WEDNESDAY 14 NOVEMBER 2001
Mr David Curry, in the Chair
RT HON MARGARET BECKETT, a Member of Parliament, Secretary of State, and MR BRIAN BENDER CB, Permanent Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, examined.
(Margaret Beckett) If you will bear with me for a second, Mr Curry, while I work out what day it is!
(Margaret Beckett) Thank you, that is very kind.
(Margaret Beckett) Imminently, and I really mean imminently. Certainly days rather than weeks and possibly less than that.
(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 and, 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.
(Margaret Beckett) I have seen a rumour to that effect ut I do not believe I have had a formal approach.
(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.
(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.
. (Mr Bender) --- There is a secretariat in place but it is not fully staffed up.
(Margaret Beckett) Dr Anderson is conducting it and he will have a secretariat but it is not fully in place.
(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 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 organisation where we have implemented now, with 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 of that, where, for example, the climate change team that the Secretary of State had with her in Marrakesh 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, gliches 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.
(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.
(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.
(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 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.
(Mr Bender) A 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 and 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.
(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 MacNeil (?), 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.
(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.
(Mr Bender) Perhaps for the benefit of the Committee I will describe what the issue is, which is that pay was delegated below senior service level to Whitehall departments a decade ago and 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.
(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.
(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 was two head offices put together, two finance departments, two personnel departments and so on. We had 600 or so 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 a 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 of MAFF in management terms.
(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 Farming, Food and Fishing, 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.
(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 data and document and record management and new systems, for example, a single business identifyer, that sort of issue. On pay the answer is no.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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 International Development, Treasury, DTI and others. Those are just three or four areas that have occurred to me since you asked the question.
(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!
(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.
(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.
(Margaret Beckett) I think it has usually been Ministers but certainly it is the intention that it will be Ministers in future.
(Margaret Beckett) Yes.
Mr Lepper: Thank you.
(Margaret Beckett) Indeed they are.
(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.
(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, and therefore we have a full Directorate General headed by Anna Walker who came across from DTI and joined the department on Monday where 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?
(Margaret Beckett) Is this praise or criticism, Mr Jack?
(Margaret Beckett) First, Mr Jack, can I draw your attention to one you have missed!
(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 Marrakesh 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.
(Margaret Beckett) I am trying I deal with all of those aspects. Some of what you are asking me will emerge, I hope, in our later observations and publications. Broadly speaking, I stand more on the radical than on the incremental end, and in terms of discussions and what happens at the EU level and so on, there are a variety of different discussions taking place. I have had a number of bilateral conversations with fellow ministers. Renate Künast and I addressed a conference very shortly after my appointment to this post which I believe was sponsored by the RSPB and NFU together, which was an interesting outcome. There is, as the Committee will know, a group of Ministers all of whom are keen to see substantial reform of the CAP which does meet, and in fact it would have been meeting this weekend but it was going to meet in Denmark and the Danes have decided to have a General Election instead. There is an on-going programme of discussions. There is also an on-going programme of discussions obviously with the Commission. As to where people stand, it comes and goes a little, to be perfectly honest. The German Minister is certainly showing increasing interest and determination to promote reform. The French, as you may know, have like the UK, taken advantage of the modulation to the existing CAP that the recent reform allows, to begin to divert funding and take a different approach to some agriculture issues. Indeed, I understand the Portuguese have signalled that they wish to do the same, although at this moment I cannot call to mind to what degree we have concrete information about their proposals. I think things are shifting and indeed it was the EU negotiating position in Doha that we have to contemplate radical change. While it is common ground and we have been talking about CAP reform for as long as I can remember, I do think the climate for such reform is more favourable than it has ever been, although that is by no means to say it will be achieved.
(Margaret Beckett) No, we will not be making a formal submission on behalf of the Government because the whole point of having an independent inquiry is that others look at the range of ideas and philosophy and theories that have been tossed around for some time, discuss it between themselves and come forward with their thoughts. It is strongly my view (and I think it is shared) that for the Government to give formal evidence as to its own approach would run the risk of compromising the independence of the Commission and we are extremely anxious that this Commission is seen as independent and that it is truly independent of the Government's input.
(Margaret Beckett) I did not only use that phrase and description at the Labour Party Conference, I also said it to a substantial European conference held in Belfast which was hosted by our NFU but for farming organisations across Europe, so I said it to farmers first. Secondly, on the issue of market forces and the Code of Practice, of course I take your point about the issues as being issues for my Department but this is a competition issue. The Code of Practice followed, as you would be well aware, the Office of Fair Trading's observations and report and competition issues are very much an issue for the DTI and they are handled in a conspicuously independent way for that very reason.
(Mr Bender) Can I just add a separate point on the operation of the supply chain which is that the Chairman of the Meat and Livestock Commission, Mr Peter Barr, is himself leading some work across the industry to try and look at a more effective, efficient supply chain and one that is consumer-led rather than the reverse. And in formal discussions we have had with him his outlook not only informs us but informs the Don Curry policy Commission, so getting a more efficient supply chain operating that meets consumers' needs is very much a focus of the Department's aim and work.
(Margaret Beckett) I think it would be entirely wrong not to see whether it is possible for us to have both. I certainly want to see farming have profitable, well-run businesses and perhaps diversified businesses too, although that will not always perhaps be the case. But it has always seemed to me, going back over a period of some many years, that one of the many problems with the CAP was that it was a policy which was designed to keep prices up, and that seems to me to be in itself undesirable interference with the market. How and what shape of structure eventually emerges is another matter. It does seem to me there are areas, and I believe I am right in saying that for example in the arable sector we are now closer to world prices than we have been for quite a long time, so I think we have to try to get that balance right between what provides a decent living for the farming community who, I completely accept, have really struggled and had tremendous difficulty in recent years and also how we get a fair price and the most efficient price for consumers.
