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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20-39)



  20. What could be done to improve the morale within DEFRA? You said it was demoralised.
  (Mr Rothwell) A few big hits, I think, of which the investment in the Curry Report would be one.

  21. Do you think that Curry did represent a true consensus between those with a strong environmental interest and those with a farming and economic interest in the countryside?
  (Mr Rothwell) I think it tried very hard to do and, if you look at the make-up of the panel and those it took evidence from, they did cover the range of interest that you have described and I think that the buy-in that we have had from most of those organisations which you might expect to have been concerned about bits of Curry is testimony to the success of it. There is a debate that says that it is the only show in town and you either support it or you do not and that it is better to support it, but I was encouraged by the extent of the buy-in from the different organisations that live and work in the countryside and represented countryside interest. So, yes, I think it did; I think it was fairly successful.

  22. Finally on the Curry Commission, do you think that it is going to be a sort of benchmark of the effectiveness/the virility of the new Department that it can accept and enact Curry as a package as opposed to cherry-picking the affordable?
  (Mr Rothwell) I think that is quite dangerous. It is a big risk to say, "You can have all of it or none." I think it will not necessarily work that way. Inevitably, some things can be done quickly and other things will take a time to put in place and all of it is hampered, or possibly helped, by a midterm review of the CAP and, in 2006, a full review of the CAP. It is a little dangerous to tie your colours to the mast and complete a total enactment of Curry. I think that inevitably in a report that has so many recommendations, some are more important than others and we would treat as a measure of success whether the more important ones were enacted and put into place with an element of emergency. That is not just in the hands of DEFRA and that is the problem.

Mr Todd

  23. You have painted a gloomy picture of morale and culture within DEFRA. They will have the main role of implementing the Curry Report should they be given the resources to do it. Why should we be confident that they will be able to based on what you have said?
  (Mr Rothwell) I think the changes have been put in place by senior management to give people a better feeling for the whole department and one has to have faith in that management skill and ability.

  24. Did you say that you had some faith?
  (Mr Rothwell) Yes, I do. I think you have to.

  25. On what basis? Is there some evidence of that or is it blind faith?
  (Mr Rothwell) Speaking to those concerned and in looking at the things that are written and produced, I think particularly those things which are given out internally to people within the Ministry or the Department, there is a distinct desire and set of actions being put in place that will deliver an increased morale and an increased feeling of achievement, but I think this will take time.

  26. How long?
  (Mr Rothwell) I would say you are looking at at least two years to achieve major changes in the way in which people—

  27. Two more years?
  (Mr Rothwell) Yes.

Mr Lepper

  28. When we took evidence as a committee last year shortly after DEFRA had been established, I think RPSB expressed to us—I am not sure you came before us then but in written evidence—a concern that the creation of DEFRA would lead to the setting-up within Government of a policy ghetto for Green issues and although you have said that you have seen some encouraging signs in the direction that DEFRA is moving now, you do say in your written evidence to us on this occasion that you "are concerned that the environment portfolio has been marginalised within government by the new departmental arrangements." Could you give us some evidence of that?
  (Mr Thompson) Yes, I certainly could. I think we would stand by that early statement of the dangers inherent in the new departmental arrangements and I think there is no shortage of evidence that the institutional arrangements have actually done the environment no favours. I think my colleague has already outlined that we feel DEFRA with a smaller remit than the old DETR has suffered as not being part of a large spending department with the clout that the DETR had with the DPM at is helm I think across a whole range of portfolios. I could quote to you the planning Green Paper issued by the DTLR in which sustainable development barely gets a look in. The Marine Wildlife Conservation Bill going through Parliament as we speak, which has been subject to numerable trade-offs behind the scenes; the transport agenda where we are seeing early rumours of a proposed new airport on a wildlife site of European importance on the North Kent Marshes. My colleague has already mentioned that the Curry Report may be held to ransom by imminent decisions from the Treasury. The New Electricity Trading Arrangements conflict with the Government's renewables targets. Our concern would be that environmental policy making is subject to these kinds of trade-offs going on behind the scenes and to this kind of Whitehall fudge which is actually cutting across some of DEFRA's laudable high level targets and objectives.

