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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80 - 99)



  80. Do you have a target?
  (Margaret Beckett) That is a very separate issue from saying that you automatically thereby reduce the prospect of prosperity. If we go back to what we have said in slightly different context previously, it has to be the case that the farming community as others will draw their principal support and let us hope more support from the market place rather than from public funds.

  81. Personally I have no difficulty with that coming, as I did before coming to Parliament, from the non-subsidised sector in agriculture. Do you have any numbers, a target, an idea of how much you would like to see? What, if I might ask, is your personal position? Five years out, how much would you like to see coming from the CAP into UK agriculture?
  (Margaret Beckett) I do not have a personal position and target at the present time, maybe I will have in the future and if I do then I am sure at some stage I shall discuss it with this Committee. For me to try and start with a number now would not make any sense at all.
  (Mr Bender) Mr Jack asked about economic work going on in the Department. One area of activity we are working on is the economic effect on the economy as a whole across Europe and on the farmer of the abolition of milk quotas. It is not a subsidy as such, it is obviously a different form of market control. That is the sort of area where we are doing work.

Mr Borrow

  82. Just very briefly, Minister, am I right in assuming that the discussions which are going on at Doha set up a further WTO agreement to replace the Uruguay Agreement, and the Uruguay Agreement in terms of agricultural support already assumes the ending of agricultural support, and therefore if there is not a further agreement on world trade which includes a phasing-out rather than a sudden elimination of agricultural support, the UK and the rest of the EU will have quickly to come to terms with the Uruguay Agreement and instead of having a phased approach, a transitional approach to phasing out agricultural support, will need to come in with very quick measures to comply with the Uruguay Agreement?
  (Margaret Beckett) Obviously, if there is no agreement at Doha, everybody will have to reassess the situation. I do not myself take the view at the moment that that is likely to lead to some necessity for sweeping, short-term change. A lot depends on what actually is the outcome of Doha and what we hear about it. I would have thought it was much more likely to lead to discussions about how in some other context or in some other place we can reach that kind of agreement.


  83. Doha, of course, is only about an agreement to begin those discussions.
  (Margaret Beckett) Exactly.

Patrick Hall

  84. Can I go back to the point the Chairman raised? I had thought that the broad strategy was to move away from heavy production subsidies but still to support agriculture financially in looking after the countryside, environmental enhancement and increasing biodiversity.
  (Margaret Beckett) You are quite correct.

  85. I do not want to put words into your mouth but I think you indicated that you thought that switch not only is wholesome and desirable, with which I entirely agree, but it will actually cost less. Is there any evidence for that?
  (Margaret Beckett) People no doubt are continuing to work on these issues but, yes. There is a general view—and I must go cautiously here—I think the feeling is that part of the impact and consequences of the way the CAP works is to artificially increase the amount of funds it consumes, and that if you had a different and better structure you would be able to change that position and accomplish some reduction without loss of efficiency and without loss of prosperity, in fact possibly with better prospects in the long-term.

  86. But still an element of public subsidy, investment, in achieving those more sustainable goals?
  (Margaret Beckett) Let us take the example of hill farms. I do not think anybody is suggesting that you just say, "Okay, see how you get on in the market", and there are, as we were saying earlier, landscape issues and so on. So it is quite clear that there will continue to be pressure and, I would suggest, a need for forms of public support to assist in doing things which we regard as a public good. What I would also say is that I think it would be to everybody's benefit if that support more linked more directly to the public good than it is at the present time, and could well have, for example, environmental benefits too. But let us not forget that for as long as the CAP has been in existence, and certainly for as long as Britain has been a member of the CAP, people have been talking about the excessive expenditure on the sheer bureaucracy and regulation and structure of the CAP itself. So the more we can do to simplify and reduce that, hopefully the more there is the opportunity for a reduction in the amount of money it consumes.

Diana Organ

  87. Can we move on to other aims and objectives of your Department. You have made it quite clear, in both your title—and some cynics might say if you did not have the "rural affairs" bit you would be the Department of the DEF—
  (Margaret Beckett) I suspect we would not have called ourselves that.

