Not so much a bon­fire as a damp squib

Country Life Every Week - - Letters To The Editor -

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

Fol­low @agromenes on Twit­ter

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