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Ministry 'unplanned' says top civil servant

Nov 22 2002

Paul Linford, The Journal

A senior civil servant last night threw a question mark over Tony Blair's
decision to create the new rural affairs superministry by revealing it was
"unplanned".

The Prime Minister axed the discredited Ministry of Agriculture (Maff)
immediately after the last election in the wake of the foot-and-mouth
fiasco.

In its place, he set up the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural
Affairs (Defra) under Margaret Beckett.

But yesterday, in what one MP called an "extraordinary admission", the
ministry's most senior official revealed that its creation was a last-minute
decision by Mr Blair.

Brian Bender, the Permanent Secretary at Defra, was giving evidence to the
Defra Committee of MPs which scrutinises the department.

Describing the difficulties faced by his staff at the outset of the new
department he said: "It was an unplanned merger."

He said officials had been planning for the replacement of Maff with a new
Ministry of Rural Affairs because that was a Labour manifesto commitment.

"What was unplanned was the fact that environment was to be included in the
new ministry and that made a considerable difference," he said.

Hexham MP Peter Atkinson said last night Mr Bender's comments constituted
"an extraordinary admission." He said: "It seems that Defra was a
back-of-the-envelope job on election night by the prime minister. No wonder
the place is in complete chaos."

Mr Bender's revelation comes a week after the Committee launched a
hard-hitting report calling into question the department's whole existence.

It said Defra had failed to do enough to champion rural areas and farming
and was "pessimistic" about its commitment to sustainable development.

During yesterday's committee hearing, one Labour MP said criminal gangs
illegally importing meat into the North-East might have caused the epidemic.

The outbreak was believed to have begun at a pig farm in Heddon-on-the-Wall,
Northumberland.

Stroud MP David Drew asked Mrs Beckett what the Government was doing to
crack down on illegal meat imports in the wake of the epidemic.

Mrs Beckett said intelligence gathering which could help close the net on
illegal meat imports was being stepped up. "We intend to seek a step change
in co-ordination and delivery. Some changes will be made now and re-assessed
in a year's time," she said.

"Who are the customers for this material? We are doing everything we can to
try and get answers to some of these questions," she added.

She said she believed the biggest threat came from "large scale imports"
rather than individuals.

A Defra spokesman said last night: "Brian was quite right that the inclusion
of the environment side was something not originally envisaged when the
Labour Party manifesto envisaged a department of rural affairs. The
formation of any new department is always an opportunity and a challenge.
Our record for a new department is very good. We can boast some significant
successes in international climate negotiations and rural affairs."