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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 125-139)




  125. Now, Mr Tony Burton is the Director of Policy and Strategy of the National Trust and Ms Ellie Robinson is the Policy Officer; is that right?
  (Mr Burton) That is correct.

  126. Thank you for coming today. You are familiar with what this inquiry is about. To what extent do you think that the new Department has actually established a clear, grand image, as it were, of what it is about?
  (Mr Burton) I have to say, I think that is the one area where it has made significant progress. The Department has done considerable and welcome work in establishing its rationale, its vision, its aims and objectives in an effective way; you can always quibble about the detail, but we welcome the commitment that has been made, and the focus really on the business planning side of the new Department in difficult circumstances. The key questions in our mind are how do you take that forward and how do you convert that aspiration into delivery and the change in internal culture and operations which will actually help the process of change, rather than, at the moment, slowing it down.

  127. And that was about to be my second question; to what extent has that aspirational architecture been accompanied by a perception, right throughout the Department, what it is about, and its ability to deliver that?
  (Mr Burton) I do not think DEFRA is alone in facing those sorts of internal organisational challenges and cultural challenges, they are ones that we recognise, they are ones that other Government Departments recognise, so I do not think we should see them as unusual, in that respect; and the need to deliver those changes happened overnight, literally, with no additional support, no lead-in, no finances. So it is a difficult process which they are going through. They have started correctly, in giving a sense of direction, but it is slower than it should be in moving on to the next stages. We would see the three elements which they need to focus on. One being the leadership and direction, and that is where they have made most progress. The second being the people and the skills within the staff to make those changes, and, there, it is operating at different speeds, depending on the genesis of the different sections. And the third is, essentially, the support systems and processes and administration to make that change happen, and that is also an area where it is patchy, at best. I suppose, the one area of particular concern I would want to highlight with you is that there have been opportunities to make really quite significant jumps forward. We are looking for the sort of carpe diem moment, within DEFRA, of which something like the Curry Commission Report could have been, not just because of the external policy changes that it would bring about, but actually by taking a bold approach, by recognising the opportunity, it would catalyse change internally and move further forward more quickly than would normally be the case, in the normal process of administrative change.

  128. There is a problem though, is there not, with taking the Curry Report as sort of a touchstone of the whole spirit of the Department, because, after all, that was what was produced before the Department had any provision in order to fund it; and one of the consequences of this sequence of fundamental Spending Reviews is that every single Department seems to go into absolute throes of immobility for at least six months before it is published, because it does not know whether it has got any money or not. So, in a sense, it is a bit difficult to judge it, at the moment, on that, is it not, it is impossible in judging the Treasury, or the Department's ability to influence the Treasury, more than anything else?
  (Mr Burton) Clearly, the outcome of the Spending Review is crucial to the delivery on that agenda; but money is not the only issue here. We could have been, at an earlier stage, working through the approach necessary to tackle the delivery of the Curry package of recommendations. Instead of setting off on a set of regional roadshows, which had the potential, and in reality tended to reopen the debates around the Curry Commission Report, which, in our view, was crucial, because it was a point of consensus from which you move forward, that those should have been action-oriented, problem-solving, geared to how do we deliver the change, not whether the change should be delivered. So the building-blocks necessary then to drive the motor, once the funding became available, we could have made more progress on that, to this date, regardless of the outcome from the Spending Review.

  129. The Department's responsibility for the environment is fairly clearly defined, you can put a long list of things underneath the headline "Environment", and I suppose the Department's responsibility for food is pretty well defined, though obviously some of the safety issues come under the Department of Health. Are not the words "rural affairs" a bit of a, you hear a Department is in charge of rural affairs and immediately a whole series of things comes into mind, but when you investigate what the Department is actually responsible for it is responsible for none of the things which immediately spring to mind; is that a bit of a misnomer, and what does one do about it?
  (Mr Burton) It is a difficulty, and it is most visible in terms of the slow progress of something like the Rural White Paper, where the strategy has been established under a previous regime, in the previous process, but the delivery, which is the stage we should now be in, is now scattered across Government, in a way that it was less scattered under previous arrangements. Now that is not necessarily something which is an insurmountable problem, because, the building-blocks in Machinery of Government, there is no right answer to that sort of eternal process of change and revisiting of structure. What it does require is, as we hear so often, a silo-busting approach to delivery, which actually recognises that the opportunities for taking these debates forward lie beyond the Department, but that does not mean to say they should not be prioritised and integrated, in the way that the Rural White Paper envisaged. The other problem we identify here is the separation of the urban and the rural, and although they were separate when the Rural White Paper was produced they were produced within the same sort of mind set and the same processes, at the same stage, and came out very closely connected to each other; that connection very visibly has been broken, and they are now visibly being taken forward virtually independent of each other.

