Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1-19)
MR BRIAN BENDER CB AND MRS JULIE FLINT
WEDNESDAY 19 JUNE 2002
1. Mr Bender, welcome to the Committee. You were moved into MAFF, what, a couple of years, 18 months, or so, before the last election, I think, and then you had the job of merging the Departments; and, as you say in the Report itself, it took place in rather difficult circumstances, and in a sort of rather improvised way, and there was a certain amount of difficulty in getting the thing sorted out. If you look at the Management Board, and indeed the flavour of it, if I were a management consultant, I would say we had actually witnessed a reverse takeover of MAFF by the Department for Environment; is that a fair assessment?
(Mr Bender) No, Chairman. There was, of course, an issue, and I think we may have discussed this when I appeared with the Secretary of State before the Committee in the autumn, there was an issue that applies in any merger, is it a merger or is it a takeover? In practice, what we faced was the corporate services of what was then MAFF absorbing all the corporate functions that had previously been done in Environment, Transport and the Regions for the environment people who came across. What I wanted to do there, below Board level, was place the functions in neutral hands, to try to ensure there was not a merger versus takeover issue. As far as the Board is concerned, I have on my Board at the moment five people, in addition to me, who were in the Ministry of Agriculture on 7 June, two who were in Environment, Transport and the Regions on 7 June 2001, and three who came from elsewhere, DTI, Crown Prosecution Service and one, in fact, was in Warwick University, my Chief Scientific Adviser. So I have managed to have the opportunity to introduce new blood. I do not regard it as a reverse takeover, but it is actually a different Department, and it was intended to be a different Department, and that is what we are trying to achieve.
2. I think it is probably fair to say that when this Government came to power it regarded MAFF as some frightful old dinosaur, which had needed modernisation and which had landed the country with umpteen sorts of animal disease, which was totally in the pocket of the farm lobby, and it really needed sort of doing over. How would you characterise the practical difference between what we have got now to what we did have?
(Mr Bender) First of all, what you characterise, as, I suspect, a Minister in the previous Government, you might, like me, regard them as an unfair characterisation of the Department. The reason for the change, I think, is the question whether it was right, around 2000, 2001 and 2002, to have a mono-sectoral Department, or whether it is right actually to merge it with other functions, and the view that I assume the Prime Minister took, when he made the Machinery of Government change, immediately after the last election, was to move away from the idea that there was a Department of State that was responsible for one economic sector, agriculture, fisheries and food, into something that was more broad-ranging. And as we say in these various documents we have published, including the Departmental Report, the overarching theme of the Department is sustainable development. And, as I know from the separate inquiries the Committee is having, within the sector of agriculture and food, you know that we are trying to work up a strategy for sustainable farming and food. So that is the shift we are trying to make. The functions of the previous Department are still being carried out, functions of animal health, functions of moving towards a modernised agricultural farming sector, functions of CAP and Common Fisheries Policy reform, but now very much in a framework of sustainable development.
3. Do you regard the structures, the shape then of DEFRA, as durable and likely to remain; because we did have, of course, the DoE, and then we had the DTLR, or whatever it was, and both of those were dismantled and downsized, as it were? Do you regard the new Department as working effectively? Because the problem with those other Departments did not seem to be so much joined-up government across a Department, it seemed to be joined-up government within the Department; and some of the interlocutors of DEFRA do argue that it is horribly difficult to get decisions out of it, or to earmark the people responsible for the decisions. So are you satisfied that there is proper joined-upness within it, and it is functioning in a properly corporate sense, or is it still terribly departmentalised?
(Mr Bender) I think the honest answer to that is, we have made progress; we have not completely cracked the problem, and I do not think any Government Department has completely cracked the problem, of ensuring that each part of it actually has a handle on all the relevant aspects of the Department's work. I do genuinely think we have made a lot of progress in the last 12 months, in recognising the synergies, in making the links within the Department; so, for example, the work that is done on diffuse pollution from agriculture is one of those synergies, the way we are working on GM crops and foods and GM organisms is another of those synergies. But I would not claim, in front of the Committee, that we are a perfectly functioning, joined-up Department. I do claim that we have made a lot of progress in the last year; we have still got a way to go. And it is part of the next phase of our Change Programme to ensure that we are actually focusing rather better on the results we are trying to achieve out there, in society, and not looking at it from the point of view of the internal structure, but looking at it from the point of view of, as I say, the results out there.
4. You are a senior civil servant, a rational chap, you have been through the Cabinet Office so you have seen the in-fighting at close quarters, your job is to give hard-headed, dispassionate advice to Ministers; when you read your Annual Report and look at this sort of evangelical, soft-focused tone of the whole thing, for example, the stuff in green in page 18, do you not feel that the only thing it needs is for Charlotte Church to come and sort of put the thing into song, and then the whole tone is set?
