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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20 - 39)



  20. Would it be fair to describe morale as low in the Department currently?
  (Mr Bender) No, I would not think it was fair. I think there is a mixture of morale. I genuinely believe in a large part of the Department there is excitement about the challenge of DEFRA. That is point one. Point two is there are a lot of tired people in the Department. There are hundreds and thousands working very long hours on foot and mouth disease. Thirdly, on this pay issue—I have used the word internally that it is a "sore" and I would like to remove that sore. It is a formal industrial dispute but it is also a sore and until we get it out of the way it will be difficult to move forward. But I would not describe morale as low in the terms you put it.

  21. The perception of the formation of the Department was that the small number of environmental specialists have been swallowed by the larger bureacracy of MAFF, which was not regarded terribly highly. How are you going to make sure that the environmental agenda is not stifled by the large blanket of the MAFF culture?
  (Mr Bender) The Secretary of State may have her own comments, particularly on the environmental agenda, but from a management point of view there is no doubt that sustainable development is the headline aim of the Department and environmental protection—national, urban, as well as rural—is the first of the three main planks (not in priority order) of the Department's activity, so in terms of what we are here for I am in no doubt. In terms of what you describe as a bureacracy, this is not a classic merger in the sense that the creation of DETR was where there were two head offices put together, two finance departments, two personnel departments and so on. We had 600 or so people in business divisions moved into an organisation where the corporate services on 7 June were run by MAFF people and I am doing two things to try and deal with that. The first is to ensure that we do not have by default, that the systems we run are MAFF systems, that on issues like business planning, staff appraisal, and so on, we look at what the former MAFF and former DETR were doing and try and implement the best of those. The second is that in management terms all the corporate services in my department are now run by people who were not in MAFF on 7 June. My Personnel Director has come from Customs, my Finance Director (recently appointed) has come from the former DETR, and the management board level person came from the Crown Prosecution Service, Mark Addison. I have tried to avoid this looking like, feeling like or being like a takeover by MAFF in management terms.

  22. Do you not risk possibly the reverse view which is that there was little good in MAFF and that all senior posts have been filled by people outside of that department? I am not pronouncing that view myself but it is one that might be held within the department.
  (Mr Bender) There is always a risk on these issues because there are internally two sets of constituencies I have to deal with. There are four members of the management board who come from the former MAFF. One has been promoted since the Election, Andy Lebrecht, who is the Director-General of Food, Farming and Fisheries, the Legal Adviser comes from the former MAFF, the Chief Veterinary Officer comes from the former MAFF and the Board Secretary comes from the former MAFF. As the Committee knows, I joined the former MAFF in June 2000. These are difficult balancing issues and I am trying to strike a balance between ensuring it is a merger not a takeover and not appearing to dump the good that MAFF did in the past.

Patrick Hall

  23. You said with regard to information systems that the most cost-effective way forward was to ensure that the majority system, if you like, the former MAFF system, took over the other ones, the minority ones. Is that your attitude towards pay?
  (Mr Bender) Can I just respond to your first point. I was only talking there about office systems. We are also engaged in discussions about how to invest in new IT, for example, electronic document and record management and new systems, for example, a single business identifier, that sort of issue. On pay the answer is no.

Mr Lepper

  24. Can I turn to the underlying question about the departmental restructuring. I think it is something we touched on last time you came before the Committee and we have had an opportunity since then to explore it a bit more with Michael Meacher when he came to talk to us (but we were mainly concerned with other issues then). I think I am right that this is the first time that environmental protection has been linked in one department with agriculture and fisheries. Could you just explain the rationale that was behind that change?
  (Margaret Beckett) To a certain extent I am seeking to explain the rationale behind a decision that obviously I did not take, but I believe the thinking was that if you are to have sustainable development as a philosophy spreading throughout government, it was essential to have a department that had that as its central goal, and already people had been looking at the fact that MAFF and a lot of rural affairs issues had a great deal of territory in common and the thinking was that that made sense and then when you looked at the wider issue, it was a radical decision but I come more and more over time to the view that it was the right decision, to group together the different entities that we have. In fact, I understand that before DEFRA was created there had already begun to be some cross-working, even slightly formal cross-working between some of the areas in MAFF and some of the areas in what was DETR. Of course, it is certainly the case that there are issues like for example diffuse pollution which were very much a core concern for both elements of what is now our department. I think it was generally an approach of giving sustainable development an importance as a concept that it had not previously had across government and also seeing that these particular issues made quite a lot of sense when put together.

  25. Could I put two points to you that arise from that. Soon after being appointed to this select committee I was talking to a representative of one of the NGOs that is concerned with the environment who said, "That is the select committee that deals with the countryside, isn't it and the DTLR is the one that deals with towns." Although perhaps crudely expressed, in a way there is a perception that that is now the case. What would you say to someone?
  (Margaret Beckett) Yes, I accept that there will be an immediate reaction that DEFRA is the countryside department. That is of course not at all the case. Yes, clearly rural revival, concerns of the countryside, concerns of the farming community are very much part of the concern of my Department, but it is certainly our strong view that we are the department for environmental protection right across the board and in fact, as you may know, next week I propose to hold a waste submit at which I suspect a lot of focus will be on the urban rather than the rural environment, without prejudging what those who contribute to that meeting will say.

