WEDNESDAY 14 NOVEMBER 2001
Mr David Curry, in the Chair
Mr David Borrow
Mr Colin Breed
Mr David Drew
Mr Michael Jack
Mr David Lepper
Mr Eric Martlew
Mr Austin Mitchell
Mr Mark Todd
RT HON MARGARET BECKETT, a Member of Parliament, Secretary of State, and MR BRIAN BENDER CB, Permanent Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, examined.
1. Secretary of State, and Permanent Secretary, welcome to the Committee. As I have just explained outside, we are in this rather cavernous room which once again means people making sure that they speak loudly otherwise it is quite difficult to hear. The main purpose of the meeting is to look at DEFRA as a Ministry and how it is constituted and its purposes. If I may, there are one or two bits of sweepings I would like to begin with to clear out of the way on other issues. We have had, as I understand it, a veterinary assessment about the resumption of hunting in areas unaffected for some time now but not a decision. Are you able, Secretary of State, to tell us when you hope to be able to make the decision?
(Margaret Beckett) If you will bear with me for a second, Mr Curry, while I work out what day it is!
- Wednesday 14.
(Margaret Beckett) Thank you, that is very kind.
- Of November!
(Margaret Beckett) Imminently, and I really mean imminently. Certainly days rather than weeks and possibly less than that.
- I think we can probably nail that one down. The second one is I wonder if I could draw your attention to the continuing problems with the Department's database and computers. We had Jim Scudamore in a couple of weeks ago and he said it was working as well as could be expected given that it was very complicated. I then had an unsolicited e-mail from North Yorkshire Trading Standards which says: AI see from the notes that Jim Scudamore says the DEFRA=s computerised licensing system is working reasonable well. Up to a point. I thought you might be interested in the following: there are 108 fixes/changes (that we know of) that need addressing (in fairness some have been addressed) but DEFRA are asking us for our top ten a week. At the current rate of progress it will be after Xmas before they are all addressed." They then went and had a virus the same day. I must emphasise I have raised this with the regional operations director so he is dealing with it. Then I had a farmer phone me yesterday to say, "Can you help me get this licence movement, it has got stuck." The problem was when his holding number was brought up on the screen in Leeds 43 farms appeared as having the same holding number but his was not one of them. He said, "They have blood tested my sheep, I pay taxes, I do everything else, but I do not appear to exist for this purpose," so there are some clear problems in that area to be addressed. I know you recognise it, I just want to make the point.
(Mr Bender) Can I respond, Mr Curry, very briefly. We recognise that the problems we have had are due to the disease outbreak in Hexham coming as late as it did which meant that the policy implemented by the licensing system was not finalised until very late August and, as the Committee will I am sure understand, implementing IT systems late in the day when the policy is determined late in the day is a problem. It is working okay but with glitches and problems that we do our best to sort out with the local trading standards officers and local farmers= representatives as well. If the Committee would like a demonstration of the system my Department would be delighted to offer that.
- We have got some buffs in the Committee who no doubt will want to take up that invitation. My final preliminary point is about the three inquiries. The one on the future of farming is now under way, although I understand that Sir Don may have asked for some extension for that to be carried out. I do not know if that is a case or not ----
(Margaret Beckett) I have seen a rumour to that effect ut I do not believe I have had a formal approach.
- The one on the scientific side of it is garnering evidence. You said in the Chamber yesterday that the one on lessons learned would not necessarily have to wait until there was some formal obituary for the epidemic. If any of those inquiries were to decide they wished to take evidence in private rather than public would that cause you any disquiet?
(Margaret Beckett) It is slightly, as ever, delicate territory because these are independent inquiries and they are not being run by us, so it is obviously up to the person chairing each inquiry what procedures they adopt. And I believe - and obviously it is for him to say - that it may be that Dr Anderson may make public some thoughts about how he proposes to conduct his own part of the inquiry perhaps in the not-too-distant future if things go on as they are. Then it will be possible for people to explore with him what he intends to do and why.
- I am sure Dr Anderson is beavering away like mad at the moment. All of this is being done in private so it may be this inquiry has started in a sense without anybody having access to it or knowing what is happening. There is a slight anxiety about how transparent this process would be.
(Margaret Beckett) I would guess that Dr Anderson is reading himself in, if I could put if like that. I am not aware that he is doing more than that in terms of interviewing people or things of that kind because, as I say, it was my impression that he intended to go into the public domain with an indication of how he proposed to carry out his inquiry and that would give people an opportunity to discuss it with him.
- We have no team announced with him C
. (Mr Bender) --- There is a secretariat in place but it is not fully staffed up.
- --- Not as far as I am aware. We know the members of the other two inquiries' sitting panels of members as it were, but we do not have any panel members for Dr Anderson's inquiry that I am aware of.
(Margaret Beckett) Dr Anderson is conducting it and he will have a secretariat but it is not fully in place.
- He intends to conduct the inquiry solo, as it were, and take evidence without the assistance of other panel members?
(Margaret Beckett) Yes.
Chairman: That is a useful clarification. In that case since he is going through it all himself we might decide we want to have a chat with him but that is between him and us. Mark?
- One of the critical foundations for any success in a department will be the integration of the various aspects of the department both in people and systems terms. What progress has actually been made on that?
(Mr Bender) Numerically we are talking about 650 people from the former DETR, a handful from the Home Office and the entire staff of what was MAFF merging into a single department, and the integration that you describe covers a range of issues. There is organisation where we have implemented now, with a new management board structure, and new directorates which are announced and they are largely in place although there are one or two appointments to be made. There are issues around accommodation, the re-jigging of people, moving them around, getting them to the right buildings and mixing them up. There is some mixing up of people, integration of that, where, for example, the climate change team that the Secretary of State had with her in Marrakesh last week was led by somebody who had until 7 June been a member of MAFF. So we are mixing up the people. On systems there are pay issues )which the Committee may well want to revert to) which are very high up on my agenda at the moment, and there are IT issues where there are, frankly, gliches in getting the former DETR IT system to talk to the former MAFF IT system in a way that happens seamlessly and immediately. We have handled and addressed this with a number of fixes but the real answer to it is a single system which we are rolling out for the former DETR people in the coming months.
- So do I take it, just on that last point, that you are rolling out the former MAFF system to the former DETR system?
(Mr Bender) The most cost-effective answer is not to have a new system for 7,000 or 8,000 staff but to have a new system for the several hundred staff that matches the other. In an ideal world I might go for a brand new system.
- That would be the right answer if the MAFF system were of a reasonable quality.
(Mr Bender) We need to ensure that we upgrade as necessary the MAFF system and one of the issues that we are discussing with the Treasury is what investment can be put not simply in the short term I was just referring to but longer-term investment in the department, including in its systems, to modernise them.
- The expression "roll out" I take it mean Aintroduce@?
(Mr Bender) Forgive me, I will try not to use any more management speak. It means putting kit on desks and ensuring that the people sitting at the desks know how to use them.
Chairman: In defence of the English language!
- I think it would not be particularly unfair to say that MAFF's record in information systems has at best been spotty - at best.
(Mr Bender) As the Committee well knows, we are engaged at the front-line of government work on information systems with the electronic IACS experiment pilot and with the setting up of the Rural Payments Agency. I do not think that the record of the former MAFF on information systems differs significantly from other parts of the public sector and government or indeed issues in the private sector. I think there is a spotty performance right across the economy on IT systems.
- Yes, but most of us who are reasonably familiar with information systems would say the public sector, and perhaps MAFF in particular, was not a star in this particular respect. You made an offer for members to have the chance to come and look at your licence system which I will take up. One might assume that the roll out of the MAFF system might not be a terribly reassuring prospect for people who may be used to better quality systems and I do not have any means of measuring the performance of the two systems that are available to you.
(Mr Bender) A fall back to the point I made earlier - in an ideal world we would roll out a brand system that would probably cost well in excess of ,10 million, probably very much in excess of that. What we are actually looking at therefore is a more cost-effective method and the system that we are talking about, the office system that the former MAFF had, is based on Outlook and Microsoft, so we are not talking early 1990s stuff.
- You mentioned the CAMRA (?) project in passing. What progress is being made on that?
(Mr Bender) We have changed the name, it is now the Rural Payments Agency. We brought together under single management back in April under Johnston MacNeil (?), the Chief Executive, the staff of the Intervention Board and the staff of the former MAFF regional services and in mid-October the Rural Payments Agency was launched. The effects of foot and mouth have set back the development programme by a few months but I am still optimistic that this is going to be a success and I am determined it should be. But as, I think I discussed when I was before the forerunner of this Committee, this is a high-risk project and recognised as a major and high-risk project by the Office of Government Commerce. Its information systems passed OGC Gateway 2 successfully two weeks ago.
- I do not want to detain the Committee with a detailed discussion of this. I might find it helpful if you sent a note on the progress to date on this project. On the non-technical side, could you reassure us that payment arrangements for this winter and the normal process for sifting IACS forms will be handled efficiently and that farmers will not experience delays in that process?
(Mr Bender) I can assure the Committee that it is our firm intention to handle payments arrangements this winter efficiently. The industrial action that is currently taking place by the PCS Union in the former MAFF part of DEFRA risks affecting that. That is something that has been reported in the farming press. We are doing our best with the management of the Rural Payments Agency to take corrective action and we are determined - and the primary responsibility of the Department is of course towards the customer as well as towards the taxpayer - we are determined to try and address these issues but I cannot promise when we are dealing with industrial action that we will be 100 per cent successful.
- Turning to the industrial action what steps have been taken. You said there was a high priority on the issue of pay - and I must press this - what steps are you taking to resolve this matter?
(Mr Bender) Perhaps for the benefit of the Committee I will describe what the issue is, which is that pay was delegated below senior service level to Whitehall departments a decade ago and the effect of the creation of DEFRA brings together staff who came from towards the bottom of the top quartile, if I can put it that way, of the Whitehall pay range, the DETR people, and the top of the bottom quartile of the pay range, the MAFF people, so that raises very legitimate issues and concerns for staff and issues around equal pay. What the PCS Union has been doing since August is it has been taking selective action targeting specific offices for, for example, a couple of days a week. In terms of addressing the problems in the dispute as opposed to trying to ensure the customer gets service and taxpayers' interests are protected, we made some interim payments to staff in August which addressed a significant part of the problem. We are now in discussions with the Treasury about how to try and resolve the dispute and clearly we are trying to balance various issues. There are equal pay requirements we have to meet, there are legitimate staff concerns we have to meet, there are affordability questions we have to meet, and there are value-for-money questions we have to meet. We are in discussions with the Treasury at the moment about how we can try and square those circles to resolve the dispute.
- Would it be fair to describe morale as low in the Department currently?
(Mr Bender) No, I would not think it was fair. I think there is a mixture of morale. I genuinely believe in a large part of the Department there is excitement about the challenge of DEFRA. That is point one. Point two is there are a lot of tired people in the Department. There are hundreds and thousands working very long hours on foot and mouth disease. Thirdly, on this pay issue - I have used the word internally that it is a "sore" and I would like to remove that sore. It is a formal industrial dispute but it is also a sore and until we get it out of the way it will be difficult to move forward. But I would not describe morale as low in the terms you put it.
- The perception of the formation of the Department was that the small number of environmental specialists have been swallowed by the larger bureacracy of MAFF, which was not regarded terribly highly. How are you going to make sure that the environmental agenda is not stifled by the large blanket of the MAFF culture?