  88. You are quite right. But you have got the rural affairs remit within your Department, and from your consultation document, A New Department, A New Agenda, of August 2001, you make it quite clear that one of your high level objectives, both in Objective 2 and Objective 4, is about thriving economies and communities in rural areas, economic prosperity, social inclusion, a whole raft of issues about dynamic rural areas. I wonder if I could ask, first of all, Mr Bender, in the consultation document responses which had to be in by 28 September, what sort of responses did you have to the question about, is it the right aim for DEFRA to be involved with trying to sustain economic communities in rural areas and social inclusion in rural areas? You asked if it encompassed adequately the broad range of economic and social responsibilities of farming. What sort of response did you have? What group actually said, "Yes, it is right that a department which is principally . . .", I would say, ". . . involved in the environment, farming and food, should actually have this responsibility as well"?
  (Mr Bender) Can I come to the end first because I cannot give you a direct answer on the precise question of what responses we had on that point in the consultation. The Prime Minister was clear in setting up the Department that it should be—and I think these were the exact words he used—the Government focal point on rural issues. Some of those are within the direct responsibility of the Department—rural development programmes, some of the measures in the Rural White Paper—but many are not, like rural transport, rural policing, rural education and so on. Nor were they ever the direct responsibility of the DETR before the election. Therefore the Department has a cross-cutting role across Government through the Cabinet Committee on Rural Renewal, which the Secretary of State does chair, to drive forward the way in which other departments use their programmes on rural regeneration, rural renewal, rural public service issues. On the process of consultation, I can look at the detailed responses we have and see whether that was addressed, but I do not recognise it as a direction of comments we had.

  89. I wonder if it would be possible if you could send that because I would be interested in how many people did respond to that point and made issues about it. The other thing about the drawing together of departments, as you have already said, is that they have responsibility for those issues that make rural economies and rural communities dynamic and thriving, notably transport, education in rural schools and planning and of course post offices. Those issues are for the DTI, Education, they are all over the place. So how can you actually influence those other departments, because they will not thank you for treading on their toes and telling them what should be done in rural areas. How are you going to do this or is it just wishful thinking? It was interesting, Secretary of State, that in your speech to the Labour Party Conference in early October there is hardly any mention of rural economies, thriving communities, social inclusion in rural areas.
  (Margaret Beckett) Can I just remind you of the context of that speech. One does have at Party conferences—at least ours, I cannot speak for everybody else—an obligation to address the debate which one is speaking to, and that debate was focused on slightly other areas. If I can just say, and then I will give way because I interrupted Brian, you say that other departments may not welcome our expressing a voice on rural transport, rural education, et cetera, et cetera, well, they will just have to put up with it. That is our role and we intend to pursue it vigorously. Indeed, earlier, we did offer to send the Committee a list of some of the activities undertaken and you will find, when you look at that list, that it includes post offices, transport, schools, all the things which are not actually our Department's responsibility but in the context of rural areas they are where we have an input.

  90. Let's take post offices, which are very important as a service centre and a financial centre in many rural areas, particularly isolated rural areas, and we have for 20 years or more seen the closure of rural post offices, are you saying, Secretary of State, that you are going to interfere with what is happening through the DTI with changes in Consignia and say, "Hang on a minute, this has a detrimental effect, it will accelerate the closure of rural post offices"?
  (Margaret Beckett) No, I am not talking about interfering with what the DTI is doing but, as I say, when you see the list you will see, for example, there is the extension of mandatory rate relief, particularly to small village food shops, and also a specific new £2 million fund which is now open to support community-driven projects to refurbish and improve rural sub post offices. So it is not a matter of cutting across what other departments are doing but working with them to get rural-proofing and doing what we can to stimulate and support that.
  (Mr Bender) I was going to say the same sort of point the Secretary of State made earlier but in a rather more mealy-mouthed, civil service way. I do not see this as treading on toes, this is Government policy as set out in the Rural White Paper and other areas, and it is our Department's job to drive forward that Government policy across government. So at one level therefore it is going to be a test of the effectiveness of the Department whether we can do it. The main machinery for that at ministerial level will be the Cabinet Committee on Rural Renewal which the Secretary of State chairs, where Ewen Cameron will sit as the rural advocate, and one of his responsibilities in that respect is to ensure that Government policies are rural-proofed, which is another way of expressing the phrase you used earlier about treading on toes.

