Examination of Witnesses (Questions 220-239)|
WEDNESDAY 10 JULY 2002
220. It is not a directive; it is a regulation.
(Lord Whitty) It is a regulation whose objective was
a clear environmental benefit. There were problems of interpretation
and problems of delivery which we are in the process of overcoming.
The fact that we went through a difficult patch on fridges does
not alter the fact that we were committed to ensuring that the
detrimental environmental impact of fridges disappears. Likewise,
there is the case of abandoned cars. We had some reservations
about the form of the regulations and in the case of fridges there
was some lack of clarity, but the objective must be clear and
we are pursuing it. That is environmentally positive. In the short
term we have a bit of clearing up to do.
221. You do not feel politically excluded in
your new role in relation to the environment?
(Lord Whitty) No, certainly not. In relation to my
personal role, in agriculture I work very closely with the environmental
side and as Mr Curry said, most of my job is with food and farming,
but the environmental dimension of that is constant. The same
is true of other government ministerstransport and energyin
other government departments.
222. Can you list the three main sustainability
policies and challenges for DEFRA and likewise the three main
environmental challenges? Can you tell me whether you think that
the department is sufficiently resourced and equipped to deliver
those within a reasonable timescale?
(Lord Whitty) On broad sustainability, our aim is
to put agriculture and land management on a sustainable basis
in light of the Curry report and changes in agriculture. That
has been one of our biggest tasks. On sustainability generally
we have to look at those rural areas and rural communities that
are quite isolated at present. We need to ensure that they have
a sustainable economic future, that there are jobs and housing
and so forth in those rural communities. If that is too broad
a statement, perhaps I can squeeze waste into that as well as
it runs across all industries and all parts of the economy. It
is not just municipal waste, but the whole waste strategy must
be about sustainability targets as a whole. That is put under
sustainability in general or under the environment in general.
In terms of the specific environmental dimension, clearly the
international dimension I have already emphasised as a big point,
including the delivery of Kyoto. That is the first point. The
second point is probably the whole issue of the relationship between
energy use, its overlap with Kyoto, but getting an energy policy
that is more renewable and less carbon intensive. Thirdly, and
perhaps of more immediate concern to your constituents and to
others is the fact that we have to deal with the problems of increased
flooding and other areas of potential disaster that the department
has to provide for. It has to ensure that we do it in a way that
goes with the grain of the environment while protecting property
and people. Those are three points and I suspect that if I were
to think about it for another five minutes they would not necessarily
be the top three.
223. The second part of the question was whether
you are equipped with the resources to deal with that. I ask that
because in the context of another inquiry in which I am involved
on behalf of this Committee, namely, the disposal of hazardous
waste. As we were leaving the landfill site at Warrington, those
in the private sector commented about how relatively well paid
they were compared with the officials in the Environment Agency
who are essential to delivering a number of the environmental
policies and objectives of your department. It made me wonder
whether your department was properly resourced to achieve progress
on that very broad and indeed crucial canvass that you have just
painted. Do you worry that you may not be resourced adequately?
(Lord Whitty) We would always like more resources,
particularly in the areas that have direct interface with those
who are taking decisions outside government. The areas of enforcement,
as you imply, and the organisation of those areas need addressing.
In relation to the advice and help in many areas for which we
are responsible we could do with more resources. It is partly
an organisational issue. Without going back over what I was saying
about farming, one of the Curry report recommendations is how
we deliver regulations on farming and that relates to the problems
that farmers have in relation to umpteen different regulations
all concerned with one-dimensional aspects of their work at a
given time. If we can deliver the regulatory, advisory and supportive
role in a cohesive way the problem may not be one of resources,
but of how we organise them better. I am engaged in that on the
agriculture side and between agriculture and the Environment Agency.
That is one of our organisational priorities over the next few
years. That would not necessarily mean that at the end of that
period that we have more people, but if we have fewer they would
be better directed. As to relative wages and so on, I fear that
public servants are often in that position and it is probably
not a particular DEFRA problem. Although, as you know, we had
specific salary and wages problems when the department was set
up which have now been addressed.
224. It must be like old times, coming from
(Lord Whitty) Yes.
225. Following on from that question, the old
MAFF was battered and a new department was created. It was emphasised
that the new department was more than the sum of the constituent
parts. There was a mission statement, the annual report, that
tried to convey that to us. Do you believe that the officials
who work in the new department are all equipped to discharge the
(Lord Whitty) There is a high degree of motivation
to do so. The management of the department is very much engaged
in trying to ensure that they do so. We are very focused. We have
a training development project for delivering DEFRA which is focused
in this phase on the management role. It is important that senior
management up to the top level change their focus and engage in
quite an intensive period of training. That involves all senior
civil servants and senior management. That was seen as a priority.
