15 June 2001

Rural affairs minister is well in touch with industry needs

By Isabel Davies

A YEAR as first secretary for the Welsh national assembly means the new rural affairs minister, Alun Michael, is well aware of the problems facing the farming industry.

Mr Michaels spell at the assembly may be a period of his career he would prefer to forget. Not only was he cajoled into giving up his post as junior home office minister to take the job, but nine months later he suffered the indignity of being forced to resign ahead of a vote of no-confidence.

But the knowledge he gleaned during his stint is likely to stand him in good stead for his role in the new Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

During his time at the assembly agricultural issues were high on the agenda. His appointment and backing of agriculture secretary Christine Gwyther, after she divulged she was a vegetarian, upset the livestock sector. The end of the Calf Processing Aid Scheme in June 1999 further strained an uneasy relationship between farmers and Mr Michael.

But, while farmers were angered and frustrated by the lack of progress, they did admit that Mr Michael appeared sympathetic and was at least prepared to listen.

He also generated some goodwill within the industry after he sampled banned beef-on-the-bone alongside Prince Charles on an official visit. "Nice to see it cooked properly," he said. A close ally of Prime Minister, Tony Blair, Mr Michaels rise to power started in 1987 when he was elected MP for Cardiff South and Penarth. Previously he had worked as both a journalist and a social worker.

He was appointed as a home office minister under Jack Straw after Labours landslide victory in 1997 where he reinforced his reputation as a hardworking and experienced politician.

His move to Wales was at the request of Labours high command who were keen to block the more left wing Rhodri Morgans attempts to become the assembly leader.

Observers claim his new role as junior minister is Mr Blairs way of repaying the debt for taking the job even though he would have preferred to stay in Westminster.

His relationship with the Prime Minister is clearly still strong although Mr Michael has been quoted as saying: "If I disagree with Tony Blair I will say that I disagree with him." &#42