Watchdog? More lapdog, Mr Prescott

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The Independent Online
I'M GETTING worried about John Prescott's terrier. Yes, I know he no longer has a four-footed friend (he had a basset called Fred, but was too upset when it died to get another) but he's been boasting about the animal nonetheless. The beast in question is the new Environmental Audit Committee of the House of Commons, which the Deputy Prime Minister described last week as "a terrier to snap at the Government's heels".

It would be a brave pooch that took a nip out of Mr Prescott's ankle (Fred never did) and I fear that this one hasn't got the gumption. Ministers made much of how powerful the new committee would be: Tony Blair himself likened it to the mighty Public Accounts Committee. But it does not look like turning out that way.

The chairman, John Horam MP, does not seem to have shown much interest in green issues. He has not asked a single Parliamentary question on the environment since the election. I can find no past references to him and conservation, and only one to pollution; when, as a junior health minister in 1996, he refused to make reducing asthma a key government target.

It wasn't supposed to be like this. The first possible chairman approached was John Gummer (he may look a bit like a chihuahua but he has an effective yap) but he turned it down. So did the green Liberal Democrat Simon Hughes (a rather streetwise inner-city mongrel). The Lib Dems then thought it was safe for their environment spokesman Matthew Taylor (a black labrador). But at the committee's first meeting Labour unexpectedly switched and voted for Horam instead. And the Horam dog? I have to say he reminds me of one of those dapper, but rather boring poodles. And since he has switched parties twice - from Labour to SDP and then to Tory - his favourite walkies can be safely be assumed to be across the floor of the House.

Only three of the rest of the committee - Norman Baker, industrious Lib Dem, Cynog Davis, green Plaid Cymru, and Joan Whalley, a former Labour environment spokeswoman - have a good track record. Many did not even bother to turn up to the committee's last meeting.

Worse, ministers seem to be beginning to think they can flout it. Its first investigation, into Treasury policies, immediately hit trouble when the Financial Secretary, Dawn Primarolo (a dalmatian, I think) refused to turn up to give evidence. That is quite a snub; such summonses are rarely declined, and Labour's environmental policy documentlaid down that the committee would have "the power to question any government minister". Terrier? I fear it may be more lapdog than watchdog.

o MEANWHILE, in another part of the Whitehall jungle, the Agriculture Minister, Jack Cunningham, is passing his ministry's responsibilities for regulating the nuclear industry to the new Food Standards Agency and the Department of Health. He has told Cabinet colleagues that he will be relieved to get rid of them.

Environmentalists, who argue that Nuclear Jack's long-standing support of Sellafield disqualifies him for the role, will greet this as a victory, even though he has long since passed nuclear matters to his junior minister, Jeff Rooker. They will be particularly pleased as two important decisions on the future of Sellafield are coming up shortly.

But hang on. The changes will not take effect before late 1999, long after the Sellafield decisions should have been taken, and even a survivor like Cunningham can expect to have been put out to grass in the Lords...

Meanwhile, he is trying to find a new role for his ministry by lobbying to take over conservation of the countryside from the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. But entrusting it to all those civil servants who have spent years pandering to farmers and giving subsidies for destroying the landscape would be like putting the Mafia in charge of the police. Time for Prescott to give a warning bark?

o AND those Agriculture civil servants are a tough lot - as Cunningham found when he tried to move his special adviser into the next office. The officials refused. He finally prevailed - only to find the intervening door had been locked He only managed to get his way by steadfastly refusing to move from the doorway until his Sir Humphreys had both unlocked the door and yielded up the key.