29 September 2000

Protest unites rural communities

By Isabel Davies

AROUND 2000 people made the journey to Brighton in East Sussex on Monday to take part in a protest outside the Labour Party conference.

Farmers and hunt supporters stood side by side as they lent their support to a parade of 150 tractors organised by farmers from the Haywards Heath area, and a Countryside Alliance cavalcade focussing on the theme of British food and farming.

Police spilled onto the streets and a helicopter circled overhead as the first of the vehicles in the impressive and colourful protest rolled past the conference venue. Leading things off was a series of floats drawing attention to some of the key issues affecting the farming industry, like red tape and the price of fuel.

Subsidised fuel

A steady stream of tractors – fuelled with white diesel to avert potential public criticism over subsidised fuel – sounded their horns as they passed the cheering crowd.

As the tractor parade drew to a close farm minister Nick Brown emerged from the conference centre to greet a delegation of farmers led by protest organiser Carola Godman Law and including NFU deputy president Tim Bennett.

The group was eventually ushered into the conference complex for a meeting with junior farm ministers Elliot Morley and Joyce Quin where they handed over a letter calling for the minister to "stop listening and start acting".

Although Mr Brown was unable to attend the discussion because of a prior engagement his welcome was certainly friendlier than that of fellow cabinet colleague John Prescott. As the deputy Prime Minister addressed the main hall he made reference to "the contorted faces" of the Countryside Alliance which he said redoubled his determination to vote in favour of a ban on fox-hunting.

Insulting comments

Speaking afterwards Mrs Godman Law condemned Mr Prescotts comments as insulting, unhelpful and displaying a lack of understanding.

The protest had been made to hit home to the government the things it needed to do to help the farming industry recover, she said.

"British agriculture has got to be a thriving and healthy industry – without that we cant be competitive and we wont get investment," she told farmers weekly.

Roger Freeman of Haywards Heath-based agricultural supplier Farmcare, who was in the crowd, said he was there to show the government that there was solidarity among the farming community. "Farming is bleeding to death at the moment and they are not actually listening. We havent got a level playing field on which to play the game."

Farmers told the government that there was little to smile about.