11 January 2002

Stay-away Beckett unseen in Brussels

Noticeable mostly by her absence, DEFRA

minister Margaret Beckett has done little to

endear herself to the Brussels Press pack,

as Europe editor Philip Clarke explains

BRUSSELS bureaucrats are often accused of wasting public resources. Such was the concern at their lack of financial control a few years ago that the entire team of 20 commissioners was forced to resign.

British officials have been among the most strident critics, pointing to the millions of ks that still go "missing" every year and the farcical arrangement of the European Parliament having two headquarters.

But there is one facility in Brussels that epitomises the very waste they complain about – the UKs media briefing room.

Buried deep in the bowels of the Justus Lipsius council building, for month after month the room stands empty. Neat rows of chairs are laid out in front of an expansive, not to mention expensive, mahogany table, in readiness for that ministerial briefing.

But DEFRA minister Margaret Beckett chooses to stay away.

Apart from a brief "meet the new minister" session at her debut farm council last June, Mrs Beckett has remained invisible to Brussels journalists at all times.

Her approach is in stark contrast to that of her predecessor, the ever-cuddly Nick Brown. Whatever people said about his effectiveness or otherwise – particularly over the French beef ban – he was always available to the Press, exchanging friendly banter and, at times, imparting useful information.

True, agri-hacks are not always the most "fragrant" of creatures and the prospect of rubbing shoulders with them may send a shiver of revulsion down Mrs Becketts spine. But they also have an important job to do, as the primary providers of information to a dispersed agricultural industry.

The lack of briefings from government ministers, or even their senior advisers, makes this job harder. It also increases the risk of mis-reporting.

This was never better illustrated than at the last farm council in Brussels when the issue of the European Courts ruling against the French ban on British beef was raised.

Sacrificing part of his lunch break, French farm minister Jean Glavany went straight to his briefing room (located next to the UKs and considerably busier) to lay his cards on the table before the news-hungry French and British journalists.

What he told them was, at best, a set of half-truths, at worst, a pack of lies. He accused the UK of breaking EU law by not testing older animals for BSE. He said the UK did not have a derogation, (even though over-30-month animals do not enter the food chain). And he insisted on seeing the results of more tests before exposing French consumers to British beef.

Where was Mrs Beckett to counter these claims? Where were her public demands for Mr Glavany to get real and obey the top court in Europe? Why were journalists, some less experienced than others, left to reach their own conclusions on the validity of Mr Glavanys rhetoric?

Maybe Mrs Beckett does not want to be seen to be fighting for British farmers. Maybe she does not really care. Either way she is doing the industry a disservice.

The old MAFF was strongly criticised for its behind-closed-doors approach. DEFRA was supposed to do away with all that, embracing the mantra of open government.

The reality, of course, is that little has changed. The feeling of mutual suspicion prevails.

Quite apart from the waste of resources that that unused briefing room in Brussels represents, it is the wasted opportunity to build bridges and improve the information flow that really frustrates journalists and others who seek to serve the farming industry. &#42