(Mr Bender) The Secretary of State may have her own comments, particularly on the environmental agenda, but from a management point of view there is no doubt that sustainable development is the headline aim of the Department and environmental protection - national, urban, as well as rural - is the first of the three main planks (not in priority order) of the Department's activity, so in terms of what we are here for I am in no doubt. In terms of what you describe as a bureacracy, this is not a classic merger in the sense that the creation of DETR was where there was two head offices put together, two finance departments, two personnel departments and so on. We had 600 or so business divisions moved into an organisation where the corporate services on 7 June were run by MAFF people and I am doing two things to try and deal with that. The first is to ensure that we do not have a default, that the systems we run are MAFF systems, that on issues like business planning, staff appraisal, and so on, we look at what the former MAFF and former DETR were doing and try and implement the best of those. The second is that in management terms all the corporate services in my department are now run by people who were not in MAFF on 7 June. My Personnel Director has come from Customs, my Finance Director (recently appointed) has come from the former DETR, and the management board level person came from the Crown Prosecution Service, Mark Addison. I have tried to avoid this looking like, feeling like or being like a takeover of MAFF in management terms.
- Do you not risk possibly the reverse view which is that there was little good in MAFF and that all senior posts have been filled by people outside of that department? I am not pronouncing that view myself but it is one that might be held within the department.
(Mr Bender) There is always a risk on these issues because there are internally two sets of constituencies I have to deal with. There are four members of the management board who come from the former MAFF. One has been promoted since the Election, Andy Lebrecht, who is the Director-General of Farming, Food and Fishing, the Legal Adviser comes from the former MAFF, the Chief Veterinary Officer comes from the former MAFF and the Board Secretary comes from the former MAFF. As the Committee knows, I joined the former MAFF in June 2000. These are difficult balancing issues and I am trying to strike a balance between ensuring it is a merger not a takeover and not appearing to dump the good that MAFF did in the past.
- You said with regard to information systems that the most cost-effective way forward was to ensure that the majority system, if you like, the former MAFF system, took over the other ones, the minority ones. Is that your attitude towards pay?
(Mr Bender) Can I just respond to your first point. I was only talking there about office systems. We are also engaged in discussions about how to invest in new IT, for example, electronic data and document and record management and new systems, for example, a single business identifyer, that sort of issue. On pay the answer is no.
- Can I turn to the underlying question about the departmental restructuring. I think it is something we touched on last time you came before the Committee and we have had an opportunity since then to explore it a bit more with Michael Meacher when he came to talk to us (but we were mainly concerned with other issues then). I think I am right that this is the first time that environmental protection has been linked in one department with agriculture and fisheries. Could you just explain the rationale that was behind that change.
(Margaret Beckett) To a certain extent I am seeking to explain the rationale behind a decision that obviously I did not take, but I believe the thinking was that if you are to have sustainable development as a philosophy spreading throughout government, it was essential to have a department that had that as its central goal, and already people had been looking at the fact that MAFF and a lot of rural affairs issues had a great deal of territory in common and the thinking was that that made sense and then when you looked at the wider issue, it was a radical decision but I come more and more over time to the view that it was the right decision, to group together the different entities that we have. In fact, I understand that before DEFRA was created there had already begun to be some cross-working, even slightly formal cross-working between some of the areas in MAFF and some of the areas in what was DETR. Of course, it is certainly the case that there are issues like for example diffuse pollution which were very much a core concern for both elements of what is now our department. I think it was generally an approach of giving sustainable development an importance as a concept that it had not previously had across government and also seeing that these particular issues made quite a lot of sense when put together.
- Could I put two points to you that arise from that. Soon after being appointed to this select committee I was talking to a representative of one of the in the NGOs that is concerned with the environment who said, "That is the select committee that deals with the countryside, isn't it and the DTLR is the one that deals with towns." Although perhaps crudely expressed, in a way there is a perception that that is now the case. What would you say to someone?
(Margaret Beckett) Yes, I accept that there will be an immediate reaction that DEFRA is the countryside department. That is of course not at all the case. Yes, clearly rural revival, concerns of the countryside, concerns of the farming community are very much part of the concern of my Department, but it is certainly our strong view that we are the department for environmental protection right across the board and in fact, as you may know, next week I propose to hold a waste submit at which I suspect a lot of focus will be on the urban rather than the rural environment, without prejudging what those who contribute to that meeting will say.
- There was nevertheless a concern expressed in their open letter to the Prime Minister by the Green Alliance soon after the Department was set up in which they talked about environment officials and Ministers having been marginalised and distanced from big decisions. Presumably from what you have said, you would not agree with that criticism?
(Margaret Beckett) No, not at all. Indeed, I am not entirely sure - and I do not in any way speak for the Green Alliance - that they would express those concerns in quite the same way now.
- You think in the intervening period since the General Election C
(Margaret Beckett) It was the Green Alliance who sponsored a conference at which I spoke a little while ago trying to set out the framework and agenda for the department and I think it was of some reassurance to them. I think what lay behind their reference to the environment being marginalised was their anxiety - we did touch on this the last time I was before the Committee - that we are not in the department which takes the transport decisions and planning decisions. I think I probably did convey to the Committee on a previous occasion that a break does have to come somewhere and even a department that is responsible for sustainable environment does not wish to subsume every aspect of government policy, but I think it is important that we have good links and relationships and, as I say, those were the fears that lay behind some of those early reactions, and I think there probably was a fear (going back to an issue that Mark Todd raised) that in some way the environmental issues would be swallowed up in MAFF. In fact I think it is already evident that not only is that not happening but that there is a mutual invigoration (or there will be when more of the MAFF staff recover from the sheer exhaustion they are experiencing) of what has been an agenda for Government and is now a focus for our Department.
- Michael Meacher talked to us about a detailed concordat with the transport division in DTLR based on early exchange of information and hopefully at an early stage of decision making. There is that concordat in place. Could you give us practical examples of other links between your Department and others which might give evidence to those fears that were expressed?
(Margaret Beckett) I do not have any particular specific concordats in quite the same way with other departments, but of course we do have the upgraded Committee of Green Ministers which Michael Meacher chairs. That is very much and we hope will have an increasingly strong role as a place in which we can co-ordinate a lot of the action taking place within government.
(Mr Bender) Could I add a supplement. There are three areas that came to my mind as ones where we are working with other departments. One is planning where we need to ensure that the links that existed within DETR are maintained and strengthened despite the separation of staff into another department. The second is energy. We need to work with the DTI - and indeed the Performance and Innovation Unit has been doing a report recently which should be published fairly soon on resource productivity of which energy is one element - and we play a co-ordinating role especially with DTI. The third is the Johannesburg Summit next September on sustainable development where the Secretary of State will be working with International Development, Treasury, DTI and others. Those are just three or four areas that have occurred to me since you asked the question.
- Thank you, they are very useful examples I think. You mentioned the Green Ministers= Committee; how frequently does it meet?
(Margaret Beckett) I am not entirely sure, every two or three months I think. I do not sit on it. Michael chairs it and Alun Michael is our Department's representative on it. I have enough to do sorting out my own diary without scrutinising too closely the diaries of my Ministers!
- I would be grateful if somebody could let me know how often in the last year they have met.
(Margaret Beckett) I will be happy to do that although I should point out that there was a General Election in the middle of the last year and that would have disrupted their pattern.
- Perhaps go back over two years and also what plans they have to meet within the next year. I assume they meet on an ad hoc basis from time to time but if there are regular C
(Margaret Beckett) I will also tell you what they will be doing in future because, as I say, it has got a slightly different status and focus now looking forward.
- Is it likely that in the past representation at that committee has been by officials rather than Ministers from some departments?
(Margaret Beckett) I think it has usually been Ministers but certainly it is the intention that it will be Ministers in future.
- If any information is available I would be interested in seeing it?
(Margaret Beckett) Yes.
Mr Lepper: Thank you.
- There is a way in which the Rural White Paper the and Urban White Paper are complementary C
(Margaret Beckett) Indeed they are.
- I think of things like housing projects, the Post Office, transport issues which affect both the rural and the urban community fundamentally. How can you ensure that those two very important communities are taken forward together because the one works off the other?
(Margaret Beckett) I do not know whether Brian will want to say a little about this in a moment, but we are in the process of creating the rural aspect of the Department. Indeed the new Director of Rural Affairs attended her first team meeting yesterday and so that work is beginning to take place. Also, of course, we shall working closely with the rural advocate and Alun Michael, I am sure, would be more than delighted to talk to the Committee about the plans that he has and that we have for making sure that we rural-proof policy across government. Clearly, it cannot be responsible for every area of policy but certainly we are responsible for trying to make sure that rural issues are properly taken into account and that the work of the White Paper is taken forward. Also, of course, how we can continue to invest in raising the standards of those different rural services is very much part of the discussions of the further spending review and issues of that kind. So it is a key element in the forward planning of the Department and one where we are getting to the stage of having some of the organisational nuts and bolts in place.
- On the Rural White Paper a lot has happened since it was published over a year ago now, and people tend to have forgotten it with everything that has occurred since then. How are you going to implement it? Are you going to get it out, dust it off and set some timetables for action?
(Margaret Beckett) Absolutely. There is the intention also to set up some stakeholder groups which again will provide a forum for focus on the different issues. I do not know if there is anything more you want to say organisationally, Brian.
(Mr Bender) There was an implementation plan which, as you will be aware, was published in March of this year and it is in fact regularly updated. Again I hate to sit in Committee and promise lots of notes rather than answer questions but if the Committee would find if useful to have a note on where we are on implementation of the Rural White Paper, we can certainly provide that. On organisational questions, it was clear to me as soon as my feet hit the ground after the 8 June that given the title and focus of the Department we needed to beef up the organisation, the part of it that dealt with rural affairs, and not simply put together the bits from the former MAFF and the bits from the former DETR, and therefore we have a full Directorate General headed by Anna Walker who came across from DTI and joined the department on Monday where there are three directorates in it dealing with different aspects of land use and rural affairs including one whose title is Rural Economies and Communities. In terms of the staff resourcing, that work is now largely done and will be rolled forward. If the Committee would like a note we will provide it.
(Margaret Beckett) I think that might be helpful, Mr Curry, because we have about ,1 billion of additional public money to spend on implementing the Rural White Paper and I have a good page and a half of measures on implementation and I think it would be more helpful to send it to the Committee than try and read it out.
Chairman: We would need to look at that alongside the rural development programme to make any sense of it and then the Committee may well want to do some investigation into that progress and that aspect of things, but that would be for them to decide. Mr Jack?
- Secretary of State, your Department is never short of producing reports. I have brought a selection with me, England's Rural Development Programme 2002-2006 C
(Margaret Beckett) Is this praise or criticism, Mr Jack?
- It depends how you interpret objective criticism. Agriculture in the United Kingdom 2000. You might like to tell me when the 2001 one will be produced. Then we have had Our Countryside: The Future which colleagues have mentioned and then we had your Annual Report 2001. We are certainly not lacking in depth and content. All of them are committed in some way, shape or form to programmes of change. All of them talk about endless new strategies. Agriculture in the United Kingdom 2000 draws our attention to the fact "this year saw significant progress in realising the UK Government's long-term strategy for agriculture" and it talks about an action plan for farming. You have had a heck of a lot of goes at defining the way forward for agriculture in the UK. In spite of the many attempts to do that you almost seem to have thrown in the towel by setting up this further inquiry into it. Who is going to pull all of this work together and when do you think we are going to crystallise out something which will be recognisable as a strategy for farming in the United Kingdom?
(Margaret Beckett) First, Mr Jack, can I draw your attention to one you have missed!
- I have not got round do reading that one yet.
