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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-19)




  1. Gentlemen, good morning. For the record, Mr Phil Rothwell is the Head of Countryside Policy and Mr Guy Thompson is the Head of Government Affairs. You are very welcome. This inquiry is into the role of the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. What we are really anxious to get from you is whether you think that the department is well-conceived, as it were, whether you think that the emphasis and balance in it is right and, having decided what we think it is there for, whether we think it is engineered in order to deliver those objectives. The Department has been in existence for a year. A large part of that obviously has been dominated by the foot and mouth disease crisis but, in terms of its own public pronouncements and its annual report, the Department has obviously been anxious to try and convey the differentiation between DEFRA and what went before. Is it right that it should have sought to do that and how successful has it been?

  (Mr Rothwell) Your statement that it is a little early to tell is what we would probably precis our remarks by saying because, having had a very turbulent year, the new Department has had a rather interesting first few months of life. Conceptually, I think we were a little concerned when DEFRA announced the Department because we, in previous times when this has been debated before, have been quite worried about the separation between the environment and the land use planning system which we thought was very closely linked and we were very concerned that to separate those two was a danger. What has happened since in the new Department has caused that separation which we now see as still a concern. However, linking farming and the wider rural environment and conservation does seem a logical step to us and I think we have been quite surprised at the tenacity and the adventure that has been shown by the new Department and its pronouncement in many publications it has produced has been very forward thinking and very ambitious, perhaps you might say too ambitious. Nonetheless, it is better to have some ambition than none at all. So, the formation of the new Department is something which we have seen over the last year was developing; it is a little early to tell how well it is going to develop but it is beginning to grapple with some of the bigger issues and we are particularly encouraged by some of its objectives and some of the pronouncements made on sustainable development and on some of the qualities of life indicators that it is beginning to get to grips with. I think its approach to agriculture certainly is something we would applaud and that also the move through the Curry Report to a more adventurous approach to solving some pretty dire problems in agriculture is very welcome. So, in that respect, we think it is making a good start in difficult circumstances.

  2. You have no doubt read its annual report?
  (Mr Rothwell) Yes.

  3. We did last week. I suppose it is fair to say that we thought it was very big on aspiration and a bit weak on the maths! Do you think there is a real danger that this Department is talking a good show but up to now has not shown it can deliver?
  (Mr Rothwell) I think I would agree with that, Chairman. It has come out with some very good phrases and very good words and I mention the reports that have been produced to date which are full of ambition. I would have to agree with you that the ambition is not necessarily matched by the action to date and I too would go back to the fact that I think it is early days and, in turbulent times, it is not surprising that some of the action has not come to fruition. I am reminded a little of looking at an ant hill where there is lots of action, lots of ants running around, but not necessarily a hill at the moment to be built, and I think that is probably true of DEFRA as it stands at the moment. There are lots of people doing lots of things; there is lots of heat but not necessarily much light. However, I think the general direction, the general thrust of the Department is right and proper and we would hope that, in due course, given a fair wind by perhaps our masters in the Treasury, then more action will be forthcoming.
  (Mr Thompson) May I just add to that because I think that is a very fair criticism. However, I think the context in which it needs to be seen is that DEFRA's biggest challenge in its first year was perhaps putting clear blue water between its predecessor department and itself and, in doing so, I think that one of its biggest successes has been reaching out to a wider range of key stakeholders than perhaps MAFF sought to do in its later years. Therefore, I think the emphasis perhaps needed to be on consultation and on talking in its first year and that your criticism is fair in that now perhaps the time has arrived to start seeing some action to match those fine words.

  Mr Taylor: We objected to the term "clear blue water" but we will accept "clear green water".


  4. Mr Taylor objects to the expression "clear blue water". My experience of clear blue water is that it often contains sharks! You are a large powerful organisation with a large membership and are well bankrolled, if I can use that term. If you want to, you can go and talk to ministers but, at the same time, you presumably have a large amount of dealing with people further down the hierarchy on matters of detail with DEFRA staff. What is your experience about the extent to which this new culture—we will call it that without wasting too much time on the definition—actually has permeated in the Department? What are your feelings about the responses of, let us say, middle management in the Department to the extent to which there is a sort of shared desire to differentiate between the old regime and this one?
  (Mr Rothwell) I think that is an interesting question and an astute question. The senior management which has now been put in place in the new Department, replacing many of those who were there in its old constituent parts, have tried long and hard to get a new culture within the departments that they inherited. I think that, to some degree, they have yet to be successful and I think the dealings that we have had with middle management and below would indicate that some of the perhaps lack of adventure and reticence that was present in particularly old MAFF still remains and that a lot of the adventurous talk that has been put forward by both ministers and senior civil servants has yet to be matched by the actions of those who were put in place to get those actions going and off the ground.

