Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60-71)



Mr Borrow

  60. I think, Secretary of State, you have probably half answered the question already. During the spring and early summer on a number of occasions MAFF were seriously considering using vaccination in particular local circumstances. Certainly the Committee at that time was given clear indications from the department that one of the restraining factors in whether or not a vaccination programme went ahead was the reluctance of the NFU to support it. I think in some ways it was seen as if the NFU or the farmers in that area did not support vaccination, whatever the advice of the vets and scientists may be. It was not something that could go ahead because it would not be successful. Is that still the position of the department, that without the support of the farming community in an area limited use of vaccination would still be impractical?
  (Margaret Beckett) Again, these are all issues. We did say all the time, both my predecessor and I and indeed all our colleagues, that the idea of using vaccination was kept continually under review, and it was. Certainly it was looked at every week and possibly more frequently than that at times, at what it could contribute and what the implications were. Yes, the NFU is a membership organisation. There is no doubt, particularly early on in the outbreak, that farmers were utterly resistant to vaccination and many I understand remain so. There is a very real practical difficulty, both with regard to what powers anybody has to overcome that and also with regard to the sheer practicality of actually doing it. That is just reality. We have to accept that that is the case. That will all have to form part of the discussion and the consideration that we shall have to give to these issues.

Patrick Hall

  61. I am very pleased that we will have the opportunity to explore in a month's time the wider issues about the new department and the ethos and culture. I think it would be a shame not to touch on that today at our first evidence session. I would like to draw some attention to that. I have noticed that, Secretary of State, you have made a lot of comment about the concept of sustainability being at the centre of this department. That is a goal that is very ambitious and it is claimed across all government departments. Therefore I do understand that no one department can do the work of all the other departments in pursuing sustainability, but could I ask you if you would begin at least to explain your understanding of sustainability as it applies to this department? It has been touched on earlier but in particular do you think that the department may be weakened in seeking to pursue sustainability in the rural areas when it does not have control and possibly not much influence over issues related to transport and town and country planning, for example? I understand that there is no requirement for local authorities to consult the department on major planning issues, for example.
  (Margaret Beckett) First of all, what I understand by sustainability is that you have to try to balance economic, social and environmental issues so that you are able to proceed in a way which is sustainable. There is a farming definition which I hope I can remember and get right, which goes back a very long way, so I am told, which is that you should live as though you are going to die tomorrow and farm as though you will live forever. That seems to me to be quite a good definition. What do I mean by sustainability? As it applies to the department I think it is for us a matter of balancing that different range of issues that come under the ambit of my department. Yes, of course I accept that it is an indirect influence through government as a whole that we would be able to exercise over, say, transport or planning, but it is part of our goal as a government to spread an understanding of sustainability throughout departments so that it is not a matter of one department pursuing it while everybody else gets in the way. I would simply say that there will always need to be boundaries. You can have this discussion in any field of policy. I remember when I was Shadow Minister for Health and being pressed because of the interface between health and social services that health ought to be a matter for local authorities and not central government. What you have to do is to get the right mechanisms to get co-operation and to get consideration of all the relevant factors, whatever the boundaries. I also say to you that sometimes boundaries do arise even within departments that have to be overcome.