(Margaret Beckett) It has only just come out but it is one which we are particularly proud of as DEFRA. This is the UK=s Third National Communication. The Committee will know that nations are required to make a national communication under the United Nations= Framework Convention on climate change of progress that is being made. We believe that this document which has just been published we believe - and we say this with some caution because it is awful to make boasts that turn out to be unjustified - we have been using in Marrakesh the cautious phraseology that we believe we may be the first country in the world to produce our Third National Communication and nobody has indicated we are not so we think that is probably a well-founded assumption, and so I proffer that to you for further bedtime reading. As for the issue of the action plan for farming and so on, I would wholeheartedly disagree that the setting up of a further inquiry means we have thrown in the towel. In fact, I think it is really the opposite of that. It seems to me to be a means of actually concentrating minds. I accept the underlying point that you are making that, yes, lots of people have been talking for a long time in different contexts about what the future of farming might be and so on. The tragic events of the outbreak of foot and mouth disease have concentrated a lot of people's minds and created an atmosphere in which many people are having to make decisions in the relatively near future about what their own future in farming and therefore the context of the decision they have to make. I think that has very much accelerated people's consideration as to what are the practical steps that might be made now as opposed to discussing what might happen in five or ten or 15 or 20 years' time which seems to me as being rather more of the context of the discussion people had had. I think Ministers have been trying and indeed officials have been trying to concentrate minds and move the agenda forward without necessarily having an audience that really wanted to deal with those issues at that time. I think a number of things are now coming together. The Agenda 21 reforms are proceeding, enlargement is bound to focus minds more within the European Union on the issues of CAP and while, as I understand it, we do not yet have agreement in Doha and nothing will be agreed until everything is agreed, but it does appear that there is some acceptance in Doha of the need to reduce subsidies for agriculture domestically and internationally, and if there is a final agreement that the agriculture section of it will have very much that message. I think far from this being abandoned to the inquiry, I think the job of the inquiry is to focus minds and come forward with some concrete ideas and proposals for the context for the future. As to when it is pulled together and we crystallise strategy, it is very much my hope that we will be able to do so certainly when the inquiry has reported and perhaps a little in advance of that, depending on what happens, so in the New Year I hope that we will be able to say something more concrete.
- Your ability to move forward any UK-developed agenda for change will be determined by what happens at the EU level. What discussions have you had with your fellow European Ministers about what they see as change? I am also interested in your own personal philosophy and your description of what this word "change" means. Your Permanent Secretary used the word "sustainable" and embodied in that are many different approaches to the production of agricultural products, but change can mean an awful lot. It can mean incremental change on the basis of what we have got. It can mean a radical alteration, for example a plan to eliminate all ,3 billion of public funding into the sector of agriculture. Where on the scale of increment to Abig bang@ do you sit and what do you sense from your discussions with other European Ministers their feel for change is?
(Margaret Beckett) I am trying I deal with all of those aspects. Some of what you are asking me will emerge, I hope, in our later observations and publications. Broadly speaking, I stand more on the radical than on the incremental end, and in terms of discussions and what happens at the EU level and so on, there are a variety of different discussions taking place. I have had a number of bilateral conversations with fellow ministers. Renate K|nast and I addressed a conference very shortly after my appointment to this post which I believe was sponsored by the RSPB and NFU together, which was an interesting outcome. There is, as the Committee will know, a group of Ministers all of whom are keen to see substantial reform of the CAP which does meet, and in fact it would have been meeting this weekend but it was going to meet in Denmark and the Danes have decided to have a General Election instead. There is an on-going programme of discussions. There is also an on-going programme of discussions obviously with the Commission. As to where people stand, it comes and goes a little, to be perfectly honest. The German Minister is certainly showing increasing interest and determination to promote reform. The French, as you may know, have like the UK, taken advantage of the modulation to the existing CAP that the recent reform allows, to begin to divert funding and take a different approach to some agriculture issues. Indeed, I understand the Portuguese have signalled that they wish to do the same, although at this moment I cannot call to mind to what degree we have concrete information about their proposals. I think things are shifting and indeed it was the EU negotiating position in Doha that we have to contemplate radical change. While it is common ground and we have been talking about CAP reform for as long as I can remember, I do think the climate for such reform is more favourable than it has ever been, although that is by no means to say it will be achieved.
- You described your own position on the spectrum as towards the radical end. Earlier you indicated to the Committee the independence of the inquiries, one of which is looking into the future of farming. Will your own department therefore be making its own submission to this independent inquiry and, if it is, is it going to be published and if it is not, why not?
(Margaret Beckett) No, we will not be making a formal submission on behalf of the Government because the whole point of having an independent inquiry is that others look at the range of ideas and philosophy and theories that have been tossed around for some time, discuss it between themselves and come forward with their thoughts. It is strongly my view (and I think it is shared) that for the Government to give formal evidence as to its own approach would run the risk of compromising the independence of the Commission and we are extremely anxious that this Commission is seen as independent and that it is truly independent of the Government's input.
- One of the things that you said in your speech to the Labour Party Conference was "there is no long-term future for an industry which cannot develop in line with market forces." That was an acknowledgement of the importance of the market place, and yet in the last three weeks the DTI have published their Code of Practice which is supposed to govern the relationships between agriculture as the principal customer and the supermarkets as the primary production centre. This did not get a glowing response from the agriculture industry. It is interesting on one little point that the Code specifically excluded plants and flowers. That is an important part of horticulture. What input did your Department have? I ask that in the context of the Ministerial Sub-Committee on Rural Renewal because one of its terms of reference is to look after matters relating to farming and food and to monitor the wider Government approach. I would have thought if you were going to see this market flavour developed into something which was meaningful and helpful to agriculture at this difficult time, you would have made a major input. Can you tell us first of all what you did input into it?
(Margaret Beckett) I did not only use that phrase and description at the Labour Party Conference, I also said it to a substantial European conference held in Belfast which was hosted by our NFU but for farming organisations across Europe, so I said it to farmers first. Secondly, on the issue of market forces and the Code of Practice, of course I take your point about the issues as being issues for my Department but this is a competition issue. The Code of Practice followed, as you would be well aware, the Office of Fair Trading's observations and report and competition issues are very much an issue for the DTI and they are handled in a conspicuously independent way for that very reason.
(Mr Bender) Can I just add a separate point on the operation of the supply chain which is that the Chairman of the Meat and Livestock Commission, Mr Peter Barr, is himself leading some work across the industry to try and look at a more effective, efficient supply chain and one that is consumer-led rather than the reverse. And in formal discussions we have had with him his outlook not only informs us but informs the Don Curry policy Commission, so getting a more efficient supply chain operating that meets consumers' needs is very much a focus of the Department's aim and work.
- The issue of reform of CAP is often encapsulated in discussions about the price of food. Some people say food is too expensive but if you talk to farmers they have a different view, they will say, "We do not get enough of what is paid for food, we do not get an adequate return." If sustainability is to be affordable by farmers and good environmental practice is to be followed, they need to have profitable, well-run businesses. Again, Secretary of State, where do you lie on the spectrum? Do you want profitable farmers who can be sustainable in their practices or do you want the public to have cheaper food, or do you think it is possible to have both?
(Margaret Beckett) I think it would be entirely wrong not to see whether it is possible for us to have both. I certainly want to see farming have profitable, well-run businesses and perhaps diversified businesses too, although that will not always perhaps be the case. But it has always seemed to me, going back over a period of some many years, that one of the many problems with the CAP was that it was a policy which was designed to keep prices up, and that seems to me to be in itself undesirable interference with the market. How and what shape of structure eventually emerges is another matter. It does seem to me there are areas, and I believe I am right in saying that for example in the arable sector we are now closer to world prices than we have been for quite a long time, so I think we have to try to get that balance right between what provides a decent living for the farming community who, I completely accept, have really struggled and had tremendous difficulty in recent years and also how we get a fair price and the most efficient price for consumers.
- One of the things that has surprised many people is the importance of visitors to the countryside. Foot and Mouth Disease came in and tourism stopped and there were real problems. The radical approach to the countryside would be to say to farmers and landowners that what we want you to do is produce a backdrop for people to visit the countryside. So in a sense they would provide the landscape and the environment into which people visit. Clearly that is a radical approach. It has real consequences for farming practices. What is your thinking about that?
(Margaret Beckett) I think that is absolutely right and I think it came as a shock to many people to realise just how great a component of the rural economy and of rural prosperity were a range of other activities and organisations rather than just the farming interest, which is of course at the core of the countryside, and not least, as you say, in terms of their responsibility for landscape and issues of that kind. I know that a number of the schemes that the Countryside Agency is beginning to implement do look - and they have had various experiments and pilot projects and so on - at the role of the countryside in that respect. I think that provided a lot of importance and stimulus. I think the other thing that I would say is that certainly as big a surprise to me, not having focussed on these issues in quite this way before, was the degree to which the involvement of the tourist industry is very much an issue of domestic tourism too. I think a lot of us when we talk about tourism, we tend to think about the international market. To use the usual shorthand, how do you get the American visitors back. I recall, in fact, the Chairman saying this to me when we were discussing the difficulties that were being experienced in Yorkshire that actually the tourists in his part of the world come from Bradford and Leeds and this was an element we needed to stimulate. Yes, a lot of people have learnt some important lessons, what we need to do is to gather that experience and put it to good use.
- Following a point that Mr Jack was making earlier on, you acknowledge that farming has had a very difficult past five years. If we pursue a radical approach, if we fundamentally change farming support systems, does that imply there is going to be a fairly prolonged period of severe change? One can see, for example, how niche markets, organic or welfare friendly markets could grow and survive. One could see how big arable farmers could become more efficient. What is the real future for the traditional family farmer? Surely they face a very difficult prospect?
(Margaret Beckett) I take your point. I suspect that if we are - and this is taking something of a step forward - successful in getting agreement to substantial change to the CAP, I would guess that will be on a transitional basis. It is a matter of discussion and argument I suppose whether it is better to have a kind of big bang change or incremental step by step because the incremental approach means that it will take longer. On the other hand, I think many might find it preferable and easier to adjust. I believe there is a real and prosperous future for the traditional family farm. I am very mindful of the fact that there are sometimes slightly different issues, depending on whether farms are in ownership or are tenanted and that also creates a different number of concerns. Yes, I do believe that perhaps in some cases on a more diversified basis, although I know very many in the farming community have already taken such steps, certainly perhaps in a slightly different context we will see the continued development of farming but I would be astonished and dismayed if we were to see the disappearance of what one might call the traditional family farm.
(Mr Bender) Can I add, if the Committee will forgive me, just two quick points on that, two areas where my Department has thought it right to provide assistance. One is on the provision of business advice and skills to help skill the farmer to continue to survive in the environment and how we rationalise that, how we join it up, how we continue it is one of the issues we will be reflecting on in the future. The other is various schemes the Committee will know either for marketing support or indeed encouragement of assurance schemes and again that should be a benefit to the traditional farm.
- Secretary of State, it is part of the conventional wisdom now, I suppose, that the aim must be to move from support for production to what one might call, broadly speaking, public good assistance for agriculture, of which one of the most frequently mentioned must obviously be environmental schemes, and countryside stewardship is I suppose a flagship project in that area. Do you think that the volume of those schemes would ever be such that they make up for a cessation of production aid or will there inevitably be a requirement on the farmer to look for income from other sources to bridge the difference between the two?
(Margaret Beckett) If you like, that is a 60,000 dollar question. Certainly it has to be the case that it is not easy to judge to what extent this different range of programmes - and I share your view that the countryside stewardship scheme is an excellent scheme but obviously it is very much in the beginning - can take the place, if you like, of production subsidies. I think it is more a matter, not just of saying AOh, well that will completely replace@ as of breaking the link between headage, for example, in livestock and the support that is given. These are issues which are important in farming terms where artificial behaviour patterns do seem to have been created. I think that is common ground, I do not think that is disputed, both in terms of the future of farming itself and also in environmental terms, breaking such a link we believe would be highly desirable. Obviously how you can get the right level of support and for what means is absolutely a key component of thinking about how you develop the issue of public good and not just of food production, livestock production or whatever.
- These programmes and the related ones have got to keep quite a large degree of flexibility, have they not?
(Margaret Beckett) Absolutely.
- I refer to the Organic Conversion Scheme, for example. There is now a surplus, I understand, of organic milk.
(Margaret Beckett) Yes.
- The Northern successor to Milk Marque is now meeting the market for organic milk, it is then pooling its organic milk into the wider pool and equalising the price. There is a real danger that people might find organic milk in their conventional milk, as it were, to turn the logic on its head. Does that lead you to believe that in your Organic Conversion Scheme, for example, you should be turning off the tap for conversion in the dairy sector? There is always a risk, is there not, in these schemes that unless one retains the flexibility to react very quickly to the market conditions, you simply reproduce in a new sector the abuse that existed in an old sector?
