Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60 - 79)



  60. Revenue budgets.
  (Margaret Beckett) Absolutely. You will appreciate that is something the Government has tried to do in a whole variety of ways to give a more long-term way of thinking, long-term horizon and also to avoid some of the issues in the past where we did have a lot of short-term decision-making which cost down the road.

  61. Can I just pick up on an area that is connected with this, as all things are connected, and that is DEFRA's role in trying to spread the word of sustainable development beyond Government, education in the specific and the broader sense. I believe that DEFRA manages and funds an initiative Going for Green which has developed and is developing an education programme for schools and I think the Are you doing your bit? campaign that has got a broad public audience. That is very good news. I am not expecting you to know the detail of that but I think the Committee might appreciate a note on what is happening and what the programme is for development of that because that is putting up a message about sustainable development to the general public.
  (Margaret Beckett) Indeed.

  62. And made specifically through schools and I believe as well working with the EU partners on that programme. It would be interesting to have a note on that. Perhaps connected with it is the Department's involvement in what I think are called wardening schemes. I genuinely do not know what the Department's role is. I have heard there is a role in the Department within wardening schemes with neighbourhood or street wardens. I think the initiative either came to DTLR before, possibly with Home Office involvement. Some of those schemes are now coming into effect jointly funded with local councils, housing associations, some of them exist already, there are many programmes. I understand that Michael Meacher has argued that if those wardens are to have a real effect on raising the quality of life, tackling environmental issues, degradation, abandoned cars and all that sort of thing, anti-social behaviour, those wardens need to have powers on the ground and I believe that is something that has been resisted by the Home Office and possibly others. Is that something you can comment on, if indeed it is right that DEFRA is involved in some way on those schemes? This is all part of how we can build confidence in showing, demonstrating issues that really impinge upon the public in areas where they live that the Government is approaching these things in a meaningful way? Does your Department have a role in that?
  (Margaret Beckett) Yes, we are involved. It is a DTLR lead—I think I am right in saying—for precisely the reason that you give, it has heavy local authority involvement and so on. It is also very much an issue of, for example, the urban environment so the initiative recently on abandoned cars, for example, and a range of other issues. I know Michael is passionately interested in the issue of litter and the things which, as you quite rightly say, do impinge on people's own specific and local environment. Yes, we are engaged in discussion of those issues. It remains under discussion as to how the thing is taken forward but we are very much liaising with our DTLR and other colleagues about it.

  63. Is there going to be a point at which it will be possible to say how these matters are developing and unravelling? For example, the alleged discussion, not necessarily a dispute, about the powers of wardens on the ground, which I understand Michael Meacher has got very clear views on which I might happen to share. You can pick these things up through rumour and never hear any more about it again.
  (Margaret Beckett) I am afraid I cannot answer that but you may find some other way of pursuing it.

Mr Breed

  64. Secretary of State, you pronounced yourself on the radical end of perhaps policy movement as such. Could we just explore three areas where radical thought might be achieved. First of all, the obvious one is radical reform of the CAP. Then you immediately said "This may be subject to transition as such" which of course immediately takes out the whole potential radical change. What evidence have you got that there really is genuine evidence of other European ministers signing up to radical reform and saying it and then ensuring, through unanimity, that most of the steam of that is taken out by transition and such? Where is your belief that this time as opposed to the other half a dozen times we are going to see radical reform?
  (Margaret Beckett) First of all, I dispute, I am afraid, the notion that you cannot have radical change by transitional means. Indeed, if you want to be really radical you might be best advised to do it in a transitional way because of the shock to the system that it would otherwise provide. As for the evidence, well I think all I can say to you is that first of all the European Union negotiating mandate for Doha accepted that agricultural subsidies would have to be reduced, phased out, whatever, and it would appear that it is possible that if those talks succeed that will be part of the agreement. Second, of course the EU has committed itself to the removal of milk quotas. Now, I do not dispute for a second that all of these things are a broad framework of agreement and that when it comes to actually doing it, it is a lot more difficult. Nevertheless those have been agreed as part of the approach and of course there is a whole issue of enlargement which is likely—to put it no higher and one probably could put it higher—to mean that a number of those who have been net beneficiaries from the CAP in the past will become net contributors in the future. I find it sharpens the mind considerably. I do not wish, by any means, to imply to the Committee that success can be taken for granted or any negotiations along these lines would not be extremely difficult and very hard fought, not least because there are many other Member States in which agriculture remains a much higher proportion of their economy than is the case in the United Kingdom. However, I just say that those are signals that lead me to believe that radical change is not off the agenda.
  (Mr Bender) You referred in your question, Mr Breed, to unanimity. Of course in the Common Agricultural Policy changes are by Qualified Majority Voting.

