From the Opposition Day debate on DEFRA Dec 4 2007.
Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): In his speech, the Secretary of State admitted, in his inimitable and endearing style, that when the Government have failures, they should admit to them. Frankly, there have been many failures in his Department, although I am happy to admit that many of them occurred before he began his watch. There have been so many examples of incompetence and there has been such a waste of public money, that the only honest statement to make at the Dispatch Box is the one that a colleague of his had the courage to make at the Home Office some time ago - that is, to admit that the Department is not fit for purpose.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs works in the unpredictable spheres of plant and animal diseases, and the effects of global warming. It will always have to handle those difficult problems. We all agree that they present severe challenges, but the real issue is that too many of DEFRA's problems have arisen from the failings of the Department.
My hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) gave an example at the Dispatch Box: when DEFRA chose the most complex method of common agricultural policy reform - the so-called dynamic hybrid - it set itself up for a fall. Administrative errors in handing out the single farm payments have cost the taxpayer £348 million, and many farmers in my constituency still do not have all the money to which they are entitled.
Perhaps more shocking than the destabilisation of the farming industry through the incompetent handling of the single farm payments was the revelation that DEFRA had rocked the industry further with the return of foot and mouth. The source of the outbreak was identified as the site of a Government-sponsored animal disease laboratory at Pirbright.
Those errors on the part of DEFRA have swallowed its budget, cost the taxpayer enormous amounts of money, and caused undue and unnecessary harm to farmers and people living in rural communities.
Additional Treasury pressures to cut expenditure will simply exacerbate DEFRA's inability to deliver its remit.
The primary reason for the creation of DEFRA, we were told, was to bring interrelated areas of farming, food, environment and flood protection closer together under the one umbrella - in other words, to facilitate joined-up government. Unfortunately, that is far from the reality. So dislocated appear to be the internal parts of DEFRA that disjointed and incompetent management and administration are the norm.
Let me give the House three examples from my constituency that have happened in the past few weeks. The first case is that of Mr. Frank Harris, a beef farmer from Leverington common. On 30 October, Mr. Harris rang my office to say that he had 21 suckler cows in calf on the Whittlesey washes on the Nene river. We had telephone contact the same day from other farmers who confirmed that there were a further 200 suckler cows on the same washlands.
The Whittlesey washes, like the Ouse washes further south, are a vital reservoir for excess water in the wetter winter months and, as such, play an integral and crucial part in the fens flood protection apparatus.
The washes were then placed in a bluetongue control area, with every likelihood that they would soon be flooded.
Knowing that the land would be flooded, Mr. Harris asked whether we could intervene on his behalf and asked for his cattle to be blood tested so that they could be moved into a protection zone on his farm about 3 miles away, but outside the zone.
The same day we wrote on Mr. Harris's behalf to Lord Rooker's office asking for an exception or relaxation to be made on the grounds of animal welfare.
We left messages at Lord Rooker's office again on 6 November.
A week later on 12 November, we spoke to an official who said that he would chase the matter up, but we have never, to this day, received a response or even an acknowledgement from DEFRA.
Mr. Harris has repeatedly tried to obtain permission from the State Veterinary Service in Bury St. Edmunds to move his cattle, but to no avail.
Since our inquiries, the land has flooded and some of the cattle, we are informed, have given birth. As far as DEFRA is concerned, there are 21 drowning cattle and their newborn calves.
My second example is Mr. Wiggington, who runs S&T Poultry near Wisbech. He breeds chicks for stock improvement for poultry farmers. He was trying to export more than 600 chicks to Jersey, which was happy to accept imports as long as the chicks had been reared outside avian flu designated areas. Mr. Wiggington applied for his licence at the Bury St. Edmunds DEFRA office.
However, it took seven days for the information from the Jersey authorities to go from the DEFRA office in Page street to the Bury St. Edmunds office via, it seems, the Lincoln office.
Despite repeated calls from both Mr. Wiggington and his potential customers, nothing seemed to be moving.
My office phoned and e-mailed DEFRA in Lincoln and within an hour that office had instructed the Bury St. Edmunds office that the licence would be signed. By this time, it was only a day before the chicks were scheduled to be shipped, so Mr. Wiggington had to take the morning off to drive to Bury St. Edmunds to collect the original licence in person, because DEFRA said that a photo or faxed copy was not acceptable for an export licence.
Had the paperwork not been cleared at the last minute, despite it being in the system for a week, Mr. Wiggington would have had to destroy a second batch of chicks in a month.
He has also reported to me losses of more than £1,000 in value as a result of DEFRA mismanagement and poor administration in the past year. This includes an incident where DEFRA put a stamp on a letter that enclosed licences, instead of franking it. That meant that the letter did not arrive, and as the birds could not be shipped, they had to be destroyed.
The next week Mr. Wiggington had to go and collect the documents himself from the post office and pay for the postage.
Because of poor instructions from DEFRA, Mr. Wiggington is still waiting for £2,500 worth of grant aid for going organic. He followed the instructions to the letter, only to be told subsequently that his application was unacceptable. Now he has been told that he will have to wait a minimum of six months for the payment as a result of an error that originated with DEFRA.
My final example involves Mr. Charles Horrell who farms at Pode Hole farm at Thorney near Peterborough. He runs a pedigree cattle and sheep farm. When he was placed in the bluetongue control zone around Peterborough, those pedigree cattle and sheep, which he would normally have sold for breeding for £50,000 in total, would have had to go to slaughter in a poor market situation and would have been worth only about £10,000.
We phoned DEFRA on his behalf and asked what Mr. Horrell's options were, now that he was in the control zone.
However, nobody at the DEFRA office knew, so we wrote to Lord Rooker.
Finally, we got a response from him simply saying:
"DEFRA are encouraging farming businesses to review their contingency plans through farming organisations."So we followed that up and phoned farming organisations, including the National Farmers Union, the Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group and the Meat and Livestock Commission. Not one had any advice for farmers on creating contingency plans or new business strategies to counter the onset of disease.
It appears that not only has DEFRA offloaded on to unions, charities and advisory groups the problems of responding at farm business level to bluetongue and foot and mouth, but it has not had the decency to tell them that it has done so.
Another natural hazard that has tested DEFRA in the past year is flooding. As the effects of global warming take hold on the environment and flood risk from tidal surges, higher sea levels and greater storms grows, DEFRA has abrogated its responsibility for flood protection by offloading those problems on to the Environment Agency. The increase in the money going towards flood protection seems to be a positive step, but it coincides with the addition of the expensive burden of coastal flooding to the Environment Agency's responsibilities. Those involved in flood protection in the fens have told me that they are concerned that the agency will be tempted to divert some of the extra funds to its own priorities - which, of course, include coastal flood prevention. If that is the case, the increase will not translate into extra security for people in Sheffield, Gloucester or Tewkesbury.
The culture of DEFRA has changed since the old MAFF days - certainly as far as agriculture is concerned. The Department's job was to support the farming industry and the rural community, but it has become one that seems to care little about rural issues and the rural economy and just wants to control and regulate that economy out of existence. Food prices are already increasing at a frightening rate. Do not look to the supermarkets to come to our aid; they are already paring farmgate prices to the bone. It is time that the Government returned to their age-old primary responsibility of ensuring the security of our food supplies.
Entire debate as pdf file