  91. You may not agree but I thought there was a very good document published in December 1999 called Rural Economies by the Performance and Innovation Unit. Again, the way it was constructed was cross-departmental but I thought it made a very good analysis of what is needed to make dynamic rural economies, and one of them was that they must have access to financial centres—sometimes one could say that was a post office. I wonder how much you have drawn on that analysis and that document in saying, "This is what we want to see in a rural economy"?
  (Mr Bender) That document rolled forward—not rolled out in this case, Chairman—into the Rural White Paper. The Rural White Paper was a further statement of Government policy where the starting point, if you like, had been the Performance and Innovation Unit report. What we now have to carry forward in DEFRA is how we are going to implement these things and, where there are issues like rural post offices, what we do.
  (Margaret Beckett) One of the things which is important to bear in mind is that there was a lot of discussion and a lot of preparatory work done not just on the Rural and Urban White Papers but on a range of cross-cutting issues done across departments to look at what had been the impact of previous programmes and to see where there were lessons we could learn and do things differently. One of the clear conclusions which was reached was that specific large programmes, geared at, say, deprived urban areas, did not have as much impact as one would have hoped, and what would work a great deal better was doing something more smallscale in its own sense but trying to trigger the major budgets and the major departments' work to be effective in those areas. So, for example, instead of having a specific programme which just says, "We will do something about deprivation in an inner city environment and we will put money into the health services there", or whatever, we try to use levers which will bring in Health Service money which ought to be going everywhere into those areas because often it is not. I am putting that very badly but I hope I have got across the point I am seeking to make.

  92. It is very clear you have looked at a whole raft of issues and seen what it is the rural economies need, what services the rural communities need, and we may be putting into place the linkages now and these policies, but actually if it is one of your high objectives, one of your high aims, the question is fundamentally how do you intend to ensure these rural communities and economies are thriving? You are predominantly I think concerned with farming and food production and the environment, how can you as a Department really be serious about saying, "That is what you are going to do, to ensure they are thriving"? Through little programmes?
  (Margaret Beckett) I am not sure we would say we are predominantly concerned with that, although I accept these are the areas of our largest departmental spend. It is very much a key goal for our Department to work effectively to transform rural areas. I keep saying there is this list we are going to send you of the various initiatives and issues, but of course that is the thrust of the Rural White Paper, that across Government there has to be rural-proofing and there has to be a higher standard of services than people have historically necessarily received in rural areas. Things like the Market Towns Initiative are not on the scale of some of the other massive Government projects but I think they are perhaps even more useful because they are new and they do offer a real prospect, looking to market towns as the engine of change for improving the rural communities. It may have proved to be an extremely valuable insight.

  93. Is there not a sense that if you ask people in rural communities who have to bid for these different silos of money, whether it is the Market Towns Initiative or SRB6 or Leader Plus or whatever, that actually it is an awful waste of money because we spend about a third of the money setting it up, doing the bid, doing the work, getting the committee up that does it, which we do not put into the front line where it is needed, and it would probably be better just to give a much more generous revenue support grant to rural local authorities and let them get on with the job, because at least they are democratically accountable.
  (Margaret Beckett) There is a very recently announced initiative to try and do more with and for parish councils. That again is something which has not been done previously and it may offer real opportunities. One of the things people are seeking to do is all the time to encourage partnership working, encourage people to share their experiences, their ideas and so on, precisely so we avoid the kind of duplication you rightly identify as having been a problem in the past.

