9 March 2001

Blair looks set to create a

farming royal commission

By Johann Tasker

TONY BLAIR is considering setting up a Royal Commission on Agriculture to help overhaul British farming in the wake of the foot-and-mouth crisis, farmers weekly has learned.

The revelation follows comments by the Prime Minister at Hartpury Agricultural College, Gloucestershire, last Thursday (March 1). During a speech to Labour Party supporters, Mr Blair said: "I think we need to sit down with the industry and really work out what is the basis on which we want sustainable farming for the long-term."

Labour has maintained a prickly relationship with farmers since it came to power almost four years ago. But setting up a royal commission while the industry struggles with yet another crisis would allow the government to be seen to be dealing with agriculture in a non-political manner in the run-up to the General Election.

A Downing Street spokesman told farmers weekly he was unaware of any plans for an inquiry into agriculture. But one consultant with close links to MAFF said he had received four separate inquiries within the past week about how to make submissions to a forthcoming royal commission on farming.

Farm minister Nick Brown has already announced a major review of safeguards to reduce disease risk once foot-and-mouth is under control. The review will focus heavily on livestock markets in the belief that the spread of foot-and-mouth is largely due to the complex network of sheep movements through auction marts.

Almost all foot-and-mouth cases have been traced to contact with infected sheep sold at markets before livestock movements were banned on Feb 23. The review will establish whether more controls could reduce the risk. Mr Brown said: "I have been struck by the number of movements within the trade."

Some of the Prime Ministers closest advisers have presented their own plans to rebuild Britains blighted farming industry in the wake of the crisis. Lord Haskins, the Labour peer and chairman of the Better Regulation Task Force, said this week he believed animals should be sent direct to abattoirs rather than through markets.

First, however, a review will investigate how the foot-and-mouth outbreak started. It will consider the implications of increased world travel, trade globalisation and modern farming methods. It will also look at the practice of swill feeding which has been blamed as the cause of the outbreak.

But NFU deputy director general Ian Gardiner said : "People are wrong if they think the minister is going to change what has been happening for 50 years in a day."