(Margaret Beckett) I entirely share that view. I strongly believe that what we need is the maximum degree of flexibility. Indeed one of the concerns we have about the ERDP and about the implication of modulation is that there is a degree of complexity and inflexibility which is actually rather hindering attempts to develop better and wider schemes. I entirely agree that one of the reasons for wishing to retain flexibility is because of the danger of replicating in new sectors, or newish sectors such as organic farming, some of the features which everybody so much deplored in the way that CAP worked conventionally. Indeed, not only have I said to farming audiences that farming has to find its place in the market place but I have also said to Green audiences that I am not the slightest bit interested in providing funding to build up surpluses in organic food which the market does not require, any more than we wanted to build up surpluses in more conventional foods that the market did not require. Neither of these, I have to say, were entirely welcome messages to the audiences to which they were addressed.
- Further applications for conversion in the dairy sector, are they not being entertained?
(Margaret Beckett) Pass. I will look at that. As a matter of general principle. Of course, you will appreciate that in terms of organic production this is very much the exception. One of the things that does concern us and one of the things that we are seeking to encourage - and I hope one of the things that may come out of the Policy Commission is encouragement - is that we seek to satisfy more of the market that there is in the UK for organic produce from within the UK.
Phil Sawford: On the point of a reduction in subsidies, there are those that argue that over the past 50 years subsidies have been part of the problem rather than part of the solution. They have distorted markets and propped up inefficient sectors of the industry. If we are to phase that out and keep cheap food, I think you said we want both, that will obviously have a major effect on agriculture. I wonder what thinking, what models you have looked at? The point on diversification, there is a finite number of trout farms and bed and breakfasts and farmers markets.
Mr Jack: Caravan parks.
- Even caravan parks. Farmers in my constituency are looking for a direction, they want to look forward, they want to look to the future. They seem to be looking into a vacuum. We talk about sustainability in the long term of agriculture but they want some clear framework, some clear idea of where we are going. Are we simply intent as a Government on paying for their husbandry of the countryside? Where do they go in difficult times? Where do they look for their future or do we have to face up to it that many farmers will go, that there will be a significant reduction in the number of small family farms in the longer term? I think we want more clarity on that direction.
(Margaret Beckett) I accept that and I understand that concern. Of course this is again precisely why the setting up of the Policy Commission was in our manifesto to get a wider group of people, a wider range of people, not just those in Government or in the relevant departments to think about and to address these issues. I ought perhaps to say that although clearly none of us wants to see high priced food if it can be avoided, of course I do recognise that there are those who argue that one of the problems that we have is that we do not pay enough for our food. There is a distinction I make there between seeing what is the right price and having a system, as the CAP does, that actually kept prices artificially high in all circumstances. You asked what sort of models. I think it would be dangerous to try and say AOh, we want to do what X did@ because we have to look at our own circumstances but at the farming conference in Belfast, to which I referred, there was a very interesting presentation from a New Zealand farmer about what New Zealand had done when forced by the change in their relationship with the United Kingdom as we entered the European Community, not least among other influences. You know, what they had done and how they had sought to address the market situation in which they had found themselves, what they had actually done, which of course was to phase out all subsidies, and how they had sought to satisfy markets. Now let me say at once I am not suggesting for a second that we should simply say AOh, well, we will do what New Zealand did@ because they are in extremely different circumstances from ourselves. I think that an encouragement, if you like, that we can take from what was done in New Zealand is that they were able radically to transform their approach to agriculture and to do so successfully. It seems to me it is important for us to take encouragement from the fact that within our own very, very different circumstances, we should be trying to look, as they were forced to do, at what our market situation is, what potential solutions there are for us and how we could move towards those solutions. I will freely tell the Committee that I think it would be madness as well as arrogant for me to say that after the comparatively short time I have been in the Department I know the answer to all these questions, but at least I hope I know what some of the questions are. As to the other issues, no I accept it is not just a matter of diversifying into particular kinds of small enterprise and I accept too the fact that there may be not enough of a market for all who may be concerned. This is one of the reasons though why we are extremely keen - and I know it is not always welcome to people in the farming community - to see good quality business advice provided to the farming community about the way forward for them and that advice being sought by people in the farming community. I know that there are many in farming who believe that there are grounds to look at perhaps more co-operative ways of working, for example, than has been the case sometimes in the past and that will help to create a new future, particularly for the smaller farm which one does not wish to see disappear but which may find its future through different ways of working than in the past. Also I think we need to encourage and stimulate innovation and innovative thinking. For example, it potentially satisfies all the interests in my Department if we find that there is a good market for energy crops. There are a range of potential answers emerging from the mist of these questions.
- If I could just make a comment on your last point about farmers working co-operatively. Some of us have spent quite a long time trying to persuade them of such. I think it would be very useful if the Department might take the lead and at least look at the idea of a national conference to establish good practice which might begin to help the dissemination. It is a struggle on the ground, I can tell you now. That is just a comment, you might like to take that up rather than refer to it.
(Margaret Beckett) If I could perhaps say, Mr Drew, the Government does not intend, as I said, to give formal evidence to the Policy Commission but there is nothing to stop Members of Parliament or Members of this Committee doing so.
- Thank you. I look forward to that. If I can move on briefly, you have mentioned it many times before, what we mean by the sustainable development agenda that the Department is signed up to. Could you give me some tangible examples - perhaps the Permanent Secretary might like to engage in this - of what the Department has done so far and what it would like to do in this area?
(Margaret Beckett) If I could pick up on your second point, and perhaps ask Brian, as you say, to deal to a degree with your first point. In terms of what we have done so far, the one thing I will say briefly is that as the Committee may be aware, and certainly I think will expect, we are working on our own sustainable development strategy for the Department which we hope to publish in due course. What I would like to focus on, because I think maybe it might be more illuminating than a sort of list of Awell we have tried to do this@ or that is what we would like to do in the context of the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg next year. One of the things that is the source of considerable anxiety to the South African Government, and of concern to many who are engaged in preparations for that Conference, is that there is a danger of it being seen - and this goes back to the point that I think David Lepper made to me earlier - as an environmental conference. Actually it is not an environmental conference - and it was one of the reasons why I was very pleased that we were able to settle some of the climate change technicalities in Marrakech - it is meant to be, we wish it to be, a conference that looks at the overall package of issues that we mean by sustainable development, that is the economic and the social issues as well as the environmental. People are focussing on the list of potential things that the Summit could try to do which have emerged from the regional discussions that have been held already, saying that we want to reduce that list but many people are saying that as that list is reduced to a smaller number of things on which the Summit should focus that they wish it particularly to focus on the economic and social, not least because particularly in Africa, and in the context of the conference held in Africa, there is such a clear link between the poverty that exists and environmental degradation. It is a vicious circle. So what people are beginning to say we should look for to emerge from the Summit are concrete projects and proposals in terms of providing, say, clean water, sustainable energy in continents like Africa which can begin to transform both the economic and social prospect and also in that context and by those means the environment. I think these are part of the Awhat we would like to do@ issues and, of course, it is also very strongly my view that while there is a general public recognition of problems vis a vis the environment and not least of climate change, a general concern and goodwill towards these issues - much of what has been discussed so far, even though we hope it will in the long term be beneficial - is just way over people=s heads and always will be. If, however, we can begin to focus more as we move forward on things like developing the practical projects to provide clean water, energy and so on, then not only is that a good thing in itself, and particularly a good thing in the developing countries, but it actually shows people what we are doing as a world to start to tackle the problems of the environment rather than just discussing it at a rather high minded and philosophical level.
- Current examples?
(Mr Bender) I have been given a couple of minutes to think. Can I inform the Committee of two management changes and two policy things we are doing. On the management changes, we set up two divisions in the Department which did not exist before the election bringing together different parts. One is a division in the Food, Farming and Fisheries part of the Department that leads on sustainable agriculture, and that brings together some thinking from what you might call both sides of the fence. In the Land Use and Rural Affairs Directorate-General we have a division called the Farm Management Improvement Division which again brings together some of the business skilling issues, some of the land management issues, some of the environmental issues that were done on different sides of the fence before the election. On policy outcomes, policy issues, perhaps two points to mention. One is the Department launched in August outlines for an emissions trading scheme. Secondly, work was taking place in the two separate departments before the election and now is taking place within DEFRA for, I hope, publication in the spring of a soil strategy.
- Can you just again, very briefly, map out besides chairing the Green Ministers Group, which obviously Michael Meacher does, in what other ways are you taking forward the sustainable development mantle within the Government itself?
(Margaret Beckett) I think those are the key means at present. We are in discussion, as I said we are developing our own sustainable development strategy, so too are DTLR. We are keeping the discussion going between ourselves about these issues so that they progress in parallel.
(Mr Bender) Two specific further examples. One is early this year, I think it was, the then DETR published a White Paper on Sustainable Development. DEFRA will be publishing the next one, the follow up one, I hope early in 2002. Secondly, we will want to carry forward, through various collective machinery, including the Green Ministers but including also, I suspect, the Cabinet Committee on Public Expenditure, sustainable development as an underpinning theme of the forthcoming spending review.
(Margaret Beckett) Indeed, I should have said that, actually. I have got to the stage that I take it for granted and I think everybody else does too. It has been agreed to be an underpinning or if you like an overarching theme of the whole approach to the next spending review.
- Secretary of State, commentary on the new Department has sometimes said that because it is ambitious in looking at the environment and environmental protection and sustainable development, therefore the Department should take on planning, transport and everything. Of course that cannot be.
(Margaret Beckett) No.
- Therefore those issues have to cut across, do they not? I am not quite sure from the answer that has just been given by Mr Bender and yourself that the mechanism is well and truly there to ensure that the leadership that is necessary to ensure that those matters are constantly on the agenda and addressed by all departments is going to be possible, not because of lack of will but because of a lack of the mechanism to do it from DEFRA, led by DEFRA to actually sustain that effort across all departments.
(Margaret Beckett) If I may say so, I do not think that is right because, as you have just been saying, the issue of sustainable development is underpinning everything that is going to be done in the spending review. That will make a difference. We have the strengthened Green Ministers Committee. We have already referred to the concordat on some of these specific issues with DTLR and, as I indicated earlier, there are bits of the different departments which have already been working together and will continue to do so. We have made a small announcement on the issue that we are setting up a group with the Office of Government Procurement to try to encourage the right approach across Government. I think from memory it is a task force or a cross cutting committee or something but basically drawing in the Office of Government Procurement and that I think is a very important indicator of the degree to which this approach is accepted across Government, and not least within the Treasury, because as you will appreciate for the Treasury to agree not only that sustainable development is a key theme that runs throughout everything that is going to be part of the considerations of the spending review but also to agree that the Office of Government Procurement should be taking into account not only as it must, quite rightly, value for money but also sustainable development is potentially an important step forward.
- Yes, that is a very radical change indeed.
(Margaret Beckett) Indeed.
- If it was really to be achieved, that would be fantastic, it would change entirely the short term outlook on budgets and programmes to a totally different way of judging what is cost effective.
(Margaret Beckett) That is right. Yes, properly cost effective.
- Revenue budgets.
(Margaret Beckett) Absolutely. You will appreciate that is something the Government has tried to do in a whole variety of ways to give a more long term way of thinking, long term horizon and also to avoid some of the issues in the past where we did have a lot of short term decision making which cost down the road.
- Can I just pick up on an area that is connected with this, as all things are connected, and that is DEFRA=s role in trying to spread the word of sustainable development beyond Government, education in the specific and the broader sense. I believe that DEFRA manages and funds an initiative Going for Green which has developed and is developing an education programme for schools and I think the Are you doing your bit campaign that has got a broad public audience. That is very good news. I am not expecting you to know the detail of that but I think the Committee might appreciate a note on what is happening and what the programme is for development of that because that is putting up a message about sustainable development to the general public.
