Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120-127)
MR BRIAN BENDER CB AND MRS JULIE FLINT
WEDNESDAY 19 JUNE 2002
120. You may have misunderstood the question I was putting to you. Because, yes, you are quite right, people might take too harsh a view of the Departmental performance on foot and mouth; but, actually, there is a back-drop to that, there is a lot more baggage about the perception of MAFF than just what happened during the foot and mouth period. And what I am referring to more is the corporate reputation of your Department as a regulator, as an intervener in countryside matters, as a guardian of various activities that are important to us, as citizens. And the perception that came across was, "These are powers that we're going to give to a collection of civil servants, and, frankly, we're not too confident that they'd be able to exercise these powers in a balanced, proportionate way," and that was one of the reasons why some people felt uncomfortable about passing those powers over. How do you feel about that?
(Mr Bender) First of all, I think the reputation the former Department had was unfair. But, secondly, the discussion we had earlier, in response to some of your questioning, Mr Todd, about the Department's Change Programme, is intended to ensure that, whether it was unfair or not, that reputation is got rid of, so that it is, and is seen to be, a high-performing Department that the public can have confidence in.
121. Absolutely. But did you not perhaps advise Ministers, in the preparation of this Bill, that maybe we have to get our act straight first, before calling on further powers for civil servants within this Department to be delivered up to them? Because I would certainly have said that; I would have said, "Look, let's demonstrate we can handle some regulatory tasks and some difficult situations in a competent way," before demanding what many described as draconian powers to be passed to a Ministry, however unfairly, which was seen as not the most competent of performers. Did you not perhaps suggest that that might have been done?
(Mr Bender) The underlying issue, which lay behind the draft legislation, lay behind the Bill, was the judgement that the powers had been inadequate, and in the event of a resurgence of the disease would be inadequate.
122. But powers are really only effective if they are exercised in partnership with those whom you are regulating and seek to intervene on?
(Mr Bender) Yes.
123. And if the back-drop to that is mistrust, and a lack of comfort as to how this will be done, then those powers, however passed down by Parliament, will not be particularly effective. Had not the culture of this been grasped? Because I was very puzzled by the approach to the Bill, and said it privately and publicly to Ministers, that we should have made sure that people were more comfortable about passing these powers to the new DEFRA before we commended those powers through Parliament, in passing a Bill; and, of course, in the end, the Lords put a block on it. But there was not any attempt to advise Ministers that perhaps a softening of approach, or an acceptance of certain amendments, might be a prudent approach to deal with some of these problems?
(Mr Bender) There are always discussions inside Departments about how to respond to criticisms, and whether it is appropriate to make amendments to draft legislation, as part of the Parliamentary process. There was not a discussion in the Department of "Let's stop this, because there isn't enough confidence in this Department to do it." And I do not think, in terms of the proper exercise of the Government's responsibilities on disease control, that would be advice I would have given to Ministers.
Mr Todd: I will just conclude it. I think that whole episode, I am not sure that features in here, if it is does it is well-hidden, but that was a major episode in the Department's year, as to a big Bill, an important Bill, which eventually went off track.
124. I am sorry to bring a fish course on last, but since I arrived late there was no alternative. I would like to chuck a couple of fishes on the barbecue. My colleague, Keith Simpson, suggested that agriculture was given a low priority by DEFRA; well I cannot see that fishing is given any priority at all by DEFRA, from this Report. We were told, when I objected to the omission of fishing from the title of the Department, that it did not mean any demotion of fishing as a priority and as an industry; well, it has not meant any demotion, it seems to have meant the total elimination of it. The achievements 2001-02, here we are, at a time when you have got an unparalleled conservation crisis, when the CFP is being renegotiated, and we have just run down a big section of the English fishing industry, with decommissioning: no mention. I know, when it comes to the expenditure side of it, how we spend our money, fishing is lumped in with agriculture, food, fishing and farming, altogether. Why has fishing such a low priority?
(Mr Bender) It does not have a low priority in the work of the Department; the question of whether it was taken out of the title, I think, was discussed last year. It is central to conservation, it is central to the food chain. As you know better than I, there were important discussions last year on conservation in the North Sea, in particular, and on the setting of fish quotas at the December Council; and one of the biggest challenges the Department faces over the months ahead is the handling of the Commission proposals for the Common Fisheries Policy reform. There is an important Directorate in the Department that leads on fisheries, and works on these issues, and a Minister who gives it a lot of attention.
125. I know, an excellent Minister; but it must be demoralising for the staff of the Department that all their work, their excellent work, is not even mentioned?
(Mr Bender) There are references, under Objective 6, page 27, to the conservation plans on North Sea cod, West of Scotland cod, and hake stocks. I am just trying to see whether we have got a reference in "The Challenges Ahead" to the CFP, I would hope there is. This comes back to some of the earlier discussions, about how, in trying to make a more concise document, we end up getting the balance right, or wrong.
126. Fishing needs to be in the balance, and it is going to be a concern to the industry outside that it gets so little emphasis; and I just wonder, in passing, since it is now a devolved subject, whether the Department in Scotland is not actually making more of the running, and fighting more effectively for the interests of Scottish fishing and being more proactive towards it than the Department in England towards English fishing?
(Mr Bender) It is a very active area in the Department; there is a reference, on page 31, to the challenges in the year ahead on CFP. There is obviously a tense relationship with the industry, because of the difficulties the industry goes through, but there is a close working relationship with the industry, as well, and it is an important area of the Department's work.
127. I think, Mr Bender, we are just concluding now, that, of course, as far as fishing is concerned, public expenditure, in relation to the value of the output of the industry, is probably the most disproportionate of any sector the Department deals with; and, in that sense, it does deserve a mention, because, if one has got to justify any volume of public expenditure, one needs to justify it on fisheries, I would have thought. Mr Bender, thank you very much for coming to us this morning. Obviously, we will deliberate, as a Committee, on our conclusions. I think I would just say, on the basis of this morning's discussions, we appreciate that we have in the past criticised the Report for being too verbose, and that you did make an attempt to make it more economical. I think the criticisms would be that, where the information has been given, it has often been stripped of the material which makes the information readily understandable. I think some of the points Mr Jack was making, that actually the information was there, and it is actually quite difficult to understand that and interpret it because the essential explanations were no longer there, as he described, the sorts of notes which would go in a company balance-sheet. I think we were probably a little bit disturbed about the balance of the content, I would describe it as perhaps too aspiration-driven and perhaps not enough policy-driven; that if you look at the relationship of the spending again to the amount of space it occupies, again, there seems to have been some dislocation. That we are interested in some of the nuts and bolts of the big management systems, again, Mr Todd emphasised the IT, which, of course, do consume large amounts of public money, so how those are going, how the installation in the payments agencies are going, and that sort of thing; it might be fairly grinding, but it is actually pretty germane to the Department. And, I suppose, finally, after all, this is your first Report as DEFRA, this is the first of a new Department, so I think it is perhaps understandable that you might have wanted to sort of impress the corporate image and say what you think the Department is about. I think, in future years, just epigrammatically, perhaps a bit less poetry and a bit more maths might actually be more helpful to everybody. But thank you very much indeed.
(Mr Bender) I take that point, and, obviously, when we see the Committee's considered views, we will take those, too. Thank you.
Chairman: Thank you for coming.