  26. There was nevertheless a concern expressed in their open letter to the Prime Minister by the Green Alliance soon after the Department was set up in which they talked about environment officials and Ministers having been marginalised and distanced from big decisions. Presumably from what you have said, you would not agree with that criticism?
  (Margaret Beckett) No, not at all. Indeed, I am not entirely sure—and I do not in any way speak for the Green Alliance—that they would express those concerns in quite the same way now.

  27. You think in the intervening period since the General Election—
  (Margaret Beckett) It was the Green Alliance who sponsored a conference at which I spoke a little while ago trying to set out the framework and agenda for the department and I think it was of some reassurance to them. I think what lay behind their reference to the environment being marginalised was their anxiety—we did touch on this the last time I was before the Committee—that we are not in the department which takes the transport decisions and planning decisions. I think I probably did convey to the Committee on a previous occasion that a break does have to come somewhere and even a department that is responsible for sustainable environment does not wish to subsume every aspect of government policy, but I think it is important that we have good links and relationships and, as I say, those were the fears that lay behind some of those early reactions, and I think there probably was a fear (going back to an issue that Mark Todd raised) that in some way the environmental issues would be swallowed up in MAFF. In fact I think it is already evident that not only is that not happening but that there is a mutual invigoration (or there will be when more of the MAFF staff recover from the sheer exhaustion they are experiencing) of what has been an agenda for Government and is now a focus for our Department.

  28. Michael Meacher talked to us about a detailed concordat with the transport division in DTLR based on early exchange of information and hopefully at an early stage of decision making. There is that concordat in place. Could you give us practical examples of other links between your Department and others which might give evidence to those fears that were expressed?
  (Margaret Beckett) I do not have any particular specific concordats in quite the same way with other departments, but of course we do have the upgraded Committee of Green Ministers which Michael Meacher chairs. That is very much and we hope will have an increasingly strong role as a place in which we can co-ordinate a lot of the action taking place within government.
  (Mr Bender) Could I add a supplement. There are three areas that came to my mind as ones where we are working with other departments. One is planning where we need to ensure that the links that existed within DETR are maintained and strengthened despite the separation of staff into another department. The second is energy. We need to work with the DTI—and indeed the Performance and Innovation Unit has been doing a report recently which should be published fairly soon on resource productivity of which energy is one element—and we play a co-ordinating role especially with DTI. The third is the Johannesburg Summit next September on sustainable development where the Secretary of State will be working with the Department for International Development, Treasury, DTI and others. Those are just three areas that have occurred to me since you asked the question.

  29. Thank you, they are very useful examples I think. You mentioned the Green Ministers' Committee; how frequently does it meet?
  (Margaret Beckett) I am not entirely sure, every two or three months I think. I do not sit on it. Michael chairs it and Alun Michael is our Department's representative on it. I have enough to do sorting out my own diary without scrutinising too closely the diaries of my Ministers!

  30. I would be grateful if somebody could let me know how often in the last year they have met.
  (Margaret Beckett) I will be happy to do that although I should point out that there was a General Election in the middle of the last year and that would have disrupted their pattern.

  31. Perhaps go back over two years and also what plans they have to meet within the next year. I assume they meet on an ad hoc basis from time to time but if there are regular—
  (Margaret Beckett) I will also tell you what they will be doing in future because, as I say, it has got a slightly different status and focus now looking forward.

  32. Is it likely that in the past representation at that committee has been by officials rather than Ministers from some departments?
  (Margaret Beckett) I think it has usually been Ministers but certainly it is the intention that it will be Ministers in future.

  33. If any information is available I would be interested in seeing it?
  (Margaret Beckett) Yes.

  Mr Lepper: Thank you.

Paddy Tipping

  34. There is a way in which the Rural White Paper and the Urban White Paper are complementary—
  (Margaret Beckett) Indeed they are.

  35. I think of things like housing projects, the Post Office, transport issues which affect both the rural and the urban community fundamentally. How can you ensure that those two very important communities are taken forward together because the one works off the other?
  (Margaret Beckett) I do not know whether Brian will want to say a little about this in a moment, but we are in the process of creating the rural aspect of the Department. Indeed the new Director of Rural Affairs attended her first team meeting yesterday and so that work is beginning to take place. Also, of course, we shall working closely with the rural advocate and Alun Michael, I am sure, would be more than delighted to talk to the Committee about the plans that he has and that we have for making sure that we rural-proof policy across government. Clearly, it cannot be responsible for every area of policy but certainly we are responsible for trying to make sure that rural issues are properly taken into account and that the work of the White Paper is taken forward. Also, of course, how we can continue to invest in raising the standards of those different rural services is very much part of the discussions of the further spending review and issues of that kind. So it is a key element in the forward planning of the Department and one where we are getting to the stage of having some of the organisational nuts and bolts in place.

