Andrew Arbuckle: It's time to strip away dead wood of government bodies

There are some farm jobs that are more enjoyable than others. Obvious joys are harvesting, lambing, and even ploughing. But another job that I always enjoyed was tidying up an overgrown stack yard or an old tool shed.

There was always a degree of satisfaction in scything or strimming down the long grass or emptying out dusty boley holes full of old tools. In both cases, you were always likely to come across items that once were much used but were now passed over by life.

I wonder if UK Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman had that same sense of satisfaction last week when she cleared out a few dusty old cul-de-sacs in the Defra offices and in so doing dispatched to the waste bin some 30-odd quangos.

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I wonder what she was thinking as she sat behind her desk putting her red pen through those bodies that were no longer deemed to be necessary - and when, by the end of the day, she found that she had removed one third of the "arm's length bodies".

While the cull was headlined with the departure of the Agricultural wages board (AWB), there were also agricultural wages committees and no fewer than 16 agricultural dwelling house advisory committees consigned to the bin.

In her public statement, Spelman said she was taking steps to make government more efficient. Something along the lines of "government should only do what government has to do", I think it was.

The other reason for the clear-out was that Defra has to trim its spending as part of the UK government budget-balancing exercise.

Financially, I do not think the departure of these 30-odd quangos will make much of a contribution to the millions of pounds that have to be taken out of the 3 billion Defra budget, but it at least shows a willingness to reduce the size of government.

Spelman added that she was not yet finished looking at the rest of the arm's-length bodies. Anyone who has the stamina to look at the Defra website will see a number of other cull candidates among the (take deep breath) non-departmental public bodies, the executive non-departmental bodies and the advisory non-departmental bodies.

Defra is a diffuse organisation with committees looking after such facilities as Kew Gardens, Covent Garden, British Waterways, the National Forest Company and six different National Parks Authorities as well as advisory committees on TB, BSE and pesticides.

I am sure there is further scope for a tidy up or spring clean.

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I personally did not see any great wave of anger at her moves last week. In fact, the departure of the AWB and the other quangos were generally welcomed south of the Border and viewed enviously in Scotland.

However, while Westminster is going through a period of trimming government, the opposite seems to be the case in Europe. No sooner has one piece of legislation or regulation come into being than there seems to be another dozen or so being brought forward by MEPs.

Last week, we were reminded that the Working Time Directive is coming back on the agenda to further stifle the scope of those who want to work beyond what the politicians consider to be a working week.

Animal transport legislation is also potentially coming back for further strengthening, but note, not further enforcement. And so the weight of legislation and regulation from Europe will continue to grow. During my short period in the Scottish Parliament, I often thought it resembled a legislative sausage factory with a production line of new laws coming in.

Scotland at least had the excuse that no one had directly been making new laws for hundreds of years so there was a bit of catching up to do.

But, I always held the thought that the civil servants were happy as long as the politicians were making new laws as this pastime did not interfere with the Sir Humphreys running of the country.

Perhaps the answer for all legislative assemblies is for a "sunset clause" to be inserted in all legislation. The law would be in force for, say, ten years and it would cease to be if not brought back to parliament for an MOT.

That would keep the politicians busy without bringing in more new laws.

It would also remove the need to have a big spring clean and sort out the dead wood.