Examination of witnesses (Questions 229-239)
WEDNESDAY 14 MARCH 2001
MR RICHARD ADAMS, MR DAVID BUTCHER, DR JOHN MANN AND MR MICHAEL CULVERWELL
229. Gentlemen, welcome to the Select Committee. The Corporation of London has been a sort of Banquo's ghost in our hearings up to now in that you own three of the four wholesale markets and are often cited as a possible ultimate purchaser of Covent Garden. I know that you yourselves have been reflecting on the idea of a unified strategy. So we thought we ought to have a natter with you and that is why you are here. You will not need me to tell you that you have, I will not say a whole stream of Macbeths behind you, but you have the assembled cohorts of New Covent Garden there. Can I ask you a slightly indelicate question to start with? I have read your memorandum and I have read the letter which is signed TS to the Minister following a meeting on 8th March. If you feel strongly about an issue, it does seem to me a very curious way of going around demonstrating it. We have a letter here which says, "In the presence of representatives of the other London Markets", this is talking about the goods and services available and the extension of the New Covent Garden facilities, "I did not consider it appropriate to remind Mr Mills that the Corporation do not agree to such a course of action", and then it says later, "I confirm that my lack of comment, in your meeting, on Mr Mills's suggestion should not be taken as an acceptancy by the Corporation that New Covent Garden Market may extend its activities". Would it not just be easier to say, "No, we do not agree"? This is a curiously Trappist sort of approach to confrontation, is it not?
(Mr Adams) The Corporation is not keen on confrontation, particularly with a body that is as strong and as powerful and resourceful, if I can put it that way, as the Government. We had had discussions with officials from the Ministry and suggested that they might be two-way discussions, two-sided discussions. That suggestion was not taken up and the next thing that happened was that we were invited to a meeting with all of the market people in London and the Minister and the Minister said, "How is it all going, chaps?" or words to that effect. We did not think it appropriate to discuss in front of everybody else a dispute that we might have with just one of their number.
230. When you are getting into a debate about something, that is not a normal way of proceeding, or is it? Am I just funny about this?
(Mr Adams) I think different people have different approaches to consultation and confrontation. That was the Town Clerk's approach.
231. Can I just clarify, Mr Adams? You are the Assistant Town Clerk?
(Mr Adams) Yes, I am.
232. Is the Town Clerk the chief executive or a sort of honorary chief executive? Do you run the show or does he run the show?
(Mr Adams) He runs the show but there are certain areas of the show, if you like, that I am asked to deal with and the markets is one of those which I know about.
233. Thank you for that because it enables us to put on the record who you are because I omitted to ask you to introduce yourself. The Ministry of Agriculture has said that it still has not had from you detailed reasons for your objection to the extension of activities at Covent Garden. Is that the case?
(Mr Adams) He does not have a detailed legal argument, certainly. I do not think that any potential defendant in litigation would expect the plaintiff to put up his detailed case before the litigation started.
234. But let us be clear. The situation is that Covent Garden applied to the Ministry of Agriculture for authorisation to introduce some new product areas in Covent Garden market. We agree on that, do we not? That is what the argument is about?
(Mr Adams) Yes.
235. You said that when you had expanded your own markets and developed your new markets at Spitalfields, Covent Garden had objected on the grounds that it did not want to have a wholesale market covering the whole range of activities because that would have an impact on Covent Garden. So you said, quite rightly, that what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. But when they made the application, there were a couple of letters from the Ministry of Agriculture asking for your detailed response to this because we do not have it. The situation at the moment, as I understand it, is that they have said they are willing to approve the extension of the activities provided that it is not a face-to-face sale, pending more detailed arguments from your side. Are those going to come or are you saying that there is going to be a court case?
(Mr Adams) Chairman, the position is that we did have a number of letters and we gave the comments that we thought we wanted to make to the Ministry in connection with those. The Ministry is not obliged, as we know, to take into account or to follow our advice or our views. The position is that we had a number of letters. We responded to them in the way that we wanted to respond to them. And then on 31st May, we had a letter from Mr Noble which said, "We would like to hear your detailed reasons for opposing the plan but, by the way, we have already given consent to it to a limited extent". That, to us, sounded wrong. I said to the Ministry recently, when they chased it again, that our reaction was a little bit like a plaintiff who is asked to put his case in detail, having been told that the judge has reached a decision and awarded costs to the defendant already. The Minister has to make a decision and apparently he has, to a certain extent. We were considering just what action we would take and partly it would depend on what happened as a result of the approval which had already been given.
236. So when we get this memo from the Ministry of Agriculture which states: "While it is true that the Corporation has registered its opposition to this application, its letter undertakes to provide reasons for its objection. Despite a reminder, these have not been forthcoming. As the Minister of State said when she gave evidence to the Committee, the Minister has now agreed to this application with the proviso that face-to-face selling will not be permitted. The Ministry will continue to press the Corporation to provide it with the legal arguments underlying its objection; once these are received the Minister will be in a better position to reach a decision on whether to alter the conditions imposed on the lease". What you are saying is that he is not going to get that letter, is that right? He is not going to get those reasons?
(Mr Adams) It is true that he has not received them, yes.
237. Does that mean that they were lost in the post or they have not been sent?
(Mr Adams) They have not been sent.
238. Do you intend to send them?
(Mr Adams) Not at the moment, no.
239. I would like to ask you some questions about ownership, if I may. I am not sure whether the real ghost in this story is the potential owner. But I would be interested to know whether you have welcomed and do welcome the proposal that the market should be privatised?
(Mr Adams) We have not expressed a view on it.