  36. On the Rural White Paper a lot has happened since it was published over a year ago now, and people tend to have forgotten it with everything that has occurred since then. How are you going to implement it? Are you going to get it out, dust it off and set some timetables for action?
  (Margaret Beckett) Absolutely. There is the intention also to set up some stakeholder groups which again will provide a forum for focus on the different issues. I do not know if there is anything more you want to say organisationally, Brian.
  (Mr Bender) There was an implementation plan which, as you will be aware, was published in March of this year and it is in fact regularly updated. Again I hate to sit in Committee and promise lots of notes rather than answer questions but if the Committee would find if useful to have a note on where we are on implementation of the Rural White Paper, we can certainly provide that. On organisational questions, it was clear to me as soon as my feet hit the ground after the 8 June that, given the title and focus of the Department, we needed to beef up the organisation, the part of it that dealt with rural affairs, and not simply put together the bits from the former MAFF and the bits from the former DETR. Therefore we have a full Directorate General headed by Anna Walker who came across from DTI and there are three directorates in it dealing with different aspects of land use and rural affairs including one whose title is Rural Economies and Communities. In terms of the staff resourcing, that work is now largely done and will be rolled forward. If the Committee would like a note we will provide it.
  (Margaret Beckett) I think that might be helpful, Mr Curry, because we have about £1 billion of additional public money to spend on implementing the Rural White Paper and I have a good page and a half of measures on implementation and I think it would be more helpful to send it to the Committee than try and read it out.

  Chairman: We would need to look at that alongside the rural development programme to make any sense of it and then the Committee may well want to do some investigation into that progress and that aspect of things, but that would be for them to decide. Mr Jack?

Mr Jack

  37. Secretary of State, your Department is never short of producing reports. I have brought a selection with me, England's Rural Development Programme 2002-2006
  (Margaret Beckett) Is this praise or criticism, Mr Jack?

  38. It depends how you interpret objective criticism. Agriculture in the United Kingdom 2000. You might like to tell me when the 2001 one will be produced. Then we have had Our Countryside: The Future which colleagues have mentioned and then we had your Annual Report 2001. We are certainly not lacking in depth and content. All of them are committed in some way, shape or form to programmes of change. All of them talk about endless new strategies. Agriculture in the United Kingdom 2000 draws our attention to the fact "this year saw significant progress in realising the UK Government's long-term strategy for agriculture" and it talks about an action plan for farming. You have had a heck of a lot of goes at defining the way forward for agriculture in the UK. In spite of the many attempts to do that you almost seem to have thrown in the towel by setting up this further inquiry into it. Who is going to pull all of this work together and when do you think we are going to crystallise out something which will be recognisable as a strategy for farming in the United Kingdom?
  (Margaret Beckett) First, Mr Jack, can I draw your attention to one you have missed!

  39. I have not got round to reading that one yet.
  (Margaret Beckett) It has only just come out but it is one which we are particularly proud of as DEFRA. This is the UK's Third National Communication. The Committee will know that nations are required to make a national communication under the United Nations' Framework Convention on climate change of progress that is being made. We believe that this document which has just been published we believe—and we say this with some caution because it is awful to make boasts that turn out to be unjustified—we have been using in Marrakech the cautious phraseology that we believe we may be the first country in the world to produce our Third National Communication and nobody has indicated we are not so we think that is probably a well-founded assumption, and so I proffer that to you for further bedtime reading. As for the issue of the action plan for farming and so on, I would wholeheartedly disagree that the setting up of a further inquiry means we have thrown in the towel. In fact, I think it is really the opposite of that. It seems to me to be a means of actually concentrating minds. I accept the underlying point that you are making that, yes, lots of people have been talking for a long time in different contexts about what the future of farming might be and so on. The tragic events of the outbreak of foot and mouth disease have concentrated a lot of people's minds and created an atmosphere in which many people are having to make decisions in the relatively near future about what their own future in farming and therefore the context of the decision they have to make. I think that has very much accelerated people's consideration as to what are the practical steps that might be made now as opposed to discussing what might happen in five or ten or 15 or 20 years' time which seems to me as being rather more of the context of the discussion people had had. I think Ministers have been trying and indeed officials have been trying to concentrate minds and move the agenda forward without necessarily having an audience that really wanted to deal with those issues at that time. I think a number of things are now coming together. The Agenda 21 reforms are proceeding, enlargement is bound to focus minds more within the European Union on the issues of CAP and while, as I understand it, we do not yet have agreement in Doha and nothing will be agreed until everything is agreed, but it does appear that there is some acceptance in Doha of the need to reduce subsidies for agriculture domestically and internationally, and if there is a final agreement that the agriculture section of it will have very much that message. I think far from this being abandoned to the inquiry, I think the job of the inquiry is to focus minds and come forward with some concrete ideas and proposals for the context for the future. As to when it is pulled together and we crystallise strategy, it is very much my hope that we will be able to do so certainly when the inquiry has reported and perhaps a little in advance of that, depending on what happens, so in the New Year I hope that we will be able to say something more concrete.

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