If that is not right, the rest of the staff will not change their
direction. Clearly, there are people within all parts of the department
who are doing exactly the same thing that they were doing two
years ago and some 15 years ago. They need the training, the IT
and other support that we are beginning to bring in. It is quite
a long process.
226. How extensive is the training programme?
(Lord Whitty) For the management/leadership level
it is very intensive and virtually all the top management have
now gone through, or are in the process of going through that.
227. How far further down the line does that
stretch? Are there some officials who are not retrainable? When
there are mergers in the commercial world one often finds that
there are major shifts in personnel and manpower. I wonder whether
in DEFRA you have come to the conclusion that everyone is capable
of doing the new job, or whether there has to be a major retraining
programme and that some people may just not be able to do the
(Lord Whitty) I am sure that is broadly true, but
it is not a DEFRA-specific problem.
(Lord Whitty) We have made major changes in structure
and in personnel at senior management level. The changes are not
so dramatic at the junior levels. There will be some who will
take more kindly to and be more dynamic about the new process
than others. That is always bound to be the case.
229. Let me ask a related question. When you
look at the environmental issues, they are clearly defined. Agriculture
and fisheries are fairly well defined. When one gets into an area
like rural affairs, everything becomes much more nebulous. You
are largely dependent on other departments delivering the rural
affairs agenda. It has a specific context which is the rural affairs
programme. Are you confident that the disposition of officials
in DEFRA down the line reflects the priorities that you want or
is there still a lot of what one may call moving the geometry
to try to ensure that the manpower is marshalled behind the priorities?
(Lord Whitty) I think that there are some changes
to be made. It is probably not a matter of taking the big piece
and moving around in a kind of continental drift, but more a matter
of-co-ordinating between different parts of the department and
refocusing the department. I think there are probably some other
structural changes that will have to be made. We are constantly
engaged in looking at those areas, both in the department and
in its agencies.
230. This question relates to the evidence given
by English Heritage. The historical environment is obviously a
very important part of the broader environment and the impact
that the foot and mouth disease had on tourism emphasised how
interdependent all the elements are. Their assessment was that
DEFRA was not equipped to take on that dimension. I know that
the department is strapped for cash because it has always been
strapped for cash and that may well run across all departments.
There are problems in trying to grasp this wider role and in ensuring
that you are not spread too thinly to be able to deliver effectively.
(Lord Whitty) I share some of that anxiety in the
sense that the rural affairs dimension lacks direct budget and
direct levers. Therefore historically, whether in the DETR or
in MAFF, it has been less intensively staffed than those areas
where there is direct government legislation or direct government
subsidy and so in staffing terms it probably looks weaker. Part
of the issue is whether there is any shift of balance to provide
more support staff in rural areas, in the rural affairs structure,
but more importantly those who carry out some of the functions
need to be less silo-ised and blinkered themselves. If you are
looking after forestry or an aspect of waste management, you are
looking at the rural environment as a whole and not simply carrying
out your duties under the specific regulations for which your
post has historically been designated. That is part of the culture
change that we are trying to achieve. It may be that the numbers
under the heading of rural affairs do not rise significantly,
but the people who traditionally are in agricultural posts or
environmental posts begin to take on rural affairs roles. That
is beginning to happen already and it needs to happen more.
231. Following on from the issue of rural affairs,
many parish councils in my area welcome the rural White Paper
and some of the ideas in it. However, they have expressed concerns
that there is a slowness of pace in implementation. Do you share
(Lord Whitty) It is a concern that I have inherited.
I do not think that it is valid. Some of the decisions require
both resource allocation and decisions across Whitehall, but we
have made great progress, for example, on the market towns initiative
and on the villages initiative. We have also made quite substantial
progress in terms of the countryside dimension in relation to
the AONB structure and resourcing. We have encouraged other departments
to deliver their part of the rural White Paper; for example, on
the transport side in terms of rural buses and grants to parish
councils direct. There is the question of how effectively that
has been delivered on the ground. Although we have put more resources
into rural transport, not all of that has been seen as of great
benefit to the majority of rural dwellers. We need to rethink
how we deliver that. Much effort and quite a lot of money has
already been delivered. In relation to parish councils, one of
the disappointing things is that the relatively small grants for
flexible transport, which is available to parish councils, has
been taken up by relatively few parish councils. So there is a
problem at that end as well as at our end.
232. One of the phrases that is in vogue is
"rural proofing". There seems to be an assumption that
your department is responsible for rural proofing, and not just
for the range of responsibilities of your own department, but
also of the policies and workings across Whitehall. The rural
White Paper is largely delivered outside your department. Do you
want to make a comment on that? You have received some criticism
on the failure adequately to "rural proof" many policy
areas within and outside your department.
