Not so much a bonfire as a damp squib
IT was a tough beginning to the New Year for Andrea Leadsom, the Defra Secretary, as she faced the farmers at the Oxford Farming Conference (OFC) for the first time. These are the leaders of the industry— none of them slouches when it comes to their business—and all had come to keep up to date with the latest in agriculture. For a Minister with zilch knowledge of the industry, no farming background and an embarrassing history of antagonism to farm support, this was, therefore, not an easy gig. Imprisoned, too, by the Government’s steadfast refusal to reveal its Brexit intentions, Mrs Leadsom had little of substance to say to the assembled company.
She promised there would be farming support beyond 2020, but not how much and on what basis. She said there would still be environmental programmes, but gave no hint of their extent or their value. She recognised the need for migrant farm workers, but gave no promises that they’d be available. Indeed, Mrs Leadsom’s one promise, although widely reported, turned out, on examination, to be pretty vacuous.
Hers was the familiar Tory crowd-cheering commitment: a bonfire of controls. Now, if there’s one thing farmers don’t like, it’s forms and regulations, so ministers are always onto a good thing if they promise to cut out the bureaucracy. In fact, Mrs Leadsom only managed to find one thing she was going to abolish and that is a rather sensible bit of environmental legislation, aimed at reducing the damage done to the countryside by large-scale monoculture. The regulation insists that farmers should cultivate at least three different crops on their land to help towards maintaining biodiversity. It may be that there’s a better way of achieving the same end, but, even so, this ain’t much of a bonfire—more a small, rather damp, squib.
And it may not matter anyway, because most of these rules only apply if farmers are asking for subsidy. The less support that’s available, the less the rules will impinge. Until the Government agrees that there will be production support for farmers post 2020, Mrs Leadsom’s muchheralded claim cuts no ice. This sophisticated audience knows that the likelihood is that the Treasury intends to stop production support— no subsidy, no forms to fill in, no regulations to obey! No bonfire needed.
There are, however, many actions that could make a difference. Sadly, on these, the Secretary of State was irritatingly confused. She told her audience that Defra would be working hard so that farmers would face the lowest tariffs on their exports, yet said nothing about the tariffs that protect the home market from unrestricted dumping from abroad. It would be seriously damaging to have unsupported British farmers trying to compete with subsidised imports to the UK, yet Mrs Leadsom is known to have favoured such a situation and she totally failed to rule it out. Indeed, even if she has changed her mind, few believe that our Minister has the ability or the qualified staff to win a decent deal in the coming negotiations. Mrs Leadsom dismissed these fears and appeared gung-ho about the capabilities of her department. However, when the chairman asked for a show of hands, not a single member of the conference believed her—the sole raised hand belonged to her own junior minister.
Overall, leaders of the agricultural community left the OFC entirely unconvinced that the Government has an effective plan for Brexit negotiations for the agricultural sector or the resources to develop one. It looks even more certain that the industry must develop one of its own.
‘Ministers are always onto a good thing if they promise to cut out the bureaucracy
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