  65. Yes, very often some of the aspects are delayed on unanimity. Do you believe that enlargement will drive CAP reform or CAP reform will delay enlargement?
  (Margaret Beckett) Enlargement certainly is a driver for CAP reform. Whether, because of that, it will for some people raise issues and questions about enlargement remains to be seen but, again, let me remind you that the Union has committed itself to a timetable and those discussions are continuing. It is my understanding that quite a lot of the progress is being made with the specific agreements that are required to sign off the different areas of policy. Up to now, I am not aware of any evidence that there is an attempt being made artificially to slow down the process.

  66. The second area of radical, do you believe that the current policy we have adopted on modulation is radical?
  (Margaret Beckett) The current policy we have adopted on modulation is a mixture of what we believe is the best use we can make of the approach and what we believe is the most practical pace at which we can move. If I thought, or if it became apparent, that it would be possible to move faster on modulation, I would be extremely happy to seek to do so. I think part of the difficulty was in an exchange that I had earlier on with the Chairman. Unfortunately the regime which presently permits modulation is somewhat inflexible and bureaucratic so I think there is some disappointment. I seem to recall talking to Ewen Cameron about this a while ago. We believe that the nature of the existing regime and permission for modulation is probably something of a handicap to getting as much opportunity to use it as one might wish. Certainly, going back to other issues, I think it does not help anybody to set artificial targets for, say, a faster move towards modulation that we cannot then deliver.

  67. When we are talking about business advice and the availability and such matters like that, do you believe that perhaps if you were a 55 year old farmer having gone through the last five years or so on reduced income and then had all the traumas of foot and mouth that realistically you are likely to be the person who is going to sign up for whole new business skills and perhaps even have any money to go into a new business to make use of any marketing of that? Would not a radical approach be to try and ensure that those farmers who really would wish to leave the industry were assisted to do so and that those who want to come into the industry are helped to do so and thus a retirement scheme which enables those to leave, and linked to a first joiners scheme, might help the radical achievement of this change in agriculture that we are looking for?
  (Margaret Beckett) First, of course I take the point and I accept that these issues are difficult for people. That is not in any way a matter of dispute. It is, of course, the case that in whatever part of the country or whatever community in which you live, there are literally millions of our fellow citizens, of similar ages, who have had to look afresh at what they thought would be the structure of their lives and come to terms with new circumstances and situations. While I completely accept that some of the things people say about acquiring business skills and so on may be daunting to some, I also am aware that there are a lot of people who, having overcome their initial reservations and anxieties, have actually found they had much greater capacity than they really wanted to know. I do not rule it out. Also, if I may say so, with deep respect, Mr Breed, I am not quite sure how old you are but I suspect you are rather younger than 55 because otherwise you might not be so much feeling that people might write themselves off at that time.

  Mr Breed: Nearly 55. Perhaps I ought to start learning some new skills.

Mr Drew

  68. Go into farming.
  (Margaret Beckett) As I say, I think many people have in fact begun to do so. Of course one of the other things—again this will be the kind of issue the Policy Commission will look at—that I have heard people discussing and tossing about is, let us say, to take an example, that the thinking is that people who are going to continue and prosper in farming may have to have more IT skills than have been the case in the past, does that always mean that the individual has to acquire those skills or are there or will there be organisations, agencies, private sector companies perhaps from which they can, at a practical price, purchase those skills? I think there are a range of issues here. There are, as ever, suggestions around that people might think of retirement schemes and so on but we are talking, as ever, also about costs, investment, etc.


  69. The farmer's wife, I think, Secretary of State, tends to learn the IT skills in my experience.
  (Margaret Beckett) That is also my impression. I suspect that if you had gone to them some years before and said "You need IT skills", my impression from some of the women in farming, to whom I have listened, is that they have in many cases been amazed to learn what capacities they have and can develop once the need to do so is there.

  70. A radical reform of the CAP, Secretary of State, does not necessarily mean a less expensive CAP, does it? The lessons of past reforms have been that they can easily cost as much and sometimes more.
  (Margaret Beckett) I am very mindful of that, Mr Curry.

