24 August 2001

Farms tsar says his heart lies in

the countryside

NewsLord Haskins seems to court

controversy wherever he

goes. But the peer appointed

to rebuild rural England after

foot-and-mouth insists he is

a farmer at heart and that is

where his interests lie.

Alistair Driver investigates

LEANING on a gate chatting with farmer John Benson, Lord Haskins seems at one with a way of life he calls his own. There is no sign of the storm raging around the Labour peer appointed by Tony Blair to spearhead a rural recovery in areas hit by foot-and-mouth.

Lord Haskins was visiting Mr Bensons farm near Ambleside in the Lake District before reporting back to the Prime Minister at the end of September. The meeting went well. The peer was impressed that Mr Benson has opened a caravan park to boost his income, while Mr Ben-son said Lord Haskins came across well and appeared willing to listen.

Delve into the farmers weekly post-bag, however, and a very different picture emerges of the relationship between the Northern Foods chairman and farmers. This weeks letters are full of fury at the appointment of a man who is seen as an arch opponent of farming.

Lord Haskins has predicted that half Britains farms could disappear over the next 20 years – "an inevitable continuation of a 150 year trend". He has advised British farmers look to France for inspiration on how to farm and he is quoted as saying they are "molly-coddled" by subsidies.

His comments are "crass" and "smack of complete ignorance or sheer stupidity", writes Peter Donger from Towcester, Northants. And Hants reader Rosalind Pasmore predicts: "Lord Haskins may go down in history as the Dr Beeching of British agriculture."

Struggle remembered

So it might come as something of a surprise to hear that the man christened Christopher Haskins can talk passionately about a life steeped in agriculture. Born in Dublin in 1937, he was brought up on a 80ha (200 acre) dairy farm in Co Wicklow. Farming life was always a struggle, he remembers.

"My father was a very adventurous farmer who tried all sorts of things. But he was a dreadful businessman and things were hard just after the war. It was a very tough job for people working on it with bad pay and bad housing. People wanted to get away."

As a young man, he left the family farm to take a degree at Trinity College, Dublin before taking a job at the Ford car plant in Dagenham, Essex. He was given a peerage in 1998 but still retains his farming roots. These days, he lives on a 365ha (900 acre) arable farm, near Beverley, East Yorks. It is farmed by his oldest son Paul and his wife.

Future vision

Press reports claim the farm is £500,000 in debt and receives £60,000 each year in subsidies. Lord Haskins says it receives nothing like that figure in subsidies. Both the farms run by his two sons, he adds, fit into his vision of the competitive farms of the future.

Lord Haskins likes to help out on the farm when he can and claims to be annoyed that he cannot spend more time there this autumn.

Yet few within farming see the peer as one of them. Some are suspicious of his role with Northern Foods, a company he joined in 1962 after marrying Gilda Horsley, the daughter of its founder and chairman. He became company chairman in 1986. Northern Foods now processes 3% of food consumed in Britain.

Farmers are understandably wary that their future appears to be in the hands of someone whose company stands to profit from cheap food. Especially perhaps because Lord Haskins donates thousands of £s each year to New Labour and is frequently described as a close friend of Tony Blair.

There are suspicions that Mr Blair appointed Lord Haskins to the recovery role so he could push a Prime Ministerial agenda of getting rid of small farms. But Lord Haskins vehemently denies this. "I am not a close friend of Mr Blair, but I do admire him. We have never discussed agricultural policy."

Hot water

That hasnt stopped him grabbing the headlines, though – a trait that has landed Lord Haskins in hot water before. Last summer, in a speech in Glasgow, he said cannabis should be legalised, the BBC should take advertising and the Church of England should be disestablished.

None of this would matter were the headlines not so negative. Lord Haskins continues to talk to reporters, even though he claims to be regularly misquoted.

Tim Rymer, chairman of the Yorks-based JSR Farming Group, which boasts Lord Haskins as a non-executive director, says the peer loves an argument but insists he is not anti-farming.

"He is never more at home than when people get passionate about his comments because he knows he has got right to the heart of the matter. He is a great farming enthusiast, but he realises we have got to be competitive and cannot rely on subsidies any longer."

After his meeting with Lord Haskins, Mr Benson agreed that he does not come across as a farmer-hater. "He listened to what I had to say and he did not speak to me as if he was looking down on our business. But the proof will be in the pudding."