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2.47 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Keith Hill): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Mr. Marsden) on securing this debate and on the sober and responsible manner in which he has discussed foot and mouth and the machinery of government. I pay particular tribute to what he said about the foot and mouth epidemic and about the Government's excellent record of investment in rural areas. However, our immediate objective must be to overcome this dreadful outbreak of foot and mouth disease and to return to normality--something that the whole Government are working towards, not just the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food or the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions.

No doubt, we will want to reflect on that experience in due course and, no doubt, that process will give rise to proposals on how things should be better organised in future. It would be most unwise of me to try to predict what recommendations may emerge, or whether they are

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likely to cover the machinery of government. However, whatever the departmental boundaries, there has been the closest liaison between all the Departments concerned from the earliest stage. Let me remind my hon. Friend how close that liaison has been.

From the beginning, MAFF worked in close conjunction with the DETR and the Environment Agency on all the policy and practical measures that needed to be taken to contain and eradicate foot and mouth disease. As soon as it became clear that the epidemic was major and that its impact would be felt far beyond the farming community, my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment was asked by the Prime Minister to establish a rural taskforce to consider the economic impacts of the outbreak. The rural taskforce, which was set up immediately and has now had three meetings, includes Ministers from MAFF, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the Department of Trade and Industry and the Treasury. Ministers and officials from other Departments, such as the Department of Social Security and the Department for Education and Employment, have also attended the taskforce as necessary. The taskforce also includes representatives from the devolved Administrations and from the main outside stakeholders.

The fact that we were able to put together a taskforce of that sort in such short order is evidence that departmental boundaries do not impede co-ordinated working between Departments, wherever those boundaries lie.

As the seriousness of the epidemic grew, the Prime Minister rightly decided that it should be co-ordinated centrally. That was immediately organised. The Prime Minister now presides over a daily multi-departmental group in the Cabinet Office emergency briefing rooms. Again, wherever the departmental boundaries were drawn, I believe that that decision would have been taken. In other words, what is important is that those concerned should work closely and co-operatively together, whatever their specific departmental responsibilities. That has happened and is continuing to happen.

Of course, there are always different points of view about how responsibility should be divided between Departments. It is rare that a Government leave untouched the departmental organisation that they inherit from their predecessor. Governments are recognised for their tendency to reorganise blocks of work between Departments. In some cases, they divide Departments to sharpen the focus on particular national policies. In other cases, they combine Departments to achieve greater synergy, as we have done with the old Department of Transport and the Department of the Environment and with the Department for Education and the Department of Employment.

There is probably no perfect model, and there is certainly no perfect model that will endure through time. As circumstances change, priorities also change. Governments must therefore constantly review how the machinery of government can best be organised to deliver the objectives that they have set themselves. Moreover, priorities can change relatively quickly, and it would be bold of me to predict whether this time next year, there will be the same departmental organisation as at present.

I know that the idea of a department of rural affairs has been suggested by a number of people. Those suggestions date from well before the foot and mouth epidemic. The possibility was already being debated in the media a year

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or more ago. Even then, however, there was certainly no consensus among the stakeholders about whether it would make sense. Some argued that there needed to be a creative tension between the interests of agriculture and the interests of the environment and rural development, and that this was best achieved by having separate departments. By contrast, others argued that it was wrong for a single industry such as agriculture to have its own Ministry, and that better policies would be achieved if conservation, rural development and agriculture were all dealt with in a single department. I emphasise that there has certainly been no general agreement that a department of rural affairs is the best way to proceed.

What is absolutely clear and, I believe, accepted by everyone, is that there needs to be close collaboration between those parts of government dealing with agriculture, conservation and rural development policies. I am not sure how far my hon. Friend is aware of the considerable progress that has been made over the past two or three years in ensuring that such collaboration takes place. Following the comprehensive spending review three years ago, it was deliberately decided to establish much closer joint working between the Ministry of Agriculture and the parts of the DETR dealing with rural issues. Those arrangements now involve regular meetings and round-ups between the senior officials from the two Departments and close working at ministerial level, particularly between my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Environment and my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture.

The co-operation has not been limited to the two Departments. Their agencies have also been brought together, and a number of high-level meetings held involving English Nature, the Countryside Agency, the Farming and Rural Conservation Agency and the Environment Agency. The latter is of course also sponsored by both the DETR and the Ministry of Agriculture. That collaboration immensely improved the development of policy on both sides. It meant, for instance, that the DETR had a major input into the European regional development programme, with its much greater emphasis on agri-environment as opposed to production subsidies.

Some will say that it would be even better if all the officials were together in the same Department. That was the burden of the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham. I am aware that in Scotland, agriculture and the environment have been brought together. Clearly, there are advantages, particularly in a relatively small Administration such as the Scottish Executive, but the balance of advantage is certainly not clear-cut, especially given the much more complicated remit of the UK Government.

If we set up a department of rural affairs, would the boundaries necessarily be that much tidier than existing ones? What would be put into it apart from agriculture? Obvious candidates would be rural development, and

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landscape and nature conservation, but when one begins to think about those possibilities, one realises that the benefits are not necessarily so clear-cut as might first be imagined.

Rural development, for instance, is intimately related to urban development and there is a strong case for believing that they should be considered as two sides of the same coin. We cannot deal with the countryside in isolation from the towns. The development of one must affect the development of the other, and rural and urban policies must be considered together. To take but one example: if we can make our cities attractive places to live, that will lessen the pressure on the countryside. If we build more houses on brownfield sites, we will be able to build fewer on our green fields. So it does not necessarily make sense to deal with policies on development and housing in separate urban and rural boxes.

Even an issue such as wildlife is not necessarily clear-cut. We tend to think of wildlife as largely a rural issue, but in practice suburbia is becoming increasingly important as a reservoir of biodiversity. Is it really right to treat wildlife exclusively as a rural issue?

There is no doubt that water policy is of major importance, as the recent floods have shown. There is also no doubt that it is a major factor in any rural policy. Agriculture relies on it, but it can also be a major source of water pollution. However, it is not just a rural issue, and it is crucial that our policy for water should consider rural and urban needs and problems together so that we achieve a comprehensive solution.

It is because of the need for a co-ordinated approach on so many environmental policies that the DETR and MAFF both sponsor the Environment Agency. Unless one were to give the department of rural affairs the whole gamut of environmental policy, there would still have to be some form of joint sponsorship. That is another example of the difficulty in achieving perfectly tidy boundaries.

In other words, this is an open-ended debate on which there is unlikely to be total consensus. My hon. Friend used a number of interesting arguments, to which I listened with care. Some were good; others were less persuasive. I am sure that the discussion will continue and, if a department of rural affairs were ever created, new pressures would no doubt arise for a different form of organisation. The fact is that no set of departmental boundaries will satisfy everyone.

However, I reassure my hon. Friend that the issue that concerns the Government is not deciding the future shape of Departments, but devoting 100 per cent. of our energies to tackling the foot and mouth epidemic, supporting those farmers and communities most affected by it and ensuring that the energies of all Departments and agencies are focused on that overriding task.

Question put and agreed to.

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