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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 191-199)




  191. Good morning. Lord Whitty, you are the Parliamentary Under-Secretary in the Lords, responsible, among other things, for the food chain and the environment. Mr Paul Elliott is Director of the Rural Economies and Communities Directorate and Mr Jim Dixon is the Project Manager for the Policy and Corporate Strategy Unit. Welcome to the Committee. Lord Whitty, yesterday you and I were at the Great Yorkshire Show.
  (Lord Whitty) Yes.

  192. I visited the DEFRA stand. It was rather like visiting a cathedral after all the gates had been closed and the congregation had gone home. There was an enormous stand, staffed with extremely zealous and able people, but it was absolutely deserted. The reason why it was deserted was that there was nothing in that stand that any farmer visiting the Great Yorkshire Show would have found useful. It was full of placards talking about earth, fire, water, air and such blather words that have now taken over at DEFRA, and there was practically nothing that a farmer would say was applicable to him. I understand that exactly the same criticism was made about the Royal Show. Does that indicate that somehow DEFRA appears to have floated off into some kind of Nirvana of aesthetics and lost touch with the industry with which it is supposed to deal?
  (Lord Whitty) At least, Chairman, you appreciate our aesthetic touch. The design of the stand perhaps cuts against its purpose. We have received a number of critical remarks about the nature of the stand as it has gone round the major shows, but not so much criticism has been made about the content from those people who have actually been in it. Although the stand is slightly hi-tech and rather open plan, there is a lot of expertise that farmers and others could tap into. We had our vets there; the rural development staff were there; the Environment Agency was there; we had people dealing with the RPA there; and people dealing with wider responsibilities of the department, such as people from the national parks, which is appropriate for the Great Yorkshire Show.

  193. The only people who were not there were the customers. I went there three times.
  (Lord Whitty) When I was there there were a few customers, but I agree that it was not oversubscribed at that time of the morning. That is partly a factor of the design of the stand. It is not sufficiently user-friendly; it is not sufficiently enticing to people.

  194. If you had gone down to the sheep lines, there was a little stand—a DEFRA stand—all about the national scrapie plan. That is of immediate relevance to farmers as it concerns their business and their future. That was heavily subscribed. Would it not have made sense for DEFRA to drop the blather—I have used that word before—about what the new DEFRA is about? It is an agricultural show, a county show so should you not talk about matters of relevance to the local clientele?
  (Lord Whitty) Of the people who go to the show, a small minority are farmers. Farmers need to tap into that information, but also vast numbers of the public turn up. I thought that there was a good turn out yesterday, despite the threatening weather and the skies opening up just as I was leaving. The public also need to know what DEFRA as a whole is doing. You describe it as "blather" but we are actually concerned with air, water and earth as well as with the techniques of farming. We need an interface with the wider public. Therefore, I do not accept the substantive criticism, but I accept some of the design and organisation criticism. Clearly, it is important that where the majority of sheep farmers are likely to go that we have something to do with the national scrapie plan. That was separate from the DEFRA stand, but the main stand needs to be reviewed in its design and content. However, there was a lot of expertise there available to farmers and to others who are engaged in environmental and land management.

  195. I shall not pursue that line. I was not bothered about the design, but I wanted to understand what it was saying about the way in which DEFRA was projecting itself. It seems to me that it was not projecting itself as the department that is involved in the daily activities of people. A little while ago the Agriculture Committee produced a report on Covent Garden and its future. Since then we have kept in touch with Covent Garden in order to find out what happens. The story that we are being told is that they are constantly failing to get any sort of decisions out of DEFRA about the future of the market, or about other topics such as cooling towers or pollutants. The Environment Agency orders the market to take actions which involve expenditure, but they can never get decisions from the department. It seems that one of the consequences of the fundamental spending review is that the department freezes and there is a total inability for six months before spending decisions are announced and no one ever gets any sense out of it. Is that unfair or are they just unlucky?
  (Lord Whitty) The situation at Covent Garden is difficult. What comes back to me is not so much that we are not taking decisions, but that the decision is no. There has been a limit on the amount of capital expenditure that we can engage in at Covent Garden, given the money supplied for this year and the number of other areas of DEFRA expenditure. It is true that in this financial year it has been particularly difficult to set the final budget. That is partly because of the expenses relating to the creation of the new department and partly because of the overhang of foot and mouth disease. It has also been due to the need to allocate the total budget within fairly restricted resources. Covent Garden's capital programme is not as good as the Covent Garden Authority would wish, but we have indicated to them how much money we can put to it. In the mean time, of course, we have been engaged in quite complex discussions with the Covent Garden Authority and the City of London on effectively carrying through the remit that your Committee pointed us to on the future of Covent Garden and the future of London wholesale markets as a whole. As you will know, we have recently appointed Mr Nicholas Caffrey to conduct that review which effectively we are doing with the Corporation of London. So we are looking at the totality of the wholesale markets of London and their future. That will help us to define what the future of Covent Garden will be and how we need to develop it.

  196. When a problem arises that no one can foresee and Covent Garden is ordered by the Environment Agency to take remedial action, what is the response of the department? Does it say that everything else must be put on ice, or that you must improvise measures to paddle through for the next two years? There seems to be a short-term approach to this.
  (Lord Whitty) The Covent Garden Authority has its own financial structure and direction. It is at arm's length from the department. As with any other organisation, if there is a legal requirement to be met by the Environment Agency or anybody else, some rejigging of the budget is necessary. I accept that there has been a tight ceiling on the amount of money that is available to Covent Garden over recent years to make capital improvements. There are other complications on the future of Covent Garden, as you will know, in relation to the range of activities conducted there. It is a complex situation at Covent Garden, but I do not think that one would expect the department directly to take responsibility for what is the authority's area of judgment as to how they meet the statutory requirements or the order requirements of the Environment Agency. It has implications for the budget, which we have to look at.

  197. It would love to take responsibility, but it is not allowed to because it needs your permission to do things.
  (Lord Whitty) It needs our permission and it needs the Treasury's permission for major capital expenditure. That is true.

Mr Jack

  198. I want to follow up on the Chairman's questions on Covent Garden and the Horticultural Research Institute. In this Committee's report on both of those organisations, we have addressed the legislative requirements needed to regularise and, in the case of Covent Garden, to give it flexibility to go beyond what it is doing now and yet your department in the past five years has singularly failed to secure any parliamentary time to address the legislative requirements and to regularise the public bodies of the Covent Garden Authority and the HRI. Those issues have been around for a long time. Why have you failed to do that?
  (Lord Whitty) The future of Covent Garden has to be assessed in relation to the development of wholesale food supply in London as a whole, which over the five years has changed quite dramatically. The best way to do that is to look at it in conjunction with the other wholesale markets that are owned by the Corporation of London. Therefore, we have spent some time understanding those markets. Not all of that understanding is shared. As you will know, Covent Garden wish to extend its ability to trade at Covent Garden to areas other than fruit, vegetables and flowers. In doing so the corporation's markets see that as competition.

  199. The question I asked was about why, in the case of HRI and Covent Garden, you failed to acquire time in the legislative programme.
  (Lord Whitty) The answer is that we do not know what legislation will be required for Covent Garden until we have completed this inquiry with the corporation. I am not sure to what you are alluding in reference to HRI, but we do not need any new primary legislation in relation to HRI, but we need to sort out its financial basis. A quinquennial review is about to take place on HRI and we shall base our decision on that.

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