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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120 - 139)



Mr Lepper

  120. Like Austin Mitchell, I represent an urban constituency which is surrounded by mainly rural West Sussex and East Sussex. I have lots of articulate constituents who have told me they would like to eat more locally-grown products, products grown under sustainable systems, but the local shopping is dominated by the supermarket chains and we do not have a farmers' market. Therefore, I am interested in Eat The View. I suppose something that I wonder is what happened during the first year of that programme? There was a year's gap between the programme being set up, I think, and the website coming on stream in September. What was happening during that first year?
  (Mr Cameron) We were obviously gathering the team, we were talking to other participants. I believe that the Eat The View initiative is now being progressed pretty satisfactorily. We have entered into a partnership with Food from Britain and the regional food groups, with a view to helping them market their produce as locally-based produce. They have promotional events. We have produced consumer guides and, as you say, we have produced the website which is a portal through into other producers and hopefully will allow consumers to have a whole range of products that they can download, as it were. Incidentally, we are aware of the fact that obviously the website needs publicity, so we are in the process of appointing a publicity officer to take that one forward. On the other side, we have had discussions with the supermarkets. As you say, we sponsor farmers' markets and the National Association of Farmers' Markets. We are very keen to try to assist the farmers. We are in discussion with the supermarkets to try to persuade them that this is a good idea. We have been reasonably successful. They are not going to do anything unless it is in their financial interests, obviously, so what we have persuaded them to do is to carry out some research and pilot projects. Tesco, for instance, have actually said to me that their focus groups have indicated that locally-produced food is fifth highest on their agenda. I said, "That doesn't sound very high." They said, "Actually, the other ones were cafeterias, nappy changing facilities, better car parks and trolleys", so actually in terms of food it was pretty high. There is another side to the coin, of course, because we are also trying to persuade farmers that they should become involved in this particular initiative. I would have to say that that side is being hampered, as with a lot of other things, by the foot and mouth and the ability to persuade farmers to adopt a more local marketing perspective. We had one or two farmers who were almost signed up, then foot and mouth arose and they did not do so. That is clearly something of importance. We are also carrying out research, I may say, into consumer attitudes to the whole Eat The View concept—have they heard of it, do they like the idea, are they buying local goods actually when they get to the counter, and what would help them, people from all social backgrounds, what would actually make them change their mind, ie what are the barriers to this sort of trade?

  121. Is it a bit like the people when they are questioned in public opinion polls and say that yes, they would be willing to pay more tax for public services, but when they get to the ballot box they vote another way? Do you find, from the feedback that you are getting from consumers, that there is this kind of disparity there between it being a wonderful aspiration, but when it actually comes to it, people go into the supermarket looking for the bargains rather than with principles about buying locally?
  (Mr Cameron) I suspect so. I cannot tell you the answer, because the research is under way at the moment. You are probably right. Nevertheless, you started the whole train of this questioning by saying that some of your urban constituents were asking where could they find more local produce. I believe that to be the case.

  122. I am interested in what you say about the discussions you are having with supermarkets and your successes there.
  (Mr Cameron) Well, limited success.

  123. The beginnings of success?
  (Mr Cameron) Yes.

  124. What about government departments? After all, they are part of it as well. I notice that in your submission to the Policy Commission on the Future of Farming and Food you talk about the need to influence government departments in their purchasing policies, do you not?
  (Mr Cameron) Yes.

  125. Could you tell us a little about that?
  (Mr Cameron) It is not only government departments; more important would be local authorities.

  126. Hospitals and so on?
  (Mr Cameron) Yes, I agree. When I sat on the Round Table for Sustainable Development there was a big discussion. The Chief Executive of Belfast City Council saw it as his view that everything in his area, everything that his council did, should be bought locally, a duty to his businesses as well as his constituents. There was a huge discussion between him and Sir John Harman as to whether this was allowed under Best Value. I am afraid, not being a local government bod, that that sort of argument became too complicated for me, but I would sincerely hope that local authorities, when they are entertaining, or having lunches or any form of entertaining, should order local food. It is not always possible. When we go round we do exactly that. Normally we get the chef very excited about the whole concept, but quite often if you are in a big chain the chef gets excited and the manager says, "No, no, we have buying contracts with X, Y and Z. You can't do that." That is really what we are trying to stop.

  127. Perhaps I could ask one final question so I do not have to come back later. This is not on this topic but on your Annual Report. You mentioned that one of the things which you have done is to establish the project team to consider the designation of the South Downs and the New Forest National Parks. Can I congratulate you, by the way, on the consultation exercise that is going on on the South Downs National Park and on the rights of way map. I think that the publicity that surrounded that both nationally and locally has been excellent, and I think the way you are doing that is excellent as well. However, it does seem to me that you have possibly slipped in the timetable in terms of making your recommendations eventually to the Secretary of State on the South Downs National Park. There is now talk, if there is a public inquiry, of things not being finalised until about 2006. I think the original intention was 2004. You are aiming, I think, to report to the Secretary of State in September 2002, is that right?
  (Mr Cameron) Yes.