  Mr Borrow: Last week, the RSPB came along, and one of the points they made was that, in their dealings with the Department, they felt there was still an element of silo thinking, which had been carried over from the previous constituent parts of the new DEFRA. I wonder to what extent you have had the same perception, and whether you actually feel that things are getting better, rather than worse, and whether that silo thinking lies within certain parts of the Department?

Mr Jack

  130. Excuse me, could you just explain what silo thinking is; it is not something that I am awfully familiar with?
  (Mr Burton) I would envisage that, in relation to DEFRA, essentially, there are three large sections to DEFRA, one around the environment, one around rural affairs and one around agriculture, and are the three talking to each other, or are they operating independently of each other; and we would share the concern about silo thinking, although this is not new, this is a problem of big bureaucracies, wherever they are. We would argue that the process is getting better and that the visioning exercises and the clarity of aims and objectives and the Sustainable Development Strategy are part of that process of improvement; that the most tangible example of a problem for us, and our sort of core relationships with DEFRA, is the mismatch between the integration of the farming and rural and environmental agendas, which is the sort of middle silo, as I described it, and the sort of carrying on business as usual, commodity production, CAP, MAFF type processes, in relation to Agriculture, almost unrelated to the changes that have been brought about.
  (Ms Robinson) Yes, actually to deliver on a lot of the things the Secretary of State has said, that the Department is committed to, both in the Sustainable Development Strategy and "Working for the Essentials of Life", is going to require a lot more cross-departmental working. One of the good examples is how they are going to bring together all the different people within DEFRA and their agencies that deliver advice to all their different stakeholders; they recognise that there is a big problem in co-ordinating the information they give out, in making themselves accessible, making the grants they give out much more integrated and actually deliver the kinds of objectives they have set out. So I think that the big delivery reviews that are going on at the moment are going to have to come out with some very radical changes to the way they work; and a recent example, which is partly to do with silo working and partly to do with being constantly on the back foot, is the NVZ announcement that came out last week. To be fair to DEFRA, they were up against legal and financial hurdles. But what would have been really nice to see is the actions to implement NVZ put within a much wider framework of resource protection. The Department has recognised this, in announcing their strategic review of diffuse pollution from agriculture, but it is a really big, missed opportunity, and what they could have been doing was setting what we consider, and what the Trust consider, to be good farming practice and good business management, look at the incentives, the capital investment, the planning and advice information tools, to make implementation of NVZ just one small element of a much wider strategy for tackling environmental protection.


  131. The Water Framework Directive, as you know, has now been agreed and will shortly come into national legislation, and that is, in fact, is it not, the measure which will provide the sort of integrated approach to all these issues?
  (Ms Robinson) It is definitely a target, to achieve that, and we know the issues that need tackling, and what do we have to keep waiting for actually to be proactive and develop the tools and the instruments now; it is always waiting until we really have to. There are actually really good, sound business reasons for the farming industry to adopt these practices now, it is going to save them money, it is going to save the taxpayer, the citizen, money as well, and it would be a really good demonstration of the way DEFRA can have joined-up thinking between water quality, environmental protection, between agri-environment, between agriculture, and much wider resource industries that, until now, have had slightly to take a back seat.

Mr Borrow

  132. One of the points in the initial question was whether you felt there were differences, depending upon which level of the organisation you were dealing with, in the sense that previous witnesses have made the point that they felt that at the top there was some broader thinking, but dealing with middle-ranking officials, they were still, if you like, in many ways, in their very narrow area of expertise, without much knowledge or awareness of the wider policy issues across the Department?
  (Mr Burton) We would share that analysis, but we would also recognise there are examples of very good practice at what you term a lower level; but I think something like the agri-environment review we would see as a model of how DEFRA could be approaching issues in a much more integrated and participative and inclusive way. But there are other examples which are less effective and the cultural changes are not clear, or not visible, and the sort of limited horizons within which the work is being undertaken are very visible to us.

  133. Is it your perception that that problem is recognised at senior management level, and in some ways has been addressed?
  (Mr Burton) It is far better recognised, and, as I was indicating earlier, one of the things that I do not think we would ever have seen from the MAFF process would have been a recognition of the importance of business planning, of staff, of skills, of the internal challenges, and the fact that it is recognised, even the Secretary of State, in some of her public pronouncements, has identified that we need actually to look to ourselves, as well as look to what we can do for others, I think, is an honest and welcome acknowledgement of those challenges. Clearly, there is an important step to go from recognition to making the changes, but we do believe that it is recognised, we would wish that the processes of change were quicker, and that we use some of the key decisions that DEFRA has to make as catalysts, so it became a less risk-averse approach to policy development as well as to cultural change.

