3 August 2001

Beckett holiday absence anger

DEFRA minister Margaret Becketts decision to leave her desk for five weeks as the foot-and-mouth crisis worsens has been attacked by farm leaders and politicians.

Mrs Beckett is currently out of the country on a fortnights holiday and she will not resume ministerial duties until September. A DEFRA spokeswoman said that there would be ministerial cover while Mrs Beckett was away, and that she could be recalled if required.

But this did not appease farm leaders embroiled in the ongoing battle with F&M.

Facing the prospect of huge numbers of sheep being culled in south Wales, Farmers Union of Wales president Bob Parry said: "With the Prime Minister also combining a government business trip with a holiday, this government has put on very public display their lack of urgency in combatting the spread of foot-and-mouth."

"If Mrs Beckett prefers to turn her back on the crisis, then perhaps she should consider handing down total control of agricultural affairs in Wales to the Welsh Assembly."

NFU Scotland president Jim Walker has also expressed his frustration at the absence of Mrs Beckett and Mr Blair as he fights to get the Scottish export ban lifted (see News p10). The NFU, however, refused to criticise the secretary of state, a spokeswoman pointing out that the union did have access to junior ministers.

Conservative farming spokesman James Paice said Mrs Becketts extended break showed the governments contempt for farmers. &#42

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"If Margaret Beckett is not due to be working in her office until September, that shows the governments true attitude towards farming," said Mr Paice.