(Lord Whitty) The context of rural proofing was crystalised
in the White Paper, so it has not been running for very long.
We have asked all departments to look at rural proofing their
own areas of policy and we have designated the Countryside Agency
as an independent monitor of how far that rural proofing has gone.
They have been quite critical of government departments, including
DEFRA of not sufficiently rural proofing all their policies. The
pressure is on to do precisely that. I do not know whether Mr
Elliott would like to comment on the progress of rural proofing.
(Mr Elliott) Yes, we have established a range of contacts
in each department to make sure that not only are particular policy
proposals rural-proofed but the message gets spread more generally.
I have participated personally in a seminar at the DTI with senior
policy makers where a lot said that this had opened up new perspectives
for them. So I think we are making progress in that sort of area.
Clearly the Countryside Agency's last report shows that there
is still some way to go and by its nature our efforts in trying
to influence other government departments is a largely behind
the scenes activity which will have to be judged on results and
outcomes. We are making progress and I hope very much, and I am
pretty sure, that the next report from the Countryside Agency
will have some good results to show.
233. On the process of rural-proofing itself,
I can remember years ago as a local councillor, when it was quite
fashionable to do an equal opportunities indication of every policy,
all the policy documents would come to committee and there was
a little paragraph at the bottom saying "the equal opportunities
implications are . . ." I always got the impression that
the report had been written and somebody at the end had said,
"What are the equal opportunities implications of this policy?"
whereas what should have happened is that the report should have
been written by the Houses of Parliament or whoever with that
policy in mind in the first place. To what extent in terms of
rural-proofing you are confident that reports, both in your department
and other departments, start off with rural-proofing in mind rather
than something that is then added on at the end to see if the
policy complies with it rather than the policy being prepared
with that in mind in the first place?
(Lord Whitty) I think you are absolutely right, that
that is what should happen and you are probably also right that
what actually happens in some cases with rural-proofing as a new
concept is that at the end of the policy development period, which
probably started before rural-proofing was on the agenda, they
then rather hurriedly double-check whether they can give a positive
rural-proofing dimension to the policy. What we are in the business
of and where our contacts which Mr Elliott is referring to are
so important is that in our development of policies now rural-proofing
should be mainstreamed right from the beginning. So we are in
the business of trying to get sustainability mainstreamed across
Whitehall but we are also convinced there is the business of getting
rural-proofing mainstreamed across Whitehall. Many of the policies
that have emerged on which the Countryside Agency have commented
started before this concept was being pushed and before DEFRA
was created and are only now coming to fruition. It is a bit of
a messy situation but I think in a year or two's time it will
234. In terms of whether it is working you would
regard the comments of the Countryside Agency as crucial to the
view as to whether or not your Department is operating properly
in this area?
(Lord Whitty) Yes, I think the views of the Countryside
Agency are important. They are independent. Sometimes I find it
slightly strange that the Countryside Agency is an agency of our
Department because they are so independent, but that is a really
very positive role in this respect because we need that degree
of independence to check our actions as well as those of other
235. Do you not think that occasionally the
Countryside Agency produces some wonderfully interesting documents
which should you wish to qualify for Mastermind they would
no doubt be extremely useful but, quite frankly, at the end of
the day they are not much use to anybody? Is it useful to know
how many miles you are from a shop or how many miles you are from
a post office or how many miles you are from this that or the
other? It does seem to produce extraordinarily picturesque maps
but at the end of the day when I go to the countryside it is mainly
because I want to be as far away from anything as possible. I
am desperately anxious that DEFRA should not bring them any closer
to me. Does this not illustrate the difference between action
(Lord Whitty) It is important that we and the Countryside
Agency get beyond the production of those documents stage and
we deliver. That is certainly fair and we are absolutely focused
on that now. The particular examples of statistics that you chose
I think are rather important to a lot of country dwellers, particularly
those who do not have much transport or access to a car or whatever,
of which there are a very large number resident in rural areas.
I think those particular statistics are rather important.
236. But there are lots and lots of different
statistics. I am very happy to accept that point. We have talked
about sustainable development, we have just talked about rural-proofing.
You have been talking about mainstreaming it through government.
Do you not think it might be easier to mainstream some of these
things through government if more of the traditional structure
of cabinet committees survived with Secretaries of State of sitting
on them and there were rather less of this incredible accretion
of task forces, action groups and goodness knows what, all of
which are supposed to be cross-cutting and joined-up government
but at the end of the day perhaps the Secretaries of State do
not spend quite as much time with this clearly focused as they
might do in a more traditional structure?