  29. You mentioned there, as Mr Rothwell did earlier, what you see as the importance of environment issues being lodged with a major spending department, a big spending department as you put it, and having the clout of the Deputy Prime Minister behind it and you feel there were real advantages in the past in that arrangement.
  (Mr Thompson) Absolutely. I think DEFRA is clearly doing a good job, but all evidence so far suggests that it just does not have the political muscle to actually champion both the rural affairs agenda and the sustainable development agenda, which is a huge, complicated and cross-cutting agenda across Government.

  30. When ministers were before us back in the autumn, I think there were assurances given to us that arrangements were in place at least to ensure liaison and consultation between, for instance, DEFRA ministers, DETR as it then was, the Department of Transport now, and we were given assurances that those mechanisms were in place which should of course, irrespective of who is leading the Department, have acted against that kind of marginalisation. I just wonder, from the perspective of your organisation, whether you can see those links, those mechanisms, in action.
  (Mr Thompson) There is no real evidence of those kind of links. I think one of the disappointments of the break-up of the DTLR was that it was midway through the preparation of its own sustainable development strategy which may have led to some of these conflicts being brought to the fore. All the evidence to us suggests that there is no leadership from the centre on these kind of issues that is really required to actually take brave decisions on some of these large issues such as climate change, despite DEFRA doing its utmost behind the scenes.

Mr Borrow

  31. You have just touched upon the issue of sustainable development which DEFRA has as their principal aim. Last week, they launched their sustainable development strategy before the foundation of our future document. What would your definition of sustainable development be and do you think that is sufficiently tangible for DEFRA to achieve?
  (Mr Thompson) I think, without wanting to dodge your first question, I would say that it is not necessarily helpful for us to become too bogged down with the perfect definition of sustainable development. I think we all understand it as being about a balancing act between social, environmental and economic; it is about wealth creation that does not harm the environment. I think Jonathan Porritt at the launch of DEFRA's sustainable development strategy encapsulated it quite neatly as doing things better today and for future generations in creating wealth and not undermining the quality of life and I think that, for us, would encompass the range of issues that make up the concepts of sustainable development quite neatly. I think the real issue is how we actually achieve that and, as you rightly point out, what it actually means to the process of government. I think that DEFRA's own sustainable development strategy actually encapsulates the problems that face it as a department, in that it clearly only feels empowered to act on sustainable development under its own remit and on its own terms and the strategy is a good one though I think that one of its real flaws is that it does not face and address these kind of bigger picture issues of how the Government lives up to its targets on energy and on transport and on some of these issues that do not actually fall under DEFRA's own remit.

  32. Going on from that, I understand that RSPB did contribute towards development of the strategy; in what way did you contribute?
  (Mr Thompson) We contributed through informal seminars that were convened as part of the process of developing the strategy; we submitted evidence in the usual way. I think one of the real successes of the process behind that strategy was that again it was inclusive and accessible to all stakeholders and looked to approach stakeholders in new and innovative ways and we will be appearing as part of a seminar next week to give evidence to the Permanent Secretary on how we see that strategy being taken forward, which I think is the real issue.

  33. You mentioned your critique of the strategy which is mainly around the fact that it does not extend very much beyond the boundaries of DEFRA. Was that critique made as the strategy was being developed or did it come as a surprise when the strategy was published that it did go beyond DEFRA itself?
  (Mr Thompson) No, I think it would be unfair to say that it was a surprise. That debate was had at the outset and DEFRA were very clear that this was a strategy for the Department and that it was pointless perpetuating that debate. However, if DEFRA are genuinely going to champion this wider agenda across Government, it needs to be faced up to.