(Margaret Beckett) I think that is absolutely right and I think it came as a shock to many people to realise just how great a component of the rural economy and of rural prosperity were a range of other activities and organisations rather than just the farming interest, which is of course at the core of the countryside, and not least, as you say, in terms of their responsibility for landscape and issues of that kind. I know that a number of the schemes that the Countryside Agency is beginning to implement do look - and they have had various experiments and pilot projects and so on - at the role of the countryside in that respect. I think that provided a lot of importance and stimulus. I think the other thing that I would say is that certainly as big a surprise to me, not having focussed on these issues in quite this way before, was the degree to which the involvement of the tourist industry is very much an issue of domestic tourism too. I think a lot of us when we talk about tourism, we tend to think about the international market. To use the usual shorthand, how do you get the American visitors back. I recall, in fact, the Chairman saying this to me when we were discussing the difficulties that were being experienced in Yorkshire that actually the tourists in his part of the world come from Bradford and Leeds and this was an element we needed to stimulate. Yes, a lot of people have learnt some important lessons, what we need to do is to gather that experience and put it to good use.
(Margaret Beckett) I take your point. I suspect that if we are - and this is taking something of a step forward - successful in getting agreement to substantial change to the CAP, I would guess that will be on a transitional basis. It is a matter of discussion and argument I suppose whether it is better to have a kind of big bang change or incremental step by step because the incremental approach means that it will take longer. On the other hand, I think many might find it preferable and easier to adjust. I believe there is a real and prosperous future for the traditional family farm. I am very mindful of the fact that there are sometimes slightly different issues, depending on whether farms are in ownership or are tenanted and that also creates a different number of concerns. Yes, I do believe that perhaps in some cases on a more diversified basis, although I know very many in the farming community have already taken such steps, certainly perhaps in a slightly different context we will see the continued development of farming but I would be astonished and dismayed if we were to see the disappearance of what one might call the traditional family farm.
(Mr Bender) Can I add, if the Committee will forgive me, just two quick points on that, two areas where my Department has thought it right to provide assistance. One is on the provision of business advice and skills to help skill the farmer to continue to survive in the environment and how we rationalise that, how we join it up, how we continue it is one of the issues we will be reflecting on in the future. The other is various schemes the Committee will know either for marketing support or indeed encouragement of assurance schemes and again that should be a benefit to the traditional farm.
(Margaret Beckett) If you like, that is a 60,000 dollar question. Certainly it has to be the case that it is not easy to judge to what extent this different range of programmes - and I share your view that the countryside stewardship scheme is an excellent scheme but obviously it is very much in the beginning - can take the place, if you like, of production subsidies. I think it is more a matter, not just of saying AOh, well that will completely replace@ as of breaking the link between headage, for example, in livestock and the support that is given. These are issues which are important in farming terms where artificial behaviour patterns do seem to have been created. I think that is common ground, I do not think that is disputed, both in terms of the future of farming itself and also in environmental terms, breaking such a link we believe would be highly desirable. Obviously how you can get the right level of support and for what means is absolutely a key component of thinking about how you develop the issue of public good and not just of food production, livestock production or whatever.
(Margaret Beckett) Absolutely.
(Margaret Beckett) Yes.
(Margaret Beckett) I entirely share that view. I strongly believe that what we need is the maximum degree of flexibility. Indeed one of the concerns we have about the ERDP and about the implication of modulation is that there is a degree of complexity and inflexibility which is actually rather hindering attempts to develop better and wider schemes. I entirely agree that one of the reasons for wishing to retain flexibility is because of the danger of replicating in new sectors, or newish sectors such as organic farming, some of the features which everybody so much deplored in the way that CAP worked conventionally. Indeed, not only have I said to farming audiences that farming has to find its place in the market place but I have also said to Green audiences that I am not the slightest bit interested in providing funding to build up surpluses in organic food which the market does not require, any more than we wanted to build up surpluses in more conventional foods that the market did not require. Neither of these, I have to say, were entirely welcome messages to the audiences to which they were addressed.
(Margaret Beckett) Pass. I will look at that. As a matter of general principle. Of course, you will appreciate that in terms of organic production this is very much the exception. One of the things that does concern us and one of the things that we are seeking to encourage - and I hope one of the things that may come out of the Policy Commission is encouragement - is that we seek to satisfy more of the market that there is in the UK for organic produce from within the UK.
Phil Sawford: On the point of a reduction in subsidies, there are those that argue that over the past 50 years subsidies have been part of the problem rather than part of the solution. They have distorted markets and propped up inefficient sectors of the industry. If we are to phase that out and keep cheap food, I think you said we want both, that will obviously have a major effect on agriculture. I wonder what thinking, what models you have looked at? The point on diversification, there is a finite number of trout farms and bed and breakfasts and farmers markets.
Mr Jack: Caravan parks.
(Margaret Beckett) I accept that and I understand that concern. Of course this is again precisely why the setting up of the Policy Commission was in our manifesto to get a wider group of people, a wider range of people, not just those in Government or in the relevant departments to think about and to address these issues. I ought perhaps to say that although clearly none of us wants to see high priced food if it can be avoided, of course I do recognise that there are those who argue that one of the problems that we have is that we do not pay enough for our food. There is a distinction I make there between seeing what is the right price and having a system, as the CAP does, that actually kept prices artificially high in all circumstances. You asked what sort of models. I think it would be dangerous to try and say AOh, we want to do what X did@ because we have to look at our own circumstances but at the farming conference in Belfast, to which I referred, there was a very interesting presentation from a New Zealand farmer about what New Zealand had done when forced by the change in their relationship with the United Kingdom as we entered the European Community, not least among other influences. You know, what they had done and how they had sought to address the market situation in which they had found themselves, what they had actually done, which of course was to phase out all subsidies, and how they had sought to satisfy markets. Now let me say at once I am not suggesting for a second that we should simply say AOh, well, we will do what New Zealand did@ because they are in extremely different circumstances from ourselves. I think that an encouragement, if you like, that we can take from what was done in New Zealand is that they were able radically to transform their approach to agriculture and to do so successfully. It seems to me it is important for us to take encouragement from the fact that within our own very, very different circumstances, we should be trying to look, as they were forced to do, at what our market situation is, what potential solutions there are for us and how we could move towards those solutions. I will freely tell the Committee that I think it would be madness as well as arrogant for me to say that after the comparatively short time I have been in the Department I know the answer to all these questions, but at least I hope I know what some of the questions are. As to the other issues, no I accept it is not just a matter of diversifying into particular kinds of small enterprise and I accept too the fact that there may be not enough of a market for all who may be concerned. This is one of the reasons though why we are extremely keen - and I know it is not always welcome to people in the farming community - to see good quality business advice provided to the farming community about the way forward for them and that advice being sought by people in the farming community. I know that there are many in farming who believe that there are grounds to look at perhaps more co-operative ways of working, for example, than has been the case sometimes in the past and that will help to create a new future, particularly for the smaller farm which one does not wish to see disappear but which may find its future through different ways of working than in the past. Also I think we need to encourage and stimulate innovation and innovative thinking. For example, it potentially satisfies all the interests in my Department if we find that there is a good market for energy crops. There are a range of potential answers emerging from the mist of these questions.