(Mr Bender) Chairman, if we are to operate as effectively for the public and for the taxpayer as we need to then we need to combine the hard edge of the business we deliver with actually ensuring that we win our people, and winning our people implies and involves the sort of soft, cultural stuff that you have drawn attention to on page 18. I would hope there is nothing on page 18 that any member of the Committee would disagree with. The way we express it, the values of the Department, around the letters DEFRA, certainly could be accused of being a little too catchy, but we are trying actually to win our people in the way we behave internally and externally, because if we do not show the right behaviour as an organisation we will be less effective.
5. Following on from the Chairman, Mr Bender, I read the first document Working for the Essentials of Life then I had great pleasure, as a connoisseur, reading your DEFRA Departmental Report. I showed it to a chief executive of a large company; he said it was not a report, it was a brochure, the kind of brochure that we all get through the letterbox from companies trying to sell you something that is not perhaps quite 16 annas to the rupee. And, in all seriousness, the DEFRA Departmental Report, I would have thought, should be a little bit more hard, rather than soft, and winning our people is an aspiration, but most of the people involved, the stakeholders, whether they are farmers, whether they are members of environmental groups, whether they are the public, are looking for outcomes rather than phrases continuing like vision, values, frameworks for working together. And I have to say that I think that you do yourselves a disservice by publishing such a brochure. I think what people are looking for is some hard evidence. So, if we turn to aims and objectives of the report, can you tell the Committee what efforts you have made to set targets for the Department which are clear and quantifiable and which have deadlines attached?
(Mr Bender) Can I just respond, before dealing with the direct question, to some of the earlier comments. I do believe that, in setting up a new organisation, particularly one with some of the reputational baggage around the past, that the Chairman referred to earlier, fairly or unfairly, it is quite important to set out what that organisation is for, and, therefore, I think, the way we engage with stakeholders and the public is part of the process. So I do not feel ashamed, in any sense, of that side of it. However, I accept your point entirely, Mr Simpson, about the need to have hard targets. There is, of course, again, before I respond directly to your question, in Chapter Six, the report against the Public Service Agreement targets that were set in the last Spending Review. What we are now doing in the Department is two sets of things. First of all, as part of the present Spending Review, we are trying to work up a set of targets both for the new PSA and for the Service Delivery Agreement that would underpin it, that would indeed do as you are suggesting and identify what are the ten, or so, headline targets against which the Department should be measured for the purposes of the Public Service Agreement, and what are the things underpinning that, that also we need to be measured against. Also, we published yesterday, and forgive me, because this may come into the category of your brochures, but I will say it all the same, and it did indeed get a welcome from some of the NGOs, a document on sustainable development, where we identify within that some specific targets we are working on for indicators for the policies of DEFRA; so this is work in progress. I would hope the first instalment of the targets will be announced, in whatever the way the Chancellor decides is appropriate, as part of the package of targets following the Spending Review. But I will give an example, perhaps, if I may, and that is that nowhere in what we had inherited was there a target for measuring the effectiveness of the Government's and the Department's operations on rural economies or rural public services, and we are trying to work with the Treasury on some sort of target around that, that would then underpin, in particular, Objective 2 and possibly also Objective 4. So that is the sort of work we are doing, to try to get something that is indeed hard-edged, and that it would be perfectly proper of the Committee to cross-examine me on in 12 months' time as to what progress we were making towards it.
6. I am very pleased to hear that, because, obviously, from the point of view of most of the stakeholders and the public, the Department's ability to cope with crises, many of which are beyond its control, as it was beyond its predecessor's control, has not been dreadfully good. And they tend to judge a Department by its ability to do a number of things, ranging from its ability to be able to respond to letters, e-mails, or even telephone calls, and it does have, as you know, an absolutely appalling record there, just with Members of Parliament, let alone the Committee. Can you tell the Committee, in terms of aims and objectives, have you now got in place a standard operating procedure, with the relevant personnel, if we were to be faced by another outbreak of foot and mouth, another outbreak of swine fever, or, God forbid, some other element of biosecurity? Because I think it is that kind of thing that the public are really looking for, and you touch on it within the Departmental Report, but I am afraid to say that there is not much there that gives, I think, most of the Committee confidence that that is yet seriously being addressed.
