Select Committee on Agriculture Minutes of Evidence



Examination of witnesses (Questions 111 - 119)

THURSDAY 7 MARCH 2001

THE RT HON JOYCE QUIN and MR IVOR LLEWELYN

Chairman

  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 privatised—we will come on to what we mean by that later—without 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 forward?
  (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 issue—and 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 on—and 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.

Mr Mitchell

  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 legislation—selling it is in a sense a way of abdicating responsibility for it—and 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 date.
  (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 depend—and I know this is something the Authority itself is working on—on 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 himself.

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.


 
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