Defra could be disbanded as the government embarks on another round of spending cuts, the Liberal Democrats have warned.
“I am hearing some worrying rumours,” said Kate Parminter, who is the Lib Dem deputy leader in the House of Lords and rural affairs spokeswoman.
“I am extremely concerned that this government is not taking seriously the need for strong leadership and that we may be facing Defra being disbanded.”
A disbanded Defra could see farming policy made the responsibility of the Department for Business, said Baroness Parminter.
She was speaking at an NFU/Food and Drink Federation (FDF) fringe event during the Lib Dem conference in Bournemouth on Tuesday (22 September).
It is not the first time Defra’s future has been in doubt. Similar rumours about plans to abolish Defra circulated ahead of the general election.
But this time, the threat is said to be more serious because the government has pledged to introduced such swingeing cuts.
Government bodies other than “protected” departments, such as health and education, face cuts of up to 40% in the government’s comprehensive spending review this autumn.
NFU vice-president Guy Smith acknowledged the argument that issues such as competitiveness and technology might sit better in the Department for Business (DfB).
But if Defra was disbanded, it was unclear who would deal with issues such as animal health and CAP reform.
Mr Smith said: “If we didn’t have a Defra, who would lead at the European Council of Ministers on CAP reform?
“It wouldn’t be clear – whereas we quite clearly at the moment have a minister who does lead on that issue.”
FDF director general Ian Wright said the federation would be strongly arguing for the retention of Defra as a department in its own right.
“It is really crucial that we have a food-orientated department that is interested in the growing, manufacturing and selling of food,” he said.
“It is really crucial that we have a food-orientated department that is interested in the growing, manufacturing and selling of food”
Ian Wright, Food and Drink Federation
Although food and farming matters could be dealt with by the DfB, unless the food and drink industry was singled out and given special treatment, it would not thrive or prosper, warned Mr Wright.
Even if Defra remained, it was certain big cuts were coming, he added.
“We know that over the past few years, Defra’s influence has been beneficial. There is a lot wrong with Defra but a specialist ministry that ensures the integrity of our food and drink industry is something that the consumer wants.”
A Defra spokeswoman said the content of the comprehensive spending review was a matter for the Treasury.
Chancellor George Osborne is due to announce where the axe will fall on 25 November.