(Margaret Beckett) If I could perhaps say, Mr Drew, the Government does not intend, as I said, to give formal evidence to the Policy Commission but there is nothing to stop Members of Parliament or Members of this Committee doing so.
(Margaret Beckett) If I could pick up on your second point, and perhaps ask Brian, as you say, to deal to a degree with your first point. In terms of what we have done so far, the one thing I will say briefly is that as the Committee may be aware, and certainly I think will expect, we are working on our own sustainable development strategy for the Department which we hope to publish in due course. What I would like to focus on, because I think maybe it might be more illuminating than a sort of list of Awell we have tried to do this@ or that is what we would like to do in the context of the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg next year. One of the things that is the source of considerable anxiety to the South African Government, and of concern to many who are engaged in preparations for that Conference, is that there is a danger of it being seen - and this goes back to the point that I think David Lepper made to me earlier - as an environmental conference. Actually it is not an environmental conference - and it was one of the reasons why I was very pleased that we were able to settle some of the climate change technicalities in Marrakech - it is meant to be, we wish it to be, a conference that looks at the overall package of issues that we mean by sustainable development, that is the economic and the social issues as well as the environmental. People are focussing on the list of potential things that the Summit could try to do which have emerged from the regional discussions that have been held already, saying that we want to reduce that list but many people are saying that as that list is reduced to a smaller number of things on which the Summit should focus that they wish it particularly to focus on the economic and social, not least because particularly in Africa, and in the context of the conference held in Africa, there is such a clear link between the poverty that exists and environmental degradation. It is a vicious circle. So what people are beginning to say we should look for to emerge from the Summit are concrete projects and proposals in terms of providing, say, clean water, sustainable energy in continents like Africa which can begin to transform both the economic and social prospect and also in that context and by those means the environment. I think these are part of the Awhat we would like to do@ issues and, of course, it is also very strongly my view that while there is a general public recognition of problems vis a vis the environment and not least of climate change, a general concern and goodwill towards these issues - much of what has been discussed so far, even though we hope it will in the long term be beneficial - is just way over people=s heads and always will be. If, however, we can begin to focus more as we move forward on things like developing the practical projects to provide clean water, energy and so on, then not only is that a good thing in itself, and particularly a good thing in the developing countries, but it actually shows people what we are doing as a world to start to tackle the problems of the environment rather than just discussing it at a rather high minded and philosophical level.
(Mr Bender) I have been given a couple of minutes to think. Can I inform the Committee of two management changes and two policy things we are doing. On the management changes, we set up two divisions in the Department which did not exist before the election bringing together different parts. One is a division in the Food, Farming and Fisheries part of the Department that leads on sustainable agriculture, and that brings together some thinking from what you might call both sides of the fence. In the Land Use and Rural Affairs Directorate-General we have a division called the Farm Management Improvement Division which again brings together some of the business skilling issues, some of the land management issues, some of the environmental issues that were done on different sides of the fence before the election. On policy outcomes, policy issues, perhaps two points to mention. One is the Department launched in August outlines for an emissions trading scheme. Secondly, work was taking place in the two separate departments before the election and now is taking place within DEFRA for, I hope, publication in the spring of a soil strategy.
(Margaret Beckett) I think those are the key means at present. We are in discussion, as I said we are developing our own sustainable development strategy, so too are DTLR. We are keeping the discussion going between ourselves about these issues so that they progress in parallel.
(Mr Bender) Two specific further examples. One is early this year, I think it was, the then DETR published a White Paper on Sustainable Development. DEFRA will be publishing the next one, the follow up one, I hope early in 2002. Secondly, we will want to carry forward, through various collective machinery, including the Green Ministers but including also, I suspect, the Cabinet Committee on Public Expenditure, sustainable development as an underpinning theme of the forthcoming spending review.
(Margaret Beckett) Indeed, I should have said that, actually. I have got to the stage that I take it for granted and I think everybody else does too. It has been agreed to be an underpinning or if you like an overarching theme of the whole approach to the next spending review.
(Margaret Beckett) No.
(Margaret Beckett) If I may say so, I do not think that is right because, as you have just been saying, the issue of sustainable development is underpinning everything that is going to be done in the spending review. That will make a difference. We have the strengthened Green Ministers Committee. We have already referred to the concordat on some of these specific issues with DTLR and, as I indicated earlier, there are bits of the different departments which have already been working together and will continue to do so. We have made a small announcement on the issue that we are setting up a group with the Office of Government Procurement to try to encourage the right approach across Government. I think from memory it is a task force or a cross cutting committee or something but basically drawing in the Office of Government Procurement and that I think is a very important indicator of the degree to which this approach is accepted across Government, and not least within the Treasury, because as you will appreciate for the Treasury to agree not only that sustainable development is a key theme that runs throughout everything that is going to be part of the considerations of the spending review but also to agree that the Office of Government Procurement should be taking into account not only as it must, quite rightly, value for money but also sustainable development is potentially an important step forward.
(Margaret Beckett) Indeed.
(Margaret Beckett) That is right. Yes, properly cost effective.
(Margaret Beckett) Absolutely. You will appreciate that is something the Government has tried to do in a whole variety of ways to give a more long term way of thinking, long term horizon and also to avoid some of the issues in the past where we did have a lot of short term decision making which cost down the road.
(Margaret Beckett) Indeed.
(Margaret Beckett) Yes, we are involved. It is a DTLR lead - I think I am right in saying - for precisely the reason that you give, it has heavy local authority involvement and so on. It is also very much an issue of, for example, the urban environment so the initiative recently on abandoned cars, for example, and a range of other issues. I know Michael is passionately interested in the issue of litter and the things which, as you quite rightly say, do impinge on people=s own specific and local environment. Yes, we are engaged in discussion of those issues. It remains under discussion as to how the thing is taken forward but we are very much liaising with our DTLR and other colleagues about it.
