Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120
WEDNESDAY 21 NOVEMBER 2001
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 concepthave
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
(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
(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
(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
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.
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
(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,
(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
(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
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 thereyes
(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.