(Mr Bender) Before I respond to that question, can I just perhaps pick up the point you made earlier, about correspondence with Members of Parliament, because I think probably it did crop up when Margaret Beckett and I appeared before the Committee in the autumn; but I think two points on that. First of all, I would like to apologise again to members of the Committee for the poor performance of the Department, which arose for the reasons she set out in the course of the autumn. I believe the performance has improved significantly. I hope Members are seeing that. We have certainly put a lot of effort into that, and certainly we, Ministers, top officials in the Department, across the Department, recognise the importance of that as an issue. So I did not want to let your perfectly justified criticism hang, without some sort of reaction. On contingency planning and responses to crises, the document you referred to earlier, Working for the Essentials of Life, identifies as one of the Department's priorities, in the Foreword from the Secretary of State, a lower risk to people, animals and the economy from flooding, animal diseases and environmental change. That is the first point I wanted to make, that it is an overarching priority of the Department. The second point is that, without wanting in any sense to prejudice any of the reports that are likely to be published on foot and mouth disease over the coming weeks, either the independent inquiries or the National Audit Office, I would want to put on record again that we were dealing with something that was unprecedented anywhere in the world, and that we have had a series of letters from other countries tearing up their contingency plans, saying that they would have been overwhelmed and would not have coped and asking us for advice on how to write new contingency plans. This was a totally unprecedented situation we faced, on foot and mouth, and I wanted to say that. Thirdly, however, there are, of course, lessons to be learned from it, and the various reports will undoubtedly draw attention to those and highlight them and give us a lot more thinking to do. Meanwhile, in March, the Department published an interim contingency plan, which identified some of the lessons we thought we could already learn about rapidity of response, about structures, about engagement with stakeholders, locally as well as nationally, and that is now a basis not only for further work internally, pending the various reports we expect in the weeks ahead, but is also a basis for consultation and discussion. It is an issue that Ministers and I and the rest of the Department take very, very seriously, as we should.
7. You may or may not be aware, Mr Bender, that your Department's response to questions that we were going to raise arrived for members of the Committee at 6.30 last night, and most of us only have just seen it this morning. This kind of totally inadequate and incompetent response, in front of a Select Committee, which you and your officials knew about, is not the way, may I say, to influence people at all, and it just drives a coach and four through what you say; because we can stand on our dignity here, but there are hundreds and thousands of farmers, people in NGOs and others who have the frustration of getting either no response or a response weeks later. And I do not wish to appear, Mr Chairman, to be rude on this. I really do think you are going to have to get a grip of this, because the integrity of your Department is at stake?
(Mr Bender) Can I just respond on the lateness of the material you got, because I have some personal responsibility for that. There was actually a misunderstanding in my head, and looking back I take full responsibility for it, as to whether this was an indication of issues you wanted to discuss with me, or issues on which you wanted material in advance; and it was only in the course of the afternoon, when the latter became clearand that is not an attempt to shuffle the responsibility, it was my responsibility that there was a misunderstandingwhen I was chased, I looked at the previous e-mail and realised that there was no doubt about it. But that is the background to it. So, in this case, it was a personal failing, and I regret the way, therefore, it came to the Committee so late.
Chairman: You simply failed to answer some questions; it would not be reasonable that you should have that information at your fingertips, it was therefore sensible to give you notice of them.
8. Mr Bender, you talked about the importance of setting objectives, targets and measuring outputs. I just wonder whether we can look at that, in the context of your Objective 4, which is on page 26, "To improve enjoyment of an attractive and well-managed countryside. . ." And the first bullet point there is the Countryside and Rights of Way Act, the CRoW Act, where you say, we are making good progress on this, significant progress is being made; but is it not a fact that the mapping exercise for open countryside has slipped, and slipped by several months?
(Mr Bender) It has slipped; it is a complicated exercise, I do not have the precise dates and deadlines in mind. We are making progress, but it is slower than I think Ministers would wish.
9. But this is an important, landmark piece of legislation, that has been campaigned for, for many years; can you give us a timetable for implementation, when will the CRoW Act be operational, as it were?
(Mr Bender) Can I come back to the Committee on that point, because I would like to check where we are in the Department, check where the Minister of State is on it, and I will get back to you on it.
10. Okay; well let us pursue another issue that is set out, and this one is on page 27, the third one down, the Planning Advice Consultancy scheme, which was launched in September 2001. Again, it is an important initiative, welcomed by farmers. Do you know how many pieces of advice have been given, how many individual days?
(Mr Bender) That is not information I have at my fingertips. Again, if you would wish, I will certainly come back on it.
11. I think there is a general point here. I do not necessarily agree with the brochure analysis of the Annual Report, but certainly some more hard-edged information in it gives it more authority, and where you say, we are making significant progress on CRoW, we are giving this business advice to farmers, it would be very helpful to see what the outputs are?
(Mr Bender) That point is registered.
12. Can I just ask you one point of clarification, then I have got some issues about how we take matters forward from one year to the next. I was intrigued, in the Report, that virtually half of it is on two Non-Departmental Public Bodies, the Forestry Commission and the Office of Water Services. Can you just explain to me why those two bodies are highlighted in considerable detail but there is a whole raft of other bodies, listed at the back of the Report, of which there may be no mention other than in that appendix?