(Margaret Beckett) I am afraid I cannot answer that but you may find some other way of pursuing it.
(Margaret Beckett) First of all, I dispute, I am afraid, the notion that you cannot have radical change by transitional means. Indeed, if you want to be really radical you might be best advised to do it in a transitional way because of the shock to the system that it would otherwise provide. As for the evidence, well I think all I can say to you is that first of all the European Union negotiating mandate for Doha accepted that agricultural subsidies would have to be reduced, phased out, whatever, and it would appear that it is possible that if those talks succeed that will be part of the agreement. Second, of course the EU has committed itself to the removal of milk quotas. Now, I do not dispute for a second that all of these things are a broad framework of agreement and that when it comes to actually doing it, it is a lot more difficult. Nevertheless those have been agreed as part of the approach and of course there is a whole issue of enlargement which is likely - to put it no higher and one probably could put it higher - to mean that a number of those who have been net beneficiaries from the CAP in the past will become net contributors in the future. I find it sharpens the mind considerably. I do not wish, by any means, to imply to the Committee that success can be taken for granted or any negotiations along these lines would not be extremely difficult and very hard fought, not least because there are many other Member States in which agriculture remains a much higher proportion of their economy than is the case in the United Kingdom. However, I just say that those are signals that lead me to believe that radical change is not off the agenda.
(Mr Bender) You referred in your question, Mr Breed, to unanimity, of course in the Common Agricultural Policy changes are by Qualified Majority Voting.
(Margaret Beckett) Enlargement certainly is a driver for CAP reform. Whether, because of that, it will for some people raise issues and questions about enlargement remains to be seen but, again, let me remind you that the Union has committed itself to a timetable and those discussions are continuing. It is my understanding that quite a lot of the progress is being made with the specific agreements that are required to sign off the different areas of policy. Up to now, I am not aware of any evidence that there is an attempt being made artificially to slow down the process.
(Margaret Beckett) The current policy we have adopted on modulation is a mixture of what we believe is the best use we can make of the approach and what we believe is the most practical pace at which we can move. If I thought, or if it became apparent, that it would be possible to move faster on modulation, I would be extremely happy to seek to do so. I think part of the difficulty was in an exchange that I had earlier on with the Chairman. Unfortunately the regime which presently permits modulation is somewhat inflexible and bureaucratic so I think there is some disappointment. I seem to recall talking to Euan Cameron about this a while ago. We believe that the nature of the existing regime and permission for modulation is probably something of a handicap to getting as much opportunity to use it as one might wish. Certainly, going back to other issues, I think it does not help anybody to set artificial targets for, say, a faster move towards modulation that we cannot then deliver.
(Margaret Beckett) First, of course I take the point and I accept that these issues are difficult for people. That is not in any way a matter of dispute. It is, of course, the case that in whatever part of the country or whatever community in which you live, there are literally millions of our fellow citizens, of similar ages, who have had to look afresh at what they thought would be the structure of their lives and come to terms with new circumstances and situations. While I completely accept that some of the things people say about acquiring business skills and so on may be daunting to some, I also am aware that there are a lot of people who, having overcome their initial reservations and anxieties, have actually found they had much greater capacity than they really wanted to know. I do not rule it out. Also, if I may say so, with deep respect, Mr Breed, I am not quite sure how old you are but I suspect you are rather younger than 55 because otherwise you might not be so much feeling that people might write themselves off at that time.
Mr Breed: Nearly 55. Perhaps I ought to start learning some new skills.
(Margaret Beckett) As I say, I think many people have in fact begun to do so. Of course one of the other things - again this will be the kind of issue the Policy Commission will look at - that I have heard people discussing and tossing about is, let us say, to take an example, that the thinking is that people who are going to continue and prosper in farming may have to have more IT skills than have been the case in the past, does that always mean that the individual has to acquire those skills or are there or will there be organisations, agencies, private sector companies perhaps from which they can, at a practical price, purchase those skills? I think there are a range of issues here. There are, as ever, suggestions around that people might think of retirement schemes and so on but we are talking, as ever, also about costs, investment, etc..
(Margaret Beckett) That is also my impression. I suspect that if you had gone to them some years before and said AYou need IT skills@, my impression from some of the women in farming, to whom I have listened, is that they have in many cases been amazed to learn what capacities they have and can develop once the need to do so is there.
(Margaret Beckett) I am very mindful of that, Mr Curry.
(Margaret Beckett) No, I would not. I think it must be an aim and a goal of the reforms we seek to pursue to ensure it is not as expensive as the CAP is at present. I am extremely mindful, I can assure you, of the fact that most previous attempts to reform the CAP - I say most because that was not true of the Berlin Reforms, although people said that they should have gone further and they should have been able to bring about a greater change - in general terms, yes, I am extraordinarily conscious that previous attempts to reform the CAP have led to as much, if not more, expenditure. I am also equally mindful that what have been said to be transitional schemes in the past have turned out somehow either not to be transitional or not to accomplish the transition which was sought. I am under no illusion as to the scale of the issues that we are seeking to tackle but I do not think that is an excuse for not tackling them.
(Margaret Beckett) Yes.
(Margaret Beckett) I do not want to get too far down the road of what is concrete. Certainly I think that has to be an element in considering what would be a practical direction for reform.
(Mr Bender) Can I just add one word that has not come up in this exchange and that is the word degressivity because one of our aims in the next round of negotiations will be degressive subsidies.
(Mr Bender) Reduce the subsidies over time.
(Margaret Beckett) It means a progressive reduction in subsidy. Not a kind of one off cut but a policy and a path that over time leads to a very clear reduction.
Chairman: The policy that is rolled out is rolled in.
(Margaret Beckett) No, it was a commitment to a reduction but let me make it quite clear, it is not a commitment of the Commission, it is only a commitment of the Commission in so far as the Commission is speaking on behalf of Member States. It is the agreed negotiating mandate for Doha, agreed on behalf of all EU countries.
(Margaret Beckett) Camazing, yes.
(Mr Bender) There are two issues. One is that a mandate certainly will have been published, and we can let the Committee know. The second is exactly what is about to be agreed at Doha where the overnight news, as the Secretary of State said earlier, is that there is agreement on the agriculture chapter - we have yet to see that as a whole. What is not clear yet, because the people we tried to speak to this morning were still locked in rooms or trying to sleep or whatever, is whether that goes beyond a mandate, in other words whether the EU has decided on the spot to go further. I am afraid I cannot answer that at the moment. The mandate we can certainly provide to the Committee and clearly we can provide as soon as we know it C
(Margaret Beckett) Whether it is watered down or beefed up, we do not know.