(Margaret Beckett) Indeed.
- And made specifically through schools and I believe as well working with the EU partners on that programme. It would be interesting to have a note on that. Perhaps connected with it is the Department=s involvement in what I think are called wardening schemes. I genuinely do not know what the Department=s role is. I have heard there is a role in the Department within wardening schemes with neighbourhood or street wardens. I think the initiative either came to DTLR before, possibly with Home Office involvement. Some of those schemes are now coming into effect jointly funded with local councils, housing associations, some of them exist already, there are many programmes. I understand that Michael Meacher has argued that if those wardens are to have a real effect on raising the quality of life, tackling environmental issues, degradation, abandoned cars and all that sort of thing, anti-social behaviour, those wardens need to have powers on the ground and I believe that is something that has been resisted by the Home Office and possibly others. Is that something you can comment on, if indeed it is right that DEFRA is involved in some way on those schemes? This is all part of how we can build confidence in showing, demonstrating issues that really impinge upon the public in areas where they live that the Government is approaching these things in a meaningful way? Does your Department have a role in that?
(Margaret Beckett) Yes, we are involved. It is a DTLR lead - I think I am right in saying - for precisely the reason that you give, it has heavy local authority involvement and so on. It is also very much an issue of, for example, the urban environment so the initiative recently on abandoned cars, for example, and a range of other issues. I know Michael is passionately interested in the issue of litter and the things which, as you quite rightly say, do impinge on people=s own specific and local environment. Yes, we are engaged in discussion of those issues. It remains under discussion as to how the thing is taken forward but we are very much liaising with our DTLR and other colleagues about it.
- Is there going to be a point at which it will be possible to say how these matters are developing and unravelling? For example, the alleged discussion, not necessarily a dispute, about the powers of wardens on the ground, which I understand Michael Meacher has got very clear views on which I might happen to share. You can pick these things up through rumour and never hear any more about it again.
(Margaret Beckett) I am afraid I cannot answer that but you may find some other way of pursuing it.
- Secretary of State, you pronounced yourself on the radical end of perhaps policy movement as such. Could we just explore three areas where radical thought might be achieved. First of all, the obvious one is radical reform of the CAP. Then you immediately said AThis may be subject to transition as such@ which of course immediately takes out the whole potential radical change. What evidence have you got that there really is genuine evidence of other European ministers signing up to radical reform and saying it and then ensuring, through unanimity, that most of the steam of that is taken out by transition and such? Where is your belief that this time as opposed to the other half a dozen times we are going to see radical reform?
(Margaret Beckett) First of all, I dispute, I am afraid, the notion that you cannot have radical change by transitional means. Indeed, if you want to be really radical you might be best advised to do it in a transitional way because of the shock to the system that it would otherwise provide. As for the evidence, well I think all I can say to you is that first of all the European Union negotiating mandate for Doha accepted that agricultural subsidies would have to be reduced, phased out, whatever, and it would appear that it is possible that if those talks succeed that will be part of the agreement. Second, of course the EU has committed itself to the removal of milk quotas. Now, I do not dispute for a second that all of these things are a broad framework of agreement and that when it comes to actually doing it, it is a lot more difficult. Nevertheless those have been agreed as part of the approach and of course there is a whole issue of enlargement which is likely - to put it no higher and one probably could put it higher - to mean that a number of those who have been net beneficiaries from the CAP in the past will become net contributors in the future. I find it sharpens the mind considerably. I do not wish, by any means, to imply to the Committee that success can be taken for granted or any negotiations along these lines would not be extremely difficult and very hard fought, not least because there are many other Member States in which agriculture remains a much higher proportion of their economy than is the case in the United Kingdom. However, I just say that those are signals that lead me to believe that radical change is not off the agenda.
(Mr Bender) You referred in your question, Mr Breed, to unanimity, of course in the Common Agricultural Policy changes are by Qualified Majority Voting.
- Yes, very often some of the aspects are delayed on unanimity. Do you believe that enlargement will drive CAP reform or CAP reform will delay enlargement?
(Margaret Beckett) Enlargement certainly is a driver for CAP reform. Whether, because of that, it will for some people raise issues and questions about enlargement remains to be seen but, again, let me remind you that the Union has committed itself to a timetable and those discussions are continuing. It is my understanding that quite a lot of the progress is being made with the specific agreements that are required to sign off the different areas of policy. Up to now, I am not aware of any evidence that there is an attempt being made artificially to slow down the process.
- The second area of radical, do you believe that the current policy we have adopted on modulation is radical?
(Margaret Beckett) The current policy we have adopted on modulation is a mixture of what we believe is the best use we can make of the approach and what we believe is the most practical pace at which we can move. If I thought, or if it became apparent, that it would be possible to move faster on modulation, I would be extremely happy to seek to do so. I think part of the difficulty was in an exchange that I had earlier on with the Chairman. Unfortunately the regime which presently permits modulation is somewhat inflexible and bureaucratic so I think there is some disappointment. I seem to recall talking to Euan Cameron about this a while ago. We believe that the nature of the existing regime and permission for modulation is probably something of a handicap to getting as much opportunity to use it as one might wish. Certainly, going back to other issues, I think it does not help anybody to set artificial targets for, say, a faster move towards modulation that we cannot then deliver.
- When we are talking about business advice and the availability and such matters like that, do you believe that perhaps if you were a 55 year old farmer having gone through the last five years or so on reduced income and then had all the traumas of foot and mouth that realistically you are likely to be the person who is going to sign up for whole new business skills and perhaps even have any money to go into a new business to make use of any marketing of that? Would not a radical approach be to try and ensure that those farmers who really would wish to leave the industry were assisted to do so and that those who want to come into the industry are helped to do so and thus a retirement scheme which enables those to leave, and linked to a first joiners scheme, might help the radical achievement of this change in agriculture that we are looking for?
(Margaret Beckett) First, of course I take the point and I accept that these issues are difficult for people. That is not in any way a matter of dispute. It is, of course, the case that in whatever part of the country or whatever community in which you live, there are literally millions of our fellow citizens, of similar ages, who have had to look afresh at what they thought would be the structure of their lives and come to terms with new circumstances and situations. While I completely accept that some of the things people say about acquiring business skills and so on may be daunting to some, I also am aware that there are a lot of people who, having overcome their initial reservations and anxieties, have actually found they had much greater capacity than they really wanted to know. I do not rule it out. Also, if I may say so, with deep respect, Mr Breed, I am not quite sure how old you are but I suspect you are rather younger than 55 because otherwise you might not be so much feeling that people might write themselves off at that time.
Mr Breed: Nearly 55. Perhaps I ought to start learning some new skills.
- Go into farming.
(Margaret Beckett) As I say, I think many people have in fact begun to do so. Of course one of the other things - again this will be the kind of issue the Policy Commission will look at - that I have heard people discussing and tossing about is, let us say, to take an example, that the thinking is that people who are going to continue and prosper in farming may have to have more IT skills than have been the case in the past, does that always mean that the individual has to acquire those skills or are there or will there be organisations, agencies, private sector companies perhaps from which they can, at a practical price, purchase those skills? I think there are a range of issues here. There are, as ever, suggestions around that people might think of retirement schemes and so on but we are talking, as ever, also about costs, investment, etc..
- The farmer=s wife, I think, Secretary of State, tends to learn the IT skills in my experience.
(Margaret Beckett) That is also my impression. I suspect that if you had gone to them some years before and said AYou need IT skills@, my impression from some of the women in farming, to whom I have listened, is that they have in many cases been amazed to learn what capacities they have and can develop once the need to do so is there.
- A radical reform of the CAP, Secretary of State, does not necessarily mean a less expensive CAP, does it? The lessons of past reforms have been that they can easily cost as much and sometimes more.
(Margaret Beckett) I am very mindful of that, Mr Curry.
- We have been talking this morning, the Government has been talking, indeed its predecessor talked freely about a redirection of support and taking different forms to achieve a different purpose. Mr Jack introduced this famous scale between incremental and radical. Would you be happy with a reform which basically did not save much money but was essentially about the redirection you felt was a better quality spend rather than a lesser spend?
(Margaret Beckett) No, I would not. I think it must be an aim and a goal of the reforms we seek to pursue to ensure it is not as expensive as the CAP is at present. I am extremely mindful, I can assure you, of the fact that most previous attempts to reform the CAP - I say most because that was not true of the Berlin Reforms, although people said that they should have gone further and they should have been able to bring about a greater change - in general terms, yes, I am extraordinarily conscious that previous attempts to reform the CAP have led to as much, if not more, expenditure. I am also equally mindful that what have been said to be transitional schemes in the past have turned out somehow either not to be transitional or not to accomplish the transition which was sought. I am under no illusion as to the scale of the issues that we are seeking to tackle but I do not think that is an excuse for not tackling them.
- Berlin was a unique event in that Heads of Government actually manage to dilute a reform agreed by farmers. Most of us did not believe we would live to see this remarkable day.
(Margaret Beckett) Yes.
- One way of cutting the cost of the CAP is of course, as the Germans proposed at one stage, that a greater proportion should be assumed nationally, something which the French, of course, are averse to for many obvious reasons. Would this also be a direction you would find congenial rather than the Treasury finding congenial?
(Margaret Beckett) I do not want to get too far down the road of what is concrete. Certainly I think that has to be an element in considering what would be a practical direction for reform.
(Mr Bender) Can I just add one word that has not come up in this exchange and that is the word degressivity because one of our aims in the next round of negotiations will be degressive subsidies.
- Which means?
(Mr Bender) Reduce the subsidies over time.
- I would like the word explained.
(Margaret Beckett) It means a progressive reduction in subsidy. Not a kind of one off cut but a policy and a path that over time leads to a very clear reduction.
Chairman: The policy that is rolled out is rolled in.
- Secretary of State, in your answer to Mr Breed=s line of question a moment ago you mentioned Doha. You said that there was an acknowledgement by the Commission of the need for further reductions in subsidy. Just for clarification, for the record, is that a statement that says the Commission believe that they need to go beyond that which is in Agenda 2000 which was designed to cope with the WTO, if it does, how will that manifest itself or was it a description that there may have to be some shifting between blue and green boxes?
(Margaret Beckett) No, it was a commitment to a reduction but let me make it quite clear, it is not a commitment of the Commission, it is only a commitment of the Commission in so far as the Commission is speaking on behalf of Member States. It is the agreed negotiating mandate for Doha, agreed on behalf of all EU countries.
- I find that C
(Margaret Beckett) Camazing, yes.
- No, it takes me back just for a second, where is that published?
(Mr Bender) There are two issues. One is that a mandate certainly will have been published, and we can let the Committee know. The second is exactly what is about to be agreed at Doha where the overnight news, as the Secretary of State said earlier, is that there is agreement on the agriculture chapter - we have yet to see that as a whole. What is not clear yet, because the people we tried to speak to this morning were still locked in rooms or trying to sleep or whatever, is whether that goes beyond a mandate, in other words whether the EU has decided on the spot to go further. I am afraid I cannot answer that at the moment. The mandate we can certainly provide to the Committee and clearly we can provide as soon as we know it C
(Margaret Beckett) Whether it is watered down or beefed up, we do not know.
- Can I just follow the Chairman=s line of argument. You indicated that you would like ultimately to see less money put into farming through the CAP. What economic modelling is your Department doing to measure the effect of that? You indicated a preference for transitional arrangements but if you are going to start taking money out of agriculture, which has already had a huge amount of money taken out of it, because of the difficulties with farming, the effect if they are not handled properly could be catastrophic?
(Margaret Beckett) Obviously everybody is very mindful of that and nobody is about wanting in any way to destroy the prospects of the people who are presently engaged in British agriculture. You asked me for our overall long term goal and I simply say to you that not only does it include reform of the way that public money flows in but it also includes a belief that if we reform the way in which it flows in we should also be able to reduce the amount of money that is needed.
- Do you have a target?
