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

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Alun Michael: We have heard three interesting speeches. To some extent, they ranged across responsibilities that predate the creation of DEFRA

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and, hence, the reasons for the order before us. I am not surprised that the temptation was too much for hon. Members, but we would be in Committee a long time if I were to respond adequately to every question or sentence of provocation. However, some of the points made deserve a response, and I will run through them in reverse order.

The hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) said that the order does not deal with the future of the SVS. In fact, that is extremely important to the new Department. We are trying to establishing a much better knowledge base throughout the range of DEFRA's responsibilities. The knowledge base in terms of rural issues, rural economies and rural communities is fragile. The importance of the scientific contribution to that information base is demonstrated by the appointment of the new chief scientific officer, who will be a member of the board of management of the new Department. I am certain that the new chief scientific officer and colleagues in DEFRA will be looking at the future of the service, as well as considering issues raised as a result of the current inquiries, particularly the ''lessons learned'' inquiry and the scientific inquiry.

Reference was made to the Forestry Act 1967. I do not want to go into the details of those issues again, as to do so would amount to a long response to a short question. However, the position of the Forestry Commission within the organisations that are accountable to the new Department is important. It will now be answerable to a Department that is concerned about the products of our forests and woodlands and the contribution that forestry makes to the environment and to the wider community in town and country. Last week, I met the chairman and chief executive of the Forestry Commission to discuss its approach to issues of access and the challenge of dedication. It might be more appropriate to debate some of the details mentioned by the hon. Gentleman at another time, but I am certain that the Forestry Commission, given its relationship with the Government, will find the new Department an excellent location.

The hon. Gentleman referred to imports of food, a matter that is certainly exercising the Government. Such issues might be mentioned among the outcomes of the ''lessons earned'' inquiry and the pronouncements of the new commission on farming and food. We must remember that, by definition, illegal imports are illegal. We must ensure that our systems are appropriate to the nature of importation as well as to the legal requirements covering imports.

Members of Parliament must be careful about their relationships with departmental staff. If the hon. Gentleman was attempting to gain publicity by almost intimidating staff at the Department, I deprecate such an approach. Ministers are responsible to Parliament for the work of their Departments. I assure the Committee that that will be a hallmark of the way in which Ministers in the new Department will operate. We want to meet the concerns and genuine interests of

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colleagues on both sides of the House. Some members of DEFRA's staff, as well MAFF officials before the new Department was set up, have been under intense pressure. They had to deal with an enormous crisis at the same time as responding to the needs of farmers and others for information. There is no doubt that that pressure led to much difficulty and frustration. We must understand the pressure on staff of any Department during such periods.

The hon. Member for South-East Cornwall acknowledged the importance of the order. I agree with many of his comments. He said that disaster is often followed by a change in the Department and I accept that that is the case. When making changes in response to events that have challenged an old structure, we must get the new structure right. I sincerely believe that we have achieved the right structure with the creation of DEFRA. As I said, the order tidies up loose ends. The change is a new start.

The hon. Gentleman questioned the decision not to give evidence to the Devon inquiry and asked about giving evidence to a European Parliament inquiry, which is more specific than the European Union inquiry. I responded to points that were raised specifically in advance of the Devon inquiry, but that is different from Ministers or officials appearing before it. To help the inquiry, we asked its members what they needed to know and said that we would provide that information. We considered that it was not right to divert energy to that inquiry—or to the several other inquiries that arose, as we anticipated they would—when the Government were establishing a number of strands of inquiry to get to the heart of the problems of foot and mouth disease and to learn the necessary lessons for the future. Like the results of the others, the findings of the Devon inquiry will be fed into national inquiries. It is appropriate that the Government respond to the results of those inquiries.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman's comment that the new Department will be judged by delivery and action. We ask for nothing else. Of course, resources are important, and the current spending review provides an opportunity to address long-term requirements for all aspects of the Department's work. In the shorter term, there is a major challenge to make best use of resources and to tackle the weaknesses of the new Department. For instance, as the Department's e-Minister, I have been examining the IT review and how to provide an adequate service in future and integrate the services that we have inherited. That has been a challenge in recent weeks. We take such issues seriously, because it is important that best use is made of existing resources in targeting, in a joined-up way, the purpose of the new Department.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): A specific question which has always concerned me is, to whom does the Food Standards Agency report? There was no opportunity for real accountability under MAFF. Will that be put right under DEFRA?

Alun Michael: Yes. Responsibility for the Food Standards Agency lies with the Department of Health, which is appropriate given that that Department has a

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responsibility to look after the health and safety interests of the nation. As my hon. Friend knows, many of us campaigned for the establishment of the FSA, which has independence from the industry and the Department that sponsors the industry. I am not saying that my Department does not take a great deal of interest in the Food Standards Agency and what it has to say on a variety of issues. It is important that we take a joined-up approach and ensure that the agency punches its weight and is listened to within DEFRA.

