Select Committee on Agriculture Second Special Report


SECOND SPECIAL REPORT

The Agriculture Committee has agreed to the following Special Report:—

THE COMMITTEE'S WORK, SESSION 1999-2000

Introduction

1. This is the third report on the activities of the Agriculture Committee in the current Parliament. Our twin objectives established in the very first of these reports are first, to provide an overall picture of our work in the past Session by means of an annex summarising Committee meetings, Reports, visits and other activities, and second, to maintain pressure on the Government to implement recommendations made in previous Reports. To this end, MAFF has again been requested to provide a memorandum, giving details of action taken by the Government in relation to each recommendation made by the Committee in Session 1999-2000 which the Government had fully or partially accepted in its initial response and to recommendations made in previous Sessions in this Parliament which might still be considered as live. We are grateful to MAFF for preparing this memorandum which is printed as the appendix to this Report. For the first time this year, our annual report is part of a series of such reports made by all departmental select committees at the request of the Liaison Committee. We welcome this development as an important step in improving the monitoring of Government by select committees. In the remainder of our Report, we describe the range of inquiries we have undertaken in Session 1999-2000, make some general comments on our relationship with Government departments and identify some common conclusions arising from our work this year.

The inquiries

2. We see the role of select committees as threefold:

·to scrutinize the on-going administration, policy and expenditure of MAFF and its associated public bodies

·to respond to immediate issues of public interest

·to undertake inquiries into issues over a longer term to provide a forum for the ventilation of ideas.

The inquiries which we conducted in Session 1999-2000 should be viewed in the context of these objectives and we discuss them below under appropriate headings, albeit with the caveat that several inquiries contribute to more than one objective. It is important to note that not all of our inquiries resulted in a formal Report to the House. On several occasions, listed in the annex, we took oral evidence and published it without comment. We regard this as a valuable exercise in itself where it allows issues to be aired but where a Report from us would not be justified. For example, we have established a practice of interviewing newly appointed chairmen of public bodies (see paragraph 15 below) to discover what ideas they are bringing to the job.

Scrutiny of MAFF

3. All our activities touch upon the scrutiny of Government departments in some way but there is a particular slant to some inquiries in their focus on the administration and expenditure of MAFF and the public bodies which it sponsors or to which it is linked. The prime example of this would be our annual evidence session and subsequent Report on the MAFF/Intervention Board Departmental Report and expenditure plans. This year we took evidence for the first time from the new Permanent Secretary at MAFF, Mr Brian Bender, but otherwise we closely followed the format established in previous sessions of raising questions on the objectives, targets and performance of MAFF and the IB, as well as on individual areas of interest. We published the conclusions drawn from this meeting as our Ninth Report of Session 1999-2000, on 2 August 2000.

4. Another inquiry conducted this Session which concentrated on scrutiny of MAFF's administrative functions was that which resulted in our Tenth Report on the Regional Service Centres. These centres are MAFF's outposts in the regions and our interest in them was sparked by concerns about their current performance and rumours about their future. In the course of the inquiry, we visited two of the centres and were impressed by the high regard in which they were held by the local community. Nevertheless, we welcomed the announcement in July that the Government was to establish a new agency to administer the payments of CAP funds, a task currently undertaken by the RSCs, and intended to reorganise MAFF's work in the regions to facilitate closer co-operation between MAFF and other Government departments outside London. We hope that the new arrangements will prove more efficient but our concerns about MAFF's ability to deliver such a high-risk project remain. We have announced that we will keep a watching brief on developments in this area and we intend to fulfil this promise.

5. One area of Government activity which often goes unscrutinised by Parliament is the work of non-departmental bodies and other organisations associated with the Whitehall departments. This year, we decided to make a concerted effort to examine the role and responsibilities of those organisations which receive public funding from MAFF. We intend this to develop into a rolling programme of single evidence sessions, covering as many as possible of the relevant bodies throughout the course of a Parliament. We have conducted three hearings so far, into Food From Britain, Horticulture Research International (HRI) and the Forestry Commission, and we are convinced that this approach is adding value to our work. In all cases our examination revealed areas where relations between the organisation and the Government needed clarification and, sometimes, required urgent Government decisions. Of the three, we gave a clean bill of health to Food From Britain and produced a report on HRI (our Seventh), drawing attention to its difficulties. Our Report contributed to major changes at the organisation which we now intend to examine further in Session 2000-01. We have yet to determine our response to the evidence from the Forestry Commission.

6. Finally in this category of inquiries, we have tried to improve our monitoring of the Government's implementation of past reports by holding follow-up inquiries with Ministers or other interested parties where issues we have examined previously are still of interest. This autumn we held an evidence session on badgers and bovine tuberculosis, following our Fifth Report of the previous Session, and on Flood and Coastal Defence, referring to the Sixth Report of Session 1997-98. In this way we hope both to contribute to the aims of this Report in maintaining pressure on the Government to implement recommendations and to address a perceived weakness of the select committee system, which is that it is all too easy to regard a past inquiry as closed.

