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Environment ministers pressed on cuts

Environment ministers refused to admit today whether the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs' budget was being cut.

Shadow environment secretary Nick Herbert twice challenged junior environment minister Dan Norris at question time.

But the minister declined to give a direct answer, saying only that the Government was looking carefully to deliver efficiency and value for money.

Mr Herbert said: "It appears the recession is already taking its toll on Defra, which has had its budget cut by £200 million since the Pre-Budget Report.

"Will you confirm to rural communities that Defra's budget is frozen for the next three years - what the Prime Minister calls a zero per cent rise - which means in real terms it will be cut?"

Mr Norris told him: "The figures are published and you are capable of accessing that information and reading them for yourself."

Mr Herbert asked why the minister wouldn't have the courage to at least repeat what "the Secretary of State (Hilary Benn) admitted on Any Questions last week that the Defra budget is 'going to be less'.

"Rural communities are being hit hard in this recession and want the truth about what lies ahead.

"Because of rising unemployment and debt interest the Government's own plans show spending cuts of at least 7% in every department.

"Why won't you be straight and admit that Defra is already cutting and, because of this Government's mismanagement of the economy, it's going to have to cut spending even more."

Mr Norris told him: "I'm not going to take any lessons from you about this.

"Let's be clear, if you were in government now, you would be cutting the figures immediately.

"We are looking to take in mind efficiency because it's very important that we deliver value for money."

Earlier Tory Michael Jack (Fylde), environment select committee chairman, asked Environment Minister Jim Fitzpatrick what cuts in services would flow from Mr Benn's admission that from 2011 the size of his budget would be reduced.

Mr Fitzpatrick said the Department continuously reviewed its budget and looked to be as efficient as possible.

"There is no threat from the statement Mr Benn (made). We will continue to examine our budget and make sure the Department runs as efficiently as possible."