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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100 - 119)



  100. That is the next point really. It is an industry in which the sustainability problem is now in its most acute form—
  (Margaret Beckett) Indeed.

  101. —yet it is not being effectively sustained by finance from DEFRA. The Scots have put up £25 million, DEFRA has put up a mere £6 million effectively for decommissioning, yet fishing, if it is going to become a sustainable resource, does need financing to get from the present point A to sustainability, point B.
  (Margaret Beckett) The £6 million, if I recall correctly, is for a decommissioning scheme. What we do have to do is to try and look at the range of issues which are causing such problems and devastation. It seems to me it is the wider remit of our new Department, the whole marine stewardship issues, environmental issues, which are germane and which underlie the concerns that you are expressing and which we all share for the future of fish stocks.

  102. So we have your assurance that fishing will not be discounted?
  (Margaret Beckett) Certainly not.

  103. And will get the attention of world-class quality staff?
  (Margaret Beckett) We have very high quality staff in the fishing section as elsewhere in the Department.

  Chairman: I think you will find that if you do your sums, the amount of public money as a proportion of the value of the product is higher in fisheries than almost any other sector in your Department.

Mr Mitchell

  104. David's view of fishing always was a very jaundiced view. The comments on the aims and objectives, did you get a lot of comments and were they coloured really by the foot and mouth problems and attitudes to MAFF produced by that problem?
  (Margaret Beckett) Yes, I think they were a bit. Roughly speaking, as I understand it, we sent the consultation document to all staff and to about 1,700 stakeholders, and we also put it on the internet, and we had responses from about 320 organisations representing a fair cross-section of stakeholders, and about 62 individuals. We also had responses from individuals and work units within the Department, representing roughly speaking about 700 staff. On the whole, the responses were reasonably favourable. Obviously there were a range of responses which said, "You have not given enough importance to fishing, you have not given enough importance to farming", inevitably you get the, "Why did you not mention X, Y and Z" approaches in responses, but on the whole our impression is that the responses were broadly in favour and, not least, to the fact that the overarching approach and theme of the Department should be sustainable development. That was pretty widely accepted and welcomed.

  105. What changes were made as a result of those? When can we expect to see the final document?
  (Mr Bender) Possibly even today; very, very soon.

Mr Jack

  106. I was intrigued by one sentence in your document, in fact two. It says, "An aim should be a single sentence which encompasses the purpose of the Department", followed by this sentence, "It is clearly difficult to encompass in one sentence . . ."! Who won the competition!
  (Margaret Beckett) There was not a prize, I am afraid.

Mr Borrow

  107. Secretary of State, you were in Marrakech last week and I wonder if you would like to spend a few minutes giving a brief report on how successful you felt the meeting was and what progress was made.
  (Margaret Beckett) I think it was enormously successful and really quite dramatic in many ways. What we did, of course, was to build on what was agreed in Bonn and give it effect, and as I understand it, this is the first occasion at which any international environmental agreement has had the kind of detailed teeth and legal force in reality that now exists around the implementation of the Kyoto protocol—workable rules on the mechanisms and so on. The thing which I think was very striking in Bonn and remained striking in Marrakech was the degree to which there was such a drive to get agreement. We are talking about a conference at which 180 countries were represented, and when we arrived in Bonn everybody was expecting doom and gloom, but it became apparent almost at once, first, that nobody wanted a repetition of the failure there had been in The Hague and, secondly, if it was going to fail nobody wanted to be held responsible for it, which is also quite a useful driver. It is true to say, and it will not of course necessarily be a universally popular view, but it is absolutely and completely true to say, that at Bonn the European Union as a cohesive group, which we were to a greater degree than I have ever experienced before, was a driver of success in the negotiations. That was strongly my view in the aftermath, and that is what I reported to the Prime Minister. It is clear that was indeed everybody else's view, because when we arrived in Marrakech we discovered a pretty widespread expectation, a slightly daunting expectation, that the European Union would carry out the same role in Marrakech. Indeed, frankly, I think most people would accept to a large degree we did. The other thing which was absolutely clear and consistent in both Bonn and Marrakech was because people so much wanted agreement, all parties were prepared to give ground on what would have been their ideal outcomes in order to get an agreed outcome. That was true of the developing countries. It was a magnificent feat of negotiation and representation, something like 120 countries, described as the G77 although there are a lot more of them actually, being able to work in a united way and to reach an agreement on what they could as a bottom line accept. The only other thing I would say at this point is that part of the reason we reached that degree and scale of achievement was because the European Union negotiating strategy in Bonn was to seek a package of overall proposals at quite an early stage, instead of going through bit by bit and seeing if we had a package everybody could sign up to, but saying, "What would the shape of the package be", and then—and this is why I referred to the cohesiveness of the European Union negotiating force—say, "We within the European Union can accept this package. There are lots of things in it we do not like, there are lots of things in it we would like to see improved, but if this was the final outcome, we could live with it. What about everybody else?" That was the basis on which we drove agreement in Bonn, and a very similar approach was adopted in Marrakech. Initially, in this case, it was the G77 who said, "This is a package we could live with, what about the rest of you? Are you going to come on board?" Then, obviously, you get some changes, but you get changes at the margins, instead of people spending hours wrangling about things which are not their top priority. It makes people focus on what are their priority concerns. The thing which was very clear in the final, literally minutes, not just hours, in Bonn was that mercifully the top priority and anxiety for the different groups were not identical, so the thing the G77 cared about most was not the thing which the umbrella group cared about most and so we were able to reach an accommodation.