(Margaret Beckett) That is a very separate issue from saying that you automatically thereby reduce the prospect of prosperity. If we go back to what we have said in slightly different context previously, it has to be the case that the farming community as others will draw their principal support and let us hope more support from the market place rather than from public funds.
- Personally I have no difficulty with that coming, as I did before coming to Parliament, from the non subsidised sector in agriculture. Do you have any numbers, a target, an idea of how much you would like to see? What, if I might ask, is your personal position? Five years out, how much would you like to see coming from the CAP into UK agriculture?
(Margaret Beckett) I do not have a personal position and target at the present time, maybe I will have in the future and if I do then I am sure at some stage I shall discuss it with this Committee. For me to try and start with a number now would not make any sense at all.
(Mr Bender) Mr Jack asked about economic work going on in the Department, one area of activity we are working on is the economic effect on the economy as a whole across Europe and on the farmer of the abolition of milk quotas. It is not a subsidy as such, it is obviously a different form of market control. That is the sort of area where we are doing work.
- Just very briefly, Minister, am I right in assuming that the discussions which are going on at Dohar set up a further WTO agreement to replace the Uruguay Agreement, and the Uruguay Agreement in terms of agricultural support already assumes the ending of agricultural support, and therefore if there is not a further agreement on world trade which includes a phasing-out rather than a sudden elimination of agricultural support, the UK and the rest of the EU will have quickly to come to terms with the Uruguay Agreement and instead of having a phased approach, a transitional approach to phasing out agricultural support, will need to come in with very quick measures to comply with the Uruguay Agreement?
(Margaret Beckett) Obviously, if there is no agreement at Dohar, everybody will have to reassess the situation. I do not myself take the view at the moment that that is likely to lead to some necessity for sweeping, short-term change. A lot depends on what actually is the outcome of Dohar and what we hear about it. I would have thought it was much more likely to lead to discussions about how in some other context or in some other place we can reach that kind of agreement.
- Dohar, of course, is only about an agreement to begin those discussions.
(Margaret Beckett) Exactly.
- Can I go back to the point the Chairman raised? I had thought that the broad strategy was to move away from heavy production subsidies but still to support agriculture financially in looking after the countryside, environmental enhancement and increasing biodiversity.
(Margaret Beckett) You are quite correct.
- I do not want to put words into your mouth but I think you indicated that you thought that switch not only is wholesome and desirable, with which I entirely agree, but it will actually cost less. Is there any evidence for that?
(Margaret Beckett) People no doubt are continuing to work on these issues but, yes. There is a general view - and I must go cautiously here - I think the feeling is that part of the impact and consequences of the way the CAP works is to artificially increase the amount of funds it consumes, and that if you had a different and better structure you would be able to change that position and accomplish some reduction without loss of efficiency and without loss of prosperity, in fact possibly with better prospects in the long-term.
- But still an element of public subsidy, investment, in achieving those more sustainable goals?
(Margaret Beckett) Let us take the example of hill farms. I do not think anybody is suggesting that you just say, AOkay, see how you get on in the market@, and there are, as we were saying earlier, landscape issues and so on. So it is quite clear that there will continue to be pressure and, I would suggest, a need for forms of public support to assist in doing things which we regard as a public good. What I would also say is that I think it would be to everybody=s benefit if that support more linked more directly to the public good than it is at the present time, and could well have, for example, environmental benefits too. But let us not forget that for as long as the CAP has been in existence, and certainly for as long as Britain has been a member of the CAP, people have been talking about the excessive expenditure on the sheer bureaucracy and regulation and structure of the CAP itself. So the more we can do to simplify and reduce that, hopefully the more there is the opportunity for a reduction in the amount of money it consumes.
- Can we move on to other aims and objectives of your Department. You have made it quite clear, in both your title - and some cynics might say if you did not have the Arural affairs@ bit you would be the Department of the DEF -----
(Margaret Beckett) I suspect we would not have called ourselves that.
- You are quite right. But you have got the rural affairs remit within your Department, and from your consultation document, A New Department, A New Agenda, of August 2001, you make it quite clear that one of your high level objectives, both in Objective 2 and Objective 4, is about thriving economies and communities in rural areas, economic prosperity, social inclusion, a whole raft of issues about dynamic rural areas. I wonder if I could ask, first of all, Mr Bender, in the consultation document responses which had to be in by 28 September, what sort of responses did you have to the question about, is it the right aim for DEFRA to be involved with trying to sustain economic communities in rural areas and social inclusion in rural areas? You asked if it encompassed adequately the broad range of economic and social responsibilities of farming. What sort of response did you have? What group actually said, AYes, it is right that a department which is principally .....@, I would say, A... involved in the environment, farming and food, should actually have this responsibility as well@?
(Mr Bender) Can I come to the end first because I cannot give you a direct answer on the precise question of what responses we had on that point in the consultation. The Prime Minister was clear in setting up the Department that it should be - and I think these were the exact words he used - the Government focal point on rural issues. Some of those are within the direct responsibility of the Department - rural development programmes, some of the measures in the Rural White Paper - but many are not, like rural transport, rural policing, rural education and so on. Nor were they ever the direct responsibility of the DETR before the election. Therefore the Department has a cross-cutting role across Government through the Cabinet Committee on Rural Renewal, which the Secretary of State does chair, to drive forward the way in which other departments use their programmes on rural regeneration, rural renewal, rural public service issues. On the process of consultation, I can look at the detailed responses we have and see whether that was addressed, but I do not recognise it as a direction of comments we had.
- I wonder if it would be possible if you could send that because I would be interested in how many people did respond to that point and made issues about it. The other thing about the drawing together of departments, as you have already said, is that they have responsibility for those issues that make rural economies and rural communities dynamic and thriving, notably transport, education in rural schools and planning and of course post offices. Those issues are for the DTI, Education, they are all over the place. So how can you actually influence those other departments, because they will not thank you for treading on their toes and telling them what should be done in rural areas. How are you going to do this or is it just wishful thinking? It was interesting, Secretary of State, that in your speech to the Labour Party Conference in early October there is hardly any mention of rural economies, thriving communities, social inclusion in rural areas.
(Margaret Beckett) Can I just remind you of the context of that speech. One does have at Party conferences - at least ours, I cannot speak for everybody else - an obligation to address the debate which one is speaking to, and that debate was focused on slightly other areas. If I can just say, and then I will give way because I interrupted Brian, you say that other departments may not welcome our expressing a voice on rural transport, rural education, et cetera, et cetera, well, they will just have to put up with it. That is our role and we intend to pursue it vigorously. Indeed, earlier, we did offer to send the Committee a list of some of the activities undertaken and you will find, when you look at that list, that it includes post offices, transport, schools, all the things which are not actually our Department=s responsibility but in the context of rural areas they are where we have an input.
- Let=s take post offices, which are very important as a service centre and a financial centre in many rural areas, particularly isolated rural areas, and we have for 20 years or more seen the closure of rural post offices, are you saying, Secretary of State, that you are going to interfere with what is happening through the DTI with changes in Consignia and say, AHang on a minute, this has a detrimental effect, it will accelerate the closure of rural post offices@?
(Margaret Beckett) No, I am not talking about interfering with what the DTI is doing but, as I say, when you see the list you will see, for example, there is the extension of mandatory rate relief, particularly to small village food shops, and also a specific new ,2 million fund which is now open to support community-driven projects to refurbish and improve rural sub post offices. So it is not a matter of cutting across what other departments are doing but working with them to get rural-proofing and doing what we can to stimulate and support that.
(Mr Bender) I was going to say the same sort of point the Secretary of State made earlier but in a rather more mealy-mouthed, civil service way. I do not see this as treading on toes, this is Government policy as set out in the Rural White Paper and other areas, and it is our Department=s job to drive forward that Government policy across government. So at one level therefore it is going to be a test of the effectiveness of the Department whether we can do it. The main machinery for that at ministerial level will be the Cabinet Committee on Rural Renewal which the Secretary of State chairs, where Ewen Cameron will sit as the rural advocate, and one of his responsibilities in that respect is to ensure that Government policies are rural-proofed, which is another way of expressing the phrase you used earlier about treading on toes.
- You may not agree but I thought there was a very good document published in December 1999 called Rural Economies by the Performance and Innovation Unit. Again, the way it was constructed was cross-departmental but I thought it made a very good analysis of what is needed to make dynamic rural economies, and one of them was that they must have access to financial centres - sometimes one could say that was a post office. I wonder how much you have drawn on that analysis and that document in saying, AThis is what we want to see in a rural economy@?
(Mr Bender) That document rolled forward - not rolled out in this case, Chairman - into the Rural White Paper, so the Rural White Paper was a further statement of Government policy where the starting point, if you like, had been the Performance and Innovation Unit report. What we now have to carry forward in DEFRA is how we are going to implement these things and, where there are issues like rural post offices, what we do.
(Margaret Beckett) One of the things which is important to bear in mind is that there was a lot of discussion and a lot of preparatory work done not just on the Rural and Urban White Papers but on a range of cross-cutting issues done across departments to look at what had been the impact of previous programmes and to see where there were lessons we could learn and do things differently. One of the clear conclusions which was reached was that specific large programmes, geared at, say, deprived urban areas, did not have as much impact as one would have hoped, and what would work a great deal better was doing something more smallscale in its own sense but trying to trigger the major budgets and the major departments= work to be effective in those areas. So, for example, instead of having a specific programme which just says, AWe will do something about deprivation in an inner city environment and we will put money into the health services there@, or whatever, we try to use levers which will bring in Health Service money which ought to be going everywhere into those areas because often it is not. I am putting that very badly but I hope I have got across the point I am seeking to make.
- It is very clear you have looked at a whole raft of issues and seen what it is the rural economies need, what services the rural communities need, and we may be putting into place the linkages now and these policies, but actually if it is one of your high objectives, one of your high aims, the question is fundamentally how do you intend to ensure these rural communities and economies are thriving? You are predominantly I think concerned with farming and food production and the environment, how can you as a Department really be serious about saying, AThat is what you are going to do, to ensure they are thriving@? Through little programmes?
(Margaret Beckett) I am not sure we would say we are predominantly concerned with that, although I accept these are the areas of our largest departmental spend. It is very much a key goal for our Department to work effectively to transform rural areas. I keep saying there is this list we are going to send you of the various initiatives and issues, but of course that is the thrust of the Rural White Paper, that across Government there has to be rural-proofing and there has to be a higher standard of services than people have historically necessarily received in rural areas. Things like the Market Towns Initiative are not on the scale of some of the other massive Government projects but I think they are perhaps even more useful because they are new and they do offer a real prospect, looking to market towns as the engine of change for improving the rural communities. It may have proved to be an extremely valuable insight.
- Is there not a sense that if you ask people in rural communities who have to bid for these different silos of money, whether it is the Market Towns Initiative or SRB6 or Leader Plus or whatever, that actually it is an awful waste of money because we spend about a third of the money setting it up, doing the bid, doing the work, getting the committee up that does it, which we do not put into the front line where it is needed, and it would probably be better just to give a much more generous revenue support grant to rural local authorities and let them get on with the job, because at least they are democratically accountable.
(Margaret Beckett) There is a very recently announced initiative to try and do more with and for parish councils. That again is something which has not been done previously and it may offer real opportunities. One of the things people are seeking to do is all the time to encourage partnership working, encourage people to share their experiences, their ideas and so on, precisely so we avoid the kind of duplication you rightly identify as having been a problem in the past.
- With what has happened with foot and mouth disease, the one big thing which has really hit us in Government in this country is how important was the interdependence between tourism and agriculture. We just maybe thought they were not so linked, but as soon as we closed down the countryside, as soon as farmers had to stay on their farms and could not open them up for bed-and-breakfast or open the little farmyard display or whatever it was they were doing, it really hit rural tourism in a huge way. The one thing we have learnt is that actually the rural economy is very much linked into tourism and tourism is very linked into agriculture, but you have no responsibility for tourism.
