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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 200-219)



  200. With respect, they want a Bill to sort out their status with reference to the employment of their staff. That was dealt with in our previous report.
  (Lord Whitty) That is also taken account of in the quinquennial review. We do not regard that as the essential element of the future of HRI. There are financial problems with HRI, but I do not believe that the lack of legislation is preventing us from sorting those out. In relation to Covent Garden, if one were ever to change the status of it a complex piece of legislation would be required and it would probably be a hybrid piece of legislation. I am not able to answer for the totality of the Government's legislative programme, but I suspect that there will be difficulties in squeezing that in until we are absolutely clear about the direction in which it will develop.

Mr Simpson

  201. Minister, do you think that the department has an image problem?
  (Lord Whitty) We have now been in existence for a year. We had a difficult inheritance and we have a range of areas that is not entirely, in the public's mind, pulled together sufficiently. We have been effective in pulling together in terms of policy, establishing our role within Whitehall and with the various clients with whom we deal, but if you ask me whether DEFRA, in public consciousness terms, has yet established itself, I believe that we have some way to go. That is certainly an area that is taking the attention of the Secretary of State and the department.

  202. Following on from what the Chairman said, I have been to a number of shows and at the Royal Show you had exactly what the Chairman said, but at another show the main focal point of the image of DEFRA was this vast complex span. I do not know how much it cost. I can well appreciate that the department has a wide remit and wants to emphasise diversity and rural affairs, but in that stand I had to search to find anything to do with farming. It was hidden away around the side. It struck me that if a Ministry of Defence stand did not mention the Armed Forces, people would regard that as not typically focused. Do you think that that is a fair impression?
  (Lord Whitty) No. I think it is a complete caricature. For example, as soon as you go in on the right there is a service relating to the RDAs and another one relating to the vets. The first two items that you would come across would relate to farming. In relation to our broader remit, the Environment Agency's stand focused on issues of pollution, waste management and nitrates, which are primarily farmers' concerns. However, it is important to say that we are not the ministry for farmers; we are the ministry for rural affairs and the environment. An important part of rural life is farming, but we are not the ministry for farming in the way that the Ministry of Defence is the ministry for the Armed Forces. The creation of DEFRA attempted to get away from that. It may be that we are making some difficult presentational decisions in how we get away from that, but we want to get away from that. The criticism that we are not sufficiently farmer-focused seems to me a wrong one and one that leads to a misunderstanding of the changes to the government machinery that we intend to achieve.

  203. I think we may disagree on that. If the Ministry of Defence was called the ministry for the Armed Forces I could understand that. The Ministry of Defence has a broader remit. The impression that I had was that when Ministers were at the Royal Show they were not interested in the farming element. You can correct me, but I felt that they went out of their way not to go near any animals.
  (Lord Whitty) No. If you had been at the Exeter Show you would have seen me in very close proximity, and probably too close a proximity, when I presented all the prizes to the livestock at Exeter. So that is untrue. It is true that yesterday, due to House of Lords' business, my intention to visit the cattle lines had to be curtailed. Normally, I would have gone down to see the livestock, as I did at all the other shows—Cornwall, Bath and West and so on.

  204. In the culture change that has taken place in DEFRA, you are saying that you do not want it to be seen as the ministry for farming. Where does farming fit into it? Do you think that farming has a core element, not only in terms of food production, but also in terms of managing the countryside, diversity and that kind of thing that is so important in terms of your aims?
  (Lord Whitty) Absolutely. It seems to me that the problem of the past is that quite often the relationship between the agricultural sector, strictly the primary producer part of the agricultural sector, and the ministry of agriculture was focused on the subsidies production and on the regulation production and not on placing agriculture in the wider context of the landscape management and the rural economy as a whole, horizontally, nor vertically, for example, in the food chain. Although MAFF had "food" in its title it was not responsible for the industry and it tended to deal with agriculture in a different way from the way in which it dealt with the rest of the food chain. Some of that was inevitable because of the European regulations and the way that the CAP worked, and subsidies for farming before that, but in practice there was a bit of a ring-fence around agriculture, both in relation to the rest of the neighbours in the rural economy, their environmental impact on the rural economy and their relationship with the rest of the food chain. The Curry Commission and, as I understand it, Commissioner Fischler's proposals today indicate that the future for farming must be to see itself in a broader context.

