4 September 1998

A stranger to

farming but keen & caring

Six weeks after taking office, farm minister Nick Brown has

his feet firmly under the desk that Jack bought, and hes

making plans to bring the New Labour approach to MAFF

and the food industry. Jonathan Riley reports…

ITS 15 months since the landslide election victory which saw Labour sweep to power on a promise that it would break with tradition. Stories of cabinet ministers on first name terms, and of a caring party that would listen to as many viewpoints as possible in its decision making process, added to the "feelgood factor".

Agriculture, however, got Jack Cunningham as its minister. He distanced himself from farmers, turned down requests for interviews and left queries from fellow MPs unanswered for months, adding to the despair which triggered mass farmer marches and angry demonstrations.

Now Dr Cunningham, who farmers voted the least popular agriculture minister in the past 10 years, has moved on to become the Labour Partys policy enforcer.

In his place, the Prime Minister appointed the sixth farm minister in five years, Nick Brown.

Until now Mr Brown has been a relative unknown outside parliament – where he was chief whip – and outside his inner-city constituency in Newcastle-upon-Tyne where he moved after completing an arts degree at Manchester University in 1971.

Toon loyalty

Since that move there is little to link Mr Brown with agriculture apart from his loyalty to Newcastle United football club – a passion shared by the previous farm minister. His career as an advertising brand manager for cleaning products company Proctor and Gamble, and then as a manager for a dry cleaning services company, before moving into politics in 1983 also provides no clue as to why Mr Brown was chosen for agriculture.

"I must admit I was very surprised when Tony [Blair] called me to his offices on the Sunday night before the reshuffle at about 10:20pm. He said have you got a few minutes theres something Id like to discuss with you.

"I went straight round to see him and he told me there and then that he wanted me to move from chief whip to be minister for agriculture," Mr Brown said.

But he shuns insinuations that the loss of power he wielded as chief whip effectively means his new post is a demotion.

"Leading a department is an honour and I am relishing the opportunity to tackle the problems that agriculture is facing and building on the relationship with EU ministers that Jack Cunningham set in place."

Mr Browns gusto and enthusiasm for the job – he has spent much of the six weeks since he took office shut away, reading up on agriculture and listening to briefings on issues from BSE to the CAP – have been noted by the few who have met him so far.

Representatives from both the British Pig Association and NFU, who have held talks on the pig industry crisis, have remarked on the ministers keenness to find solutions and praised his level of understanding.

"I know my agricultural experience is limited to visits to my grandfathers smallholding in Sussex after the war. But my determination to do the job as minister well, and the valuable political experience gained during my time as chief whip have me well equipped for the negotiating and questioning ahead."

But he added that times had changed since he visited his grandfathers dairy farm at Hurst Green on the Kent/ Sussex border.

"Then it was possible to make a living from a handful of cows. Now, as the department has not done well in the comprehensive spending review, the way ahead must be to broaden the discussion from one of a production-led industry and to convince retailers and caterers that British welfare standards are at the vanguard of Europe," he said.

Message across

"I will play my role in getting the message across to the public and retailers that British farming has a good story to tell and drawing together opinions from as diverse a range of people as possible," Mr Brown said.

"I want anyone who feels they have a genuine point to make to feel that they can talk to me. And that includes discussions with other Party MPs. This is no time for party political point scoring and the whole food industry must communicate better and work together to find solutions to the current problems – I am confident this can be done."

Settling in at Cunningams £5000 desk, Nick Brown gens up on farming.

Nick Browns CV

Rt Hon Nicholas &#42 Brown (BA)

Born: 13 June 1950

Education: Manchester University 1968-1971, Tunbridge Wells Technical High school, Kent.

MP since 1983, currently representing Newcastle upon Tyne East and Wallsend.

Earnings as MP £45,066 (plus £45,201 for Cabinet post)

Shadow Cabinet posts:

Front bench spokesman on legal affairs (1984-1987)

Front bench spokesman on treasury and economic affairs (1987-1994)

Deputy to shadow leader of the commons, Margaret Beckett (1992-1994)

Front bench spokesman on Health (1995)

Deputy chief opposition whip (1995-1997)

Appointed government chief whip May 1997

Advertising brand assisatant with washing powder products company Proctor and Gamble.

Merchandising manager, dry cleaning company 1976-78

Special interests: Reading (books on agriculture); Football (supports Newcastle United),

References: Tony, 10 Downing Street, London.

Gordon, 11 Downing Street, London.