Report by Sir Jerry
Wiggin, Chairman of the Committee
1. The Agriculture Committee
was nominated on 13 July 1992. Sir Jerry Wiggin (at that time
Mr Wiggin), who had been the Committee's Chairman throughout the
1987-92 Parliament, was elected Chairman at the Committee's first
meeting and has continued as Chairman for the whole of this Parliament.
Four other Members, Mr Richard Alexander, Mr Ieuan Wyn Jones,
Mr Colin Pickthall and Mrs Ann Winterton, have also served on
the Committee for the entire Parliament. A further fifteen Members
have served on the Committee.
2. Up to the end of 1996
the Committee had published 18 Reports and 15 Special Reports,
all of the latter containing Government Replies to Committee Reports.
One Report did not require a Government Reply, one Reply was
published as a Command Paper, and one Reply was expected early
in 1997. On two occasions the Committee published stand-alone
Minutes of Evidence, once jointly with the Health Committee.
Over the same period the Committee held a total of 123 formal
meetings, at 86 of which evidence was taken in public. The Committee
did not take evidence in private. All meetings were held at Westminster,
with the exception of five meetings at which evidence was taken
in other parts of the UK and one private meeting in the Republic
of Ireland. Five meetings at which evidence was taken were held
jointly with another select committee, and one joint private meeting
was held. Three Reports were debated on the floor of the House.
Further details of the Committee's reports and evidence sessions
are contained in the separate statistical summary of the Committee's
work. In addition the Committee held a number of informal meetings
at Westminster with parliamentary agriculture committees from
foreign countries and others.
3. In pursuance of its inquiries
the Committee made, up to the end of 1996, a total of 33 visits
away from Westminster, 21 within the UK and 12 abroad. Of the
foreign visits, two were outside Europe and seven to one or more
European countries. Three of the European visits included meetings
in Brussels with representatives of the European Commission.
In addition the Committee made three visits to Brussels alone.
4. Throughout the Parliament
the Committee's permanent staff has comprised a Clerk, a Specialist
Assistant, a Committee Assistant and a Secretary. For most inquiries
it has been the Committee's practice to appoint between one and
three Specialist Advisers to assist it. These Specialist Advisers
have included academics, consultants and retired civil servants.
5. Excluding staffing and
office costs, the total expenditure associated with the Committee's
activities for the four financial years 1992-93 to 1995-96 inclusive
was £470,197, of which the main element was printing, at
£232,554. Overseas visits cost £107,895, transcription
of evidence £65,382, specialist advisers' fees and expenses
£42,617 and UK visits £20,692.
6. Further details of the
Committee's visits, staffing and costs are contained in the published
Sessional Returns for Sessions 1992-93 to 1995-96.
Inquiries and Reports
7. While the Committee's
work in this Parliament may never quite have scaled the heights
of drama seen in its predecessor's inquiries into salmonella in
eggs and BSE during the 1987-92 Parliament, the Committee has
maintained a consistently productive level of activity and some
of its work has caught the interest of the wider public outside
the farming community and agricultural interest groups. The backbone
of the Committee's work has been successive inquiries into important
sectors of UK agricultural or fisheries production. These inquiries
have been into: the effects of conservation measures on the UK
sea fishing industry (6th Report, 1992-93 - incidentally the first
time that an Agriculture Committee has examined the sea fisheries
part of its remit in detail); the UK poultry industry (2nd Report,
1993-94); horticulture (4th Report, 1994-95); and the UK dairy
industry and the CAP dairy regime (1st Report, 1995-96). Other
major inquiries have been those into: health controls on the importation
of live animals (5th Report, 1993-94); the Pesticides Safety Directorate
and the Veterinary Medicines Directorate (5th Report, 1994-95);
and the current inquiry into Environmentally Sensitive Areas and
other schemes under the Agri-environment Regulation. The Committee
has always retained the flexibility to conduct shorter inquiries
into issues of concern to the farming community or others, some
of which have followed up aspects of the Committee's previous
work. Examples have been inquiries into: changes in Hill Livestock
Compensatory Allowances (3rd Report, 1992-93); milk marketing
(1st Report, 1993-94); identification and registration of farm
livestock (1st Report, 1994-95); and trading of milk quota (3rd
Report, 1994-95). The Committee also held four joint evidence
sessions in March and April 1996 with the Health Committee on
the possible link between BSE and Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease.