(Margaret Beckett) Obviously everybody is very mindful of that and nobody is about wanting in any way to destroy the prospects of the people who are presently engaged in British agriculture. You asked me for our overall long term goal and I simply say to you that not only does it include reform of the way that public money flows in but it also includes a belief that if we reform the way in which it flows in we should also be able to reduce the amount of money that is needed.
(Margaret Beckett) That is a very separate issue from saying that you automatically thereby reduce the prospect of prosperity. If we go back to what we have said in slightly different context previously, it has to be the case that the farming community as others will draw their principal support and let us hope more support from the market place rather than from public funds.
(Margaret Beckett) I do not have a personal position and target at the present time, maybe I will have in the future and if I do then I am sure at some stage I shall discuss it with this Committee. For me to try and start with a number now would not make any sense at all.
(Mr Bender) Mr Jack asked about economic work going on in the Department, one area of activity we are working on is the economic effect on the economy as a whole across Europe and on the farmer of the abolition of milk quotas. It is not a subsidy as such, it is obviously a different form of market control. That is the sort of area where we are doing work.
(Margaret Beckett) Obviously, if there is no agreement at Dohar, everybody will have to reassess the situation. I do not myself take the view at the moment that that is likely to lead to some necessity for sweeping, short-term change. A lot depends on what actually is the outcome of Dohar and what we hear about it. I would have thought it was much more likely to lead to discussions about how in some other context or in some other place we can reach that kind of agreement.
(Margaret Beckett) Exactly.
(Margaret Beckett) You are quite correct.
(Margaret Beckett) People no doubt are continuing to work on these issues but, yes. There is a general view - and I must go cautiously here - I think the feeling is that part of the impact and consequences of the way the CAP works is to artificially increase the amount of funds it consumes, and that if you had a different and better structure you would be able to change that position and accomplish some reduction without loss of efficiency and without loss of prosperity, in fact possibly with better prospects in the long-term.
(Margaret Beckett) Let us take the example of hill farms. I do not think anybody is suggesting that you just say, AOkay, see how you get on in the market@, and there are, as we were saying earlier, landscape issues and so on. So it is quite clear that there will continue to be pressure and, I would suggest, a need for forms of public support to assist in doing things which we regard as a public good. What I would also say is that I think it would be to everybody=s benefit if that support more linked more directly to the public good than it is at the present time, and could well have, for example, environmental benefits too. But let us not forget that for as long as the CAP has been in existence, and certainly for as long as Britain has been a member of the CAP, people have been talking about the excessive expenditure on the sheer bureaucracy and regulation and structure of the CAP itself. So the more we can do to simplify and reduce that, hopefully the more there is the opportunity for a reduction in the amount of money it consumes.
(Margaret Beckett) I suspect we would not have called ourselves that.
(Mr Bender) Can I come to the end first because I cannot give you a direct answer on the precise question of what responses we had on that point in the consultation. The Prime Minister was clear in setting up the Department that it should be - and I think these were the exact words he used - the Government focal point on rural issues. Some of those are within the direct responsibility of the Department - rural development programmes, some of the measures in the Rural White Paper - but many are not, like rural transport, rural policing, rural education and so on. Nor were they ever the direct responsibility of the DETR before the election. Therefore the Department has a cross-cutting role across Government through the Cabinet Committee on Rural Renewal, which the Secretary of State does chair, to drive forward the way in which other departments use their programmes on rural regeneration, rural renewal, rural public service issues. On the process of consultation, I can look at the detailed responses we have and see whether that was addressed, but I do not recognise it as a direction of comments we had.
(Margaret Beckett) Can I just remind you of the context of that speech. One does have at Party conferences - at least ours, I cannot speak for everybody else - an obligation to address the debate which one is speaking to, and that debate was focused on slightly other areas. If I can just say, and then I will give way because I interrupted Brian, you say that other departments may not welcome our expressing a voice on rural transport, rural education, et cetera, et cetera, well, they will just have to put up with it. That is our role and we intend to pursue it vigorously. Indeed, earlier, we did offer to send the Committee a list of some of the activities undertaken and you will find, when you look at that list, that it includes post offices, transport, schools, all the things which are not actually our Department=s responsibility but in the context of rural areas they are where we have an input.
(Margaret Beckett) No, I am not talking about interfering with what the DTI is doing but, as I say, when you see the list you will see, for example, there is the extension of mandatory rate relief, particularly to small village food shops, and also a specific new ,2 million fund which is now open to support community-driven projects to refurbish and improve rural sub post offices. So it is not a matter of cutting across what other departments are doing but working with them to get rural-proofing and doing what we can to stimulate and support that.
(Mr Bender) I was going to say the same sort of point the Secretary of State made earlier but in a rather more mealy-mouthed, civil service way. I do not see this as treading on toes, this is Government policy as set out in the Rural White Paper and other areas, and it is our Department=s job to drive forward that Government policy across government. So at one level therefore it is going to be a test of the effectiveness of the Department whether we can do it. The main machinery for that at ministerial level will be the Cabinet Committee on Rural Renewal which the Secretary of State chairs, where Ewen Cameron will sit as the rural advocate, and one of his responsibilities in that respect is to ensure that Government policies are rural-proofed, which is another way of expressing the phrase you used earlier about treading on toes.
(Mr Bender) That document rolled forward - not rolled out in this case, Chairman - into the Rural White Paper, so the Rural White Paper was a further statement of Government policy where the starting point, if you like, had been the Performance and Innovation Unit report. What we now have to carry forward in DEFRA is how we are going to implement these things and, where there are issues like rural post offices, what we do.
(Margaret Beckett) One of the things which is important to bear in mind is that there was a lot of discussion and a lot of preparatory work done not just on the Rural and Urban White Papers but on a range of cross-cutting issues done across departments to look at what had been the impact of previous programmes and to see where there were lessons we could learn and do things differently. One of the clear conclusions which was reached was that specific large programmes, geared at, say, deprived urban areas, did not have as much impact as one would have hoped, and what would work a great deal better was doing something more smallscale in its own sense but trying to trigger the major budgets and the major departments= work to be effective in those areas. So, for example, instead of having a specific programme which just says, AWe will do something about deprivation in an inner city environment and we will put money into the health services there@, or whatever, we try to use levers which will bring in Health Service money which ought to be going everywhere into those areas because often it is not. I am putting that very badly but I hope I have got across the point I am seeking to make.
