in the process," the MPs write.

"The Government must demonstrate whether there is any evidence of badgers moving from the cull zones into neighbouring areas and thereby risking the spread of bovine TB."

The MPs are also cool on the idea of biodiversity offsetting, the controversial idea that damage to habitats caused by development can be mitigated by creating replacement habitats in other places.

They urge Mr Paterson to proceed cautiously.

"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 rollout."

But one area where they want the Secretary to speed up is plastic bags. The MPs are "disappointed" that a charge for single-use plastic carrier bags will not come into effect in England until 2015.

Introducing this more rapidly would be a "quick win" in the words of the committee.

Given the choppy waters in which he is presently sailing, perhaps Mr Paterson could do with one?

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