  108. One of the things which was said after the Bonn meeting was that certain countries had signed up, but there was a feeling when it came to the crunch they would not sign up when it came to Marrakech. Obviously an agreement has been made at Marrakech to reach agreement but actually ratifying the protocol are two completely different things. When do we expect to be in a position to ratify the protocol? Have you any views in terms of how long it will take key nations in other continents to ratify the protocol as well?
  (Margaret Beckett) We expect, along with our European partners, to ratify the protocol before Johannesburg. I cannot give you a date at this moment because it is something people have to look at.

  109. Would that be co-ordinated?
  (Margaret Beckett) That is what I anticipate. Obviously different countries have different procedures but it is the intention of the European Union as a whole to ratify before Johannesburg. The Japanese Government announced, I think, yesterday they will now put a proposal for ratification to the Diet and that, taking into account their own procedures, they hope they can get agreement. You will appreciate there is still a good deal of controversy in Japan but the Japanese Government will argue for ratification and they hope if they are successful in that argument in the Diet, Japan will ratify before June. There were also, I believe, some encouraging words coming from the Russian delegation, but since not everybody was fully awake at the time when they were made in the early hours of Saturday morning there is still an amount of slight dispute amongst us as to precisely what was said, but there is every reason to hope that Russia will look favourably on the prospects for ratification, not least because Mr Putin does wish to hold an environmental conference in Russia in 2003, I think. So again, to be seen to be working with the world community is beneficial. Our hope is, our goal is, to try to encourage ratification so the protocol can come into force before the Johannesburg Summit.

Paddy Tipping

  110. You have told us a lot about bringing the new Department together and the many tasks which are on board, but you are responsible as well for a number of executive agencies and a long list of non-departmental public bodies. Some of these are big players, particularly the Environment Agency and the Countryside Agency, have you got the time and scope to have an effective oversight of these bodies?
  (Margaret Beckett) We have six executive agencies and, as you say, we have a number of public bodies. Obviously, it is my role as Secretary of State to determine the overall policy and the financial framework for those agencies and bodies, with the day-to-day management delegated to the chief executives. There is also an ownership board for each of the agencies. However, I ought straight away to say that we do plan very shortly to launch a review of the five science-based executive agencies and their relationship with the Department, and obviously that will include their corporate governance. Kew is currently subject to a quinquennial review, a number of the others, the Countryside Agency for example, was already treating MAFF along with the DETR as an informal joint sponsor, so there is a history of working there. But we will in time obviously be looking at the range of responsibilities we have and how best they can be exercised.

