17 August 2001

Haskins spells out a culture of enterprise

LORD Haskins has promised to promote a "culture of enterprise" among small farmers after his controversial appointment to spearhead a rural recovery in the wake of foot-and-mouth.

The Northern Foods chairman, who is a close friend of Tony Blair, denied claims that he was appointed to get rid of small farms. But farmers in areas most affected by foot-and-mouth must look increasingly towards part-time work and diversification to survive, he warned.

Speaking from his holiday in France, Lord Haskins said media reports that he believes farmers have been "mollycoddled" by huge subsidies were inaccurate. But he forecast that half of Britains small farms could be gone within 20 years – a process he described as inevitable rather than welcome.

Lord Haskins will meet a rural task force comprised of representatives from local bodies in Cumbria for the first time on Tuesday (Aug 14). He will report to DEFRA rural affairs minister Alun Michael by the end of September with recommendations for recovery in Cumbria and other infected areas.

Lord Haskins refused to be drawn on specific policies, saying he wanted to listen to farmers problems. He said he would not advise farmers to leave the industry but suggested he would encourage diversification. "There is a lot of paranoia out there. If anyone thinks my remit is to eliminate small farms they are wrong.

"My impression is that the tourist operators have initially suffered more than farmers who have been compensated for lost assets. But tourism will recover quicker than smaller farmers. A lot of farmers already very much depend on more than farming for their incomes and there are plenty of opportunities for part-time work."

But the appointment of someone seen as one of farmings fiercest critics provoked fury among some industry leaders. Michael Hart, chairman of the Small and Family Farms Alliance, said: "He has clearly been appointed to push Tonys Blairs own agenda to rationalise the farming industry and replace small farms with agri-businesses."

National Sheep Association chief executive John Thorley said he feared Lord Haskins may want to cut sheep numbers after saying subsidies caused a massive expansion of the flock since the 1960s. &#42

"We have to make him understand fully the consequences," he warned.