7 June 2002

DEFRAs birthday slating

from rural organisations

By Isabel Davies

FAILING to make farming a priority and too large to be really effective is how rural organisations have summed up the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on the anniversary of its creation.

The department, which replaced MAFF after Labours general election win in June 2001, has been criticised for being too large and complex. There are also complaints that agriculture has not been given a high enough priority over the past 12 months and the farming portfolio has been given to a junior minister rather than a minister of state.

Barney Holbeche, NFU head of parliamentary affairs, said in some ways it was too soon to deliver a verdict on the department as it had been born out of difficult circumstances and in political terms was still very new.

But he admitted the union did believe the department had failed to give sufficient priority to agriculture.

"Many farmers feel economic sustainability of farming hasnt been given enough weight. Cosy words about sustainable development do not in themselves make for an improvement," he said.

Junior DEFRA minister Lord Whitty, who has everyday responsibility for food and farming, had shown a great willingness to listen and learn, said Mr Holbeche. But he was an parliamentary under-secretary, the most junior of the ministerial roles, and the union believed farming should have a dedicated minister of state.

George Dunn, chief executive of the Tenant Farmers Association, said he was concerned about the size of the department.

Ministers had so many issues to deal with it was causing them to skip over things, he said. For example, junior DEFRA minister Elliot Morley was unavailable to attend a recent TB Forum meeting because he was in Japan attending talks about whales.

"We think the government has created something were not sure can deliver real benefits simply because of the sheer size and complexity," said Mr Dunn.

Nick Way, director of policy for the Country Land and Business Association, said the next big test for DEFRA would be its response to the Curry, Anderson and Follett reports.

Speaking to farmers weekly Lord Whitty admitted the first few months of DEFRA had been very difficult because the country was still in the middle of the foot-and-mouth epidemic.

But since then it had really focused on a number of issues and had considerable successes on the international scene, he said. "I think weve made a very good start," he added. &#42