Examination of witnesses (Questions 111
THURSDAY 7 MARCH 2001
QUIN and MR
111. Minister, welcome once again. You are becoming
our most faithful recidivist, but we are pleased to see you. If
you did not know, I will tell you, you have the serried ranks
of the Covent Garden Market Authority traders sitting behind you.
As you know, we are conducting a brief investigation into the
future of the market. Some of us went there yesterday to look
around and have breakfast, and I declare an interest in that my
daughter, as a garden designer, goes to Covent Garden regularly
as a customer. Would you agree that the market urgently needs
investment for modernisation?
(Ms Quin) Certainly the infrastructure of the market
is somewhat dated, and therefore I think it is important for discussions
to take place between the management and board of the market and
ourselves on how best to move forward in future to ensure that
the market can survive and flourish.
112. How does it raise the money?
(Ms Quin) That is something that we are discussing
with the market at the present time, and we hope that some specific
proposals will be put forward which we can examine with them.
113. Is it true to say that, whatever discussions
you have and whatever conclusions you reach, those conclusions
could not be implemented without legislation? The market cannot
use its own surplus without a change in the law, because at the
moment the Treasury takes it; it cannot borrow against it for
the same reason; and it cannot be privatisedwe will come
on to what we mean by that laterwithout legislation. So
what can the market do without legislation? I will turn the question
round: is there anything the market can do without legislation?
(Ms Quin) I think it can borrow without legislation,
but even if it is involved in a borrowing arrangement, it still
comes within the limits of MAFF's capital receipts, and it is
fair to say that is something of a constraint because obviously
the Ministry has to look at its overall budget with regard to
its own capital ceilings.
114. I realise the situation has appertained
for a long time, and I am not wishing to attribute this to the
omissions of any particular government, but it is true, is it
not, that the market is imprisoned in a sense by its constitutional
relationship with the government, and that unless there is a change
in that, there is no serious option available for it to take itself
(Ms Quin) Firstly, I think the market is certainly
constrained by the way it is set up and the way it has to operate
on a year on year basis, although I feel that the present Government,
the present Minister, has at least by his statement in 1999 about
his policy for the future of the market, allowed a greater degree
of certainty about the future. That statement certainly allowed
the renewal and renegotiation of leases to take place, and gave
the market the feeling that there was a commitment by the Government
for the market to continue as a going concern. I note that in
evidence submitted to the Committee that has been welcomed by
everyone. However, in terms of the large-scale financial investment
for the future, there are constraints, which is why the Minister's
policy is to try and sell the market as a going concern. That
does depend on legislation and a legislative slot being found
in the Government's programme.
115. My final question is precisely about that.
There is going to be a General Election shortly. Whichever government
emerges from that will want to fulfil its manifesto commitments,
so it is difficult to see how a government might wish to devote
legislative time to an issue which it will see as not being central
to the purposes for which it was elected. When you have your discussions,
what sort of assurances do you think you might be able to give
in the perspective of your party winning an election that this
issue would be addressed with sufficient urgency, so that the
market might feel that the Minister's promise to sell the market
or reassurance to the market would be backed up by the necessary
action to give substance to it?
(Ms Quin) It is a high priority within the Department.
Obviously, as everyone here knows, the Department's bids for legislation
have to be taken alongside the bids from all the other departments
and government priorities decided as a result. But certainly it
remains a priority for the Department for the reasons that I have
briefly alluded to. We recognise very much local feelings about
this issueand I mean local feelings in terms of the views
of the people running the market itself, and indeed the views
of the surrounding area and of Wandsworth Council and so onand
they very much welcome the fact that we have said that any sale
of the market should be as a going concern, but we are also aware
that the market, and indeed the borough, are keen to see the market
flourish and have the possibility of expansion for the future,
and therefore we do have a responsibility to try and respond to
the concerns about the financial constraints which you have referred
to. That does mean that we have to give a priority to this issue.
116. I do not think there can be any doubt that
it will be Labour that will be taking this decision, contrary
to what the Chairman infers, but we are in a mess, are we not?
Here you are in a Treasury trap, the market cannot raise money
to invest, you cannot sell it without legislationselling
it is in a sense a way of abdicating responsibility for itand
you could not sell it as a going concern unless there was some
investment to re-vivify and update it, otherwise you will get
a knock-down, rock-bottom price.
(Ms Quin) I do not accept that we are in a mess.
117. Do you find it difficult to take decisions
in this area because of the constraints on you?
(Ms Quin) I do not believe that the Minister found
it difficult to make the decision that he did, which was a change
of policy, in other words, to say that he wanted to sell the market
as a going concern. He did that very much on the basis of consultation
with all the interested parties, and felt that was something that
he could do without going down the legislative route, at least
to give the market a sense of stability, a sense of assurance,
while saying at the same time that we would look through legislation
to provide a better framework for the market for the future and
allow some of the financial constraints, hopefully, to disappear.
Nothing is ideal. I do not think any of us would regard running
a market as a core responsibility of the Ministry of Agriculture,
but at the same time the current Minister has responded to the
representations that were made to him, sensible representations,
and is keen to explore with the Authority both the way forward
in terms of the immediate future, and also the way forward in
terms of legislation.
118. One can argue about what is a core responsibility,
but you have got it, and having got it, you have to make the best
of it. Given the fact that there is going to be a substantial
delay in passing legislation to sell it, there is a major need
to renovate and update. The market has not been modernised, it
has an investment backlog, it has problems which need money, and
it just cannot be left to go on like that until some distant sale
(Ms Quin) I do not believe that we are just leaving
it to go on like that. I think we need to, as we are, work with
the Market Authority in looking at both the immediate future and
the medium term. I also do not believe that the prospects for
legislation are remote. I think it is possible to bring legislation
forward at an early stage, but what I cannot do today, for very
obvious reasons, is give an absolute guarantee of when legislation
could come forward. It is also possible to look at ways of making
a start on some of the works that the Authority is keen to carry
out, but that does dependand I know this is something the
Authority itself is working onon quite a detailed, costed
programme, which we do not yet have, and looking at ways, within
the financial constraints, of at least beginning the process,
which I fully accept is important to the market. It is also fair
to say that the market has identified already a number of ways
of bringing new trade on to the site, and this, of course, was
very well outlined to you in the evidence session from the Chairman
119. Could I interrupt on a point of clarification?
Is legislation needed to enable the market to retain its own surplus?
Would you agree within discussions in government, without legislation,
to permit it to retain its own surplus?
(Ms Quin) It is my understanding that that relates
to the formula which has been agreed with the Treasury. It would
be possible, I believe, to change that without legislation.