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


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 220-239)

LORD WHITTY, MR PAUL ELLIOTT AND MR JIM DIXON

WEDNESDAY 10 JULY 2002

Mr Jack

  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.

Mr Taylor

  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 ministers—transport and energy—in other government departments.

Mr Jack

  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.

Chairman

  224. It must be like old times, coming from your background.
  (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 new responsibilities?
  (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 job.
  (Lord Whitty) I am sure that is broadly true, but it is not a DEFRA-specific problem.

  228. No.
  (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.

Mr Borrow

  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 that view?
  (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 be different.

  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 government departments.

Chairman

  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 and activity?
  (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.

Mr Jack

  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 status—this was during the reporting in evidence session with the Chairman and Chief Executive of HRI—we 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 DEFRA—and I do have responsibility for horticulture—has 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 review team.

  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.


 
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