A year ago, Secretary of State Margaret Beckett set up a taskforce to offer advice on "how to make DEFRA - already one of Whitehall's biggest regulators - into one of Whitehall's best regulators." The move - driven by concerns that the Department needs to be "smarter" at regulation - fits into the Government's "better regulation" agenda.
The taskforce, made up of senior civil servants and representatives of business, the public sector and academia, reported in early May. DEFRA is now drawing up an action plan to implement its 54 recommendations.
The review identified 867 legislative regulations overseen by DEFRA and its agencies, along with 54 codes of practice and guidance. The majority relate to agriculture, animal welfare, fisheries and food.
DEFRA oversees more than 30 enforcement bodies, with the Environment Agency and local authorities being the most important environmental regulators. The taskforce says it needs to examine its often "perfunctory" relationship with local authorities "as a matter of urgency".
In the environmental field, the taskforce identified 147 existing regulations applying to ecology, biodiversity and landscape and 101 covering public health. In contrast to agriculture, less than one third stemmed from EU legislation.
However, the environment accounts for more than a third of all regulatory proposals in the pipeline. Of the 75 new environmental measures, one third are EU proposals and one quarter concern implementation of EU legislation.
The taskforce says this "creates an impression of a steamroller of environmental regulation, rolling forward and impossible to stop." However, it believes that "classical regulation" may have reached a peak, mainly because EU policymakers are alive to the issue - and EU enlargement "will make it more difficult to regulate at all."
The review calls for new regulations to be accompanied by a simplification or removal of existing legislation, with greater use of "sunsetting" clauses and improved understanding of "cumulative burdens" on individual sectors.
More generally, the taskforce calls for a "step change" in DEFRA's approach to regulation - although many of its recommendations are rather vague. Much of its report is aimed mainly at agriculture and CAP reform, but its general recommendations will also affect DEFRA's environmental brief.
The main elements include: a clearer focus on outcomes; clearer accountabilities at the top of the Department served by a new Better Regulation Unit; a new "challenge function" to assess the merits of new and existing regulations; more effective use of impact assessments; and better management of interventions in the "regulatory lifecycle".
DEFRA and the Environment Agency recently developed a strategy for "modernising environmental regulation". This needs to be "revisited".
Some streamlining of regulators is also on the cards. The report backs Lord Haskins' proposals for a merger of the various countryside agencies - and suggests that similar action could be taken "in the areas of water, marine and energy".
The review offers general encouragement for a move away from traditional "command and control" regulation, and urges DEFRA to work harder to put this case in the formation of EU policy.
The taskforce notes that "in some areas DEFRA has a good record of pioneering market-based instruments" - although its use of the troubled UK emissions trading scheme as an example is perhaps a poor choice (see p 34 ). However, it stops short of repeating the common presumption in favour of market mechanism, and stresses that "the key consideration has to be whether the intervention is effective."
In a warning shot, it warns that "the satisfaction of business interests is at best a partial representation of the overall 'good' of a particular policy." However, understanding industries and adopting simple, clear and flexible approaches is seen as important. The review calls for DEFRA to set up business and other stakeholder focus groups and obtain public views through mechanisms such as citizens' juries.
Finally, the taskforce calls for a general policy statement about regulatory charging in a bid to bring "greater consistency and coherence where little exists at present." The requirement for many environmental regulators to recover their costs from business has been a long-standing complaint from many in industry.