  205. This Committee was very disappointed when the Permanent Secretary came to give evidence on a not very good annual report and he could not answer all our questions. We found that agriculture—we were studying the future of agriculture—was very much a small part of the report. I come back to the point that all Members of this Committee appreciate that farming not only has to change, but that old-fashioned farming is probably dead and buried. There is an image problem. To do all the things that you want to do, it seems that farming has to be a core element, or perhaps we are wrong. Do you think that the countryside, the environment and everything else can be developed and so perhaps reduce farming to being more like a national park with most of our food coming from overseas?
  (Lord Whitty) I do not believe that you could derive that conclusion from anything that I or any spokesperson at DEFRA has said. We want to see a thriving farming sector. It may need to change, but we need to see a thriving farming sector with money going back into farming and with it making its contribution to the wider countryside and rural environment. We are saying that to do that, agriculture has to see itself in a wider context and its relationship to Government in a wider context. The relationship, particularly, between the sponsoring department and the industry needs to change in order to help to give it that wider focus. From day one that was part of our difficulty in the sense that MAFF—excluding the Armed Forces and the defence industry—was the only remaining department that was responsible for a single line of industry. It had a certain Soviet-life overtone to it, in that the Government decided the level of subsidy, decided to a large extent what shape the industry would be and to some extent via the European Union decided its prices and its output. That kind of relationship is not appropriate to the modern age and there have been painful changes needed to the relationship between the department and the farming sector. The more progressive elements in the farming sector recognise that.

Mr Lepper

  206. When we looked at the department's annual report a few weeks ago, most of us felt that it was strong on aspirations. There is nothing at all wrong with that. Central to those aspirations was sustainable development. Recently, as a department you have published a sustainable development strategy. Could you say something to us about how in a year's time you feel that the department and the rest of us will be able to measure the success of that strategy? What will be the indicators that will tell us whether that strategy has succeeded or is succeeding?
  (Lord Whitty) Whether it "is succeeding" or "has succeeded" would probably take longer than a year. Whether it is succeeding can probably be measured in two broad ways. One, we are the department for sustainable development across Government as a whole. We are the driver for sustainable development—environmental, social and economic. We are the body that is charged with ensuring that the whole of Whitehall and the government agencies operate on a sustainable development basis, and take sustainability as a benchmark for their policies. The degree to which we will have achieved that in a year's time will become apparent, in so far as it is not already. On our own policy areas, the change in direction of farming may well be a symbolic policy area where we can best measure sustainability being inculcated into the policy. We have to follow through to the Curry Commission and we have the mid-term review of the Common Agricultural Policy, the outcome of which is subject to considerably difficult negotiations. Nevertheless, by this time next year we shall be clear on the direction of European, Government and industry policies towards the future of farming, which will be to put it on a more sustainable basis, a less production dominated basis and one that ensures that farming contributes to the other aims of the department on landscape, rural economy and the environment. I think we shall be able to measure those things in a year's time.

  207. Other Members may want to follow up on what you say about farming. I believe that I am the only Member of the Committee who comes from an almost wholly urban constituency. I was surprised to find that I have a rural post office, on the University of Sussex campus, which is protected. However, I represent an urban constituency. I would be interested in how DEFRA sees itself promoting sustainable development over the next year and into the future in an area such as mine where we have people living in city centre households.
  (Lord Whitty) Much of the direct delivery in relation to the environment, will rest with other Government departments and with local authorities, but part of our objective will be to ensure that sustainability is built into their approach to planning decisions, to our development of the social fabric of those inner cities and to the way in which we provide their services. On transport, for example, there is the question of whether we can move to a form of transport that is accessible to the kind of communities that you are talking about, and that does not create congestion and other environmental problems. Most of the delivery is down to other agencies rather than to ourselves. That is why the first measure of how far sustainability has entered Government as a whole is a measure of our success or otherwise.

  208. One theme that we have heard consistently over recent weeks, and indeed since the department was created, by outside agencies who come before us, is a concern that DEFRA at the moment does not have sufficient impact on the work of other departments of Government. You have mentioned transport policy and planning policy. You have rightly said that delivery on those policies is the responsibility of another department. However, from what we have heard we have acquired a feeling that some of those links that should exist between DEFRA and other departments to ensure that environmental concerns—concerns about sustainable development—are informing the policies of the other departments, are not as strong as they should be. For instance, when the CPRE appeared before us last week, Mr Hamblin said that the Cabinet Office website, which lists cost-cutting issues, sustainable development and the Sustainable Development Unit is absent from that list. Could you comment on that?
  (Lord Whitty) I regret to say that I am not responsible for the website of the Cabinet Office. In policy terms, we have achieved a certain degree of success. Certainly sustainability through the various interdepartmental activities has become much more central to their assessment during the course of this current spending round. We are to make an announcement. I have to be careful as I am aware of what the announcement will contain, nevertheless I hope that it will reflect the work that we have done with the Treasury in ensuring that the assessment of everybody contains a sustainability dimension. I hope that we shall see that when the announcement is made next week. Clearly, much of the delivery relies on that. In relation to your previous question, there is in one of our documents, Foundations for our Future, a list of indications of progress on sustainability, much of which depends on other departments and local government meeting that. We are the driver for it and we have to take responsibility for trying to ensure that the rest of Whitehall and the government bodies as a whole pursue that. Although we may not achieve as much as we would like with the Cabinet Office in adopting those policy levels, we are discussing the matters closely with the Cabinet Office, with central Government generally and with the Treasury.

  209. And with the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister?
  (Lord Whitty) Yes, indeed. In terms of the process and structure, when the department was first set up, and the DETR was dealing with planning and transport, we developed a close relationship there. Previously we had all been in the same department and previously I had had responsibility for transport myself. We needed a new concordat and we established that contact. We are now in close contact with the two successor departments and the Permanent Secretaries meet regularly to establish a new basis for engagement between the two departments. Clearly, planning in the rural context and in the environmental context are very important to us.

  210. Those discussions are at ministerial level?
  (Lord Whitty) We have discussions at ministerial level on planning and on transport continuously. The machinery of Government involves a regular Permanent Secretary contact which will lead to a new concordat between the two departments.

  Mr Lepper: We await the Chancellor's statement in a few days' time to see one measure of success.

Colin Breed

  211. Sustainability, by its own definition and nature, looks a long way into the future. There is a feeling that there needs to be a greater recognition of striking the balance between the needs of today's generation and safeguarding the interests of future generations. How can that balance be struck between those competing environmental, economic and social needs of today and those of what we perceive to be the needs of future generations?
  (Lord Whitty) That is a big question. One of the jobs of the department is to ensure that our decisions and the decisions of other departments have a longer time focus than is often the case in Government. So you have a time potential, a time conflict in short-termism or even in medium-termism and what happens in the long term. It relates to using resources. I believe that it differs policy by policy because in many areas what one does in the short term alters the long term. Therefore, one has to ensure that the short-term decisions are in the right direction; for example, on achieving the Kyoto targets. We want to see where we are in 2012, but we have to take decisions now that move us in that direction. In so far as there is conflict on the three pillars of sustainability—economic, environmental and social—that is the responsibility of all policy areas. There is sometimes not as great a conflict as is suggested between environmental and economic objectives. In the long term, the wrong environmental decisions are also the wrong economic decisions. Sometimes the decisions taken for environmental reasons primarily turn out in the not very long term to be economically beneficial. There is not continuous conflict. There is occasional conflict and policy departments have to be responsible for managing that. Our job is to give the bigger framework.

  212. To what extent does DEFRA devise investment plans that would impose greater spending today in order to achieve the long-term objectives of sustainability?
  (Lord Whitty) In any direct sense the only capital programmes with which we are concerned are those that fall on our budgets and on our agencies, which is a relatively small part of the totality. We are engaged, for example, in relation to the DTLR, in ensuring that transport projects have a strong long-term environmental dimension to them. Therefore, again we have an influence beyond the area of capital spending for which we are responsible which frankly is pretty limited.

  213. Do you think that investment spending plans for sustainability for future generations is something that should be increased and, if so, what would you propose to do about that?
  (Lord Whitty) Increasing the totality of capital spending is a matter that I had better not comment on, especially as it is a few days before the spending review comes out. The way in which particular projects are planned, within a given quantum, needs more of a focus on longer term objectives than sometimes state and private projects supported by the state have done in the past. The transport system is one such area.

Mr Taylor

  214. A moment ago you said in relation to the environment, on which I want to focus, that a lot of the responsibility will lie with other departments. I am paraphrasing what you said. In earlier evidence to this inquiry the CPRE observed that "the environment is becoming divorced from other Government policy decisions". Friends of the Earth at an earlier inquiry said that "environment officials and Ministers have been marginalised, and distanced from the big decisions". Finally, the RSPB said in earlier evidence that DEFRA could become a "policy ghetto for green issues". Do you feel divorced and marginalised in a Smith Square-esque ghetto on the environment?
  (Lord Whitty) No, not at all. They used to make the same play in relation to the DETR and to the Department of the Environment in the past. It is the job of government-oriented NGOs to push for greater emphasis for an environmental dimension.

  215. Name one or two early successes on the environment.
  (Lord Whitty) One success that has not been fully recognised is the degree to which the department has pushed forward on the Kyoto agenda and the agenda leading up to Johannesburg. One of the Secretary of State's early triumphs was to rescue the Bonn talks on the policies of Kyoto, followed by Marrakesh. By the time we reached Johannesburg we would have made an across-government effort on putting sustainability on the government agenda in a big way. That is a substantial success by the Government. If one looks at other more specific areas, more domestic areas, and if one looks at decisions on transport, one will see that there are decisions that a few years ago would not have gone the way that the CPRE and others had suspected. I used to be responsible for road projects, whether welcome or not, and they have had a much bigger environmental dimension in the past year or so than certainly was the case in the past. One sees the influence of environment ministers, both under the previous structure and carried through into the current structure, reflected in significant government projects. We are there and clearly we are influencing other people's strategies. Therefore, I would reject what the CPRE is telling you. I do not think that we ghetto-ise at all. I think there was a danger of MAFF on many occasions being ghetto-ised, but I do not think that the current department is ghetto-ised. I think we are a bigger player and a more central player to Government as a whole.

  216. In some key respects the performance indicators may be arguable, but what about domestic recycling? Is not our record one of the worst among the European developed nations?
  (Lord Whitty) It has been, yes.

  217. Is it heading in the wrong direction?
  (Lord Whitty) No. It is heading in the right direction, but not as fast as we would want.

  218. What is that code for?
  (Lord Whitty) It is code for the fact that we need to do more and we need to get local authorities to do more and to get public opinion and behaviour more focused on recycling. Yes, a lot more needs to be done in that context. There is no slippage; we are moving forward.

  219. How many more incinerators, heaps of scrapped fridges and burnt out unrecycled cars do we need to trigger DEFRA into more energetic action on that front?
  (Lord Whitty) We have to consider what we are trying to do and some of the unfortunate by-products. The aim of the fridges directive—I do not want to go over all that ground again as the Committee is probably sick of it as well—was a clear environmental objective.

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