(Margaret Beckett) Yes, that is true, except insofar as, again, we have a rural-proofing input into any government department. But we are going back to the conversation we had earlier about planning and transport. We have responsibility for trying to make sure there is through the rest of Government delivery of good rural health care, good rural transport, good rural housing, et cetera, and a good and high standard of rural tourism, but you would not I think argue that we ought therefore to take in all of housing, all of transport, all of health care, all of tourism. I can assure you that certainly my ambitions do not extend that far.
- We will have Ewen Cameron in front of us next week. I always thought Aproofing@ meant keeping things out but apparently in this jargon it means bringing things in, but I am learning a lot about the English language in the course of today. You will know the Government is about to produce new ideas on local government finance, one of the big issues which is around, and we will see the Green Paper quite shortly. You will also know there is quite a strong lobby demanding that rural isolation and those sort of factors should feature more strongly in the co-efficients which determine the direction of spend. It is equally the case there will be a very articulate urban lobby arguing that the delivery of service in inner city areas is probably even more expensive, and there are various political lobbies wishing to push here or there. What input did your Department have into the formulation of those proposals to make sure the rural-proofing emerges in the shape of the formulae which will govern the distribution of urban and rural finance over the next few years?
(Margaret Beckett) If you will forgive me, Chairman, you really are inviting me to stray too far into the territory of another department. Obviously, as you say, there are a range of issues, a range of pressures, a range of different political concerns, and all I can say to you is I am profoundly grateful it is not me who has to resolve them.
- Has the Department had an input? Are you in the lead?
(Margaret Beckett) All departments have an input into these kind of discussions, they are quite widespread discussions, and of course there is a lot of technicality involved as well.
- Can I take you back to one point which you mentioned, which sounded very promising, which is the role of parish and town councils. You have just produced, with the Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions, the Equality of Parish Councils document. What is the actual relationship going to be with Transport, Local Government and the Regions, on this important level of delivery in rural areas? I declare an interest, I am still a town councillor. If you want to get things happening in many of our villages, the only vehicle that is ever going to be is the parish council. You talked about the concordat with various other departments in other areas, is this not an area where you could work very carefully and closely and maybe come up with a concordat with Transport, Local Government and the Regions?
(Margaret Beckett) Indeed. I anticipate this is another of the areas with which we shall have close contact with them in the future as well. It is a consultation document, the Equality of Parish Councils document, and obviously we have to see what the response to that consultation is. But even the fact this initiative has been taken is a very useful indication of people thinking constructively about rural areas and their concerns in a way which perhaps has not always been the case in the past.
- I want to continue on aims and objectives but first I wish you luck in becoming a world-class department, whatever that might mean. It might mean you joining with other departments which can be classified as world-class. I was wondering about a world-class fishing industry, because fishing gets hardly any mention in the Aims and Objectives, it is only mentioned twice. It always seemed to me it had the worst of treatments in MAFF which did not regard it as particularly important, I always imagined it was carried on in a small annexe somewhere, a little shed in the back garden, and now it is not even in the title of the Department. Is fishing being demoted?
(Margaret Beckett) First of all, I can assure you it is not carried out in a small annexe or shed at the back of the Department, because it is one of the few sections of the Department I have had time to visit.
- I have been to Nobel House, I know it is not a shed.
(Margaret Beckett) No, it is not in the title of the Department, however, neither is farming in the title of the Department, which has also caused some concern. The food chain encompasses all of those things and much more besides. There is a limit to how much one can load into any departmental title but I would resist the view that that means that fishing is unimportant. Of course, it has great importance, and it will have even more importance if we are not able to do a little more about ensuring there are actually fish.
- That is the next point really. It is an industry in which the sustainability problem is now in its most acute form ---
(Margaret Beckett) Indeed.
- --- yet it is not being effectively sustained by finance from DEFRA. The Scots have put up ,25 million, DEFRA has put up a mere ,6 million effectively for decommissioning, yet fishing, if it is going to become a sustainable resource, does need financing to get from the present point A to sustainability, point B.
(Margaret Beckett) The ,6 million, if I recall correctly, is for a decommissioning scheme. What we do have to do is to try and look at the range of issues which are causing such problems and devastation. It seems to me it is the wider remit of our new Department, the whole marine stewardship issues, environmental issues, which are germane and which underlie the concerns that you are expressing and which we all share for the future of fish stocks.
- So we have your assurance that fishing will not be discounted?
(Margaret Beckett) Certainly not.
- And will get the attention of world-class quality staff?
(Margaret Beckett) We have very high quality staff in the fishing section as elsewhere in the Department.
Chairman: I think you will find that if you do your sums, the amount of public money as a proportion of the value of the product is higher in fisheries than almost any other sector in your Department.
- David=s view of fishing always was a very jaundiced view. The comments on the aims and objectives, did you get a lot of comments and were they coloured really by the foot and mouth problems and attitudes to MAFF produced by that problem?
(Margaret Beckett) Yes, I think they were a bit. Roughly speaking, as I understand it, we sent the consultation document to all staff and to about 1,700 stakeholders, and we also put it on the internet, and we had responses from about 320 organisations representing a fair cross-section of stakeholders, and about 62 individuals. We also had responses from individuals and work units within the Department, representing roughly speaking about 700 staff. On the whole, the responses were reasonably favourable. Obviously there were a range of responses which said, AYou have not given enough importance to fishing, you have not given enough importance to farming@, inevitably you get the, AWhy did you not mention X, Y and Z@ approaches in responses, but on the whole our impression is that the responses were broadly in favour and, not least, to the fact that the overarching approach and theme of the Department should be sustainable development. That was pretty widely accepted and welcomed.
- What changes were made as a result of those? When can we expect to see the final document?
(Mr Bender) Possibly even today; very, very soon.
- I was intrigued by one sentence in your document, in fact two. It says, AAn aim should be a single sentence which encompasses the purpose of the Department@, followed by this sentence, AIt is clearly difficult to encompass in one sentence ....@! Who won the competition!
(Margaret Beckett) There was not a prize, I am afraid.
- Secretary of State, you were in Marrakech last week and I wonder if you would like to spend a few minutes giving a brief report on how successful you felt the meeting was and what progress was made.
(Margaret Beckett) I think it was enormously successful and really quite dramatic in many ways. What we did, of course, was to build on what was agreed in Bonn and give it effect, and as I understand it, this is the first occasion at which any international environmental agreement has had the kind of detailed teeth and legal force in reality that now exists around the implementation of the Kyoto protocol - workable rules on the mechanisms and so on. The thing which I think was very striking in Bonn and remained striking in Marrakech was the degree to which there was such a drive to get agreement. We are talking about a conference at which 180 countries were represented, and when we arrived in Bonn everybody was expecting doom and gloom, but it became apparent almost at once, first, that nobody wanted a repetition of the failure there had been in The Hague and, secondly, if it was going to fail nobody wanted to be held responsible for it, which is also quite a useful driver. It is true to say, and it will not of course necessarily be a universally popular view, but it is absolutely and completely true to say, that at Bonn the European Union as a cohesive group, which we were to a greater degree than I have ever experienced before, was a driver of success in the negotiations. That was strongly my view in the aftermath, and that is what I reported to the Prime Minister. It is clear that was indeed everybody else=s view, because when we arrived in Marrakech we discovered a pretty widespread expectation, a slightly daunting expectation, that the European Union would carry out the same role in Marrakech. Indeed, frankly, I think most people would accept to a large degree we did. The other thing which was absolutely clear and consistent in both Bonn and Marrakech was because people so much wanted agreement, all parties were prepared to give ground on what would have been their ideal outcomes in order to get an agreed outcome. That was true of the developing countries. It was a magnificent feat of negotiation and representation, something like 120 countries, described as the G77 although there are a lot more of them actually, being able to work in a united way and to reach an agreement on what they could as a bottom line accept. The only other thing I would say at this point is that part of the reason we reached that degree and scale of achievement was because the European Union negotiating strategy in Bonn was to seek a package of overall proposals at quite an early stage, instead of going through bit by bit and seeing if we had a package everybody could sign up to, but saying, AWhat would the shape of the package be@, and then - and this is why I referred to the cohesiveness of the European Union negotiating force - say, AWe within the European Union can accept this package. There are lots of things in it we do not like, there are lots of things in it we would like to see improved, but if this was the final outcome, we could live with it. What about everybody else?@ That was the basis on which we drove agreement in Bonn, and a very similar approach was adopted in Marrakech. Initially, in this case, it was the G77 who said, AThis is a package we could live with, what about the rest of you? Are you going to come on board?@ Then, obviously, you get some changes, but you get changes at the margins, instead of people spending hours wrangling about things which are not their top priority. It makes people focus on what are their priority concerns. The thing which was very clear in the final, literally minutes, not just hours, in Bonn was that mercifully the top priority and anxiety for the different groups were not identical, so the thing the G77 cared about most was not the thing which the umbrella group cared about most and so we were able to reach an accommodation.
- One of the things which was said after the Bonn meeting was that certain countries had signed up, but there was a feeling when it came to the crunch they would not sign up when it came to Marrakech. Obviously an agreement has been made at Marrakech to reach agreement but actually ratifying the protocol are two completely different things. When do we expect to be in a position to ratify the protocol? Have you any views in terms of how long it will take key nations in other continents to ratify the protocol as well?
(Margaret Beckett) We expect, along with our European partners, to ratify the protocol before Johannesburg. I cannot give you a date at this moment because it is something people have to look at.
- Would that be co-ordinated?
(Margaret Beckett) That is what I anticipate. Obviously different countries have different procedures but it is the intention of the European Union as a whole to ratify before Johannesburg. The Japanese Government announced, I think, yesterday they will now put a proposal for ratification to the Diet and that, taking into account their own procedures, they hope they can get agreement. You will appreciate there is still a good deal of controversy in Japan but the Japanese Government will argue for ratification and they hope if they are successful in that argument in the Diet, Japan will ratify before June. There were also, I believe, some encouraging words coming from the Russian delegation, but since not everybody was fully awake at the time when they were made in the early hours of Saturday morning there is still an amount of slight dispute amongst us as to precisely what was said, but there is every reason to hope that Russian will look favourably on the prospects for ratification, not least because Mr Putin does wish to hold an environmental conference in Russia in 2003, I think. So again, to be seen to be working with the world community is beneficial. Our hope is, our goal is, to try to encourage ratification so the protocol can come into force before the Johannesburg Summit.
- You have told us a lot about bringing the new Department together and the many tasks which are on board, but you are responsible as well for a number of executive agencies and a long list of non-departmental public bodies. Some of these are big players, particularly the Environment Agency and the Countryside Agency, have you got the time and scope to have an effective oversight of these bodies?
(Margaret Beckett) We have six executive agencies and, as you say, we have a number of public bodies. Obviously, it is my role as Secretary of State to determine the overall policy and the financial framework for those agencies and bodies, with the day-to-day management delegated to the chief executives. There is also an ownership board for each of the agencies. However, I ought straight away to say that we do plan very shortly to launch a review of the five science-based executive agencies and their relationship with the Department, and obviously that will include their corporate governance. Kew is currently subject to a quinquennial review, a number of the others, the Countryside Agency for example, was already treating MAFF along with the DETR as an informal joint sponsor, so there is a history of working there. But we will in time obviously be looking at the range of responsibilities we have and how best they can be exercised.
- These are key players.
(Margaret Beckett) They are.
- The Environment Agency, which you have just mentioned, clearly links in with your waste aims, and waste is growing at a compound rate of 3 to 4 per cent. How can you be sure that the advice and the work that the Agency does with you really fits your agenda and timetable?
(Margaret Beckett) It is a process of continuous discussion and monitoring, not obviously all on my part. It is a matter of getting the right framework of agreement as to what the aims and objectives of the Agency should be, it is a matter of monitoring implementation and seeing how successful they are in meeting their targets. I believe I mentioned to the Committee last time I was here that my diary secretary has a nightmare prospect of trying to fit in all the people who have a strong belief that it is urgent they see the Secretary of State, and in the course of pursuing that she has identified something like 3,500 bodies which relate in some way to my Department.
