29 September 2000

Blairs full employment

boast angers farmers…

By FWreporters

PRIME minister Tony Blairs comments on his desire to see full employment and his assertion that he is listening to farmers have angered many in the industry who claim his remarks are further proof of his detachment from rural areas.

As he addressed the Labour Party Conference on Tuesday Mr Blair promised that he was listening to farmers anger over the hardship caused by high fuel taxes but he was not prepared to cut taxes at the expense of public services.

Full employment

And he went on to say he wanted to be the first prime minister in 40 years who could stand up and say; "Britain is back in full employment".

But while Mr Blairs speech went down well with his audience, farmers saw it as offering little in the way of reassurance.

The remarks about full employment caused particular concern coming only a day after the NFU warned at its fringe meeting that there could be big job losses in the sector again this year.

NFU president Ben Gill told farm minister Nick Brown that farmers were trying to help themselves but the strong £, over-regulation and exorbitant fuel prices were crippling their efforts.

And he predicted that job losses this year could be even more than last year. In 1999, some 22,000 jobs were lost in British agriculture – more jobs than were at risk when the government intervened at both Ford and Rover car plants earlier this year.

Farmers For Action spokesman Dave Handley said he believed the prime ministers polices would create more, not less, unemployment.

"How does he propose to re-employ all those farmers, many getting on in years, who are being driven out of business, and all those workers who will be laid off from the ancillary industries, and hauliers and their staff – again a lot of them over 50? I think he is conning and misleading the public and trying to cause a total urban/rural split."

And there was warning from Mr Handley: "He ended his speech taking about fighting. Well we are fighting for survival. This is the second Battle of Britain and he aint seen nothing yet."

A spokesman for the Scottish NFU said it was time for Labour MPs to look a bit harder at what was happening in rural Britain.

Not good enough

Mr Blairs assertion in his conference speech that he was listening was just not good enough. "He always talks about this government being the listening government. But he has to prove it. Mr Blair must act at the next budget to reduce fuel taxes."

"When Tony Blair talks about full employment he is probably thinking about urban areas. He has to realise that farmers are going out of business all over the country and farm workers are losing their jobs as a result," he said.

Farmers Union of Wales spokesman Alan Morris agreed. "Doesnt he know how many farmers are quitting, or are no longer able to employ family members?

"The industry simply cannot afford to pay the workers veterinary surgeons, contractors and mechanics it needs. Rural jobs are going and there are no local alternatives."

Mr Blair may have spoken about the strength of the economy but Malcolm Thomas, director of the NFU Cymru-Wales, said government policy was actually sterilising the rural economy and forcing businesses out of the countryside.

"None of the £200m March summit package has reached farmers, who are now convinced that we have an urban government that simply does not care about rural areas," he said.

With members complaining about the rising cost of getting goods to farms and products out, both Welsh unions were unhappy with Mr Blairs strong line on transport taxes.