(Mr Bender) I do recall appearing before this Committee when I was Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Agriculture, and facing some criticism for the excessive detail that was in the Annual Report; therefore we took a deliberate view, this year, a view on which I suspect the Committee, from their questions so far, may think we have gone too far, a deliberate view that we wanted to make it briefer and clearer, rather than have excessive detail. Now I have no doubt the Committee will give their considered views on this, in addition to any impressions I may have picked up along the way, but it was therefore a deliberate decision to try to have something that was much more concise than previously. However, we are required to incorporate in the Report material from these two other bodies, and the extent to which we have editorial rights over what they put forward, since they are independent of me, as Accounting Officer, complicates matters; and, therefore, the imbalance that you have identified is something we discussed internally, and tried to correct a little bit, actually by making these bits less lengthy in the immediate run-up to publication. We have not got that balance right in this Report; no doubt, as I say, the Committee will have views on the shape it would like to see for the future, and we will obviously look at those very carefully.
13. Can I just be clear, who requires you to put those two bodies, in particular, in this Report?
(Mr Bender) The Treasury.
14. Thank you very much. I am now being told there is something to add to that. Okay; that is just an observation, but it does, I think, somewhat overburden the Report, in a direction it looks as though those are the two bodies that, if you like, are the most important, and I would argue things like the Rural Payments Agency and certainly Countryside Agency, English Nature, let alone the Environment Agency, could all have their own section.
(Mr Bender) I accept that.
15. If I could pass on then to look at one of the perceived weaknesses, and, okay, this is a new Ministry, so it is very difficult to see, and you could argue, quite rightly, that there is not going to be much continuity, because you are starting, to some extent, with a blank sheet of paper. But if we take one issue, that was highlighted, certainly in the dying days of MAFF, and which, given the nature of the area that you are covering, that is the idea of implementing an Environmental Management System, there does not seem to be much indication in this Report of progress having been made. And there does not seem to be any timetable by which this particular approach, which is long understood, certainly in the private sector, of how you can, if you like, make good one's environmental obligations, and within that actually improve management systems. I wonder what comment you would make in response to that?
(Mr Bender) You are speaking primarily of environmental regulation of farming, in this question, are you, or more generally?
16. No, I am thinking wider than that. I am thinking about the way in which what could hold this Department together is the way in which, central to it, and it was put there for some purpose, the term "environment" means something, but also the way in which you actually run things, sorry to use the term, but the holistic thread is that you could see a system of management which puts, if you like, the environment at the centre-point of all you do?
(Mr Bender) There are two interlocking bits of work taking place in the Department at the moment. One is the whole issue of regulation of agriculture, which this Committee has looked at several times in the past, which does not get any easier, and which the Policy Commission on Food and Farming, chaired by Sir Don Curry, made some recommendations on; and, on that, we are trying to bring together the issues around legal requirements, risks, smart regulations, smart enforcement. And that is more than environmental, it would include health and safety, local authority, all regulation of farming. That work is being chaired, at Director General level, bringing together various people inside the Department and outside. In parallel, there is work we are doing with the Environment Agency on smart environmental regulation, which, again, is a complicated set of issues, and needs to balance the legislative pipeline, in particular the EU obligations, with an holistic, risk-based approach; and that again is work in progress between the Department and, in particular, the Environment Agency, who are the main enforcement and regulatory agency. So there are two, crucial, overlapping aspects. On the first, I would expect the Department to be saying significantly more in the strategy document on food and farming that will be published in the autumn. On the second, it is continuing work with the Environment Agency, and it involves difficult legal, scientific and risk issues.
17. MAFF, in particular, set a specific challenge, which was to introduce an Environmental Management System for its estate management activities; now I see that as being encompassed within the wider way in which you manage the Department. There does not seem to be much progress made on that?
(Mr Bender) Forgive me, I did not realise you were speaking about internally. Internally, it is plainly
18. I think it is both; and external. One of the advantages of the document is that it is outward looking, and I am posing the view that you could be seen to be running this on an environmental management basis, but there is an internal aspect, which I am now moving on to?
(Mr Bender) Of course there is, and, again, it is work we are doing, taking advice of some of the internal skills of the Sustainable Development Unit to work with our estates management people. And there are a number of good stories we can tell there; 40 per cent of our electricity now comes from renewable resources, we have identified a contract for supply of recycled paper, the headquarters fleet of vehicles are all dual fuel. So there are a number of ways in which we are working on this issue; and, I accept the underlying point, it is an area where the Department needs to, if you like, walk the talk, practise what it preaches.
19. Have you ever led a Change Programme of a major organisation before you undertook this task?
(Mr Bender) I would say that I did in the Cabinet Office, internally, or tried to, from my time as Permanent Secretary of the Cabinet Office, from the spring of 1999.