Draft Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Dissolution) Order 2002

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Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Amess. This is my first opportunity to be under your gimlet eye.

As the Minister has said, we have gathered to say the last rites for MAFF, and—perhaps—to lay holy water on the new Department. That will enable hon.

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Members to explore several issues connected with MAFF, such as why it has been dissolved, and why a new Department has been created.

The Minister offered a fairly straightforward interpretation of why the new Department had been created, but many hon. Members will recognise that it is more complicated than that.

Sadly, over the past six or seven years, the reputation of MAFF had been badly damaged by several food safety disasters such as BSE, swine fever and foot and mouth. Some people think that all of the blame for them can be poured on the heads of the officials who worked for MAFF—and who now work for DEFRA. However, science has been unable to provide the definitive answers on food and safety that the public and the media have come to expect.

The scale and spread of such diseases—especially foot and mouth—overwhelmed everyone concerned. It is important to state that there have always been rogue elements within the farming community who have failed to meet the high standards that are required. They are overwhelmingly condemned by most other members of the farming community. There is natural public and media concern, and that has, on occasions, developed—especially in some elements of the media—into hysteria.

However, having mentioned all of those mitigating circumstances, we know from the available evidence from outsiders and former members of MAFF that the public perceived it as being overwhelmed by events. Compared with other Departments, I find remarkable its failure to establish what the Ministry of Defence refers to as standard operating procedures to deal with a crisis, having learned lessons from a crisis. To have failed to do that once is understandable, but to fail to do it throughout a period of years is remarkable.

There seems to have been, if not a failure of leadership, a political and bureaucratic hiatus at the centre of MAFF. That was epitomised by the fact that the Army was called into the centre of the foot and mouth crisis in Cumbria. I am not talking just from a logistical point of view. The Army seemed to adapt quickly, co-ordinate and take action at a level that MAFF was unable to.

The Minister will forgive me for returning to the hoary old subject, but many people are disturbed that the Government have failed to establish a full public inquiry into foot and mouth. I am not interested in looking for scapegoats or putting people in the dock: I want a comprehensive inquiry that will learn lessons. Many people in MAFF and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs today, and large numbers of outsiders, believe that the two limited inquiries initiated by the Government will not be sufficient. The European Parliament is likely to establish a full parliamentary inquiry into foot and mouth. If the European Parliament is prepared to do that, our Government should do the same. I am sure that it is merely rumour and gossip, but it has been reported that Labour MEPs were working hard in the

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corridors of Brussels and Strasbourg to prevent such an inquiry from being established. I am sure that the Minister will confirm that that never happened.

Is the Minister aware that farmers and the wider rural community share a deep concern and anger about the continuing failure of Government policy? I am talking about delivery rather than mere soundbites. That failure is reflected in the figures released by DEFRA last week, which show that 9,200 farm staff lost their jobs in the year preceding June 2001. The National Farmers Union calculates that 60,000 people have left farming and horticulture during the past three years. That is change at an enormous rate.

What is the Minister's opinion of the NFU report ''Lessons to be Learned'' and the report on foot and mouth by Devon county council? Both reports are a condemnation of Ministers and the old MAFF bureaucracy. They highlighted the fact that MAFF did not hold any contingency plan against an outbreak of foot and mouth, and failed to take into account the conclusions and recommendations of the 1968 Northumberland Committee report.

I was particularly struck by the words of Professor Ian Mercer, chairman of the Devon inquiry, in today's newspaper:

    ''We now know the Government's plan was not adequate and they have confessed to that. They also agree it was overtaken by the scale and speed with which the virus spread. They admit they are revising the plan. What should be on paper now is preparation of that plan and resources to deal with it as if there was to be another crisis next month. I have no evidence we are ready for another crisis.''

That is the point. I am not in the blame game. The wider public expect the new Ministry and Ministers quickly to have in place a plan that could deal with another outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease.

Will the Minister confirm that there was a delay over the naming of the new Department? Will he confirm that the original intention was to call it DERA—the letter ''F'' was missed out—and that ''Food'' was reintroduced into the new Department's title only at the last moment? Will he also confirm that the cost of changing the Department's name was estimated at £20,000? I know that all too often, the private and public sectors charge large sums of money for a blinding glimpse of the obvious.

DEFRA produced a document entitled ''Developing DEFRA—Six Months On: A Message from the Management Board'', from which I will quote to try to understand the Government's thinking behind the dissolution of MAFF and the establishment of DEFRA. The Minister is experienced and articulate, and came out with a wonderful roll of cliches of one kind or another, which are all too common in business and industry, let alone in politics, but which have reached a new low under the present Government. The document was produced to advise the public and DEFRA staff on DEFRA's activities. It states:

    ''DEFRA aim and objectives—after consulting widely inside and outside DEFRA, these were agreed in October along with our Minister's vision and have been communicated to the staff.''

    ''Some of you

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—DEFRA staff—

    have said that you will find the work that's been done on the vision and values confusing. This is how we see it all fitting together.''

At the centre of the document is the Prime Minister's vision of

    ''a single, distinct and integrated Department with a markedly new culture''.

The document does not say what the Department will do, but it will have a new culture. Ministers' vision is

    ''The difference a successful DEFRA can make to the world''.

