Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80
WEDNESDAY 14 NOVEMBER 2001
MP, AND MR
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.
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
(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.
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 viewand
I must go cautiously hereI 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.
87. Can we move on to other aims and objectives
of your Department. You have made it quite clear, in both your
titleand some cynics might say if you did not have the
"rural affairs" bit you would be the Department of the
(Margaret Beckett) I suspect we would not have called
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
beand I think these were the exact words he usedthe
Government focal point on rural issues. Some of those are within
the direct responsibility of the Departmentrural development
programmes, some of the measures in the Rural White Paperbut
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
(Margaret Beckett) Can I just remind you of the context
of that speech. One does have at Party conferencesat least
ours, I cannot speak for everybody elsean 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
centressometimes 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 forwardnot
rolled out in this case, Chairmaninto 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
(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
(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
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.
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.
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