4 January 2002
Beckett under fire at farm conference

By Tom Allen-Stevens

RURAL Affairs Secretary Margaret Beckett fielded 30 minutes of questions from delegates at the Oxford Farming Conference.

Delgates criticised her department, saying it was uncommitted to farming, issued burdensome regulations and maintained poor import controls.

“Does the government have a policy on what proportion of goods should be produced in the UK?” asked Hampshire farmer Mark MacClay.

A member of the National Association of Young Farmers Clubs said change was hard when the government continually moved the goal posts.

“How can you convince us to work with you when your commitment to farming is laughable?” asked Hampshire farmer Hugh Oliver-Bellasis.

“We have suffered a lack of agrimoney and import controls and increased legislation on diffuse pollution and ploughing of grassland.”

But Mrs Beckett aggressively rebutted the accusations.

“Do you think 800 million of agrimoney compensation and 2-3 billion of subsidy overall is laughable?” she asked.

“My department cannot be genuine friends with all rural dwellers if we pretend the problems on diffuse pollution will just go away.

“As far as imports are concerned, we have to be realistic: if we are to export freely, we must also expect to import equally as freely,” she continued.

Speaking later, Mrs Beckett addressed modulation, the plight of the arable sector and proposals to make the UK a Nitrate Vulnerable Zone.

She indicated that she supported further modulation of production subsidies, but said it should be more flexible and less bureaucratic.

She accepted that the arable sector faced hardship, and said this was an issue which the Policy Commission on Food and Farming would address.

“The 50m agrimoney compensation is not peanuts; its a considerable sum of money to find bearing in mind budget pressures post- 11 September.”

Referring to claims that the Nitrate Directive was flawed, she said the time had passed to challenge it and it should be implemented.

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