HC Deb 24 June 2004 vol 422 cc1433-5
1. Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD)

What plans she has to move civil servants (a) within her Department and (b) in agencies for which her Department has responsibility, presently based in London to rural areas of England. [180204]

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Margaret Beckett)

Work is under way to evaluate how and where civil servants should be located to meet the business needs of the Department and its agencies. That work will complement the Lyons review on public sector relocation and the Gershon efficiency review.

Mr. Heath

I suppose that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will eventually give a response to the Haskins review and, indeed, the reviews that the right hon. Lady mentioned. Would it not be a splendid idea if it showed its commitment to rural areas by moving headquarters staff to, for instance, the west country, where staff might occasionally meet dairy farmers, use rural bus services and experience the glories of wetland areas? If she wants a suitable site, I am happy to suggest Frome.

Margaret Beckett

I assure the hon. Gentleman that he is not the only person with ideas for places, including areas in the south-west, where staff could go. We hope to make an announcement soon on the Haskins review, and he will understand that I do not wish to anticipate discussion of any further decisions. We are, however, mindful of the fact that our Department has a high profile and that there is a strong need to provide services in rural areas.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab)

Will my right hon. Friend accept my stronger bid? If Prue Leith succeeds in her plan for a visitor attraction, chefs' training centre and food hall in the Great British Kitchen at Stafford, would my right hon. Friend regard Stafford as sufficiently rural—[Interruption.] This is important. Does my right hon. Friend think that the synergies with the work of her Department are sufficiently strong for Stafford to be an excellent location for those civil servants?

Margaret Beckett

That is an interesting observation, and it reinforces my caution about giving advice about the decisions that will be made.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con)

The Secretary of State boasts of her plans to redeploy staff to rural areas, but if all those plans were implemented, they would affect 673 jobs out of 31,000 in the DEFRA family. Is the Minister aware of the evidence that her permanent secretary, Sir Brian Bender, gave the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee last Wednesday, in which he said there was a policy of "deliberate churning" of DEFRA staff, which means that more than half of all senior civil servants are brand new to the job? Sir Brian went on to say that 49 per cent. of staff are proud to work for DEFRA. Will the Secretary of State tell us whether she is proud to be in charge of a Department that deliberately churns its staff, in the permanent secretary's expression, and where 51 per cent. of staff are apparently ashamed to work?

Margaret Beckett

Yes, I am proud to be in our Department, which I think is an extremely good Department. I take the hon. Gentleman's point about what presumably concerns him about the phrase "churning of staff", but there is considerable merit—not least in a Department like ours, where there are great synergies across the subject specialties that the Department covers—in people acquiring a range of experience and expertise. We believe that the Department is better for it.

Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab)

I congratulate the Department on moving the Pesticides Safety Directorate headquarters, the Meat Hygiene Service headquarters and many other DEFRA staff to their brand-new, purpose-built headquarters accommodation at Kings Pool in York, and I congratulate my right hon. Friend on moving the Central Science Laboratory to Sand Hutton in rural North Yorkshire, just outside York. May I remind her that North Yorkshire is the largest rural county in England, and urge her to move further DEFRA jobs there without delay?

Margaret Beckett

The longer the question goes on, the more confident I am that whatever decision is ultimately made, it will be extremely unpopular with large numbers of hon. Members.

Forward to