  71. We have been talking this morning, the Government has been talking, indeed its predecessor talked freely about a redirection of support and taking different forms to achieve a different purpose. Mr Jack introduced this famous scale between incremental and radical. Would you be happy with a reform which basically did not save much money but was essentially about the redirection you felt was a better quality spend rather than a lesser spend?
  (Margaret Beckett) No, I would not. I think it must be an aim and a goal of the reforms we seek to pursue to ensure it is not as expensive as the CAP is at present. I am extremely mindful, I can assure you, of the fact that most previous attempts to reform the CAP—I say most because that was not true of the Berlin Reforms, although people said that they should have gone further and they should have been able to bring about a greater change—in general terms, yes, I am extraordinarily conscious that previous attempts to reform the CAP have led to as much, if not more, expenditure. I am also equally mindful that what have been said to be transitional schemes in the past have turned out somehow either not to be transitional or not to accomplish the transition which was sought. I am under no illusion as to the scale of the issues that we are seeking to tackle but I do not think that is an excuse for not tackling them.

  72. Berlin was a unique event in that Heads of Government actually manage to dilute a reform agreed by farm ministers. Most of us did not believe we would live to see this remarkable day.
  (Margaret Beckett) Yes.

  73. One way of cutting the cost of the CAP is of course, as the Germans proposed at one stage, that a greater proportion should be assumed nationally, something which the French, of course, are averse to for many obvious reasons. Would this also be a direction you would find congenial rather than the Treasury finding congenial?
  (Margaret Beckett) I do not want to get too far down the road of what is concrete. Certainly I think that has to be an element in considering what would be a practical direction for reform.
  (Mr Bender) Can I just add one word that has not come up in this exchange and that is the word degressivity because one of our aims in the next round of negotiations will be degressive subsidies.

Patrick Hall

  74. Which means?
  (Mr Bender) Reduce the subsidies over time.

  75. I would like the word explained.
  (Margaret Beckett) It means a progressive reduction in subsidy. Not a kind of one off cut but a policy and a path that over time leads to a very clear reduction.

  Chairman: The policy that is rolled out is rolled in.

Mr Jack

  76. Secretary of State, in your answer to Mr Breed's line of question a moment ago you mentioned Doha. You said that there was an acknowledgement by the Commission of the need for further reductions in subsidy. Just for clarification, for the record, is that a statement that says the Commission believe that they need to go beyond that which is in Agenda 2000 which was designed to cope with the WTO, if it does, how will that manifest itself or was it a description that there may have to be some shifting between blue and green boxes?
  (Margaret Beckett) No, it was a commitment to a reduction but let me make it quite clear, it is not a commitment of the Commission, it is only a commitment of the Commission in so far as the Commission is speaking on behalf of Member States. It is the agreed negotiating mandate for Doha, agreed on behalf of all EU countries.

  77. I find that—
  (Margaret Beckett) —amazing, yes.

  78. No, it takes me back just for a second, where is that published?
  (Mr Bender) There are two issues. One is that a mandate certainly will have been published, and we can let the Committee know. The second is exactly what is about to be agreed at Doha where the overnight news, as the Secretary of State said earlier, is that there is agreement on the agriculture chapter—we have yet to see that as a whole. What is not clear yet, because the people we tried to speak to this morning were still locked in rooms or trying to sleep or whatever, is whether that goes beyond the mandate, in other words whether the EU has decided on the spot to go further. I am afraid I cannot answer that at the moment. The mandate we can certainly provide to the Committee and clearly we can provide news on the Doha outcome as soon as we know it—
  (Margaret Beckett) Whether it is watered down or beefed up, we do not know.

  79. Can I just follow the Chairman's line of argument. You indicated that you would like ultimately to see less money put into farming through the CAP. What economic modelling is your Department doing to measure the effect of that? You indicated a preference for transitional arrangements but if you are going to start taking money out of agriculture, which has already had a huge amount of money taken out of it, because of the difficulties with farming, the effect if they are not handled properly could be catastrophic?
  (Margaret Beckett) Obviously everybody is very mindful of that and nobody is about wanting in any way to destroy the prospects of the people who are presently engaged in British agriculture. You asked me for our overall long term goal and I simply say to you that not only does it include reform of the way that public money flows in but it also includes a belief that if we reform the way in which it flows in we should also be able to reduce the amount of money that is needed.

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