Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100-119)
MR BRIAN BENDER CB AND MRS JULIE FLINT
WEDNESDAY 19 JUNE 2002
100. But do you not think the public, or people that might be buying this Report, might want to know who are the people that are the Management Board of the Forestry Commission, who are the people that they can write to and complain to? Is not that a piece of information that the public might be interested in?
(Mr Bender) I accept the point.
101. Okay. I wonder if you could also explain why, because of the way that you have dealt with it, the presentation of statistical data about Forestry Commission means that it is absolutely meaningless? Because you are taking figures, for instance, up to and including 1998/99, obviously it covers the whole of Great Britain, 1999-2000 covers Great Britain, up to 1/7/99, and England, Great Britain and Wales for the rest of the year; 2000 and 2001 covers England and Great Britain, reserve functions in Wales, and 2001-2002 and beyond covers only England. Consequently, although you have made a mention of these changes, actually it is impossible to have a look at comparing the statistical data, to get any real information out of it, if you are a stakeholder?
(Mr Bender) Can I say, and this may have been implicit in the points I made earlier, I will make it explicitly now, there is a constitutional oddity about this Report; not only am I not the Accounting Officer for the Forestry Commission but I have no editorial control over what this Report says, ultimately, what this Report says on the Forestry Commission or on OFWAT. So I take your points, and I will pass them back.
102. Can I say, I think that comment is actually, frankly, absurd. You have put your name to this publication, it is your Department's Annual Report, presumably you have had some say about the fact that the presentation of the information is this way, certain information is being left out, and a third of this Report is to be on the Forestry Commission, and a few passing comments about agriculture?
(Mr Bender) I repeat that I do not have editorial control over what this document says on the Forestry Commission; it is bizarre.
103. Would you not think that, next year, you would like to have some editorial control over it; would it not be helpful?
(Mr Bender) I would like to ensure that, next year, we have a more balanced document, that meets the sorts of points the Committee have made today.
104. Thank you. Can I just go on to one or two other points that are in that section to do with forestry. You said, I think, to a colleague of mine that yesterday you published the document on the sustainability policy, which we have not yet seen; in that document, does it actually deal with current administrative arrangements for delivering sustainable forestry policies?
(Mr Bender) It deals with rural economies, communities and countryside, but it does not deal specifically with forestry as a separate entity.
105. Right; because you had said, of course, in your Report, that we do have, on page 56, that the current administrative arrangements for delivering sustainable forestry policies would be reported in spring 2002; and I just wondered, is there another document, or is it to be in the one that was published yesterday?
(Mr Bender) I will get back to the Committee on that.
106. Thank you very much; we are obviously interested. I wonder if also we could move on to an item, a rather sort of hazy section, on page 66, about consultation with stakeholders and members of the public. I represent the Forest of Dean, where, you will be aware, no doubt, even if you are not necessarily too involved with the Forestry Commission, we have a very large forest, in fact, I think, the largest forest in England. And it says, on page 66: "Consultation takes place on a wide range of issues through statutory committees, specific consultation exercises and general liaison with industry, environmental and other interested parties." Can I just make a comment, and I would like you to respond to it. I can tell you that, from my community, that is absolute nonsense, there is no such process as consultation, about timber-selling activities, recreational facilities, expansion, any activity of the Forestry Commission, whether it is for recreation or for the timber, found, that it is something that is done and then the community is informed. I do not know if you consider that consultation?
(Mr Bender) I take that criticism very seriously.
107. I think it needs to be taken, because I think it is one that, if we are to deliver the wish list that is presented to us on pages 66 and 67, that is the only way that we are going to get that through. I wonder if we could just move on to one or two other little points. Why has it not been possible to achieve the Forestry Commission's PSA targets in respect of sales of timber-cutting rights?
(Mr Bender) I am not equipped to answer questions on the Forestry Commission, and I apologise to the Committee if there has been any misunderstanding about that. I can ensure that the Committee gets a response to this point.
108. Okay; so is it possible we could have a note about that?
(Mr Bender) Of course, I will make sure that the
Diana Organ: And the other questions that are down here, about the private partner for participation, maybe we could include that?
109. I think what we need to do is issue a series of questions and direct them at the Forestry Commission; because, if I have understood what you have said, basically, you had no choice but to include what they wrote in this Departmental Report, and whereas you may express your opinions about it in a slightly more restrained way than we do, I suspect they may not be dissimilar?
(Mr Bender) That just about sums it up, and clearly I regret the extent to which the Committee feels frustrated by this.
110. Can I move on then to something that I should think you do know about, which is actually Parliamentary Answers and letters from Members of Parliament and answering correspondence. And it is right that I ask you this question though, because yesterday a member of your Department telephoned me and said that they had a letter from my organisation, I think they meant my office, that they had a letter from November, and it was from a constituent, with a forwarding letter from me, but the bit of the newspaper cutting had got torn, could I then supply the rest of the newspaper cutting, from last November; that was not possible. I wonder if you could say what steps you have taken to improve the service that you have got, in replying to my constituents? And I should say that that letter from November is one of the ones that I am aware of that I am awaiting a reply to, but that there is further correspondence from possibly even before the last general election, and do not ask me to say what they are, because there are so many of them I do not know. But what steps are you now taking so that my constituents get a decent service?