  128. Are you confident that you will keep to that timetable?
  (Mr Wakeford) The Countryside Agency is only in charge of the earlier stages. The Countryside Agency has the statutory responsibility, under the 1949 Act, to designate national parks. The Secretary of State must then decide whether to confirm our designation.

  129. I appreciate that, but what about the timetable.
  (Mr Wakeford) In terms of whether he decides to confirm or not, he needs to consider whether to hold a public inquiry if there are statutory objections from local authorities. The stage therefore beyond that designation is outside our control. The stage which is within our control is on the timetable that we set, I think, probably about 18 months ago. We are in practice about two weeks behind time at the moment, but we will catch it up in the spring next year.

  130. In terms of your responsibility, though, you are confident that you will be able to report to the Secretary of State by September 2002?
  (Mr Wakeford) In terms of our responsibility, we intend to do that.

  Chairman: Michael Jack on the Report and Accounts.

Mr Jack

  131. I was delighted to see in your accounts that Sir John Bourn said that he had no observations to make on the financial statement, so that is very good. But why did it take you so long to get this set of accounts produced? You were about nine months behind, were you not?
  (Mr Wakeford) Last year, yes.

  132. You were late by about nine months, were you not?
  (Mr Wakeford) And we are late this year as well.

  133. Why are you late? You have lots of people employed, I see, with huge increases in numbers. Are you a bit short in the number-crunching department? Are you too busy chasing supermarkets and post offices?
  (Mr Wakeford) We do have difficulties in recruitment in that part of the organisation, yes. The accounts are also in a sense a partnership between the work that we do and the work that the National Audit Office does, so we need to plan our work with them. I think I am right in saying that last year one or two slippages occurred because things got out of synch and the NAO auditors had to go on to other planned tasks. We have suffered this year because we needed to move our accounting system onto a new financial package. That required us to turn off computers at critical times, and that in turn has delayed us. We have also had a significant problem of interpretation about whether something needs to be shown in the accounts or not. That has now been resolved with the National Audit Office.

  134. Was that because of new accounting standards?
  (Mr Wakeford) It was to do with how one accounts for computers which are owned by IBM but which are operated by us, under a PFI deal.

  135. This was FRS7 that you had problems with, then?
  (Mr Wakeford) Probably, yes. Basically we have a Private Financial Initiative deal with IBM to deliver all of our IT equipment. We had had some difficulty in working out precisely how to show that in the accounts.

  136. Can I ask you a question about this PFI deal? I had a vested interest in this myself when I was in the Treasury. In the House of Commons debate I think the contract was originally stated, in an answer in Hansard of 17 July, as £4½ million, and yet according to page 35 of the accounts the total value of the contract was nearly £8 million. What is actually the size of this and is it actually going to deliver the £1.3 million of savings which it was adjudged to be able to do?
  (Mr Wakeford) The old Countryside Commission had a computer system which required replacement as it was old. At the time we were not able, because of the rules and guidance which were in place, to invest in our own system, we actually had to go to a Private Finance Initiative. At that point it was the Countryside Commission. We had about 230 members of staff. We established the PFI contract as best we could, with the advice from the Government's Central Computer and Telecommunications Agency as it was then. We did not plan in that contract for a merger of the Countryside Commission with the Rural Development Commission, because it was not part of the Government's plans at that time. The merger of the two agencies took place, and so that took the number of users significantly outside the scope of the contract that we had entered into with IBM, but we were in a position where, because we were a single supplier, we could not go away from that. We actually had to renegotiate. I think I would like to put it to you that in those circumstances we were renegotiating in a position of some weakness. We were able to secure the merger of the two agencies, and the IBM computer system was able to serve staff quickly and rapidly, but at some cost. The Agency, as a result of the Government's intentions for us in the Rural White Paper, has now got rather more staff. It now has about 630 staff, so once again we find ourselves in a position where we are needing to renegotiate with IBM. It is a significant challenge. I myself signed the original PFI deal with IBM and I have taken professional advice along the way. I think I would like to put it to you though that if I knew then what I know now about the success of our Agency in what we have done in terms of the delivery that we have been achieving, we might actually have had a different set of contracts at that time.

  137. So it does not sound to me, in terms of your IT spend, for the reasons that you have given, that there would be any savings at all? It might be a less expensive route by virtue of having adopted a PFI model, but there is not going to be any net inflow over previous estimates, is there—yes or no?
  (Mr Wakeford) I think it would be very difficult for me to go back and do those sums. I am very happy to go and try. Another factor which is an obstacle in terms of understanding that is that over the period of that contract, many of the savings that we believe IBM have achieved are by using software which is making life much more difficult in a world where Microsoft is now the dominant user. At the point when we went into that PFI deal there was no such domination.

  138. So when was it signed?
  (Mr Wakeford) Four years ago.

  139. For how long does it run?
  (Mr Wakeford) It has another two years.

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