In addition to these inquiries, the Committee has attached importance
to its role in examining each of the Departmental Reports produced
by MAFF and the Intervention Board, and has reported on each of
these Reports between 1993 and 1996.
8. The Committee has from
time to time followed up issues of concern in inquiries by holding
further inquiries - the inquiry into the UK dairy industry and
the CAP dairy regime, for example, followed up two short inquiries
held previously into problems within the dairy sector. However,
apart from the exercise carried out in 1993 for the Liaison Committee,
the Committee has not systematically examined the fate of each
of its recommendations. For the reasons we set out at the time
to the Liaison Committee, such an examination would be beset by
problems, and of severely limited value. We have the impression
that, by the large, the Government accords serious consideration
to our recommendations, even if their initial response is unfavourable.
It is a source of some frustration to the Committee that certain
recommendations which we have made have been rejected initially,
only for the measures concerned to be introduced at a later stage
and under less propitious circumstances. Since our 1990 inquiry
into BSE, for example, we have been calling for improved systems
for tracing cattle. Our 1995 Report on identification and registration
of farm livestock renewed those calls, yet the Government has
taken action in line with the Committee's recommendations only
because of the need to convince the European Commission of the
adequacy of the UK's control measures in the context of the current
BSE crisis. Similarly, the recent announcement of MAFF's review
of quarantine against rabies may herald a change of policy along
the lines of the Committee's recommendations, but fully two years
after the publication of the relevant Committee Report.
The European dimension
9. With both agriculture
and fisheries governed by comprehensive EU common policies, the
issues of administration and policy at the European level have
been of great importance to the Agriculture Committee, probably
more so than to any other departmentally-related select committee.
Virtually all the Committee's inquiries have had to establish
the framework of European legislation and policy within which
the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the other Agriculture
Departments and the UK's agricultural and food industries operate.
For this reason regular visits to Brussels have been essential
in enabling the Committee to work effectively. Likewise, visits
to other EU member states have been vital to the Committee in
establishing how those states are implementing common European
legislation. It is a complaint made frequently to the Committee
that the UK faithfully adheres to EU legislation while others
interpret it more liberally. The Committee also needs to be aware
of the factors which affect other member states' positions in
relation to the consideration of policy in the Agriculture Council,
so that the Committee's recommendations to the Government can
be made in full cognizance of any political constraints which
may affect the Government's ability to achieve its aims in European
10. Given the centrality
of agricultural and fisheries policy throughout the European Union
to the Committee's terms of reference under Standing Order No
130, the Liaison Committee's unprecedented decision of 20 February
1996 to refuse to accept any further bids in the course of this
Parliament for foreign travel by the Agriculture Committee caused
a considerable sense of grievance within the Committee. I wish
to place on the record that my Committee is of the view now, as
it was at the time, that there was no justification for this discriminatory
decision, which reflected little credit on the Liaison Committee
and breached the principle that applications for foreign visits
should be considered on their merits. It is most unfortunate
that the Liaison Committee ascribed to the myth that the Agriculture
Committee has overspent on inappropriate foreign travel, a myth
which I demonstrated to be untrue at that time by analysis of
all committees' travel expenditure. I continue to believe that
the allocation of a separate overseas travel budget to each Committee
for each financial year, perhaps subject to Liaison Committee
agreement that proposed visits are relevant to particular inquiries,
is the most sensible way of proceeding in these matters. The
potential difficulties faced by Committees which might wish to
make major visits every other year could be mitigated to some
extent by having a mechanism which permitted a degree of "carry-over"
of funds, subject to Commission approval.
