Four years ago when I published a paper on The Challenges Facing World Agriculture (most of which has since been repeated and expanded by eminent scientists and others) I suggested that one way to motivate UK farmers to play their part in producing the extra food needed in coming years would be to re-establish regional advisory panels, whose members could advise ministers what needed to be done.
I didn’t expect a carbon copy of what went before, which had been abolished by the last government, because that doesn’t happen.
My main concern was that a system be re-instated to enable leading farmers direct access to ministers – as the regional committee structure did through regular ministerial meetings with regional chairmen – in order to guide governments as they legislated for the future. I believed this was particularly necessary at a time when few civil servants and no DEFRA ministers had any knowledge or experience of the industry over which they presided.
The present ministerial team do have background knowledge, so it could be argued external advice is less necessary. But the civil servants haven’t changed much, so I was pleased to learn that Jim Paice intends to establish direct relationships with farming groups around the country, whose members will be invited to tell DEFRA what they think of current policies and suggest improvements. Indeed, I am a member of a farming discussion group that has already volunteered to try to help.
Civil servants will hate it, of course. I know from experience, having been invited to advise ministers in the past, that they can’t bear the thought of “outsiders” influencing “their” ministers. They certainly try not to leave such people alone with their boss and, on one memorable occasion, a senior civil servant’s body language was so extreme when I advised a minister contrary to what he had clearly said that I thought he might explode.
The NFU may not be best pleased either – union office holders and officials jealously guard their positions as preferred negotiators with government. But they should not be too sensitive. If independent farmers can reinforce important messages, even if they may be nuanced slightly differently from the union line, the industry should surely benefit.
Jim Paice said he would like between ten and twenty regional groups established and I would imagine there will be plenty of volunteers. He also said he would meet the chairmen of each group at least once a year. He further said he wants to be able to pick up the phone at any time to ask about local feeling on whatever issue is troubling him. That, to my mind, is how government departments should work. And we must hope he and his colleagues respond to the information they are given and act on it. But I would like to add one further wish.
The real farmers who take on these important roles must not only have access to ministers at DEFRA. For we all know who is pulling DEFRA’s strings. So, what I would like to see is direct access also to 10 Downing Street when necessary and perhaps even more important, to the Treasury. For they are the places in government where policies are made and if decision makers in those places are not informed of the strategic importance of agriculture to the nation’s wellbeing, they will get them wrong and we, the farmers, and perhaps even more importantly, the consumers of Britain, will suffer. So let’s try to get that added to the plan.
David Richardson farms about 400ha (1,000 acres) of arable land near Norwich in Norfolk in partnership with his wife, Lorna. His son, Rob, is farm manager.