  62. My point is that if we are to pursue sustainability, and I am talking about the new department, it is very important that the department has credibility in that area. That is perhaps particularly so if the department (and you yourself) is to pursue sustainability, for example, in CAP reform. Also, will the department be contributing on behalf of the Government to the World Summit on Sustainable Development which is due to be held in Southern Africa next year?
  (Margaret Beckett) Indeed we will, yes. You are right to identify one of the things which we said in the earliest days of Parliament being set up, which is that we have to pursue sustainable agriculture, and it seems to me that CAP reform has to be key to that. People have been talking about CAP reform ever since I have been in politics. I remember us saying that it was hopeless. There are a number of very strong reasons why this is a good time to be pursuing these issues without presuming that we can have success. Certainly the issue of enlargement raises very starkly the question of CAP reform. So do the discussions that are taking place under the World Trade Organisation where there was an agreement to look at agricultural issues at about this time, so there are a number of what I might call external drivers which have CAP reform very much on the agenda and that is quite apart from the fact that within the EU itself we are committed to beginning the process. We have had some improvements in the Agenda 21 and then we are committed to review of the CAP. I entirely share your view that it does mean that this has to be a very high priority for my department, and it is. So too is the World Summit. Obviously we know that against all the odds, and certainly against expectations, we were successful in reaching agreement in Bonn. We do wish to take forward and to pursue the issues with regard to ratification and bringing into force of the Kyoto Protocol, not least, I would hope—I do not know whether this will be achievable; we have a meeting soon in Marrakesh—in making progress before we get to Johannesburg because the focus that I would want to see us have in Johannesburg is on poverty and on the desperate vicious circle that arises from poverty and environmental degradation. To me one of the most interesting passages in the speech that the Prime Minister made recently at our congress was where he was talking about the implications of, for example, the Africa initiative. I think all of that is hugely important for the future of the world and I think it is also a very important opportunity to take that agenda forward at Johannesburg and certainly that is what the South African Government want and want to be the focus of the discussions in Johannesburg.

  63. Finally, again on the theme of sustainability and pursuing and exploring it, the new department must have adopted the public service agreements and targets from the former MAFF and the former relevant bits of DETR. Has the department had time, given the obvious but necessary distraction of foot and mouth, to look at those targets and agreements and see whether or not they need to be added to or amended? Is there a programme or an action plan for the new department to pursue its targets with the theme of sustainability being at the centre of them? Will we be able to see that programme?
  (Margaret Beckett) First of all, yes, the nearest we could come to getting everything together was simply to adopt, as you quite rightly say, the targets from the previous departments and put them together. That means that we have too many targets. Yes, we are undertaking the process of looking at them and seeing if we can refine them and come up with something which is more rounded and reflects the shape of the new department. That work is being undertaken, it is at a slightly early stage. It will take some little time to do it because, as you rightly say, people are involved heavily on other issues, but we are very mindful of the need to do that. We certainly do not intend just to say that we have those targets and those targets. We are not going to do anything in a hurry as before. We will re-assess them to see what are the targets for the new department.

  Patrick Hall: So that might be something that we might want to look at some point in the future.

Diana Organ

  64. Obviously it is a new department. It is the first time that you have linked together agriculture and the environment and rural affairs. You have said that the department is naturally going to be outward facing and inclusive in the way that you work with your partners and stakeholders. I wonder if you could give us some idea of who you identify as your major partners and stakeholders and where in that priority are the stakeholders that come from the agricultural sector? Only the major ones.
  (Margaret Beckett) First of all, what you are quoting from is our draft aims and objectives. Of course one of the ways in which we are seeking to be outward facing is that we have put that into circulation, not just in the department but also among our range of stakeholders in order to try to get people's input as to whether they think we are getting our approach to our aims and priorities right. Who are our major partners and stakeholders? My heart sinks with the thought of trying to draw up a list. There seem to be an awful lot of them.

  Chairman: Your heart sinks at the thought of missing one out, I should think.

Diana Organ

  65. So that we do not leave out the important guest at the party, where in that are the stakeholders that come from the agricultural sector?
  (Margaret Beckett) Obviously they have a very key role not only in their own right as an important part of the economy and of our society, but also because of the very important need to get sustainable agriculture. That makes it a very key part of the work of the department and the fact that CAP reform, alongside implementing the Kyoto Protocol are both on the agenda of my department I think is a clear indication of the balance. Perhaps I can give a brief example as to why my heart sank slightly when you invited me to identify them. My diary secretary tells me that in the first week after the election she received 400 requests urgently to meet the Secretary of State, absolutely necessary before the summer recess.

  Chairman: You should sell them, Secretary of State, introduce a market. You are a public/private sector marketplace. You may be able to make a bob or two as well.