Diana Organ

  5. In this idea that we can take it forward, do you feel there has been a problem in the first year, that there has been severe hampering by the personnel difficulties that MAFF had? There were IT difficulties of merging the two departments, in that one part could not speak to another part's IT which is never helpful if you are trying to merge two departments, but there was obviously the issues about pay scales. How much did that affect your middle management group? Were there difficulties in taking things forward because they were enmeshed in other personnel problems?
  (Mr Rothwell) Whilst we are an organisation reasonably well connected with Government, we are not necessarily in the workings of the administration and I would say that, from talking to those people with whom we do meet regularly, that was a very good analysis. I think there have been quite clear problems of stitching together the very different parts of DETR with the Ministry of Agriculture that have caused problems both in terms of IT, in terms of pay scales, in terms and conditions and also with the morale of an organisation that was already pretty damaged, I suggest, with a part of Government that had previously been reasonably successful. I think this was a difficult bringing together, although one has to say that the signs and the marrying up was a very big Goliath mixed with a very small David in fact and the impact of bringing in a very small number of staff from DETR was quite obvious and beyond what one would expect from the size of the merger. I think they have suffered from morale problems and I think it is quite clear that issues like pay scales have had an impact on the amount of money there has been available to spend. I think there are some severe difficulties going out from beyond the centre to the regions where particularly advice to the farming community is not being carried out as well as it might be because there is a lack of staff resource on the ground to do it. In fact I believe, from answers to Parliamentary questions, there is difficulty in spending all the money that MAFF has available to it because there are not the staff on the ground to do the right sort of work with the farming community to spread out that money. So, at present, I think the modulated money that was voted some two years ago is currently way underspent and that that is a factor of insufficient staff resources on the ground.

  6. So you would say that it was not a merger, it was a takeover?
  (Mr Rothwell) I might not put it quite like that. I certainly think a slightly uneven marriage.

  7. You talked about the higher echelons in the Department being really forward thinking but that there is a possible problem lower down with people perhaps of a culture that was of the past still at MAFF. Have you noticed any difficulties with that group being able to retain or even recruit quality staff that could take the whole new Department forward?
  (Mr Rothwell) I suppose only again by rumour; I have no direct experience of this. Certainly it is reputed that MAFF always was, as a department, quite a difficult place to recruit into for those civil servants who have career aspirations. Whether or not that has changed, I do not know but I would be surprised if it changed in just a year.

  8. You obviously welcomed the fact that we have a department that has a wider remit although you obviously made your point that you would like to go into land use money, but then we cannot have departments that have huge empires because they do not seem to work. Do you think that this was a positive move to have changed the arrangement and take MAFF into a different department which looks at wider issues?
  (Mr Rothwell) We want to be quite critical and look at just changing the name on the door and whether that makes any difference. I think it has made a difference; I think it has not just changed the name on the door; I think it has given MAFF a new lease of life, it has given it new energy and it has given it a slightly broader remit which is probably right in terms of its rural activity and a broader view on the statement of development in the environment. I would reiterate that, after one year, it is a little early to tell how successful that will be. We would wish to give it a fair wind and see how it goes. If what it has said to date is turned into action, then we would be quite comfortable and happy with that.

Mr Austin Mitchell

  9. We were told by Professor Kerry Turner that the Department wants to deliver services through a "one stop shop" kind of arrangement wanting to take a holistic view, which I suppose a lot of people might describe as the big picture. To what extent have you found that this operates? Have you been able to see evidence that "one stop shop" policy is in fact developing and that there is a point when you can connect when you need it?
  (Mr Rothwell) I would say not yet. I think there is still evidence of significant, what I would term, silo thinking within the Department in that there is significant division between the old sectors of say flood defence and environment protection and that we still have different thinking lines within the Department. We have yet to see that integration which we would have hoped might have been achieved through the integration. So, no, I do not think we have yet achieved the "one stop shop" and certainly that is not true—

  10. Do you think it is trying to?
  (Mr Rothwell) I think it is trying to, yes, but to date it does not appear to be that effective and although, again, there is much action being taken when you get right out into where the sharp end of the organisation at a farmer level is concerned, at the moment there is no real sign of "one stop shop" being produced and I think that the farming community still remains served by the plethora of different parts of the organisation trying to help them which does desperately need to be sorted out.