  111. These are key players.
  (Margaret Beckett) They are.

  112. The Environment Agency, which you have just mentioned, clearly links in with your waste aims, and waste is growing at a compound rate of 3 to 4 per cent. How can you be sure that the advice and the work that the Agency does with you really fits your agenda and timetable?
  (Margaret Beckett) It is a process of continuous discussion and monitoring, not obviously all on my part. It is a matter of getting the right framework of agreement as to what the aims and objectives of the Agency should be, it is a matter of monitoring implementation and seeing how successful they are in meeting their targets. I believe I mentioned to the Committee last time I was here that my diary secretary has a nightmare prospect of trying to fit in all the people who have a strong belief that it is urgent they see the Secretary of State, and in the course of pursuing that she has identified something like 3,500 bodies which relate in some way to my Department.
  (Mr Bender) On the Environment Agency, the machinery of government change actually simplifies matters. MAFF dealt with floods, MAFF dealt with inland fishery issues, DETR on the heartland of the environmental regulation. We at least now bring that into one Department and therefore can take a more co-ordinated look inside the Department.
  (Margaret Beckett) The same applies to English Nature. I do not know how public it was but I gather English Nature had some anxieties about possibly reporting to a Department of Rural Affairs because they felt it was hugely important they did not lose the environmental dimension, and I have got it.


  113. Secretary of State, one thing which does seem slightly perverse is that we have an organisation called the Food Standards Agency, and we have a Department called the Department of Food, but the Food Standards Agency does not report to the Department of Food. Is that not a bit odd? We are the only Select Committee which has ever interviewed Sir John Krebs.
  (Margaret Beckett) As you know, it was a decision taken sometime ago, I cannot precisely recall when, that the Food Standards Agency, which is very much an independent agency and an independent voice in Government, should report to the Department of Health. Since they are in the process of getting under way, I do not suppose it was thought wise to make a short-term change. I think also it indicates the perspective of the Agency itself that it reports to the Department of Health.

  114. In terms of this sort of cross-cutting, joined-up proofing was it a good idea?
  (Margaret Beckett) We have very good, constructive working relationships with them.
  (Mr Bender) We have a very close relationship in terms of day-to-day contact at all levels, including myself to Professor Sir John Krebs. It is essential we do work closely together while recognising their independence.

  Chairman: But you will equally recognise when we have an issue, as we have in the last few weeks, about the safety of lamb and sheep meat, clearly the implications for your Department are enormous and we naturally take a very strong interest. So maybe it is a piece of geometry which can be rearranged in due course.

Mr Mitchell

  115. What were the main staff shortages that the foot and mouth outbreak demonstrated?
  (Mr Bender) I am not sure I understand your question about staff shortages?

  116. Where were you weak?
  (Margaret Beckett) I think the problem that people had, and obviously I am looking at reports I have seen, was the sheer scale of the outbreaks. I think that was the real difficulty. Nothing like it had been seen before, it was completely unprecedented, so in that sense there was bound to be difficulty.

  117. You also appeared short of vets as well.
  (Mr Bender) Let me give you a figure. In the middle of April, over 4,000 people, excluding 2,000 armed forces people, were engaged in foot and mouth activity. That was just past the peak of the disease but it was when the activity was at its height. There was certainly, along the way, a question of whether we had enough skilled veterinary resources. We imported a lot from overseas—the European Union, America, Australia and Canada—we certainly used large numbers of private sector vets who came on to our books. One of the issues we will be looking at, and I think the CVO may have mentioned it to the Committee, and we expect Dr Anderson's Inquiry to look at, is how we can have what I call loosely a territorial army type of arrangement in the future, so that in the event of another such outbreak we have people who can be available on tap. We ramped that up very quickly indeed but it would be nice to have it on tap rather than ramped up next time.

  118. Is there also an issue as to whether the staff are used properly, in the sense that vets were being used to take on questions of property law, powers of entry, private property and interpretation of statutes, which is not their job?
  (Mr Bender) In the middle of March we created a different structure involving regional operations directors especially to deal with that point which you raised, Mr Mitchell, so that the vets with professional skills were not required at the height of the crisis to be diverted in non-veterinary professional areas. One of the issues we are looking at in the Department now is how we can strengthen or integrate in some way or another the management of the state veterinary service with the management of the rest of the Department, so that things like financial management and other administrative management skills are integrated better.

  119. It also appears there were delays in doing the samples at Pirbright.
  (Margaret Beckett) I think I have mentioned to this Committee before, and I was just wondering whether it was worth saying, we are not necessarily talking about staff numbers but resources. When this outbreak occurred, we had in the UK the capacity to test something like 400 samples a week. We now have capacity to test 200,000 samples a week. It is a pretty Herculean task to ramp up in that way.

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