Select Committee on Agriculture Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 180 - 199)




  180. The Mayor has not replied to any of the letters the Authority has written, and any attempt to get anybody from the Mayor's office to visit the market has failed. They just do not turn up or cancel at the last minute. Can you seize his attention in some manner on behalf of the Authority?
  (Ms Quin) Certainly if the Authority wants us to take an initiative in this area, we are open to doing so.

Mr Jack

  181. You might get a bunch of flowers from the flower market if you were to do just that.
  (Ms Quin) I already have one.

Dr Turner

  182. Can I just conclude by asking are you content with the fact that there is a market-based activity on the current site at Nine Elms? There are all kinds of formulations as to whether in fact you could uplift Covent Garden and put it somewhere else. Are you content that this is the right thing to be doing at that particular site?
  (Ms Quin) Yes. I think the point that the Chairman made about the location of the market, particularly with regard to the catering trade in the West End, is a very sound one, and certainly when I look at that market in comparison to other markets, I think that it is in a good location.

  183. I would like to know whether you think there is an important and precedent-setting application, the one which I was referring to, which would open up meat and poultry products into the market. I would be inclined, and others would be inclined to see this as being setting precedent and being very important to possible diversification. Is that the way it is regarded within MAFF?
  (Ms Quin) It is regarded as an important issue. However, because of the changing nature of trade and, for example, the growth in e-business and so forth, I do not think it is the only significant element in diversification.

  184. Could you just explain a little bit more the response you gave to me earlier in which you seemed to imply that it might not be within MAFF's powers to set a timescale for the making of a decision, or did I misunderstand you?
  (Ms Quin) To sell the market as a going concern?

  185. No, to say to the Corporation, "We want your objections in by this date, and if you do not get it in by then we are going to make the decision without taking them into account." You implied that the Minister could not lay down a timescale.
  (Ms Quin) That is my understanding. I will reflect on this question, and if I feel in the light of my earlier reply that I would rather refine that, I will certainly write to the Committee, but I do not know of any power that MAFF has to legally oblige the Corporation to reply by a given deadline.

  186. Perhaps you could just make a decision and grant a licence.
  (Ms Quin) We could, but that would certainly, in my view, take us into the territory of legal disputes. We would then obviously need to get some very detailed legal advice as to how much the provisions in the ancient statutes that we were talking about before might be affected by other more recent legislation, for example, competition legislation, either domestically or at European Union level. That would be quite a complex legal route to go down. Given that I have talked about the parallel process of trying to encourage dialogue between the different markets, it might complicate that process as well. If I am being open with you in the replies, we want to see the best way forward in terms of minimising conflict but also, as MAFF, enabling Covent Garden Market to have a good future. In that respect, I welcome the fact that the Minister did have a discussion with representatives of the different London markets. I also, of course, welcome what the Chairman said in terms of the starting up again of the Association of London Markets, which he himself is chairing. I think that such fora are useful in providing avenues for dialogue. On the whole, I prefer that to complex and perhaps long time-consuming legal wrangles. Nonetheless, depending on how the Corporation of London respond, we will ourselves also obviously be able to commission legal advice.

  187. In your memorandum, you say that the Corporation's objections will be one of the factors that the Minister will take into account. Are there any other factors which have not already been raised in this session?
  (Ms Quin) No. They are basically the ones that I referred to. There are the ancient statutes, but there is also other more up-to-date legislation, and how those things relate to each other, and also the other initiatives about trying to ensure some cooperation and coordination across London markets.


  188. The High Court recently ruled that the European Convention on Human Rights cast doubt upon whether the Secretary of State for the Environment should be the ultimate authority in planning decisions. You have to make a decision as to whether or not you will permit some new activities in the marketplace. If that happens, that will have an impact upon the revenues the market generates, and MAFF is the beneficiary of those revenues. Is it right that MAFF should therefore be taking a decision on cases in which it has a financial interest? Would that stand up to the European Convention on Human Rights on the analogy of planning?
  (Ms Quin) I am not aware of a Human Rights problem in relation to that. It is certainly not being flagged up to me by our legal services. I think it is unlikely. I think the way that that system operates has been in existence for some considerable time without challenge.

  189. But the incorporation of the European Convention is new and might have sparked a whole new set of case law in Britain.
  (Ms Quin) Incorporation into our national legal system, yes, but the European Convention has always been an approach which potentially people adversely affected by something have been able to pursue.

  190. If I were advising the Corporation, which I am not—and I have not been put up by the Corporation either—I would doubt whether MAFF were not in an invidious position in being the judge on an issue from which it is set to benefit.
  (Ms Quin) That is true, although the Corporation's own statutes were established well before the Human Rights legislation as well.

  Chairman: I leave it as a subject of debate.

Dr Turner

  191. Governments also benefit from their legislation.
  (Ms Quin) I do not think the position has changed legally, because if it is possible to pursue it, it would have been possible even before incorporation.