  11. In your operations, you have to connect with different people at different levels.
  (Mr Rothwell) Yes, that is correct. That is inevitably going to be true when you get down to real specialisms, but I think one would hope for slightly better integration than we have had to date.

  12. I wonder if it would be useful for an organisation like yours or indeed for the Department to have a "one stop shop" situation because your interests are so diverse; you have been taking up active policies in a whole range of issues from fish to agriculture and whatever it might be. Would it actually be useful to have a "one stop shop"?
  (Mr Rothwell) I think it would. The delivery of final objectives is often governed by a whole range of different activities, be they agricultural policy or Treasury finance or European finance. So, to deal with those separately is inefficient for us as much as it is for the Department. The answer to some of the environmental problems that we try to address as an organisation are inevitably ones that require integration both within Government and without and, if by concept of "one stop shop" those problems would be solved, then, yes, I think it would be useful.

  13. So it is delivery not development of policy?
  (Mr Rothwell) It is both, is it not? The delivery is only as integrated as the centre will allow it to be. I think we would look for both integration of policy and integration of solution, if I can put it that way. That is certainly the case if you look at the linkages between the Common Agricultural Policy, the Nitrates Directive, the Water Framework Directive the Birds Directive and the Habitats Directive and the range of different requirements which all impinge on the end user, which is those who manage the land. Then, having those dealt with separately is probably inefficient and ineffective when one could use one approach to develop a solution to all those problems or all those opportunities.

David Taylor

  14. The present Government are regrettably as driven by clichés and directed by jargon as any of its recent predecessors and one phrase that it seems quite wedded to is "rural proofing". Can I ask the RSPB witnesses what their observations are to a couple of comments not necessarily submitted by them but by allied organisations, with the National Trust talking about "the Department is noticeably more focussed on farming . . . than other areas and has moved very slowly on wider rural issues" and the CPRE urging us, "the Committee to recommend that DEFRA gets back on track with the implementation of the Rural White Paper." Are you happy that DEFRA is indeed achieving this degree of rural proofing? Could the DEFRA acronym stand for "The Department of Enriching Farmers by Regenerating Agriculture"? Is it not too narrow a focus? I would like your observation.
  (Mr Rothwell) I think that if you look at the financial contribution that agriculture makes to GDP and to rural communities, then one could be forgiven for seeking to give it a lower priority than perhaps others might wish to give it, but when you see how it really stitches together the fabric of the countryside, then you cannot ignore it. There is significant pressure to change the CAP to move towards a process of giving land managers/farmers more support for not just producing things but for actually being there and achieving the sorts of things that the general public and the taxpayer would probably want. I think that, to that extent, if there is a preoccupation amongst DEFRA with the farming community, then that is probably right. It is an industry in dire straits with real problems, but with real opportunities through CAP reform and through, one hopes, the implementation of the Curry Report as our domestic contribution to that international agenda that there is a big game to play there and I think there are some big opportunities which DEFRA has to commit to. I do not necessarily think that it has managed to rural proof most of its own policies as it is encouraging other departments and ministries so to do. I was present yesterday at a meeting with Ewen Cameron, the Rural Tsar when he presented his report on rural proofing and I thought that was rather sad reading is that he and the Department had really not been able to encourage other aspects of Government to rural proof their own operations and I felt that, after the first year of rural proofing, there was little sign that this had been a very effective element of advocacy for DEFRA. I think that is a big problem for it because it is charged with stitching together rural proofing and one could pull in sustainable development across government. It is a fact that the environment is now stitched into a rather smaller ministry than it was previously, no longer under the Deputy Prime Minister, and, at the moment, I am not sure of the extent to which it has the clout across Whitehall to encourage and get people to take rural proofing and sustainable development issues seriously.

  15. Clearly one of its key objectives is to promote the rural dimension, as you say, across rural departments. Do you agree with me that it could and should be doing a lot more? What are the first things to which you would turn its attention now that the smoke of the FMD fires has blown over the horizon?
  (Mr Rothwell) I would again come back to the regeneration of the agricultural sector and I think that, at the moment, that is playing significantly on the health of the countryside and the minds of those who work and live in the countryside and I would not shy away from agricultural reforms being one of the key things that it ought to present itself on. I think many of the other factors that influence rural health and rural regeneration—and this is no specialism of the RSPB, more of an observation—are not within its gift and that is issues relating to transport problems, post offices and the health of rural communities. All these things are part of the rural mix and a crucial part of the rural mix and are those which it cannot directly affect without the help and assistance of other departments, not the least of which is probably the Treasury.