(Margaret Beckett) I am not sure we would say we are predominantly concerned with that, although I accept these are the areas of our largest departmental spend. It is very much a key goal for our Department to work effectively to transform rural areas. I keep saying there is this list we are going to send you of the various initiatives and issues, but of course that is the thrust of the Rural White Paper, that across Government there has to be rural-proofing and there has to be a higher standard of services than people have historically necessarily received in rural areas. Things like the Market Towns Initiative are not on the scale of some of the other massive Government projects but I think they are perhaps even more useful because they are new and they do offer a real prospect, looking to market towns as the engine of change for improving the rural communities. It may have proved to be an extremely valuable insight.
(Margaret Beckett) There is a very recently announced initiative to try and do more with and for parish councils. That again is something which has not been done previously and it may offer real opportunities. One of the things people are seeking to do is all the time to encourage partnership working, encourage people to share their experiences, their ideas and so on, precisely so we avoid the kind of duplication you rightly identify as having been a problem in the past.
(Margaret Beckett) Yes, that is true, except insofar as, again, we have a rural-proofing input into any government department. But we are going back to the conversation we had earlier about planning and transport. We have responsibility for trying to make sure there is through the rest of Government delivery of good rural health care, good rural transport, good rural housing, et cetera, and a good and high standard of rural tourism, but you would not I think argue that we ought therefore to take in all of housing, all of transport, all of health care, all of tourism. I can assure you that certainly my ambitions do not extend that far.
(Margaret Beckett) If you will forgive me, Chairman, you really are inviting me to stray too far into the territory of another department. Obviously, as you say, there are a range of issues, a range of pressures, a range of different political concerns, and all I can say to you is I am profoundly grateful it is not me who has to resolve them.
(Margaret Beckett) All departments have an input into these kind of discussions, they are quite widespread discussions, and of course there is a lot of technicality involved as well.
(Margaret Beckett) Indeed. I anticipate this is another of the areas with which we shall have close contact with them in the future as well. It is a consultation document, the Equality of Parish Councils document, and obviously we have to see what the response to that consultation is. But even the fact this initiative has been taken is a very useful indication of people thinking constructively about rural areas and their concerns in a way which perhaps has not always been the case in the past.
(Margaret Beckett) First of all, I can assure you it is not carried out in a small annexe or shed at the back of the Department, because it is one of the few sections of the Department I have had time to visit.
(Margaret Beckett) No, it is not in the title of the Department, however, neither is farming in the title of the Department, which has also caused some concern. The food chain encompasses all of those things and much more besides. There is a limit to how much one can load into any departmental title but I would resist the view that that means that fishing is unimportant. Of course, it has great importance, and it will have even more importance if we are not able to do a little more about ensuring there are actually fish.
(Margaret Beckett) Indeed.
(Margaret Beckett) The ,6 million, if I recall correctly, is for a decommissioning scheme. What we do have to do is to try and look at the range of issues which are causing such problems and devastation. It seems to me it is the wider remit of our new Department, the whole marine stewardship issues, environmental issues, which are germane and which underlie the concerns that you are expressing and which we all share for the future of fish stocks.
(Margaret Beckett) Certainly not.
(Margaret Beckett) We have very high quality staff in the fishing section as elsewhere in the Department.
Chairman: I think you will find that if you do your sums, the amount of public money as a proportion of the value of the product is higher in fisheries than almost any other sector in your Department.
(Margaret Beckett) Yes, I think they were a bit. Roughly speaking, as I understand it, we sent the consultation document to all staff and to about 1,700 stakeholders, and we also put it on the internet, and we had responses from about 320 organisations representing a fair cross-section of stakeholders, and about 62 individuals. We also had responses from individuals and work units within the Department, representing roughly speaking about 700 staff. On the whole, the responses were reasonably favourable. Obviously there were a range of responses which said, AYou have not given enough importance to fishing, you have not given enough importance to farming@, inevitably you get the, AWhy did you not mention X, Y and Z@ approaches in responses, but on the whole our impression is that the responses were broadly in favour and, not least, to the fact that the overarching approach and theme of the Department should be sustainable development. That was pretty widely accepted and welcomed.
(Mr Bender) Possibly even today; very, very soon.
(Margaret Beckett) There was not a prize, I am afraid.
(Margaret Beckett) I think it was enormously successful and really quite dramatic in many ways. What we did, of course, was to build on what was agreed in Bonn and give it effect, and as I understand it, this is the first occasion at which any international environmental agreement has had the kind of detailed teeth and legal force in reality that now exists around the implementation of the Kyoto protocol - workable rules on the mechanisms and so on. The thing which I think was very striking in Bonn and remained striking in Marrakech was the degree to which there was such a drive to get agreement. We are talking about a conference at which 180 countries were represented, and when we arrived in Bonn everybody was expecting doom and gloom, but it became apparent almost at once, first, that nobody wanted a repetition of the failure there had been in The Hague and, secondly, if it was going to fail nobody wanted to be held responsible for it, which is also quite a useful driver. It is true to say, and it will not of course necessarily be a universally popular view, but it is absolutely and completely true to say, that at Bonn the European Union as a cohesive group, which we were to a greater degree than I have ever experienced before, was a driver of success in the negotiations. That was strongly my view in the aftermath, and that is what I reported to the Prime Minister. It is clear that was indeed everybody else=s view, because when we arrived in Marrakech we discovered a pretty widespread expectation, a slightly daunting expectation, that the European Union would carry out the same role in Marrakech. Indeed, frankly, I think most people would accept to a large degree we did. The other thing which was absolutely clear and consistent in both Bonn and Marrakech was because people so much wanted agreement, all parties were prepared to give ground on what would have been their ideal outcomes in order to get an agreed outcome. That was true of the developing countries. It was a magnificent feat of negotiation and representation, something like 120 countries, described as the G77 although there are a lot more of them actually, being able to work in a united way and to reach an agreement on what they could as a bottom line accept. The only other thing I would say at this point is that part of the reason we reached that degree and scale of achievement was because the European Union negotiating strategy in Bonn was to seek a package of overall proposals at quite an early stage, instead of going through bit by bit and seeing if we had a package everybody could sign up to, but saying, AWhat would the shape of the package be@, and then - and this is why I referred to the cohesiveness of the European Union negotiating force - say, AWe within the European Union can accept this package. There are lots of things in it we do not like, there are lots of things in it we would like to see improved, but if this was the final outcome, we could live with it. What about everybody else?@ That was the basis on which we drove agreement in Bonn, and a very similar approach was adopted in Marrakech. Initially, in this case, it was the G77 who said, AThis is a package we could live with, what about the rest of you? Are you going to come on board?@ Then, obviously, you get some changes, but you get changes at the margins, instead of people spending hours wrangling about things which are not their top priority. It makes people focus on what are their priority concerns. The thing which was very clear in the final, literally minutes, not just hours, in Bonn was that mercifully the top priority and anxiety for the different groups were not identical, so the thing the G77 cared about most was not the thing which the umbrella group cared about most and so we were able to reach an accommodation.
