26 September 1997

Afew big arable cheques do not justify capping support

By Shelley Wright

POLICY makers must not allow envy to govern their decisions on the future of arable aid payments and any introduction of a ceiling on support, insists NFU deputy president Tony Pexton.

At a fringe meeting at the Lib Dem Party conference in Eastbourne, Mr Pexton said just because five farmers in the UK received arable aid payments of more than £1m did not mean that modulation, or capping support payments, was justified.

Responding to criticisms of the CAP, voiced during the Partys agriculture debate, Mr Pexton said the big cheques were not sent to individuals, they were paid to big businesses which were responsible for high levels of investment and employment.

During the conference debate, Lib Dem farm spokesman Charles Kennedy said his Party had long campaigned for an overhaul of the CAP. He advocated a move to countryside management contracts, designed to be flexible to local, regional and national requirements within a Europe-wide framework.

"By using CMCs we can encourage more extensive forms of farming for the livestock sector, which will ensure that the problem of overgrazing is contained, and at the same time is more labour intensive, providing employment opportunities.

"Conversion to organic farming can also be encouraged. These aims are compatible with our policies to promote a sustainable environment," Mr Kennedy said. The management contracts could be targeted to meet economic, social, and environmental needs and also offered the option of capping the payments individuals could claim.

That would allow support to be targeted at those who needed it most. "Flexibility is the key to any moves to reform agricultural policy. We must be able to offer support to one sector when it is in need, and to be able to move money around from one sector to another as circumstances dictate. Subsidies must be paid on the basis of need, not tradition," Mr Kennedy insisted.

Leaders of the CLA were delighted when Mr Kennedy supported their views that voluntary agreement on access to the countryside was preferable to compulsion. At the CLAs fringe meeting, he said: "We are very much at one with the CLA on this issue. There have been significant breakthroughs with new voluntary agreements working effectively and efficiently."

Subsidies must be paid on the basis of need, not trad- ition, insists Lib-Dem farm spokesman Charles Kennedy.