Mr Jack

  16. Do you think that the name "Rural Affairs" is misleading in its title? Should it not be, "Some Rural Affairs" or "A Few Rural Affairs" or "Bits of Rural Affairs" or "The Bit We Can Manage to get Anybody to Listen to Rural Affairs"?
  (Mr Rothwell) Perhaps we could have, "An overview on Rural Affairs". I think that would be happier.

Mr Breed

  17. I was interested to hear that you were at the meeting with the Countryside Agency in respect of their rural proofing because of course they were given the responsibility originally, prior to DEFRA, of actually doing the rural proofing job. What is your understanding of relative roles now in the whole process of rural proofing between the Countryside Agency and DEFRA?
  (Mr Rothwell) I think I see the Countryside Agency as being expert advisers to DEFRA and the organisation which serves as a bit of a monitor, if you like, on the progress of DEFRA and its influence throughout Government. So, expert advice would be one and then setting targets and monitoring achievement of those targets would be another. Also—and I think this is extremely important—it is a deliverer on the ground in that it has in the past—in the old days, it was the Countryside Commission—an admirable reputation for developing innovative ways of managing land and achieving rural generation. I would hope that, under DEFRA, the Countryside Agency will continue to do that.

Mr Jack

  18. The Government response to the foot and mouth outbreak set up three inquiries, one of which was the Curry Commission and, as a document, it has been hailed by a number of people as probably the most significant report on UK agriculture and rural matters for a very long time. It pulls together environmental issues, economic issues and rural issues in a way that has not been seen before, but you said in paragraph 2.5 of your evidence that you were concerned "that DEFRA seemed surprisingly ill-equipped and slow to respond to the Commission's report." You went on to say, "It is vital that DEFRA starts to show leadership on this issue once it has published its Strategy this autumn and that it is not subject to further consultation." What do you think, in the way that DEFRA has been established, led it to be ill-equipped and slow to respond to the Commission which it established and its terms of reference it was heavily involved in setting?
  (Mr Rothwell) I think I would refer back to an answer to a previous question in terms of also the morale and skills of those people who have to put Curry into place. There is amongst certainly the staff that the Department inherited from the Ministry some fairly demoralised people who are not encouraged to take risks but are encouraged to be non-adventurous and tend to go for a rather safe approach to the world, if you like. Whilst we all welcome consultation, I think one can over-consult in a sense and, if you look at the way in which the Curry Report has been produced, it was produced by a team of eminent people who were well-qualified so to do and it subjected itself to a significant amount of consultation both by taking evidence and through written responses, over 1,000 written responses to the Curry Commission were received. It went round the regions and looked at regional opinion and local opinion and the opinion of those who were affected by the farming crisis such as it is and for the report to then be produced and be subject to another consultation exercise followed by another group of people going round the countryside taking further evidence or further advice seemed to me a bit of consultation overkill. I think that is because there is this reticence to take action when it seemed to be required and the scale at which it is required without further checking of checks and balances and I think that is the feature of the people who are there trying to put it in place within DEFRA.

  19. Does it not underline a particular weakness, which goes back to your first observations about the amount of division and declaratory statements versus the amount of delivery because one of the problems about Curry is that it costs and one of the problems that DEFRA appears to have is insufficient discretionary funding to actually make things happen? Do you think that it was the right thing for a department to establish something which you might have anticipated could have delivered a result that it could then do little about without playing it into the long grass?
  (Mr Rothwell) I think it was entirely right to have the Commission undertake the work that it did. How you then deal with the results is then the issue. I think that whilst Curry costs, it actually costs relatively little in comparison to many other elements of Government spending: 500 million over three years as a rescue package for the industry which is in dire straits seemed to be not an unreasonable cost. In thinking about your first question, I scribbled down,—"DEFRA internally"—and then—"Treasury"—and I fear that, in trying to promote DEFRA within Government, there are two problems: one is that it does not necessarily appear to have the big clout that the environment had when it was there under the Deputy Prime Minister in DETR and, secondly, it appears to have failed to convince the Treasury that money is required or that money will be well spent invested in the sorts of regenerative things that Curry put forward, and I think that is its major problem. The excuses that we hear behind the scenes are that the Treasury does not think there are many votes in rural. That is a very sad indictment because I think that here we have a relatively small amount of money being suggested by a very eminent panel with a significant amount of stakeholder buy-in from all the major organisations involved in the countryside and that we would be quite concerned to see that DEFRA has failed so far, it would appear though we have yet to see the final results of the CSR, to convince the Treasury that that relatively small amount of money should be available.


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