Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1
WEDNESDAY 14 NOVEMBER 2001
MP, AND MR
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!
2. Wednesday 14.
(Margaret Beckett) Thank you, that is very kind.
3. Of November!
(Margaret Beckett) Imminently, and I really mean imminently.
Certainly days rather than weeks and possibly less than that.
4. 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: "I see from the notes that Jim Scudamore
says the DEFRA's computerised licensing system is working reasonably
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 Christmas 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. 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.
5. 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
but I do not believe I have had a formal approach.
6. 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 believeand
obviously it is for him to saythat 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.
7. 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.
8. We have no team announced with him
(Mr Bender) There is a secretariat in place but it
is not fully staffed up.
9. 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.
10. He intends to conduct the inquiry solo,
as it were, and take evidence without the assistance of other
(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.
11. 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 the organisation, where we have implemented 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.
For example, the climate change team that the Secretary of State
had with her in Marrakech 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 issueswhich the Committee may
well want to revert towhich are very high up on my agenda
at the moment, and there are IT issues where there are, frankly,
glitches 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.
12. So do I take it, just on that last point,
that you are rolling out the former MAFF system to the former
(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.
13. 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.
14. The expression "roll out" I take
to mean "introduce"?
(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!
15. I think it would not be particularly unfair
to say that MAFF's record in information systems has at best been
(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.
16. 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
but I do not have any means of measuring the performance of the
two systems that are available to you.
(Mr Bender) I fall back to the point I made earlierin
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. 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.
17. You mentioned the CAPPA 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 McNeill, 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
18. 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 submitting 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 determinedand
the primary responsibility of the Department is of course towards
the customer as well as towards the taxpayerwe 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.
19. Turning to the industrial action what steps
have been taken. You said there was a high priority on the issue
of pay. 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 civil service level to Whitehall departments a decade
ago. 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.