11. In the course of this
Parliament the Committee has carried out a major inquiry into
two of MAFF's Executive Agencies, the Pesticides Safety Directorate
and the Veterinary Medicines Directorate. At no stage has the
Committee encountered difficulties in relation to the accountability
of Chief Executives of Executive Agencies through Ministers to
12. The level of permanent
staffing and other resources provided to the Committee (with the
exception of the moratorium on foreign travel referred to in paragraph
10 above) has been fully sufficient to meet the Committee's requirements.
Members' attendance at meetings and participation in visits has
only rarely given cause for concern. The flexible resource of
specialist advisers has been extremely useful to the Committee
throughout the Parliament. We have not had cause to make use
of the facility of commissioning research. There seems to me
to be little point in a significant expansion of select committees'
staffs unless Members are able to find the extra time to devote
to committee activity. The `development recommendation' of the
Senior Salaries Review Body that consideration should be given
to remuneration of select committee Chairmen would appear to be
an appropriate recognition of the heavy extra workload which Chairmen
must carry. The concept put forward by the Trade and Industry
Committee of `parliamentary commissions', able to look in depth
at particular issues of concern, is one which merits further examination.
13. It is a criticism often
made of select committees that they devote too little time to
examination of their Department's expenditure. Mainly through
our inquiries into MAFF's Departmental Reports, we have sought
to ensure that the Ministry's provision of financial and expenditure
information maintains consistency and comparability year-on-year
and maintains high standards of clarity and usefulness. By agreement
MAFF provides us with explanatory memoranda each time it presents
Estimates, and the Ministry consulted us on the changed format
of the Departmental Report consequent upon the introduction of
the simplified Estimates format. MAFF has also agreed to consult
us on its introduction of resource accounting and budgeting.
The sole problem which we encountered was MAFF's refusal to provide
us with a full copy of their fundamental expenditure review (FER)
on the grounds that it contained policy advice to Ministers.
The Committee accepted this reasoning, and in the event much of
the detailed information relating to the FER was made available
to the Committee in the context of its examination of MAFF's 1996
Departmental Report. Most of the Committee's inquiries contain
some consideration of expenditure matters in relation to
MAFF's administration and policy,
and the annual examination of the Departmental Report keeps the
Ministry on its toes in that any item of Government expenditure
may be queried by the Committee.
Relations with NAO and the
14. We have not found the
lack of a direct formal link with the NAO to be a hindrance to
our work, and the informal liaison arrangements have kept problems
of overlap within a tolerable level. On the one occasion on which
we asked the PAC for a copy of an unpublished NAO memorandum which
had not been followed up by that Committee, we received full co-operation.
We have noted with interest the Public Service Committee's recommendation
that the NAO should "hold regular briefings for Select Committees
on administrative and Value for Money issues within Departments".
This could work well if such briefings were held at the request
of Committees - prior to embarking on major inquiries, for example.
Debates on Reports
15. The addition of three
Wednesday morning adjournment debates to the three Estimates Days
available for debates on select committee reports has been a welcome
development, but, although some days may be undersubscribed, demand
does still generally exceed supply. My Committee has greatly
welcomed the debates which have taken place on its reports, particularly
when there has been significant participation from Members who
are not on the Committee. With select committees now a fully-established
part of the House's scrutiny apparatus, the time has perhaps come
for links between committees and the House to be strengthened
by instituting debates on substantive amendable motions relating
to committee reports and their recommendations.
Other future developments
16. Various changes in select
committee practice, some voluntary and others, presumably, to
be brought about by amendments to Standing Orders, have been floated
by certain other select committees and others. These include:
greater examination by select committees of legislation in draft
form; preliminary scrutiny of statutory instruments; and hearings
on individuals taking up senior public appointments. With some
extra staffing resources, there is no doubt that select committees
could take on some or all of this work, but it must be questionable
whether members of committees would be able to cope with the extra
time commitment involved, or be content to see an infringement
of committees' traditional independence in determining their own
programmes. In any case, I consider that select committees' links
with the House would need to be strengthened before committees'
powers or functions are expanded.