Immediate issues

7. It is perhaps not surprising that most of the Reports published by ourselves over the last year fall into the category of immediate issues of public concern. Select committees have an important role to play in providing an opportunity to pursue questions and difficulties which are pressing. The format of evidence sessions allows Members to question Ministers in much more detail than is possible on the Floor of the House, making the Committee an ideal forum in which to explore important statements or urgent developments. Such considerations led to the publication of our First Report on the Current Crisis in the Livestock Industry and our Fifth Report on the Government's Proposals for Organophosphate Sheep Dips; and to our single evidence sessions with the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food on the Rural Development Regulation and the Government's Action Plan for Farming.

8. Some subjects, however, may be of immediate interest but require dealing with at greater length. We conducted three inquiries which fell into this category and which consisted of between two and five sessions. These were: the Second Report into the Marketing of Milk (evidence mainly gathered in Session 1998-99); the Third Report on the Segregation of Genetically Modified Foods, together with the linked Eighth Report on Genetically Modified Organisms and Seed Segregation; and the Fourth Report on Environmental Regulation and Farming. In each case, developments in Government policy towards the industry had created concerns which needed to be aired and examined. We were particularly pleased with the

Government response to the report on Environmental Regulation and Farming which led to major changes in the application of a European Directive on the pig and poultry industries and a recognition by the Minister for the Environment that "the Committee was right and ... in some respects, we were wrong".[2]

Long term issues

9. Inquiries into longer-term issues take more time and can often be squeezed out of a Committee's programme by the more urgent demands of inquiries under the other two objectives which we have set ourselves. However, in the course of Session 1999-2000, we conducted an inquiry into one of the key issues which will determine the future fate of UK agriculture, namely the World Trade Organisation negotiations which were due to begin in Seattle in November 1999. The failure to launch the talks led us to conduct a very different inquiry from that we had originally planned but we found that there was still a major project to be carried out, despite these limitations. As usual with this type of inquiry, we found that the discussions we held off the record during visits, in this case to the European Commission in Brussels, to the WTO in Geneva and to the USA, were of as much influence in shaping our Report (the Sixth of the Session) as the formal evidence we took in Westminster. We have had a similar experience with the other inquiry which falls into this category, our ongoing investigation into organic farming on which we will report shortly.

Relations with the Department

10. In general, our relations with MAFF have been good and we are grateful for the noticeable improvement in keeping us informed on certain specific issues. For example, information has been volunteered on the badgers and bovine tuberculosis inquiry and we received copies of consultation documents quite readily upon request. However, our greatest difficulty remains delays in responding to Committee reports and in providing memoranda. As presaged in our Report last year, we have been monitoring receipt of memoranda and Government responses against deadlines and the results are not encouraging. Of all the memoranda requested since that Report was published, only two (the original submission on organic farming and a memorandum on the work of the Forestry Commission) arrived on time. None was early, most were between one and two weeks late and one arrived the day after the evidence session for which it was intended. The memorandum requested from MAFF in connection with this Special Report, of which several months' notice was given, arrived nearly three weeks late. The one update for which the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions was responsible was six weeks late.

11. The position with regard to responses to reports is on the whole better but the exceptions to this rule are notably worse. We set out in the table below the date of publication, the date on which the response was received, together with the deadline set where different from the standard two months after publication. The First Report, to which the response was received in good time, is omitted because it was published before we announced our intention to monitor MAFF's performance in this way.

Report
Date of publication of report
Date of receipt of Government response
Deadline
Second - The Marketing of Milk
1 February 2000
6 April 2000
 
Third - The Segregation of GM Foods
7 March 2000
5 May 2000
 
Fourth - Environmental Regulation & Farming
17 March 2000
13 July 2000
 
Fifth - The Government's Proposals for Organophosphate Sheep Dips
23 May 2000
25 July 2000
 
Sixth - Implications for UK Agriculture and EU Agricultural Policy of Trade Liberalisation and the WTO Round
4 July 2000
5 October 2000
9 October 2000
Seventh - Horticulture Research International
11 July 2000
11 October 2000
9 October 2000
Eighth - GMOs and Seed Segregation
3 August 2000
Not yet received
9 October 2000
Ninth - MAFF/IB Departmental Report 2000
2 August 2000
(i) 20 October 2000.
Query sent to MAFF: 25 October.
(ii) 30 November 2000
(i) 9 October 2000
(ii) 10 November 2000
Tenth - Regional Service Centres
1 August 2000
(i) 29 September 2000.
Returned to MAFF: 25 October.
(ii) 21 November 2000
(i) 29 September 2000
(ii) 9 November 2000

12. There are several observations which we wish to make on the timing of both memoranda and responses. First, we try hard to set reasonable deadlines which are dictated by the programme of evidence sessions. Occasionally, we need information very quickly but usually, particularly over recesses, we are able to be more flexible. However, it appears that very little thought is ever given by MAFF as to the use to be made of memoranda and the need to submit in advance of meetings. Second, it is apparent that insufficient time and priority is being given to the clearance of memoranda by Ministers in planning to meet deadlines. Third, it is noticeable that the worst problems occur when more than one Department is involved, especially when that Department is the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions. The four months which the Government took to produce a response to our report on Environmental Regulation and Farming has already been matched by the delay in responding to our extremely short report on the Segregation of GM Seeds - a report in which the confusion between MAFF and the DETR was criticised. This points to a lack of urgency within DETR when dealing with select committees other than their "own", a worrying absence of co-operation, co-ordination or even "joined-up thinking" across Whitehall departments, or perhaps problems in the actual definition on controversial areas of policy. We will continue to monitor the performance of MAFF and other departments against deadlines and hope to be able to report an improvement next year.