That is incredible. It is mum and apple pie gone berserk. What about making a difference to the environment, the food industry, and our rural communities? The management board states that

    ''Our ambition for DEFRA to become a winning team; the way we will put our policies into practice''.

DEFRA's values are to

    ''Clarify how we do our jobs. Help us to make decisions; guide the way we interact with people and how we can expect others to interact with us''.

How has DEFRA gone about motivating the former core civil servants of MAFF and those who came from the old Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions? In July, it held a start event with Ministers in London and—wait for it—established a series of values workshops. Some members of the Committee are old enough to remember the film ''Monty Python's Life of Brian'' in which the People's Front of Judea had a think-in about what the Romans had done for them. They were supposed to be anti-Roman, but every now and again someone said that the Romans had given them something such as roads or aqueducts.

Will the people in the rural community be impressed that in its first six months DEFRA established values workshops as a management technique? There is nothing in the document about what the real aims of DEFRA are, only management newspeak. I accept that if one trawls round Whitehall and much of private business and industry one would find similar lavatory paper. The document is meaningless. I sat in the Tea Room this morning and caught the eye of David Lloyd George and Stanley Baldwin. None of those great figures would have had time for this kind of nonsense.

The cynicism in farming communities and the wider rural community is reinforced by a document such as this. It absolutely meaningless and epitomises the Government's approach. The Minister will have to come up with much harder and real aims before he can convince people in the rural community that the Government know what they are about. It is not a question of Ministers losing the plot; judging by this document, I do not think that there is a plot.

I turn now to specific questions that concern the transition of MAFF to DEFRA and how it affects real people—our constituents. Will the Minister explain the late payments of IACS cheques this year? Is it just a question of incompetence, or is it part of the continuing IT problems outlined by the permanent secretary in evidence to the Select Committee on 14 November 2001? Will the Minister assure us that the chaos and confusion over his Department's handling of correspondence will be resolved? There has been a massive increase in the Department's correspondence

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because of foot and mouth, but the issue was raised at business questions last Thursday, and I am sure that the Minister will agree that the situation is unacceptable. It is not only Members of Parliament who cannot get answers, but many other people as well.

From the DEFRA briefing document, it seems that one problem concerns resources. In the only practical section, entitled ''How we are to get there'', the management board says:

    ''We'll also be pursuing with the Treasury the Business Case we have sent them for extra funding to invest in modern pay, accommodation and IT systems and in a comprehensive change programme''.

Has the Minister had any white smoke from the Treasury on those extra resources, because they are fundamentally important?

Will the Minister assure us that the issue of differentials in pay between the civil servants in the old Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions and the old MAFF has been resolved? The permanent secretary referred to it as ''a sore'' in his evidence to the Select Committee. The Department is in the process of producing many papers and reports. When can we expect implementation of those reports' recommendations, particularly on the rural White Paper?

Will the Minister reassure farmers about DEFRA's guidelines on the Environmental Impact Assessment (Uncultivated Land and Semi-natural Areas) (England) Regulations 2001? This is a specific example. Farmers who have already committed themselves to agri-environmental schemes, such as the countryside stewardship scheme, or are meeting set-aside obligations are particularly concerned at the prospect of the regulations. The NFU stated that the species of grass used by farmers to ensure that they meet the requirements of the countryside stewardship scheme is such that, just three months after planting, the land will be caught by the 25 to 30 per cent. ryegrass guideline. The EIA would seem to be at cross-purposes to many sound agri-environmental schemes that are undertaken by farmers. That is a classic example—I am giving only one here—in which the farming community, many non-governmental organisations and others see that there has yet to be, to use the management term, any real step change in the service delivery that the new Department is offering. If anything, it could be said to be worse.

Many NGOs are concerned that the environmental element of DEFRA has been swamped by the old MAFF, and many important environmental issues are still being shuttlecocked between other Departments. Perhaps the Minister could give his views on the relationship between his Department and the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions on the future of environmentally friendly fuels. The creation of the new Department has raised expectations that there will be a new, powerful voice in Whitehall for all those interests, that policy will be integrated, that necessary action will be swift, that lessons will be learned from the past and that a new approach will be adopted. If I were generous, I would

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say that the jury is still out. Many realistic people who are directly involved would say that there is a danger of missing an opportunity.

Let me highlight one central issue. When the Government established DEFRA, they should have removed all aspects of delivery, the auditing of services and general proofing responsibilities to separate executive agencies. The development of policy would have remained with DEFRA, but delivery through supporting services would have been run by executive agencies with clear financial and service performance targets.

MAFF was not designed, or able, to cope with the complicated world that now exists and the kind of integration that the Minister wants. On the evidence that I have seen so far, I do not believe that the new Department will be able to carry out the policy development and hands-on delivery that is expected of it. I urge the Minister, even at this late stage, to speak to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Prime Minister to see whether DEFRA might evolve further.

In the way that the Government killed off MAFF, they missed an opportunity to meet the needs of the environment, the food industry and the rural community. Many hard-working men and women in the new Department wish to deliver the best that they can in those important areas. I do not know whether they got much out of the values workshops. I fear that the new structure is not based on lessons learned from the past. It will not deliver what people want; instead, it will disillusion them with cliches and soundbites.

11.2 am

 
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