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Defra gifts £22m to payments quango

Ever heard of Natural England? You're paying for it...

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An answer sneaked out in the last days before parliament’s summer recess raises questions as to just what the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is spending its ICT budget on.

Because alongside a few tens of thousands spent on IT for sustainable development and animal health, and a slightly more impressive £5.6m spent on core Defra services, there is a whopping £40m going out to a body known as Natural England.

Not just this year, either: Natural England received £38m last year and £43m the year before, which ought to buy a lot of IT services.

So what is Natural England? And why does it need so much cash?

Natural England is one of those semi-autonomous entities, also known as an arm’s length statutory body. It was set up by the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006, with a remit to "ensure that the natural environment is conserved, enhanced and managed for the benefit of present and future generations, thereby contributing to sustainable development".

All good wholesome stuff. What, then, of the IT spend?

A large chunk of those payments go on a system known as Genesis. Or rather, they go on recharges to Defra for that system.

Defra built the system and still manages it: but responsibility now sits with Natural England. So Defra hands Natural England an appropriate sum of money – believed to be around £22m in the current year – and Natural England hands it straight back. This sum is meant to cover both depreciation and management cost.

Genesis itself is an IT system that manages payments of more than £400m to tens of thousands of farmers each year for "agri-environment schemes". It also incorporates, by law, "a complex mapping system that records the details of each farm covered by an agreement".

In addition to issuing payments, Genesis also runs an online application system for Natural England’s agri-environment schemes. The application system – ELS Online – provides farmers with a high degree of technical support, enabling them to calculate the size and value of farmland features such as hedgerows and buffer strips.

The remaining £17.6m or so that Natural England shells out on various forms of IT and communications in 2009-10 appears to be allocated mostly to telephony, using landline and mobile systems to help aid home-working (and as a result significantly reducing the need for offices) and an unspecified amount for IBM.

As part of the Defra Network, Natural England is a joint party to a contract with IBM for "essential IT services". However, any attempts to gain further insight into Natural England’s IT costs are rebuffed with a squawk of "commercially sensitive".

So are these payments extraordinary? Do they represent value for money? It's very hard to say, although a cynic might be tempted to wonder whether this complex game of pass the parcel with system budgets is genuinely conducive to good governance. Natural England, remember, is "independent": it may seek guidance from the secretary of state, but is under no obligation to follow any advice given.

We put in a call to Graham Evans, MP, who asked the question that set this particular ball rolling – but he is on holiday this week and therefore unavailable for comment. If he does get back to us with further insight, we’ll let you know. ®

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