Mr Lepper

  66. Diana has in a way covered the question I was going to ask. I know there was some concern expressed by the farming community when DEFRA first published its first thoughts. I think Farmers' Weekly commented that farming came somewhere like halfway down the list of key tasks for the department. I just wonder whether in the two or three months since that list was published and consultation has been going on with many of those unnamed stakeholders those concerns have perhaps begun to disappear a bit on the part of the farming community.
  (Margaret Beckett) Far be it from me to suggest that anybody's concerns ever disappear. One thing I would say is that it is not exactly a list and it is certainly not in a kind of order of priority, but it is a framework of approach to sustainability which has to contain all the elements of the department's work of which, as I say, farming is a hugely important area. Some of that concern early on, and I understand it completely, was because we did not have the word "farming" or indeed the word "fisheries" in the department's title. I know that many people in the world of agriculture actually have recently been moving more and more towards discussion of the food chain and farming's role within that. That again is also part of the work of my department. It is partly a first stab at an attempt to give expression to the nature of the different relationships with which my department is trying to deal and grapple.

Mr Todd

  67. The words "outward facing" were chosen. Are those in deliberate contrast to the record of MAFF?
  (Margaret Beckett) I am simply saying that I think they were identified as a highly desirable goal, which is not always possible to achieve.

Mr Drew

  68. Have you decided to draw down the agri-monetary compensation decision which has to be made, I gather, by the end of this month?
  (Margaret Beckett) The decision does have to be made by the end of this month. It is an important decision. I am conscious of the concerns of that sector of the farming community. I am also conscious, as I have to be and as I know you will be, of the fact that while it is an important element and it is always referred to as kind of free good, it is of course something which involves a heavy call on the Treasury of the United Kingdom.

  Mr Borrow: You mentioned, Secretary of State, the issue of the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change and those issues. I understand that there is some responsibility in that area that is undertaken by the Deputy Prime Minister and some responsibility by your department and ministers within your department. Is it possible to briefly explain how that fits together? I am sure this is an issue which we are going to return to.


  69. Without hesitation, deviation or repetition.
  (Margaret Beckett) The policy lead obviously is with the department and it was I who led the delegation involved where, incidentally, some of you will be surprised and some of you will not but there was an enormously profitable role played, in fact I would say absolutely crucial, key role played, by the EU delegation as a whole, operating as a whole with all their different interests and so on, and it was critical to the success in Bonn, one of the most exciting things that I have taken part in in its final stages. The Deputy Prime Minister obviously has played a very major role in these issues, not least in the Kyoto Protocol, and retains a very keen interest in it, and of course does from time to time operate on behalf of the Prime Minister upon these issues. Obviously he has both an interest and a role and can contribute very helpfully to the policy direction that we as a government wish to pursue.


  70. Secretary of State, can I ask you one final question? You will be aware that the Food Standards Agency is looking at the issue of BSE in sheep. None of us wants to create another catastrophe. Could you give us some idea of what happens from that point onwards in terms of that particular debate and the ministry's preparations for this?
  (Margaret Beckett) The Food Standards Agency obviously—and I am not telling you anything you do not know but let me remind you for the record—is an independent agency and in so far as it reports to and liaises with a government department it is the Department of Health. They will be meeting early next week. I genuinely do not know and cannot tell you what they are likely to say. They did make some observations, I think in early August, from memory, and they will probably return to some of these issues. There have been some work and some experiments under way and they have reported to the Agency and they will come to their own views.

  71. You are conscious that this could either remain the size of a man's fist or it could become something quite difficult to handle.
  (Margaret Beckett) I am, as ever, conscious of the range of interesting issues for which my department is responsible.

  Chairman: Secretary of State, thank you very much. Ministerial evidence is normally published on the Internet as soon as we can get it on. I take it my Committee agrees with that principle. Thank you very much indeed for coming. You have been our inaugural guest in this session. I think you will be one of our regular interlocutories. We are going to see Jim Scudamore, I think, quite shortly on some of those more detailed questions of the management of the disease. Thank you very much indeed for the answers you have given today. We look forward very much indeed to our relationship.

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