Mr Mitchell

  134. It seems to me there are three roles in environment, rural affairs and agriculture, it did not mention fishing, incidentally, but I just wonder about the calibre of the staff, and the way they are able to motivate them; what is your impression of the quality and calibre in each of those three areas?
  (Mr Burton) I do see that as a leading question, but I will seek to respond in kind.

  135. It is; give us a leading answer?
  (Mr Burton) The resource, commodity production, farming and fisheries Directorate is that which has most of the sort of difficult associations that we have with the former approach from MAFF; the Environment Protection Directorate is one that, in its previous incarnation, in DETR and elsewhere, in DoE, has had an international reputation, and that is an international reputation which, I know, from the inside, feels that it is not being given the priority it deserves. And the bit in the middle is, actually, in some ways, the most important and biggest challenge, and it is the one where a lot of the real challenging, integrating opportunities are going to lie, and that is probably the one where the gap in the levels of the organisation is clearest. I do not know if that is precise enough.

  136. That is a nice answer. Is it, in the first department, the agriculture role, much the same people carrying on in much the same job?
  (Mr Burton) Yes. There is some churning, but there has not been the interchange that ideally we would have wished; so, in that sense, yes, there is a strong continuity with the former Department, the former Ministry, and the people involved, and indeed some of the structures are the same.
  (Ms Robinson) Following on from that, and there is a slight mismatch of staff resourcing between some of the core regulatory and administration compliance in delivering CAP, on the one hand, the sort of old MAFF functions, which, of course, have to continue, and some of the very much more creative, challenging and agenda-setting policy development that is going to be required both to develop and implement the England Farming and Food Strategy and a whole host of other measures, including diffuse pollution in the Water Framework Directive. And it is those teams that are leading that work tend to be much smaller, less resourced and they are being pulled in lots of different directions. And, yes, it is here that the Department is going to make a really big impression of doing something new and different, in new and different ways. So I think there is an element there of a bit of a time lag between wanting to do these things and having the resources actually to achieve them.
  (Mr Burton) And one very practical example is, we would have wished, I think, given the option, to have seen the leadership within DEFRA, on what do we do with this Curry Commission Report, to have come from the middle, the sort of rural affairs and the integration of land and environment, as opposed to from the agriculture and fisheries.

  137. I do not want you to feel you were being too frank with us, those were the answers I wanted to a leading question. Just give us a few more words on morale within the different sections?
  (Mr Burton) I think, quite a lot of DEFRA, it is a bit rabbit in the headlights, because they are being asked to move very quickly, on some very challenging agendas, and it is running up against the culture, which has not actually been about policy development, particularly from the sort of agriculture and farming side, it has been about administration of funding arrangements from Brussels to farms, and it has been a real intellectual and personal challenge for many of those involved, coming also on the back of the real challenges of tackling foot and mouth. On the environmental protection side, I think, clearly, Johannesburg, the Climate Change agenda, is a big focus there, but, I think, beyond that, a concern really that the shine and the gloss of what was seen as a very powerful Department is perhaps not getting the attention that it deserves.

Mr Drew

  138. Surely, one of the problems, Tony, is that you have got a lot of these autonomous offices, largely in the area of animal health, and, with the best will in the world, when you visit them, there is not a lot of difference from the old MAFF, they do not see themselves naturally fitting into a region, the regions were always different for MAFF, and I feel quite sorry for them, in the sense that they have almost been further cut adrift, because there was an empire, whether good, bad or indifferent, that you could associate with MAFF. Now they often sit in splendid isolation, and I think, if you want to develop policy, it can be seen almost to be more difficult, unless you are relocating those offices closer to the Regional Offices, or wherever, but I do not see a lot of evidence for that. I do not know what your views are on that?
  (Mr Burton) I would agree with that, and there is quite a lot of just carrying on as usual and trying to pretend the outside world is not changing going on. And we would also see that in terms of some of the agencies reporting to DEFRA, and we would encourage you to look at the real panoply of agencies which are reporting to DEFRA, which are part of that carrying on business as usual, and whether they are not just a bit of a time capsule of the old way of looking at some of these challenges and they do not need to be revisited and revised in the round to support the change, which we do support, that DEFRA is making at the highest level, so whether it be individual departments or sections within the Department, or agencies and NDPBs and others who are reporting to it.

Paddy Tipping

  139. Since you produced your written evidence, the Department's own Sustainable Development Strategy has been published. Now, presumably, you were involved in the process; can you tell us a little bit about the process of being involved in it, and about the product as well?
  (Mr Burton) I have to say, we were not particularly involved in the process.

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