(Mr Bender) First of all, can I repeat what I said earlier, about the seriousness and the regret at what happened in the months from the middle of last year onwards. We have strengthened the numbers and skills in the centre of the Department who deal with ministerial correspondence as a central unit; we have improved the IT in that unit, so that we now have an ability across the Department to track letters. We have a better management structure of that unit, to track, to trace, to deal with problems in batches. We have impressed, across the Department, on staff, at head of division level, upwards and downwards, because the focal point is head of division level, the importance of efficiency on this issue, and we are, separately, beginning, I think very soon, some seminars on the quality of the drafting. So a number of steps taken, both in terms of the efficiency of the process and, I hope, the quality of the process, to prevent a recurrence and to, I hope, steadily improve both the speed of performance and the quality of the performance of the Department.
111. Thank you; and can I go on to Parliamentary Questions. For instance, yesterday, I tabled half a dozen written questions to the Department, and would hope to have the replies for Monday. Can you assure me that I will have replies by Monday?
(Mr Bender) I happen to have, sitting behind me, the Department's Parliamentary Clerk. I do not know whether you want to comment on that.
112. They are to do with Special Beef Premium concerns, and the change of the forms from the Rural Payments Agency, and to do with the Countryside Stewardship review?
(Mr Bender) Again, the Department's Ministers, the top of the office, across the Department, are spreading the message of the importance of responding efficiently, as well as accurately, to Parliamentary Questions. I think it would be rash of me to make a specific promise on these questions, but I will look into it when I get back.
Diana Organ: Thank you.
113. It is interesting, you have had a year in which you have had, I guess, record volumes of correspondence, record volumes of Parliamentary Questions, record Parliamentary activity, probably records everywhere, but not a mention of your work activity in this Report. Why do you keep silent on what you actually do?
(Mr Bender) I take that as a sort of rhetorical question I take away.
114. Can I raise with you a query I have also about Parliamentary Questions. I asked, some time ago, in written form, for what I thought was a perfectly respectable piece of information. I asked, on a county basis, for the expenditure by CAP-managed schemes, and, given that you have, through the IACS system, knowledge of where, in spatial terms, all the farms are, and therefore within your computer systems you will have known what individual farms receive, I would have thought it was not rocket science to have provided that answer. And I waited for weeks and weeks, I will ask, as soon as possible; eventually, I get an answer saying the information is not held in that particular form. Then, finally, after badgering one of your Ministers, I did get some regional output, but nothing on a county basis. And I espied, in a written Parliamentary Answer to another Member, something which did suggest to me that more localised information about the way in which your CAP-managed expenditure was disbursed could be provided. Now it is not far off from the era of openness on information, freedom of information; if we cannot get basic information about flows of monies on schemes like that now, how on earth are you going to cope with the ravages of people who will demand a vast amount more information than presently is available, and you are struggling to answer what I thought was quite a simple question, of, county-by-county, how much money is spent by CAP-managed schemes?
(Mr Bender) If I may say, I think there are two separate questions inside that. One is, what information is available, and is it held in the right form; and the work that is going on with the Rural Payments Agency, to have a proper, digitised, geographical information system base, and a single business identifier, will, but not for a couple of years, ensure that the data is available, at presses of buttons, in much more user-friendly, in any sense of the word, user form. So I think there is a question about what is available, and a separate question about freedom of information, where I would hope that my Department would not wait until the Freedom of Information Act requires it to respond with what it has to queries.
115. Let me just pursue this area of questioning. The reason why I asked it was this. We are moving into an area where modulation plays a part in our agricultural activity, the Curry Report calls for more of it, no doubt Mr Fischler, when he comes up with his mid-term review, may want to make some changes; it worries me about how you monitor the effect, on certainly agriculture in England and Wales, of these changes, if you cannot answer a question to me about where the money presently goes by CAP scheme?
(Mr Bender) I saw the transcript when you raised this point with, I think, Lord Whitty, at a previous hearing. The briefing I had, in response to that, makes, if I may say, the sort of self-evident point, that, in broad terms, the impact of modulation will not be driven by farm size, or type, as much as the extent to which individual farms take the opportunity presented by it. That is the sort of response to your earlier line of questioning; but, plainly, we need to move towards having the material available in the most user-friendly way, both for the Government and also for those who want to find out. But, it comes back to some of the earlier questions on IT systems, these things do not happen overnight.
116. Just something that I am not expecting you, certainly not based on the experience this morning, to answer now, on the progress of the GIS programme, which actually links directly to Mr Jack's questions; could you provide a note on where that has got to?
(Mr Bender) Yes, I can. My understanding is, it is a couple of years from fruition, and it is on track; but I will make sure that, in the supplementary material, I provide detail.
117. Right; a more detailed appraisal than that. Presumably, your officials provided the information which was the basis of the Animal Health Bill?
(Mr Bender) Yes.
118. Obviously, there is a political process, on which I would not expect you to comment, but you would have followed the debate on that Bill?
(Mr Bender) Yes.
119. And I assume you would have noted the significant concerns that there were about passing powers of this kind to a Department with a track record that yours has. I made those remarks, I do not mind admitting it, but I was certainly not alone in those views; and, of course, the Bill eventually ran into the sand, and we have ended up with trying to do some of it through SIs, and so on. How do you view that?
(Mr Bender) Can I say, first of all, repeating a point I made earlier, about the Department's contingency planning, and without prejudice to various reports that will be published by the NAO and the independent inquiries in the period ahead, I do not feel ashamed of my Department's performance overall on what was a totally unprecedented, worldwide, unprecedented animal disease, and, comparing with the 1967 outbreak, it was brought under control over the same timescale, much wider geographically, much wider seeded.