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

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Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Amess, and look forward to your chairmanship of the Committee. Often, we do not approach statutory instruments with due respect. This one is important and covers some fundamental issues. We are proposing to do what many people were screaming for last year, when we were in the hiatus of foot and mouth.

Farmers and others told me that they wanted to do to MAFF what it was doing to the animals: burn it on a pyre or bury it in a pit. That was an emotional response to difficult times. Over time—not just during the foot and mouth crisis—MAFF had become, perhaps, the least efficient and effective Department within Government. In a more measured manner, people are now looking for real change.

It is interesting that almost every major disease outbreak in the past 100 years or so has been followed by reorganisation; this continues the tradition. In his opening remarks, the Minister referred to tying up loose ends. I think that we all recognise that the tying up of loose ends that the order intends to do, to a considerable extent, masks what is really behind the movement from MAFF to DEFRA: a new Department, a new start, a new opportunity, the ability to bring environmental and rural affairs together in a new and bigger Department. As the hon.

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Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) said, it will be judged not by its name or the soundbites that come out of it but by the way in which it performs.

I want to emphasise three particular areas that are key to the way in which DEFRA will be seen to operate. The first area will be its efficiency and effectiveness. As I said, over a period of time, MAFF had become less efficient and less effective. The foot and mouth crisis brought all these things to a head. We are still receiving a considerable number of letters from farmers, and others, about the payments that have not been made. Reference has been made to the fact that they are still not getting prompt responses to their correspondence. That problem really needs to be put right quickly so that the efficiency and effectiveness of this new Department can really be seen to be a sea change away from what we were subjected to under MAFF.

Secondly, with regard to the new Department's accountability, I want to touch on two points. I do not want to pursue at great length the public inquiry aspects, because they have been well rehearsed on a number of occasions, and quite clearly the Government are not going up that road. The Government will live to rue the day for many years to come, because the lessons to be learned will not be learned by the inquiries that are under way. At some stage there will be need to be a drawing together of all those inquiries into one coherent document.

The Government's response, in the next few days, to the decision by the EU to undertake an inquiry will be determined by whether they are preparing to give a submission to that inquiry. Their decision not to give evidence to the Devon inquiry or the Northumberland inquiry might be excusable, but it will be inexcusable if they do not provide a submission to the proposed EU inquiry. I hope that the Minister will tell us whether the Government intend to make a submission to that inquiry.

Another point concerning accountability to the Department's customers—the farmers and those involved in the agricultural community—is that, long before foot and mouth, many of them had become increasingly frustrated by the fact that MAFF was itself the judge, jury and often the executioner in the decisions that it took, in the interpretations of EU directives, and in the absolute intransigence of its view—clearly, natural justice was not pursued for many. Fortunately, in a few cases, after considerable efforts by huge numbers of people, we have been able to achieve some form of natural justice for those farmers. Surely now is the time to recognise that it is necessary to have an appeals mechanism, on ombudsman or some form of independent second view for farmers who have perhaps inadvertently not completed a form correctly, and who have then been unjustly penalised at a time when they are under enormous pressure.

The third area that we need to touch on is the fact that we want the promised strategies and plans. We want all that the Department is promising to do, because all of it is very welcome. Some of the plans are indeed quite exciting and innovative, but they will be

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judged, as has been said, by their delivery, just as the new Department will be judged by the way in which those plans will be implemented and actioned. This is where we come to resources.

Perhaps we have been unfair to the MAFF. Perhaps it was very much a Cinderella Department and was starved of resources for quite some time. However, it is vital that this brand new large Department is provided with the resources necessary to deliver. I do not know whether the moneys that are already available are being used properly, but that is for the Minister and his team to determine. However, it is vital that the resources that are needed to deliver those promises are obtained.

To be fair this is still early days, even with the problems after foot and mouth. Soon, however, Parliament and the public will want to see that the promised changes have taken place, signifying a cultural sea change, rather than just a name change. I hope that over the next weeks and months those changes will be implemented, the resources will be allocated and the efficiency and the effectiveness of the Department will begin to be demonstrated. I hope that the real accountability to Parliament and the people will be manifested in a way that satisfies us all.

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Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater): Will the Minister range a little further than the information in the document? The State Veterinary Service has suffered greatly, taking the brunt of both BSE and foot and mouth. Nothing in the proposals to change from MAFF to DEFRA states what is to happen to the SVS in the longer term. In the last few decades, it has taken animal health and animal welfare to the enormous heights that we would expect from any hospital consultant or doctor, yet it came under huge pressure last year and had to bring in vets from America, Australia and elsewhere. When transferring responsibilities from MAFF to DEFRA, will the Minister take account of the SVS and the longer term health and well-being of animals in this country?

The aim of the Forestry Act 1967 was to set aside land for trees so that we as a nation could become self-sufficient in trees for the foreseeable future. The transferring of forestry to DEFRA means in theory that forestry would continue to have that Act behind it. Is it not more inclusive to start to plant hardwoods and other more natural species, rather than concentrate on forestation of the upper hills? Would the Minister look at the environmental context of forestry?

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk about the inclusion of food in the Department's name. Food production is still the most important matter for which DEFRA will have responsibility. There are two aspects: ''environmental'' food production and normal food production. I come from Somerset where many farmers are going organic simply because otherwise it is difficult to sell their milk and other farm produce. However, DEFRA offers farmers no help to go organic, which takes two years. There is not enough money in the pot, and farmers

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have no living income in the meantime. I hope that DEFRA will consider giving more help to farmers who want to go organic. Food production in this country should be evenly based between large farms on the east coast, which tend to be mass production units, and smaller farms in the west, which could produce high-quality food in the most environmentally friendly way.

One of the biggest problems is that all the legal proceedings are to be transferred too. The hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) rightly pointed out that enormous late payment problems persist. If people want to take action, should they take it against MAFF or DEFRA? Liabilities are being transferred, but will they be honoured? Will whoever is in charge—in most cases, it is the National Farmers Union—be able to pursue claims?

As has already been said, there is now an opportunity in Europe to hold an inquiry into foot and mouth. Would it be helpful if DEFRA took part in that inquiry, not to apportion blame, but to understand what went wrong and how to avoid the problem in future? The 1969 Northumberland report laid down many guidelines following the mid-1960s foot and mouth epidemic, but we did not learn the lessons. Those lessons have come home to roost in Devon, where pyres and all the other ravages of foot and mouth were seen. Surely, the moral responsibility of DEFRA is to understand those lessons and ensure that, if possible, foot and mouth does not break out again?

This week's Farmers Weekly contains a map showing where our imported meat comes from. Meat from some of those countries carries diseases such as plague, yellow monkey fever and other diseases that I have never heard of, yet we continue to import it. It is the Department's responsibility to stop tainted meat and other foodstuffs that might carry diseases that are not local and could be considerably nastier than foot and mouth from coming into this country.

My hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. Flook) and I attempted to visit local DEFRA representatives, but were told that we could not see them unless we made a long-term appointment. I later returned to them with a film crew; funnily enough, they saw me very quickly. If the Minister wants an inclusive Department that speaks for rural areas—a proposal with which I do not disagree—it should be made accountable to rural areas. It is worrying that Members of Parliament cannot gain access to the Department to find out what is going on.

Finally, I turn to environmental matters. Last year, one of the biggest problems in much of the west country was roads blocked by soil run-off from fields, yet whenever DEFRA and MAFF were approached, they said, ''It is not our responsibility. Take the matter back to the county council.'' If the Department is to focus on the environment, will the Minister ensure that that is done properly?

11.17 am

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