(Mr Bender) On the Environment Agency, the machinery of government change actually simplifies matters. MAFF dealt with floods, MAFF dealt with inland fishery disputes, DETR on the heartland of the environmental regulation, we at least now bring that into one Department and therefore can take a more co-ordinated look inside the Department.
(Margaret Beckett) The same applies to English Nature. I do not know how public it was but I gather English Nature had some anxieties about possibly reporting to a Department of Rural Affairs because they felt it was hugely important they did not lose the environmental dimension, and I have got it.
- Secretary of State, one thing which does seem slightly perverse is that we have an organisation called the Food Standards Agency, and we have a Department called the Department of Food, but the Food Standards Agency does not report to the Department of Food. Is that not a bit odd? We are the only Select Committee which has ever interviewed Sir John Krebbs.
(Margaret Beckett) As you know, it was a decision taken sometime ago, I cannot precisely recall when, that the Food Standards Agency, which is very much an independent agency and an independent voice in Government, should report to the Department of Health. Since they are in the process of getting under way, I do not suppose it was thought wise to make a short-term change. I think also it indicates the perspective of the Agency itself that it reports to the Department of Health.
- In terms of this sort of cross-cutting, joined-up proofing was it a good idea?
(Margaret Beckett) We have very good, constructive working relationships with them.
(Mr Bender) We have a very close relationship in terms of day-to-day contact at all levels, including myself to Professor Sir John Krebbs. It is essential we do work closely together while recognising their independence.
Chairman: But you will equally recognise when we have an issue, as we have in the last few weeks, about the safety of lamb and sheep meat, clearly the implications for your Department are enormous and we naturally take a very strong interest. So maybe it is a piece of geometry which can be rearranged in due course.
- What were the main staff shortages that the foot and mouth outbreak demonstrated?
(Mr Bender) I am not sure I understand your question about staff shortages?
- Where were you weak?
(Margaret Beckett) I think the problem that people had, and obviously I am looking at reports I have seen, was the sheer scale of the outbreaks. I think that was the real difficulty. Nothing like it had been seen before, it was completely unprecedented, so in that sense there was bound to be difficulty.
- You also appeared short of vets as well.
(Mr Bender) Let me give you a figure. In the middle of April, over 4,000 people, excluding 2,000 armed forces people, were engaged in foot and mouth activity. That was just past the peak of the disease but it was when the activity was at its height. There was certainly, along the way, a question of whether we had enough skilled veterinary resources. We imported a lot from overseas - the European Union, America, Australia and Canada - we certainly used large numbers of private sector vets who came on to our books. One of the issues we will be looking at, and I think the CVO may have mentioned it to the Committee, and we expect Dr Anderson=s Inquiry to look at, is how we can have what I call loosely a territorial army type of arrangement in the future, so that in the event of another such outbreak we have people who can be available on tap. We ramped that up very quickly indeed but it would be nice to have it on tap rather than ramped up next time.
- Is there also an issue as to whether the staff are used properly, in the sense that vets were being used to take on questions of property law, powers of entry, private property and interpretation of statutes, which is not their job?
(Mr Bender) In the middle of March we created a different structure involving regional operations directors especially to deal with that point which you raised, Mr Mitchell, so that the vets were not required at the height of the crisis to use their professional skills in non-veterinary professional areas. One of the issues we are looking at in the Department now is how we can strengthen or integrate in some way or another the management of the state veterinary service with the management of the rest of the Department, so that things like financial management and other administrative management skills are integrated better.
- It also appears there were delays in doing the samples at Pirbright.
(Margaret Beckett) I think I have mentioned to this Committee before, and I was just wondering whether it was worth saying, we are not necessarily talking about staff numbers but resources. When this outbreak occurred, we had in the UK the capacity to test something like 400 samples a week. We now have capacity to test 200,000 samples a week. It is a pretty Herculean task to ramp up in that way.
- There did look to be a cultural problem within MAFF which also emerged from BSE in the sense there is an introspective culture and culture of secrecy in that it does not like accepting outside help. Has this been tackled? Do you recognise that?
(Mr Bender) I recognise the image you are talking about but I do not recognise it as a reality. We certainly involved a lot of outside help. The 6,000 people I have described - the 4,000 on our books and 2,000 from the armed forces - included large numbers from other departments and agencies. One of the questions that I would expect Dr Anderson to look at on an issue like this is what are the trigger points in the future for involving national activities. Classical swine fever MAFF, as was, handled, largely internally; foot and mouth disease was plainly something which required a national effort because of the scale of the outbreak.
- Has the other work of the Department been delayed by the foot and mouth outbreak?
(Mr Bender) Yes. There are three main areas I would mention. The reasons for the delay, or the effect, was a combination of diversion of staff effort and, also, secondly, the practical difficulties of getting on to farms. Those two together conspired. There were three main areas. First, the rural payments agency, I mentioned earlier that its development has slipped a little as a result of it; there has also been some disruption of on-farm inspections where the recovery programme was agreed with the Commission, and there has been some difficulty in establishing eligibility of some of the sheep annual premium schemes to many FMD-affected producers. There has been some impact on the inland rural development programme scheme up-take, some staff diversion and site visit restrictions have affected application processing, and, a subject close to the Committee=s heart, the TB programme has been affected. Those are three where there has been a visible effect. There has also been a lot of hard work and indeed over work by the Department to minimise these effects.
- Can I move on to BSE? Why has there been a three-week delay in completing the audit of the Institute of Animal Health experiments?
(Margaret Beckett) I do not think you can say there has been a three-week delay.
- You announced a detailed audit of the Institute of Animal Health research on 22 October. You said that research would be undertaken by an independent risk assessment company, and that the audit would be complete Awithin a week or so@. You said that in the House of Commons debate. We are now three weeks on.
(Margaret Beckett) With respect, first of all, one announces something, but that does not mean it is a delay from then on. We are talking about a process rather than a delay. Secondly, it did take a little longer than we had hoped actually to get the audit started. We had hoped to be able to despatch someone almost immediately overnight, but it took a little longer to find people who were able and prepared to carry out audits to the timescale and to the degree of rigour that we wanted. There are now certainly two out of three audit processes being undertaken, one to look as speedily as is possible at what had happened, and then another to look at the more long-term perspective. I hope that we will get the results of the first audit in the not-too-distant future, but it is taking time, and that is bound to be the case, I think.
- Professor Malcolm Ferguson-Smith from the BSE Inquiry said that Aany errors due to labelling or contamination in storage must be the responsibility of MAFF ....@ Do you accept that?
(Margaret Beckett) No, given that MAFF is not carrying out those experiments and DEFRA is not carrying them out, I am not entirely sure how he comes to that conclusion.
- So there is no MAFF responsibility for mis-labelling the sample or for contamination?
(Margaret Beckett) No. We did not send a sinister spy into the laboratory to do that. To be honest, without knowing the full contents of what was said, I find that extraordinary, I do not understand it.
- I am sure we can let you have the text.
(Margaret Beckett) This is research that the former Department commissioned, but it did not carry it out, so when we come to the issue of how samples are handled, how can it be the responsibility of the Department?
- How quickly do you expect that the more rapid test for BSE in sheep, which has been developed, will be ready for use?
(Margaret Beckett) It will not be really possible to judge that at this moment. As you know, I believe a paper is on the verge of being published, and I think it may now be out for peer review, but obviously we are talking at the early stages of what is the cutting edge of science, and inevitably these things are not easy. The scientists who have conducted work on the scrapie tests are naturally hopeful, but obviously it depends on other people=s judgement of the work that they have produced and hope very, very shortly to publish, and it does depend on people=s judgement of that, on the quality of the work, and how quickly such a test could be validated.
- None of the three inquiries into foot and mouth disease has yet reported - in fact, they have not really started - and yet you have found it necessary to introduce the Animal Health Bill now, with little consultation, when the countryside still has a very low morale, and there is a sort of emphasis in the Bill that maybe it is the farmers= fault all along, hence we need to take these even greater powers of entry and give more powers to officials within your department. Why have you chosen to introduce this piece of legislation now, before the inquiries have made any recommendations or reports? Why is it necessary not to put within that legislation something to tighten up the controls on the importation of meat that may have caused the infection in the first place?
(Margaret Beckett) First of all, none of us really knows for sure how the outbreak started, but certainly we are reviewing and intending to take steps perhaps to tighten up the legislation which affects imports of meat. However, that can be done by statutory instrument, so that is not part of the Bill, because it does not need to be part of the Bill.
- We have had quite a detailed explanation from Elliot Morley actually.
(Margaret Beckett) Right. As to the issue of why now, and the limit of the inquiries, first of all, of course, we do not anticipate that if the Bill receives the consent of Parliament that will in any way impede the work of the inquiries. It is likely, we believe, that these steps would have had to have been taken anyway. As to timing, the Government, in Second Reading in any case, with some considerable reluctance came to the conclusion that these were powers that we needed to have, that we might have needed to use and indeed, who knows, that we might still need to use, though let us hope not, whether in regard to foot and mouth or otherwise. Indeed, as I hope you will appreciate, what we have done is to put in place a structure of powers to deal with animal disease. Who knows, we have had a couple of episodes of very serious animal disease in recent years. There is nothing to say that we might not find ourselves with something different on our hands. With the experience of recent months, having identified areas of difficulty where it is felt that the Department lacked powers that it needed and, indeed, in some cases powers that people rather assumed that we had, it was thought that it would be irresponsible not to try to remedy that position. Of course, these are issues that are now before Parliament where no doubt there will be careful and thorough scrutiny, and the House will come to its own conclusions.
- What was the source of the information that triggered the Central Veterinary Laboratory to look at and examine material which the IAH were using?
(Margaret Beckett) I do not think one could say that there was any particular, specific source of information. From the beginning there had been reservations expressed, I believe, in SEAC and no doubt outside it, as to whether it was worth trying to do this experiment, given that the material that had been collected had been collected for a totally different purpose and in a different form from what one would ideally want. None of the other experiments that have been carried out on looking for scrapie or looking for BSE or whatever have actually been conducted on material in this form, it has all been individual animal brains. This was collected in a different form for a different purpose, and there has always been a reservation and scientific dispute about whether in fact this was worth doing. It was decided to do it, my impression is, primarily because there was not really any other source of material from the 1990s, and it was thought that if one could get information from the position in the 1990s, that might be illuminating in terms of the wider issue of what the position is today. So I think - in fact, I know - that from the very beginning there has been that anxiety, and as we were coming towards the end of the experiment, and as the Institute was indicating that it thought that its results would have more force and would perhaps carry more weight than people might have thought, not just a contribution to the debate, but they believed a very considerable and weighty contribution, then it was regarded as even more urgent to have a final check, through a different means, on to what degree there might be cross-contamination because of the degree to which that might or might not cast doubt on the weight of the results.
- I understand it is very difficult to get a slot in the legislative timetable to get a Bill through.
(Margaret Beckett) Very.
- Because a slot has been found for the Animal Health Bill it shows how important it is, not just for your Department but ministers generally. Is there any understanding that your Department has received from ministers generally that if the inquiries into the foot and mouth disease come forward with recommendations for legislative changes, a similar slot will be found for another Bill should that be necessary?
(Margaret Beckett) Certainly if the inquiries come forward with other proposals for legislative change, obviously the Government will take that very seriously, but no minister or secretary of state should ever venture to commit the Government as a whole to a specific piece of legislation, and having so lately held a responsibility in that area I would be the last person to do so.
Chairman: Secretary of State, we have ranged from Marrakech to brain patterns and I think it is about time we rolled up, and I intend to roll off! Thank you. We have had a very long but very productive session, it has been extremely helpful. Thank you and Mr Bender. We will see you again in the natural course of events and look forward to it. Thank you very much indeed.