Mr Drew

  192. Talking of the relationship between MAFF and the Market Authority, one of the issues that has not been addressed yet is other uses of the site other than a market use. Clearly the local authority has a huge development area there, not just the site of the Covent Garden Market but also the old Battersea Power Station and so on. Has no-one as yet done any work in terms of looking at the enterprise potential of that site—keeping the market but looking at what other enterprise could be brought on to the market site or the related sites?
  (Ms Quin) My understanding is that the Borough Council itself has looked at this issue, quite understandably, given the potential of the power station enterprise and the effect on the area as a whole, including the effect on Covent Garden. My understanding is that the Borough Council sees the continued existence of the market as contributing to their overall strategy for the area.

  193. Unless I misread lots of the correspondence and submissions, I suppose I would characterise what seems to be going on as everybody waiting for somebody else to take the lead. Somebody has to break this impasse. You have the Council, you have the Authority, you have MAFF, you have the Corporation, and you have the other markets. Everybody is waiting for somebody to make a move, and presumably the first response would be "Let's block it", because the objectives seem to be preventing anyone else taking the initiative. Somebody has to break through this miasma.
  (Ms Quin) Firstly, I think that as far as MAFF is concerned, we did take the initiative, and a very welcome one, in announcing the change of policy. This is an important point, it seems to me. As far as MAFF is concerned, we took an initiative with the change of policy and the Minister also convened a meeting of representatives of different London markets, so we have shown that we are willing to be engaged in this process. But, of course, it is true to say that there are many other actors involved in the process, and no doubt they are weighing up their own future strategy, particularly in terms of London markets, as to how much is competition and how much is cooperation and coordination. With the best will in the world, while I would like to see things move along in a satisfactory way in terms of Covent Garden Market and indeed in terms of the situation of London as a whole, MAFF does not have the primary responsibility to deal with that wider issue. But I believe strongly that we have signalled our willingness to be engaged in the process.

  194. We have already touched on the legalities of this. Clearly major legal problems could arise. It is a lawyer's breakfast. They would love the possibility of this getting into the courts. It could be there for years if it is not handled correctly. How much of a problem is that? Clearly you have taken advice already, though not detailed advice. There is a temptation to do nothing, because if you do something, somebody is immediately going to put an injunction on somebody else about what rights you have to be handling this at all.
  (Ms Quin) I do not think there is an incentive to do nothing and, indeed, insofar as MAFF is concerned we have been taking the initiatives that I have outlined to you. However, if you say, "Would you prefer to avoid a lawyer's breakfast?" I think anybody would want to avoid a lawyer's breakfast particularly if that breakfast extends to an all-day meal.


  195. Apart from a lawyer.
  (Ms Quin) Apart from a lawyer, yes. It is true there are a lot of legal aspects to this, nonetheless, we have a commitment to press ahead with legislation in the way that we have described and it certainly does make sense for dialogue to be facilitated and therefore again I welcome the initiative the Minister took and also the renewal of the Association of London Markets because I think that does at least offer a forum in which these issues can be addressed.

Mr Drew

  196. It is an observation but I would hope you would respond to it to take up Dr Turner's point about forcing the objection from the Corporation. Clearly MAFF could just take the initiative and say, "We are going to force this issue, we are going to ignore these threshold arguments about where one market is in relation to another and what one market does in relation to another because under the Government's modernisation agenda we are out of the 15th Century now and have at least got to the 19th Century." I hope I am not putting you in an impossible position but, as somebody said earlier, this has got to drive us on even if it means taking the legal threat off.
  (Ms Quin) I think we have taken initiatives along the way, as I have described. We cannot ignore even very old laws and therefore we do have to take—

  197. These are very old laws.
  (Ms Quin) Yes, laws can be old laws but if they have not been repealed they still have a legal force. What I did say, however, in answer to George was that we are obviously getting advice about how much the ancient laws also inter-relate with much more up-to-date laws on competition and so on. These are complicated issues and if the avenues for dialogue that I have described can work I think personally that that is a better way forward.


  198. It sometimes takes you more than a day to travel six and two-thirds miles in London like last Monday morning.
  (Ms Quin) I think somebody said that six and two thirds miles probably takes longer today than it did in the 14th Century.

Mr Drew

  199. If I can ask you to portray the relationship between MAFF and the Market Authority not in terms of whether they are nice people but on a day-to-day basis what is the relationship, and on a more strategic basis what is the relationship between the Department and the Authority?
  (Ms Quin) Of course, the relationship is very good and I say this in order to at least provide some comfort to those who are sitting behind me. The day-to-day relationship, I believe, is excellent, but the statutory relationship between MAFF and the Authority was covered very much in the Memorandum that we sent to the Committee. The Authority does run its affairs itself on a day-to-day basis but obviously the Covent Garden Acts do impose some of the framework and indeed some of the constraints that we have discussed to some extent this morning with regard to the treatment of surplus revenue investments and so on. Obviously the Market Authority submits its Report and Accounts and that has to be approved by us and there are the arrangements which I know you are all familiar with in terms of the appointment of the Chairman and the members of the Authority, but in terms of the working relationship between MAFF and the Authority that seems to work very well. We certainly have not come across problems in terms of the way that the Acts work at present in a practical sense, and they certainly have not hampered dialogue between either Ministers and officials at MAFF on the one hand and the management and Board of the Authority on the other.

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