To respond to the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall on making the best use of existing resources, last week I met the taskforces from Devon and Cumbria that have been looking at the best way to aid the regeneration of farming and non-farming industries to contribute to the economies of those areas. I am encouraged by the efforts being made to develop an agenda for linking resources: for example, many strands of support are available to farmers, but ultimately it is for the farmer to make sense of them.

Enabling easier access to those resources and joining up the approach and resources of the regional development agencies, DEFRA and other organisations such as local government—which leads both of those taskforces, albeit with the involvement of the RDAs—is a step forward that we want to be mirrored in every part of every region of England. I believe that that is how things will develop. Initially targeting activity on the areas where foot and mouth disease has had its greatest impact is the right approach. I accept that Parliament and the public will want change, although the hon. Gentleman was right to say that it is not wise to rush to judgment too quickly. These things take time.

The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) started excellently, but spoilt his speech by saying that he was merely stating the mitigating circumstances. Subsequently, he made one or two points that require a response. He referred to ''a full public inquiry'', but that is a diversion from what is crucial to the Government, the Opposition and the public at large, which is to learn all the lessons that can be learned from the events of the past year and to make sure that those lessons are applied in practice for the future.

As Secretary of State for Wales, I saw the amount of time and effort and the incredibly large sums of money that were spent on the public inquiry on child abuse in north Wales. In terms of the lessons that emerged from it, there was probably no more important inquiry into what happened—the inquiry's report is remarkable. However, for a long time, the facts and findings were not available to policy makers to allow us to act on them.

It was the right decision to have different strands of inquiries to examine the science, practical lessons and future for farming and food that will inform future policy and actions. As the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall said, there might be a need to bring together the messages from the different inquiries to ensure that the Government give a coherent response—I am certain that we want to do that. However, by using separate strands of inquiry rather

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than ''a full public inquiry'', we will move more swiftly toward the real truth of what happened and what lessons must be learned.

During my contact with farmers, I have been impressed by the extent to which many of them are engaged in achieving a successful and viable future, even in the light of the obstacles and problems that they have experienced in the past year. A few weeks ago, I attended a conference in Hereford hosted by the Bishop of Hereford. I thought that the conference's emphasis would be negative and on the past, but it was not. It was characterised by a gritty determination to succeed in future and to examine new ways in which to become competitive and viable in the new environment.

The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk asked for my response to the NFU report and the Devon county council report. Representatives from Devon gave me a copy of that report yesterday, and I will read it in full. Both reports contribute to the debate but it would be inadvisable to jump ahead of the findings of the national inquiries to which those reports will contribute.

Professor Mercer made several comments during his interruptions and public presentations. When the interim report was produced, I heard him talk about the way in which the inquiry had proceeded. He referred to the scale, speed and unprecedented impact of the outbreak of foot and mouth disease last year. It does not seem that the word ''admit'' is appropriate when revising the plan for dealing with such outbreaks. Of course, we must learn lessons from such an unprecedented set of events.

Many constructive approaches have been adopted. The Government joined the Governments of Holland and Belgium to organise a conference in Brussels to examine the effect of foot and mouth disease. I attended part of that conference, which was productive and interesting. One of the issues that arose from it was the need to develop and verify quickly a test to distinguish between vaccinated animals and those that have had foot and mouth disease. The verification of such a test would give several options for dealing with future foot and mouth disease outbreaks that are not currently viable. We must keep an eye on such developments.

The hon. Gentleman referred to a delay in naming the Department. I would not know about these things. All that I know is that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs seems to be an entirely appropriate title. There are upsides and downsides to any title. If the name of the Department referred merely to rural affairs, that would miss out urban and international aspects of the environment. If it referred only to food and farming, fisheries would be missed out. Taking account of sensitivities about names as well as the importance of getting as short a name as possible is a challenge when many responsibilities are brought together, which was the case with DEFRA.

After bringing together those important responsibilities in a new Department, it was sensible for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State,

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Ministers and top officials to look for a vision that showed what the Department was for and made its objectives clear. I take such processes seriously and I suggest that the hon. Gentleman reflect on the words

    ''Where there is no vision, the people perish''.

It is easy to mock or lampoon the process of clarifying objectives, but it is important to know what the Department is for.