Mr Jack

  34. May I follow on from that last interesting point to ask, given the fact that the Treasury have been taking an increasingly pro-active role in environmental policy formation which immediately comes to sustainability issues, you have the DTI also involved and you now have the beefed up office of the Deputy Prime Minister. Do you think DEFRA is actually capable of leading the kind of tough grinding debate/discussion, almost "fighting", to try and get some kind of mechanism that brings this lot together with somebody measurably in charge of it all because at the moment it looks to me as if various people are doing their own thing?
  (Mr Thompson) I think that is a fair analysis. There is plenty of goodwill towards DEFRA from our organisation, but I do fear that that may be the outcome. Clearly, the Secretary of State sees agriculture as her immediate political priority and I do fear that, although they have done a laudable job on leading negotiations internationally on the Johannesburg Summit on sustainable development and on climate change, some of these issues will be sacrificed as a result of the lack of political muscle that DEFRA has behind the scenes with some of these bigger departments. I think that the Treasury is absolutely crucial to this and that the Treasury's own approach to the original 1997 statement of intent on environmental taxation and its approach to the spending process is absolutely critical to how this agenda has progressed.

Paddy Tipping

  35. I thought, when you were looking back in hindsight at your view of DETR, that it was rather rosy. I remember the Green groups being very critical of sustainable development of the DETR.
  (Mr Thompson) That is not my recollection. I think one of the biggest issues that DETR's approach being the preferable one would be over the planning Green Paper and, as my colleague said at the outset, we saw the split between environment and land use planning as being one of the biggest dangers in the break-up of the old Department.

  36. You also made the comment earlier on that DEFRA as it is now does not have the political muscle that the old DETR had and, by definition then, sustainability issues were being lost—and Michael Jack has just talked about the role of the Treasury in this Green taxation—but I think there is a real criticism of Government as a whole that sustainability is not, as they say, at the heart of Government. How would you make it better? What is the prescription for the future?
  (Mr Thompson) I think there is no easy solution and I would not like to pretend that this is something that can be solved overnight. We are talking about big issues, cross-cutting policy issues needing systemic and structural change. Overall, I would argue that what is required from Government is better leadership and leadership from the centre, be it through mechanisms such as relocation of the sustainable development unit or via leadership from the very top. I think it comes both from political leadership and a re-ordering of the institutional arrangement.

  37. So are you saying that we ought to forget about DEFRA and the big promises that they are going to be the department that drives change across Government and that they are going to have a political vision and mechanisms in the centre either through the Cabinet Officer or the Treasury or performance targets that really drives the agenda forward?
  (Mr Thompson) Exactly, so that the targets are being led and pushed from the very centre, from the very top.

David Taylor

  38. In your submission to us today in the very first sentence under the paragraph "Executive Summary", you state, "The RSPB believes the creation of DEFRA beings positive opportunities for the environment, particularly in terms of integrating environmental considerations more closely into rural policy than was the case under the previous departmental arrangements." Listening to the balance of your evidence today, it is not made out to me quite as clearly as that opening pretty positive sentence. Here is an opportunity to reflect on the experience so far. What do you think would be the key positives about the decision? Overall, are you, now looking back, disappointed in the creation of DEFRA and are you, finally, happy or unhappy that adequate progress has been made so far towards those stated aims?
  (Mr Rothwell) I stick by our evidence that it does bring positive opportunities and one has to be optimistic. I always try to be optimistic and I think that DEFRA is reasonably optimistic. From the statements that have been made by top of the house, as it were, then that is good cause for optimism and I think that what is being promoted as its agenda and what DEFRA seeks to achieve, would accord with many of the principles that the RSPB would aspire to and promote itself. I think that whilst it is a little early to see any tangible outside benefits, just thinking over the last month and the coming months of the meetings I have had and are about to have with DEFRA officials, there is a significant attempt to try and integrate across different areas of work which perhaps might not have happened previously. There are meetings coming up that relate to issues such as defence where previously that has been a very silo led bit of the agricultural remit and there have been meetings in the last few weeks about integration of nitrates directive and water frameworks directive into the common agricultural policy and its implementation through changes from pillar 1 to pillar 2 to the CAP, and the funding stream to that opens up and how you use then modulated moneys to benefit the farming community and at the same time implement these bigger obligations that Government have. So, whilst there is little as yet positive sign of the opportunities that we describe in the sentence coming to fruition in the outside world, there are at least some signs that things are wakening up and that there will be a move towards implementation of some of the things that DEFRA has suggested it would like to do. So, whilst I could not give it ten out of ten for achievement to date, I think there is at least a six or seven out of ten for effort at the moment.

  39. Some stirrings in the set aside undergrowth perhaps?
  (Mr Rothwell) Perhaps.


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