  94. With what has happened with foot and mouth disease, the one big thing which has really hit us in Government in this country is how important was the interdependence between tourism and agriculture. We just maybe thought they were not so linked, but as soon as we closed down the countryside, as soon as farmers had to stay on their farms and could not open them up for bed-and-breakfast or open the little farmyard display or whatever it was they were doing, it really hit rural tourism in a huge way. The one thing we have learnt is that actually the rural economy is very much linked into tourism and tourism is very linked into agriculture, but you have no responsibility for tourism.
  (Margaret Beckett) Yes, that is true, except insofar as, again, we have a rural-proofing input into any government department. But we are going back to the conversation we had earlier about planning and transport. We have responsibility for trying to make sure there is through the rest of Government delivery of good rural health care, good rural transport, good rural housing, et cetera, and a good and high standard of rural tourism, but you would not I think argue that we ought therefore to take in all of housing, all of transport, all of health care, all of tourism. I can assure you that certainly my ambitions do not extend that far.


  95. We will have Ewen Cameron in front of us next week. I always thought "proofing" meant keeping things out but apparently in this jargon it means bringing things in, but I am learning a lot about the English language in the course of today. You will know the Government is about to produce new ideas on local government finance, one of the big issues which is around, and we will see the Green Paper quite shortly. You will also know there is quite a strong lobby demanding that rural isolation and those sort of factors should feature more strongly in the co-efficients which determine the direction of spend. It is equally the case there will be a very articulate urban lobby arguing that the delivery of service in inner city areas is probably even more expensive, and there are various political lobbies wishing to push here or there. What input did your Department have into the formulation of those proposals to make sure the rural-proofing emerges in the shape of the formulae which will govern the distribution of urban and rural finance over the next few years?
  (Margaret Beckett) If you will forgive me, Chairman, you really are inviting me to stray too far into the territory of another department. Obviously, as you say, there are a range of issues, a range of pressures, a range of different political concerns, and all I can say to you is I am profoundly grateful it is not me who has to resolve them.

  96. Has the Department had an input? Are you in the lead?
  (Margaret Beckett) All departments have an input into these kind of discussions, they are quite widespread discussions, and of course there is a lot of technicality involved as well.

Mr Drew

  97. Can I take you back to one point which you mentioned, which sounded very promising, which is the role of parish and town councils. You have just produced, with the Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions, the Equality of Parish Councils document. What is the actual relationship going to be with Transport, Local Government and the Regions, on this important level of delivery in rural areas? I declare an interest, I am still a town councillor. If you want to get things happening in many of our villages, the only vehicle that is ever going to be is the parish council. You talked about the concordat with various other departments in other areas, is this not an area where you could work very carefully and closely and maybe come up with a concordat with Transport, Local Government and the Regions?
  (Margaret Beckett) Indeed. I anticipate this is another of the areas with which we shall have close contact with them in the future as well. It is a consultation document, the Equality of Parish Councils document, and obviously we have to see what the response to that consultation is. But even the fact this initiative has been taken is a very useful indication of people thinking constructively about rural areas and their concerns in a way which perhaps has not always been the case in the past.

Mr Mitchell

  98. I want to continue on aims and objectives but first I wish you luck in becoming a world-class department, whatever that might mean. It might mean you joining with other departments which can be classified as world-class. I was wondering about a world-class fishing industry, because fishing gets hardly any mention in the Aims and Objectives, it is only mentioned twice. It always seemed to me it had the worst of treatments in MAFF which did not regard it as particularly important, I always imagined it was carried on in a small annexe somewhere, a little shed in the back garden, and now it is not even in the title of the Department. Is fishing being demoted?
  (Margaret Beckett) First of all, I can assure you it is not carried out in a small annexe or shed at the back of the Department, because it is one of the few sections of the Department I have had time to visit.

  99. I have been to Nobel House, I know it is not a shed.
  (Margaret Beckett) No, it is not in the title of the Department, however, neither is farming in the title of the Department, which has also caused some concern. The food chain encompasses all of those things and much more besides. There is a limit to how much one can load into any departmental title but I would resist the view that that means that fishing is unimportant. Of course, it has great importance, and it will have even more importance if we are not able to do a little more about ensuring there are actually fish.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 10 January 2002