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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1 - 19)




  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.

Mr Breed

  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 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.

  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 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?

Mr Todd

  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 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, 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 DETR staff?
  (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!

Mr Todd

  15. I think it would not be particularly unfair to say that MAFF's record in information systems has at best been spotty.
  (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 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. 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 weeks ago.

  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 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.

  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.

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