13. There is also the question of the quality of the responses received. In general, they have been acceptable. Some, however, have been disappointing in their blandness, the lack of serious consideration given to the points made in our Reports or their failure to move forward on issues such as reviewing the regulatory burden. On two occasions, we have decided not to publish the response as received. In the case of the response to our report on the MAFF/IB Departmental Report 2000, we delayed publication whilst we sought clarification of a statement made in the response. Astonishingly, MAFF took more than five weeks to provide any kind of reply to this simple point. The second case, involving our report on the Regional Service Centres, was more serious in that the response originally submitted by MAFF failed to address our highlighted conclusions and recommendations. A more detailed reply was submitted four weeks later and published by us alongside the initial response as a Special Report. We hope that our refusal to accept responses which we regard as inadequate may persuade MAFF of the need to pay more attention to the quality of its replies in future. Where applicable, follow-up inquiries on particular issues will also give us an opportunity to tackle Ministers on individual responses.

Resource accounting and budgeting

14. As part of its implementation of resource accounting and budgeting, the Government has undertaken that each department will keep the appropriate select committee informed as to its progress in meeting agreed "trigger points". In 1999-2000 the Committee received submissions from MAFF, the Intervention Board and the Forestry Commission in accordance with trigger points 3 (dry-run resource accounts 1998-99) and 4 (shadow resource estimates 2000-01). We were pleased to be able to report to the Liaison Committee in June 2000 that we had no points to raise on these submissions. Our annual session with MAFF and the IB on the Departmental Report gives us a regular opportunity to discuss progress in implementing the change to RAB and we will continue to maintain a watchful eye on this area in the next Session.

Other activities

15. To complete the picture of our activities in Session 1999-2000, it is necessary to draw attention to other aspects of our work. First, we held two "confirmation" hearings, with the newly appointed Chairmen of the Food Standards Agency and the Agriculture and Biotechnology Commission, respectively. We have no powers to approve such appointments and so published no reports following these meetings but we found them a valuable exercise and intend to repeat the process when occasion arises. Second, the hearing with the Chairman of the FSA was conducted as a joint meeting with the Health Committee. At the time, we agreed to make the session an annual event but the publication of the Phillips Report on BSE gave us reason to recall Professor Sir John Krebs earlier than expected in November 2000. On both occasions, we appreciated the co-operation of our colleagues on the Health Committee in accepting our invitation to participate. Third, on two occasions we have held informal meetings in private with MAFF officials to inform our proceedings on particular inquiries. Again, we wish to express our thanks to MAFF for co-operating with our requests.

Regular observations

16. Our main conclusion from our year's work will surprise no-one who has followed our activities. It is that the Government must demonstrate greater understanding of the realities of industry when devising regulations. The need for, compliance cost of and the bureaucracy involved in regulations must be determined with a view to the competitive situation across the EU. Time and again, we hear complaints that regulations are being implemented here in a way that has a detrimental impact on the competitiveness of UK industry; and in the case of our report on Environmental Regulation and Farming, we found such allegations to be well-founded. In this context, we commend the recent report from the Better Regulation Task Force on Environmental Regulations and Farmers. What is needed is fewer rules and greater consistency and much greater awareness of what is happening elsewhere.

17. Our second general comment is the observation that there is often an unconscionable time between the announcement of a Government initiative and its implementation. We appreciate that time is needed for consultation, where relevant, for clearance from Brussels and to devise best practice but the delays can lead to understandable cynicism that the Government announces initiatives before it has thought through the practicalities. This is particularly unfortunate where an industry is in such difficult circumstances as agriculture is currently experiencing.

Conclusion

18. Session 1999-2000 was exceptionally busy for the Committee. Even taking into account the length of the session, we held more meetings and produced more reports than in the previous year and inquired into a wider range of issues. It is not clear how much ground we will be able to cover in the coming Session but we look forward to completing our ongoing inquiries and continuing to meet the objectives which we have set. We shall also continue to put pressure on the Government where appropriate and to offer support where justified. MAFF itself is going through a process of change with the arrival of a new Permanent Secretary and the creation of the CAP Payment Agency along with the other organisational changes that involves. We hope that Mr Bender, by focussing on management as well as policy, will be able to lift the morale of the Ministry and with it, its performance. Finally, we are constantly aware in all inquiries of the dire state of the industries which fall under the responsibility of MAFF. The latest forecast of total income from farming makes grim reading as do the cuts in the quotas for fishermen across the EU. We continue to hope that the fortunes of both industries will show signs of recovery in the near future and we continue to work towards that end.


2  HC Debates, 20 July 2000, col 132WH. Back


 
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