1 August 1997

MAFF to take long, hard look at farm spending

By Shelley Wright

MAFF has announced a comprehensive spending review which will include identifying possible savings on hill livestock compensatory allowances, research and development, and animal disease surveillance.

It will also look at the CAP "to determine the strength of arguments for government intervention in agriculture and to reassess the reasons for treating agriculture more supportively than other industries".

The review, also being done by every other government department, will be carried out by government officials and completed by June, 1998.

MAFF has set up five working groups to look at CAP, expenditure on flood and coastal defence, research and development, support for less favoured areas, and animal disease surveillance. Each group has been instructed to identify possible savings.

Agri-environment and countryside schemes are being reviewed jointly by MAFF and the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions.

Ian Gardiner, NFU policy director, said some of the terms of review were alarming. On CAP, he said the government had already made it clear, as the previous administration had done, that it wanted CAP expenditure cut. The saving grace for UK farmers was that other EU member states were not similarly minded.

The R&D working group has been instructed to consider the rationale for MAFF involvement in research and the scope for increasing public/private sector partnerships.

Mr Gardiner said that was worrying. "There has been a history of governments withdrawing from agricultural R&D. Clearly we want to see public-funded research continued," he said. Results from independent research, rather than from commercial companies, gave the public more confidence, especially in areas like food safety.

Equally the UK needed to retain its pure science base. "Without publicly funded science we would know virtually nothing about BSE. Commercial companies would never have done the work because, understandably, they need pretty quick pay-back from their research in terms of commercial application," Mr Gardiner said.

The possibility of further charging and greater involvement of the private sector in animal disease surveillance was also setting alarm bells ringing at the NFU. "There may be some advantages, but again we have to take into account the element of public trust," he said.

One of the main targets of the LFA working group was to look at HLCAs and see if there were any other options to support LFAs more cost effectively. "The consideration of possible options should not be limited to agricultural support measures," MAFF said.