The Secretary of State and Ministers say:

    ''Our vision of the future is of a world in which climate change and environmental degradation are recognised and addressed by all nations and where low carbon emissions and efficient use of environmental resources are at the heart of our whole way of life. Where, here in the UK, rural communities are diverse, economically and environmentally viable, and socially inclusive—with high quality public services and real opportunities for all. A country where the food, fishing and farming industries working closely together and with Government are not dependent on output-related subsidies to produce safe, nutritious food which contributes positively to consumer choice and the health of the whole nation. A place where the land is managed in such a way as to recognise its many functions, from production through to recreation; where we seek to promote biodiversity on land and in our seas; and where the promotion of animal welfare and protection against animal disease is at the core of the way in which we farm and live. The pursuit of sustainable development, environmental, economic and social, is vital to achieving this vision.''

If that is motherhood and apple pie, I can only say that I am in favour of motherhood, and apple pie is an extremely good thing, especially if it is as good as the apple pie that my mother still cooks so competently at the age of 90. Those aims are important if we are to live in a decent society. If the hon. Gentleman wants to mock that vision, let him mock.

A vital principle is set out in the last sentence of our vision statement:

    ''The pursuit of sustainable development, environmental, economic and social''.

It is easy to say that we want economic success—we all do, but we want environmental improvements and social viability as well as success. The elements need to be in balance. That vision is ambitious, but I am sure the Committee agrees that we want a Government, a Department and Ministers who are ambitious about what they want to achieve. The hon. Gentleman need not lampoon a specific circular from the Department—our vision and aims have been set out on our website and have been circulated for comment not only to staff, but to stakeholders, including people in farming, environmental groups and a variety of other interests that the Department exists to serve.

We have set out how we shall pursue the aims of a better environment at home and abroad, economic prosperity, thriving economies and communities in rural areas and a countryside for all to enjoy. I shall not go through those objectives in detail; I simply invite Committee members to consider them. As for the points made by the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall, the new Department will be judged, rightly, against those objectives. Let us take that process seriously, because we take seriously the process of setting aims and trying to deliver on projects.

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The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk mocks the idea of vision workshops. However, when we drew together officials from a variety of backgrounds to create a team in DEFRA—rather than a group of people who regarded themselves as ex-MAFF, ex-DETR or ex-Home Office—it was sensible to follow a process that enabled them to exchanges ideas. That is what we have been doing as Ministers and with members of staff. We need to engage with one another.

At the top level—the Department's board of management—the permanent secretary has assembled a strong team that brings together people who gained experience and qualities from MAFF, and those who bring talent and experience from outside. Those include the independent members of the board and the Director General for Land Use and Rural Affairs, who joined us from the Department of Trade and Industry with a wide range of experience from across Whitehall. A new director with responsibility for service delivery and regional work has been brought in from outside.

The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk rightly pointed out the difficulties of establishing a new Department in a rush. It would have been nice to have had 12 months to prepare, as some Departments have had when they have been reconfigured. However, I think that the right decision was taken, namely that we should get on with it and do it fast, as it could not be delayed. That means that we in the new Department have to do all the planning work with the Department already in existence. It has certainly been a massively challenging few months for officials at every level in the Department as well as for Ministers. The pay differentials between this and the previous Department are a major challenge. A great deal of progress has been made, but the problem has not yet been completely solved; it is still being worked on.

IT problems have been a big challenge, and I have already referred to them. As e-Minister, I am trying to ensure that we get the best possible systems for the long term, and that we understand the lessons learned from mistakes made elsewhere. For that reason, I asked the Office of Government Commerce to become engaged, and we have challenged the assumptions of the Department's IT strategy as a result of the review that was undertaken. We have communicated openly with Department staff about this challenging time for those involved.

Reference has been made to correspondence. That is a major problem. I began to be concerned about delays and problems with correspondence late last summer. The Ministerial team became aware that the problem was bigger than we first thought. As a result, the Secretary of State wrote to all MPs explaining the problem that we had discovered, which was partly due to the massive pressure of correspondence. I am sure that hon. Members will understand how massive that pressure was at a time when all available staff had been deployed to the fight against foot and mouth disease. In addition to that, there was a serious system failure, and when we made inquiries we discovered that a large amount of correspondence had not even been logged

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on to the system. We were therefore not aware of the size of the problem, and neither were the officials who tried to deal with it.

As the Leader of the House said in response to questions last week, we have deployed new staff to deal with correspondence. It is the top priority of the Department and Ministers to deal in a timely manner with correspondence and, for instance, parliamentary questions, which were also delayed. Improvements on that score have demonstrated our commitment to the issue of correspondence. I acknowledge the seriousness of the problem.

I can tell from the correspondence that is reaching me now that we are making major and significant impacts on the problem, but we are still discovering correspondence that has been around for a long time. It will be a little while before we are convinced that we have eradicated delays in correspondence. I ask hon. Members to bear with us. I agree with the nature of the criticism of the situation, and I ask hon. Members to accept the commitment that we have made to eradicating such problems.

 
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