11 April 1997

Ashdown:No stranger to farm crises

Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown speaks about his own farming background and outlines his Partys policies for UK agriculture in an exclusive interview with Tony McDougal

WHEN farmers in his Yeovil constituency wrote to Paddy Ashdown last year about their deep despair at the BSE crisis, the Liberal Democrat leader says he knew how they felt.

Forty years earlier, his fathers 405ha (1000-acre) pig farm and abattoir at Comber, near Newton Ards, County Down, was being destroyed by a combination of low prices and the introduction of Danish products on to the UK market.

Lieutenant Colonel Ashdown had set up the business after leaving the Army and India in 1946/7, but was forced to leave the farm and move to a smallholding, where he kept a small market garden.

"The ending of his pig business broke him, and although I remember going up to Belfast market and selling produce from the holding, he soon emigrated to Australia with my five brothers and sister, not to return to the UK until 1982.

"We have had a number of farmers in my constituency writing about their problems with BSE, and before that poultry farmers facing family tragedies because of the salmonella scare. Having seen my father work so hard and endure so much for his farm, I know how they feel," he said.

Mr Ashdown sees BSE as a crisis in consumer confidence across the whole of Europe. One way to help the British beef industry is to tighten regulations in the feed and abattoir sectors, and to introduce a British beef certification scheme, to restore confidence, he claims.

Specific quality assurance standards on the rearing of British beef should be included, and while recognising that that could create a two-tier market, he hopes it will alleviate the crisis.

"Painful steps will have to be made to restore the situation, but if the UK scheme is successful it could be incorporated on a Europe-wide basis in five years time."

It was breakdown in consumer confidence in agriculture and government that led Mr Ashdown to criticise farmers at the Oxford Farming Conference for losing touch with their markets and led the party to propose arguably the most radical, of the three main parties, scheme for food monitoring.

The Lib Dems Independent Food Commission would closely mirror the US Food and Drugs Administration, being independent and separate from government. "Its remit would be not to report to individual ministers or ministries but to parliament."

Mr Ashdown is critical of both the Conservative and Labours food agency policies. "The Conservatives simply havent got one – absolutely nothing there. Labour seem to be in a muddle, wanting their agency to be responsible to a minister."

While Labour has stressed it will keep MAFF, the Lib Dems would introduce a department of natural resources, with CAP reform a priority.

Mr Ashdown wants commodity support replaced by countryside management contracts with direct payments for a menu of tasks including environmental work, extensification and organic farming.

The Lib Dems also have a firm commitment to maintaining the UKs vibrant mixture of family farms to preserve the fabric of the countryside. And, if in power, the party would introduce existing EU schemes for new entrants and early retirement.

The partys federal stance on Europe is well known. Mr Ashdown would like to see a decentralised federal UK within a decentralised federal EU, with an extension of majority voting and more power for the European Parliament.

He rejects the suggestion that increased powers for Euro MPs would frustrate progress on CAP reform, saying it would stimulate debate and pressurise the commission to push forward with reform. And that would enable the EU to cope with the twin pressures of enlargement of the Central and eastern European member states and the forthcoming World Trade Organisation talks in 1999.

Much has recently been made of a move towards a common rural policy, enthusiastically taken-up by EU Commissioner, Franz Fischler and agriculture director general, Guy Legras at a Cork conference last year, and Mr Ashdown welcomes the pair joining the bandwagon of change.

On other issues, Mr Ashdown wants to see an overhaul of the current licensing system for genetically modified products, claiming the public is unhappy over the lack of coherent and foolproof labelling and segregation.

And on the issue of OP dips, which has seen a tireless campaign for a moratorium and further scientific analysis by Lib Dem rural affairs spokesman, Paul Tyler, the party leader calls for an independent and effective public inquiry.

"We have to establish the facts here. Let us leave aside the issue of compensation for the time being and find out about the facts."

While he was happy to talk about farm policies, Mr Ashdown was less forthcoming about the impact of the agricultural vote on the May election.

"I do hate answering that question. Agriculture is crucial to the wealth and welfare of the countryside and a sustainer of jobs." But when pressed he admitted the impact of the farming vote was small and would continue to decline.

Mr Ashdown recognises farmings contribution to rural areas.