30 May 1997

Regional panels axed as MAFF cuts farm links

By Tony McDougal

MAFF has severed a link with farmers which has lasted for the past 25 years by abolishing the nine regional advisory panels in England.

Farm minister Jack Cunningham said the panels, which had done a useful job, were now outdated. They would be replaced by his ministerial team, who would cover farm and consumer concerns across England.

But farmer members warned the move would seriously stem the flow of information from the agricultural community to MAFF and leave ministers vulnerable to single issue pressure groups.

Robert Lawton, chairman of the Wessex regional panel, said the panels had been particularly effective in briefing ministers and the chief veterinary officer over BSE and the spread of TB in cattle.

"I dont see how ministers will be able to cope. This is a largely urban government and ministers will be bombarded by pressure groups. I think the minister has made a serious mistake here – he has lost one important agricultural link."

Peter Lethbridge, south-west advisory panel chairman, described the move as deeply disappointing. But he agreed the regional panels should have been better used during the height of the BSE crisis.

"It will now be a case that those who shout loudest will get the ear of the minister," he added.

NFU leader Sir David Naish, also expressed his disappointment. "The NFU has had a solid working relationship with the regional panels and farmers will be disappointed to see this useful channel of communication closed."

But Dr Cunningham, who has pledged to put consumer concerns at the top of his agenda, described MAFF as at times being "rather embattled, inward looking and not consumer- and user-friendly".

He promised a rolling programme of change within the department and a new mission statement.

Dr Cunningham said the creation of the independent Food Standards Agency would ultimately lead to a new change of name for MAFF, and that he wanted it to be more direct, open and accessible to consumers, as well as farmers.

He again stressed that SEAC and every MAFF advisory panel would have at least one consumer representative.

Under MAFFs new regional approach minister of State Jeff Rooker will look after the Northern, North Mercia and South Mercia MAFF regions; countryside minister Elliot Morley will cover the East Midlands, North East and Anglia regions, while Lord Donoughue has been given responsibility for the South-east, South-west and Wessex.