Defra defends use of consultants as Lib Dems lash out at overspend

The Liberal Democrats has accused cash-strapped Defra of squandering millions on unnecessary consultants' fees but the department has hit back, claiming the money was well spent.

The Lib Dems have published figures showing how Defra has spent £170m on management consultants over the past five years and tried to link this expenditure to £200m of cuts it was forced to make, including headline-grabbing £15m from flood defences and £13m from the new flagship agency Natural England.

Chris Huhne MP, Liberal Democrat Shadow Environment Secretary said: “This is an astonishing amount of money to spend on management consultancy. Judging by the comprehensive management failures of the department, it is also money that has been shockingly badly spent.

“The Government seems to be addicted to management consultants but is completely unable to secure value-for-money from them.

“This sum of money is almost as large as the cuts that Defra is currently making in key services like flood defences, waterways and veterinary inspection to prevent threats to public safety.

“David Miliband must now get a grip on his department’s budget.”

But the department says the cuts have nothing to do with how much it has spent on consultants in past years.

“They are two separate issues,” a Defra spokeperson told edie.

“We have to spend money on management and business consultants to help deliver front-line public services – from climate change to food production – more effectively.

“It is important to note that there is absolutely no presumption in favour of consultancy, but rather a sensible economical approach to investing in additional labour costs as and when necessary.

“To put the figures in perspective, the amount spent on management and business consultancy was less than 4% of Defra’s expenditure on goods, works and services in 2005/06 and less than 7% even in 2004/05.

“The investment in consultants over the last five years and this year’s in-year review are not comparable issues.”

She said that retaining staff with the specialism and expertise offered by consultants would be more expensive than hiring them in on a job-by-job basis.

“They can often provide good value for money. It allows us to spend that money when we need to and means we don’t have staff to retain when we don’t need it.”

At the Environment Agency’s conference in London this week David Miliband was quizzed about Defra’s clout with the Treasury and asked how effective his department could be without increased funding.

The Secretary responded that, having inherited a department financial problems, the worst thing he could have done would be to go back to Government financiers with cap in hand asking for them to bail.

The solution as he saw it was to get his house in order, show it was being well managed and therefore convince those controlling the purse strings that Defra is a safe bet and funding would be well spent.

Sam Bond

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie