Draft Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Dissolution) Order 2002

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Mr. Breed: I am grateful to the Minister for explaining that at some length. Will he give us the target dates for dealing with the backlog? What is the target time for dealing with current correspondence? Is it two or three weeks from the date of receipt of the letter? The Minister must have some idea of the target, so that we can have some idea of how long it will take the Department to get to grips.

Alun Michael: Targets need to be realistic. When I discovered that there was a problem, I set a target of solving it by the end of September. We discovered more problems, and that target became unrealistic. We will attempt to eradicate the worst of the backlog by the end of this month before achieving the standard 15-day and other targets, which should be met throughout Whitehall.

After taking stock, I shall be happy to clarify how quickly we can progress to meeting the standard target. That has proved to be a much bigger problem than initially thought. I commend the officials who co-operated with Ministers in eradicating the problem. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Secretary of State gives high priority to providing the sort of service that MPs and their constituents have every right to expect.

The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk said that he wanted to see implementation, not papers and reports. That is precisely the challenge that Ministers have accepted, and given to officials in the Department. Our record on implementation is good. For instance, in ''England's Rural Future'', published in December, we responded to the rural taskforce report and the Haskins report in a practical way, providing an additional £24 million for rural recovery. Additional sums have been introduced since then, so the total assistance has increased. They were targeted at the areas that were most hard hit by foot and mouth disease, and the general problems of rural areas.

That report detailed the progress made in just 12 months in implementing the rural White Paper, published in November 2000, which many endorsed as

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the right agenda for the future of rural communities. Given the impact of foot and mouth disease, and the distraction that it has been from the White Paper implementation, there is every reason to be proud of the progress made so far, although we have a long way to go.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the Environmental Impact Assessment (Uncultivated Land and Semi-natural Areas) (England) Regulations 2001. That statutory instrument will be debated on the Floor of the Commons next Thursday. It was suggested that a greater shift of Departmental responsibilities to agencies was needed. We take seriously the agencies that are accountable to DEFRA. I referred to the Forestry Commission, and the Countryside Agency is also crucial to my responsibilities in rural affairs. The Countryside Agency was adrift from the priorities of any Department before the creation of DEFRA. It is now central to one of DEFRA's three responsibilities, and I am encouraged by the close relationship that we have developed with the agency and the flexibility with which it is responding to the challenge to deliver.

The rural taskforce recommended a relaunch of the countryside to convey the availability of the countryside to people in urban areas and to reconnect town and country. The agency joined DEFRA in financially supporting the implementation of that proposal, and one of its regional directors led the work. That will develop as a partnership initiative with those areas directly affected by the economic impact of foot and mouth disease, and footpath closures, which created problems for the tourism industry last year.

The hon. Gentleman said that people were looking for an integrated approach in a powerful Department. He suggested that the jury was still out. That is perfectly reasonable after about six months. The Department was brought together over weekend. It came as a surprise to the permanent secretary when, on the weekend after the general election, he found that he was the chief official of a new and powerful Department, and that an immense challenge faced him and his colleagues.

Ministers also face that challenge. They and their officials are seeking to meet it in a way that offers great hope for the future. The Department has developed a vision that will give it a sense of purpose. It was set up by the Prime Minister to meet a range of important challenges in an integrated way, and there is every reason to hope that it will succeed. It is the intention of the Secretary of State, his Ministers, and their officials to realise that vision, and to achieve the objectives that the Department has been established to meet.

11.50 am

Mr. Simpson: I thank the Minister for responding in detail to several of the points that were put to him.

There is a balance of opinion about whether there should be a full public inquiry into foot and mouth. The Government are happy to have a full public inquiry, at great expense, into the events of Bloody Sunday, but all Governments pick and mix what they do. The real test is whether lessons are learned. That is

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what the public and the farming community want. The Minister will, rightly, be held to account with regard to whether they are learned.

Unusually, the Minister failed to answer my question about whether the Government will give evidence—written evidence or oral evidence from Ministers or officials appearing as witnesses—to the European Parliament inquiry into foot and mouth.

I stand by my comments about the vision statement that was circulated within DEFRA. We can all agree about clear objectives, but DEFRA—in common with many other areas of Government—often ends up by coming out with meaningless gobbledegook. Members of the public in farming, business, or non-governmental organisations of one kind or another become very cynical about what they hear. Management speak is meaningless; it does not directly relate to delivery.

MAFF is dead. We are now going to bury it. We have witnessed the birth of DEFRA.

Mr. Drew: We come not to praise MAFF, but to bury it.

Mr. Simpson: I could happily go on for at least another five minutes, if that is what the hon. Gentleman wants.

The Chairman: Order.

Mr. Simpson: The great thing about being a Government Back-Bencher is that one is a captive audience, and I suggest to the Whip that he bears the hon. Gentleman in mind for future and longer Committees.

Although a vision statement has been composed, and—so it has been said—careful thought went into the creation of DEFRA, the Minister said that the Department was brought together over a weekend. Let us hope that it is not dissolved over a weekend, and let us wish the new Department well. I hope that it achieves its objectives, as that will benefit all of our electorates.

11.54 am

Alun Michael: I should have responded to an earlier point that was made about the performance of the rural payments agencies. That has been affected by foot and mouth disease, and by industrial action, which was suspended on 11 January.

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It is still expected that we will pay the majority of claims within the regulatory time frame, which expires on 31 January. It may be necessary to carry some payments over to February, but they will be kept to a minimum.

My point about providing a vision for DEFRA was that, if one brings a Department together over a weekend, and one has made the right decision, one nevertheless has to find the best possible way of expressing the purpose, vision and direction of that Department. On the basis of the final remarks of the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk, I hope that he was commending us for the way in which we have carried that forward. One can only live in hope.

The hon. Gentleman returned to the question of a full public inquiry, and referred to an example of how making a judgment clearly on what had happened in the past was absolutely crucial. Of course, in relation to this inquiry, we need to learn from the past, but the future is what is important. Learning the lessons from events, and making sure that those lessons lead to practical actions in the future is the important thing. That is why I am certain that we have taken the right approach to the establishment of the inquiries.

On the European Parliament, all that I know at present is that it intends to convene a temporary committee of inquiry. I am not sure of all the details, or of the timing. We will co-operate fully with the temporary committee of inquiry, but it is worth pointing out that it is not a European Union-wide inquiry. It is a parliamentary inquiry. We will learn what issues arise in respect of giving evidence when we see precisely how the inquiry is intended to be taken forward.

The hon. Gentleman referred to meaningless gobbledegook—I shall leave it to the experts on the other side of the Committee to contribute to that. In setting out our vision for the Department and its objectives—I invite hon. Members on both sides of the Committee to look at what we have spelt out—we have described in plain English what we hope to achieve. We are taking that seriously, as a team of Ministers, by working out, in a joined-up way, across the Department and with other Departments, how we deliver on those objectives. Having made that clear, I am happy to accept the good wishes for the success of the Department expressed by the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk. We shall try to make sure that that success is delivered.

Question put and agreed to.


    That the Committee has considered the draft Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Dissolution) Order 2002.

        Committee rose at three minutes to Twelve o'clock.

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The following Members attended the Committee:
Amess, Mr. David (Chairman)
Ainger, Mr.
Breed, Mr.
Drew, Mr.
Gillan, Mrs.
Hamilton, David
Howarth, Mr. George
Hoyle, Mr.

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Liddell-Grainger, Mr.
Michael, Alun
Picking, Anne
Rooney, Mr.
Simpson, Mr. Keith
Truswell, Mr.
Wood, Mr.

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