17 November 2000

Fuel tax demos being curtailed for now by FFA

By Johann Tasker

GRASSROOTS farmers have ruled out any more immediate protests to highlight the farm crisis following fuel tax demonstrations in London and Edinburgh.

David Handley, chairman of Farmers For Action, said his group had shown that direct action by farmers could change government policy after recent fuel protests culminated in a rally of up to 400 hauliers and farmers in Hyde Park on Tue (Nov 14). Up to 100 vehicles held a similar rally in Edinburgh.

Farmers For Action will now embark on a series of high-level talks with government officials and supermarket bosses to get a better deal for producers. Negotiations with Asda Walmart to secure higher milk prices were due to take place this week. Talks with ministers will follow.

Mr Handley told farmers weekly: "We will carry on keeping up the pressure on the fuel issue and we wont be backing off. But we have proved we are an organisation in our own right and we now have the doors open to the government which others said was something we would never ever achieve."

Mr Handley said further direct action was unlikely, at least until the New Year, if the talks made progress. But he warned: "If we find that people arent listening – or above all not acting – then Farmers For Action will be back out there in the firing line because that is what we do best. Make no bones about it."

His comments came as Mr Handley stepped down as chairman of the Peoples Fuel Lobby, which organised the Hyde Park rally. The demonstration coincided with the end of a 60-day deadline imposed by protestors for the government to reduce fuel tax.

Farmers and hauliers at Speakers Corner cheered as a handful of trucks drove along Park Lane at noon on Tuesday. Eric Stoker, 74, who farms at Totteridge on the outskirts of London, said he was being crippled by the price of red diesel. "The price I pay has risen by 10p/litre in the last four months alone."

But many farmers stayed away. Oxon farmer John Funnell, who did attend, tried to persuade 10 of his neighbours to go. But they stayed away, worried about a lack of support. "They wished me luck and then said they were too busy. But you can never be too busy to come to something as important than this."

Environmentalists said the protest should have been called off after Chancellor Gordon Brown made concessions in his pre-Budget report last week. Friends of the Earth said that the Peoples Fuel Lobby should stop calling for lower fuel taxes and look at other ways of tackling the crisis in farming.

Tony Bosworth, the environmental groups transport campaigner, said: "We share the concerns of many of the protesters. But cutting fuel tax for everyone is not the right idea. Its time for the debate to move on so that we can look at other ways forward".

David Handley (centre) during the Hyde Park rally.