(Margaret Beckett) We expect, along with our European partners, to ratify the protocol before Johannesburg. I cannot give you a date at this moment because it is something people have to look at.
(Margaret Beckett) That is what I anticipate. Obviously different countries have different procedures but it is the intention of the European Union as a whole to ratify before Johannesburg. The Japanese Government announced, I think, yesterday they will now put a proposal for ratification to the Diet and that, taking into account their own procedures, they hope they can get agreement. You will appreciate there is still a good deal of controversy in Japan but the Japanese Government will argue for ratification and they hope if they are successful in that argument in the Diet, Japan will ratify before June. There were also, I believe, some encouraging words coming from the Russian delegation, but since not everybody was fully awake at the time when they were made in the early hours of Saturday morning there is still an amount of slight dispute amongst us as to precisely what was said, but there is every reason to hope that Russian will look favourably on the prospects for ratification, not least because Mr Putin does wish to hold an environmental conference in Russia in 2003, I think. So again, to be seen to be working with the world community is beneficial. Our hope is, our goal is, to try to encourage ratification so the protocol can come into force before the Johannesburg Summit.
(Margaret Beckett) We have six executive agencies and, as you say, we have a number of public bodies. Obviously, it is my role as Secretary of State to determine the overall policy and the financial framework for those agencies and bodies, with the day-to-day management delegated to the chief executives. There is also an ownership board for each of the agencies. However, I ought straight away to say that we do plan very shortly to launch a review of the five science-based executive agencies and their relationship with the Department, and obviously that will include their corporate governance. Kew is currently subject to a quinquennial review, a number of the others, the Countryside Agency for example, was already treating MAFF along with the DETR as an informal joint sponsor, so there is a history of working there. But we will in time obviously be looking at the range of responsibilities we have and how best they can be exercised.
(Margaret Beckett) They are.
(Margaret Beckett) It is a process of continuous discussion and monitoring, not obviously all on my part. It is a matter of getting the right framework of agreement as to what the aims and objectives of the Agency should be, it is a matter of monitoring implementation and seeing how successful they are in meeting their targets. I believe I mentioned to the Committee last time I was here that my diary secretary has a nightmare prospect of trying to fit in all the people who have a strong belief that it is urgent they see the Secretary of State, and in the course of pursuing that she has identified something like 3,500 bodies which relate in some way to my Department.
(Mr Bender) On the Environment Agency, the machinery of government change actually simplifies matters. MAFF dealt with floods, MAFF dealt with inland fishery disputes, DETR on the heartland of the environmental regulation, we at least now bring that into one Department and therefore can take a more co-ordinated look inside the Department.
(Margaret Beckett) The same applies to English Nature. I do not know how public it was but I gather English Nature had some anxieties about possibly reporting to a Department of Rural Affairs because they felt it was hugely important they did not lose the environmental dimension, and I have got it.
(Margaret Beckett) As you know, it was a decision taken sometime ago, I cannot precisely recall when, that the Food Standards Agency, which is very much an independent agency and an independent voice in Government, should report to the Department of Health. Since they are in the process of getting under way, I do not suppose it was thought wise to make a short-term change. I think also it indicates the perspective of the Agency itself that it reports to the Department of Health.
(Margaret Beckett) We have very good, constructive working relationships with them.
(Mr Bender) We have a very close relationship in terms of day-to-day contact at all levels, including myself to Professor Sir John Krebbs. It is essential we do work closely together while recognising their independence.
Chairman: But you will equally recognise when we have an issue, as we have in the last few weeks, about the safety of lamb and sheep meat, clearly the implications for your Department are enormous and we naturally take a very strong interest. So maybe it is a piece of geometry which can be rearranged in due course.
(Mr Bender) I am not sure I understand your question about staff shortages?
(Margaret Beckett) I think the problem that people had, and obviously I am looking at reports I have seen, was the sheer scale of the outbreaks. I think that was the real difficulty. Nothing like it had been seen before, it was completely unprecedented, so in that sense there was bound to be difficulty.
(Mr Bender) Let me give you a figure. In the middle of April, over 4,000 people, excluding 2,000 armed forces people, were engaged in foot and mouth activity. That was just past the peak of the disease but it was when the activity was at its height. There was certainly, along the way, a question of whether we had enough skilled veterinary resources. We imported a lot from overseas - the European Union, America, Australia and Canada - we certainly used large numbers of private sector vets who came on to our books. One of the issues we will be looking at, and I think the CVO may have mentioned it to the Committee, and we expect Dr Anderson=s Inquiry to look at, is how we can have what I call loosely a territorial army type of arrangement in the future, so that in the event of another such outbreak we have people who can be available on tap. We ramped that up very quickly indeed but it would be nice to have it on tap rather than ramped up next time.
(Mr Bender) In the middle of March we created a different structure involving regional operations directors especially to deal with that point which you raised, Mr Mitchell, so that the vets were not required at the height of the crisis to use their professional skills in non-veterinary professional areas. One of the issues we are looking at in the Department now is how we can strengthen or integrate in some way or another the management of the state veterinary service with the management of the rest of the Department, so that things like financial management and other administrative management skills are integrated better.