(Lord Whitty) Whatever your views are in general,
I do not think it is sustainable, if I can use that term, in the
particular because we have, particularly post DEFRA, two very
strong and effective cross-departmental committees, the DARR Committee,
which is dealing with rural affairs, which is chaired by Margaret
Beckett and largely consists of Secretaries of State and Ministers
of State, which is pursuing the rural agenda, including rural-proofing
and all the other issues that we have been talking about, and
the committee on policy, which as you know is a Cabinet sub-committee,
looking at environmental policy in general, which the Secretary
of State and the Deputy Prime Minister are strongly engaged in
and which looks at things like the international dimension of
this, and also the NG Committee which is looking at how government
policies take on board the environmental Directives. So I think
we have very good Cabinet committees and inter-departmental ministerial
committees in this area. In some areas you need task forces and
I would not like to stray in areas more generally but in this
area I do not think that criticism is valid.
237. I would be fascinated to know the frequency
of their meeting.
(Lord Whitty) We can let you have that. Under the
previous structure that was maybe a valid criticism but I do not
think it is under this one. We will get that to you.
238. I was going to follow up with the same
question the Chairman asked and ask how often does the Rural Affairs
Sub-Committee meet? It might also, without trespassing on confidential
matters, be helpful to the Committee to know what it has been
doing, in other words, what are the great matters that have gone
before it. If we could have that, it would be helpful. I want
to turn now to focus on agriculture and horticulture and just
for the record I asked you, Minister, about HRI and I have been
to my office and got hold of the two reports which this Committee
has produced. In our seventh report on this subject under HRI
statusthis was during the reporting in evidence session
with the Chairman and Chief Executive of HRIwe wrote in
the report: "Primary legislation is required to `establish
HRI as a statutory corporation with functions and powers to enable
it to carry out its remit'. . ." That seems pretty basic.
We follow that particular matter up with Baroness Hayman when
she was in charge. In fact, I refreshed my memory. I had an exchange
with her and in the course of that exchange the Baroness was kind
enough to talk about the legislative strategy which the old MAFF
had looked at, including the use possibly of a Private Member's
Bill or possibly even the use of a Ten-Minute Rule Bill to regularise
this important but small piece of legislation. That first report
was on 5 July 2000. It is a matter that has been around for a
long time and I have to say as a member of the previous Government
we were probably derelict in not doing that as much as the current
Government is derelict in not doing it. Given it is so fundamental
to the carrying out of HRI's functions, why has no action been
taken to deal with this issue in the light of two select committee
reports which have both shone light into the area?
(Lord Whitty) I am not able to call to mind, even
if I have seen it, the Government's direct response to the first
of those reports and certainly the view since I have been in DEFRAand
I do have responsibility for horticulturehas been that
one option would indeed be to put HRI as public corporation but
it may not be the only option. Clearly the performance of HRI
scientifically is unchallengeable but the performance of HRI organisationally
and financially is an on-going problem and one which the current
quinquennial review is addressing. I am therefore awaiting the
outcome of that quinquennial review before I would want to take
any policy decisions on the future of HRI. The complexity, which
does not quite apply to Covent Garden because it does not involve
the City of London in any sense, is deep and would have to take
its place within government priorities for legislation, which
is why Baroness Hayman referred to the possibility of it being
done by a Private Member's Bill should we wish to go down that
road. Since I have been Minister we have not taken the decision
to go down that road; we are awaiting the advice from the quinquennial
239. I do not want to dwell on this point but
I would remind you in the same paragraph from which I quoted,
MAFF gave evidence to the Committee that a draft Bill was in existence,
so you have thought about it but you have decided to do nothing.
The reason I mention that is I want to move you into the field
of horticulture because it tends to be the "Cinderella"
of agriculture and yet in those parts of the United Kingdom where
it is important, it is a major employer, it is very big business,
it is highly sophisticated, it is unsubsidised. Where does it
figure in DEFRA's priorities? What would you say are your top
three tasks, objectives, hopes for the industry? Where does it
rate against agriculture?
(Lord Whitty) I do not disagree with much of what
you say. I think horticulture is an industry which we should take
a little bit more notice of for the reasons that you outline.
It is not only an important part of agriculture in the big sense
but it is also an important part of the rural economy in employment,
with relatively sophisticated operations, and also in man sectors
it goes further down the food chain and they are closer to their
customers. Horticulture is a big sector and parts of it are a
growing sector. It has probably received less attention precisely
because it is unsubsidised. The area, of course, where you cannot
claim it has received less attention is the one you have just
been touching on, where historically the R&D budget financed
by the Government has been higher for horticulture that it has
been for other areas. Relating to GDP contribution that remains
the case. So the Government has been supportive to horticulture
in that respect. I think there are problems about the competitiveness
of the industry and to a limited extent its organisation, but
they are by no means as fundamental as parts of agriculture proper.
I therefore think that horticulture could be a success probably.