Gordon Brown is being urged to recognise the importance of farming and the contribution agriculture can make in combating climate change.
As Mr Brown assumes the office of Prime Minister on Wednesday (27 June), farm leaders are spelling out what they feel should be his priorities when it comes to farming and the countryside.
When it comes to agriculture, Mr Brown’s track record is hardly impressive. He scrapped the agricultural buildings allowances in this year’s budget – leaving farmers with an additional annual tax bill of more than £5 million.
Equally, recent road tax increases failed to consider farmers who use heavy duty transport as a part of their business. As a result, Band G vehicles, which include many 4x4s used on farms, are now subject to a £400 annual vehicle excise levy.
Such policies have prompted shadow agriculture minister Jim Paice to describe a man who “knows little and cares even less” about farming. It remains to be seen whether the politician will be more charitable once Mr Brown is Prime Minister.
A campaigning reformer, Mr Brown has made no secret of his desire to abolish farm subsidies, prompting fears that he sees agriculture as an industry that costs the taxpayer money rather than delivering benefits.
But there is another reason industry leaders are highlighting farming’s wider role: speculation is mounting that DEFRA could be abolished in a major Whitehall shake-up expected as Mr Brown tries to make his mark during his first 100 days in office.
Mr Brown is said to believe that the government’s response to climate change is being hampered by battles between DEFRA – which favours tough action – and the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), which prefers a more pro-business stance.
Under the plan, DEFRA would be turned into a more powerful Department of Environment and Energy. The DTI, which currently has responsibility for energy, would be abolished altogether.
Such a move would be greeted with dismay by rural leaders such as Countryside Alliance chief executive Simon Hart, who believes rural needs are already being ignored as DEFRA concentrates its resources on tackling climate change.
“It is even talked about that agriculture and rural affairs will fall into different portfolios which would be insanity to anyone with even a slight understanding of the countryside,” says Mr Hart.
“Climate change will win more votes than agriculture and I have huge concerns that the rural brief we have known is morphing into a climate-change brief with little or no room for the UK’s countryside and its people, skills, industries or indeed future.”
Here is a selection of other comments:
“Mr Brown needs to recognise farming as a force for good and work with the industry to fulfil the huge potential that it offers to the economy, the environment and to the battle against climate change.”
NFU president Peter Kendall.
“The government must recognise the exploitation British farmers are suffering and take action before it is too late by quashing our current cheap food philosophy and adopting the fair trade concept.”
Lyndon Edwards, chairman, Royal Association of British Dairy Farmers
“Gordon Brown should pay closer attention to what real farmers and rural business advisors have to say about rural issues and reduce the weight attached to lobbying from specialist pressure groups such as the RSPB, Oxfam and RSPCA.”
Christopher Monk, head of farming, Strutt & Parker
“The government can do far more to lead by example – if the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture acts on scientific environmental evidence to source all the food they serve their staff and visitors from local, organic farms, why doesn’t DEFRA?”
Peter Melchett, policy director, Soil Association
“The one thing that Gordon Brown could do to improve the lot of Britain’s farmers and rural communities is to appreciate the fundamental importance of farming to our future development and security as a country.”
George Dunn, chief executive, Tenant Farmers Association
“Gordon Brown must recognise that farmers need an acceptable return from the marketplace as well as encouragement from the government to farm in an environmentally friendly way.”
David Fursdon, president, Country Land and Business Association
For a more in-depth look at what farmers want and fear from Gordon Brown see Farmers Weekly on Friday (29 June). You can add your own comment on our forums.