(Margaret Beckett) I think I have mentioned to this Committee before, and I was just wondering whether it was worth saying, we are not necessarily talking about staff numbers but resources. When this outbreak occurred, we had in the UK the capacity to test something like 400 samples a week. We now have capacity to test 200,000 samples a week. It is a pretty Herculean task to ramp up in that way.
(Mr Bender) I recognise the image you are talking about but I do not recognise it as a reality. We certainly involved a lot of outside help. The 6,000 people I have described - the 4,000 on our books and 2,000 from the armed forces - included large numbers from other departments and agencies. One of the questions that I would expect Dr Anderson to look at on an issue like this is what are the trigger points in the future for involving national activities. Classical swine fever MAFF, as was, handled, largely internally; foot and mouth disease was plainly something which required a national effort because of the scale of the outbreak.
(Mr Bender) Yes. There are three main areas I would mention. The reasons for the delay, or the effect, was a combination of diversion of staff effort and, also, secondly, the practical difficulties of getting on to farms. Those two together conspired. There were three main areas. First, the rural payments agency, I mentioned earlier that its development has slipped a little as a result of it; there has also been some disruption of on-farm inspections where the recovery programme was agreed with the Commission, and there has been some difficulty in establishing eligibility of some of the sheep annual premium schemes to many FMD-affected producers. There has been some impact on the inland rural development programme scheme up-take, some staff diversion and site visit restrictions have affected application processing, and, a subject close to the Committee=s heart, the TB programme has been affected. Those are three where there has been a visible effect. There has also been a lot of hard work and indeed over work by the Department to minimise these effects.
(Margaret Beckett) I do not think you can say there has been a three-week delay.
(Margaret Beckett) With respect, first of all, one announces something, but that does not mean it is a delay from then on. We are talking about a process rather than a delay. Secondly, it did take a little longer than we had hoped actually to get the audit started. We had hoped to be able to despatch someone almost immediately overnight, but it took a little longer to find people who were able and prepared to carry out audits to the timescale and to the degree of rigour that we wanted. There are now certainly two out of three audit processes being undertaken, one to look as speedily as is possible at what had happened, and then another to look at the more long-term perspective. I hope that we will get the results of the first audit in the not-too-distant future, but it is taking time, and that is bound to be the case, I think.
(Margaret Beckett) No, given that MAFF is not carrying out those experiments and DEFRA is not carrying them out, I am not entirely sure how he comes to that conclusion.
(Margaret Beckett) No. We did not send a sinister spy into the laboratory to do that. To be honest, without knowing the full contents of what was said, I find that extraordinary, I do not understand it.
(Margaret Beckett) This is research that the former Department commissioned, but it did not carry it out, so when we come to the issue of how samples are handled, how can it be the responsibility of the Department?
(Margaret Beckett) It will not be really possible to judge that at this moment. As you know, I believe a paper is on the verge of being published, and I think it may now be out for peer review, but obviously we are talking at the early stages of what is the cutting edge of science, and inevitably these things are not easy. The scientists who have conducted work on the scrapie tests are naturally hopeful, but obviously it depends on other people=s judgement of the work that they have produced and hope very, very shortly to publish, and it does depend on people=s judgement of that, on the quality of the work, and how quickly such a test could be validated.
(Margaret Beckett) First of all, none of us really knows for sure how the outbreak started, but certainly we are reviewing and intending to take steps perhaps to tighten up the legislation which affects imports of meat. However, that can be done by statutory instrument, so that is not part of the Bill, because it does not need to be part of the Bill.
(Margaret Beckett) Right. As to the issue of why now, and the limit of the inquiries, first of all, of course, we do not anticipate that if the Bill receives the consent of Parliament that will in any way impede the work of the inquiries. It is likely, we believe, that these steps would have had to have been taken anyway. As to timing, the Government, in Second Reading in any case, with some considerable reluctance came to the conclusion that these were powers that we needed to have, that we might have needed to use and indeed, who knows, that we might still need to use, though let us hope not, whether in regard to foot and mouth or otherwise. Indeed, as I hope you will appreciate, what we have done is to put in place a structure of powers to deal with animal disease. Who knows, we have had a couple of episodes of very serious animal disease in recent years. There is nothing to say that we might not find ourselves with something different on our hands. With the experience of recent months, having identified areas of difficulty where it is felt that the Department lacked powers that it needed and, indeed, in some cases powers that people rather assumed that we had, it was thought that it would be irresponsible not to try to remedy that position. Of course, these are issues that are now before Parliament where no doubt there will be careful and thorough scrutiny, and the House will come to its own conclusions.
(Margaret Beckett) I do not think one could say that there was any particular, specific source of information. From the beginning there had been reservations expressed, I believe, in SEAC and no doubt outside it, as to whether it was worth trying to do this experiment, given that the material that had been collected had been collected for a totally different purpose and in a different form from what one would ideally want. None of the other experiments that have been carried out on looking for scrapie or looking for BSE or whatever have actually been conducted on material in this form, it has all been individual animal brains. This was collected in a different form for a different purpose, and there has always been a reservation and scientific dispute about whether in fact this was worth doing. It was decided to do it, my impression is, primarily because there was not really any other source of material from the 1990s, and it was thought that if one could get information from the position in the 1990s, that might be illuminating in terms of the wider issue of what the position is today. So I think - in fact, I know - that from the very beginning there has been that anxiety, and as we were coming towards the end of the experiment, and as the Institute was indicating that it thought that its results would have more force and would perhaps carry more weight than people might have thought, not just a contribution to the debate, but they believed a very considerable and weighty contribution, then it was regarded as even more urgent to have a final check, through a different means, on to what degree there might be cross-contamination because of the degree to which that might or might not cast doubt on the weight of the results.
(Margaret Beckett) Very.
(Margaret Beckett) Certainly if the inquiries come forward with other proposals for legislative change, obviously the Government will take that very seriously, but no minister or secretary of state should ever venture to commit the Government as a whole to a specific piece of legislation, and having so lately held a responsibility in that area I would be the last person to do so.
Chairman: Secretary of State, we have ranged from Marrakech to brain patterns and I think it is about time we rolled up, and I intend to roll off! Thank you. We have had a very long but very productive session, it has been extremely helpful. Thank you and Mr Bender. We will see you again in the natural course of events and look forward to it. Thank you very much indeed.