In the hot seat: Mary Creagh

Shadow DEFRA minister Mary Creagh talks to Caroline Stocks about culls, CAP reform and industry concerns

How have you found your role as shadow DEFRA minister?

It’s a huge challenge and a complex and exciting area. Everything from water to resources, waste and farming – it’s a massive agenda and it’s been shaped by the comprehensive spending review and the government’s decisions around that – particularly Caroline Spelman’s very early settlement, which has hindered her room for manoeuvre in terms of policy. We have also started thinking about future policies, asking questions about what sort of world we’ll see when we’re back in government in five year’s time, or whenever that may be.

Did you want the brief?

I wanted to be in the shadow cabinet and there are no small jobs in the shadow cabinet. There are about a dozen farmers in my constituency who I have met and all of us have a relationship with the land through our families – my paternal grandparents were cattle farmers in Ireland.

Does it matter that you and your team don’t have a rural background?

The main thing is to seek out and listen to people with interests in your areas. You don’t expect the health secretary to be a surgeon. Our political system means we are generalists, but I know I can pick up the phone to NFU president Peter Kendall about his issues on farming.

What do you think of UK’s farmers?

They are facing changing times. There’s uncertainty, not least on the government’s position on renegotiation of the CAP. Some farmers have benefited from the rise in commodity prices but I have some concerns about the way that speculation may be driving those price increases. I will hopefully be publishing something on that shortly.

Have you tried to come up with your own farming policies or have you picked up from where your predecessor, Hilary Benn, left off?

I took his guidance and have immense respect for his judgement. But certainly on the badgers issue I went back to basics. I didn’t want to just say “I have inherited the policy and I will accept it unquestioningly”. I met Lord Krebs and scientists. I spent a lot of time thinking about it and asking parliamentary questions. I was very clear we were serious about tackling the issue of TB, but I’m very clear the proposal for a partial cull is not the answer.

Why not?

In each cull area there will be five fewer breakdowns per year. The cull will cost £1m and an unspecified cost to the farmer, all for five fewer breakdowns. That would be a 2.5% reduction in confirmed herd breakdowns, which is not the 16% reduction scientists agreed with trapping and shooting option more, which were suggesting more than nine years ago. This isn’t a solution and the reduction in R&D is a catastrophe – it’s short-sighted when we should be looking into an oral vaccine.

So what can be done?

We need a cordon sanitaire – we should be vaccinating where there isn’t bovine TB to prevent the spread and clarify the causes of the disease. We have to prevent it from spreading further and I have suggested this idea of badger vaccination to Lord Krebs. We have to make sure the disease doesn’t spread and then push it back.

How can you answer the concerns of farmers who are already battling with the disease?

I can’t. We didn’t have the answer. We genuinely looked at what possible solutions there could be. But what I can see is a small amount of free shooting would not be the solution they are looking for. If you pursue a cordon sanitaire you could start from Cornwall because you have the sea and narrow peninsula and go up and squeeze on both sides if you can prove it works. That’s the only new idea I have had on badgers.

You have launched a campaign against the government’s cull proposals. How has that gone?

We have had 7,000 people sign up, which is very encouraging and shows the strength of feeling on this issue. It’s not just animal lovers, there’s a significant minority of farmers opposed to this as well.

You have been vocal in your opposition to the abolition to the Agricultural Wages Board. Do you think you are getting anywhere with your campaigning?

It’s contained in the Public Bodies Bill and we’ve had difficulty in getting people to focus on it because when it was going through the Lords everyone was focused on forests. Now we have the AWB, it’s in committee until 13 October so we are determined to force a vote in the commons. We have commissioned a couple of animators to work with us on two films to tackle the issue of the AWB without saying what it is because as soon as you say AWB to people they don’t understand why it’s important. Our campaign is called “Back the Apple” and we are focusing the issue on fairness in the countryside and highlight rural people are not generally well paid and that 83% don’t have a private pension. People have a bucolic view about rosy-cheeked maidens, but the reality is much harder.

What other policy areas are you keen to focus on?

There are three main areas. One is food and food security and how to produce more from less, meeting the Foresight goals and challenges it poses for politicians, consumers and producers. Second is how to move to a zero-waste society while protecting and creating jobs and the third is how we try to encourage people to minimise their impact on resources.

Do mega farms have a place in helping UK meet those food security challenges?

At the moment they are planning issues and so far planners have not been convinced that they won’t have a detrimental impact. I think there are potential welfare issues, but most people don’t realise that cows in Italy are mostly fed in sheds because there’s no grass. I think part of it is animal welfare and getting that right and making sure we get food production that’s sustainable and won’t impact negatively on the environment.

But what is you view on mega farms?

It’s not really about my personal view, but I think a lot of consumers are uncomfortable with the idea, in the same way as battery chickens where we have led the way in Europe for higher welfare farming and we have got a balance between the desire for higher welfare standards with the need to not export jobs overseas.

Looking ahead at CAP reform, what are your views of the way it’s taking shape?

I think there’s a lack of clarity about who is leading politically for Britain on this issue. The Tories have had their hands tied in budget negotiations because they have agreed that the rebate can’t be touched. That looks like stagnation for the CAP, but the budget has to shrink. So I’m not clear what the government’s negotiating position is. We need to balance environmental goods and services and need to sustainably produce food and I haven’t anything clear from government on this, which is concerning. There’s been a sleight of hand with the Comprehensive Spending Review – extra money was given to HLS, but taken from ELS. Farmers have been the victims of stop-start, stop-go policies in the government’s dash to save money as part of their radical reductions in spending.

Are you concerned about proposals from Brussels suggesting to reintroduce set-aside at 7%?

Paying farmers to do nothing – if you ask the British taxpayer if they are happy about that, most people are working pretty hard and seeing wages stagnate and people aren’t keen to see set-aside. We are in the middle of a big debate on land use and planning. People want to see land used well and not being banked by housing companies or left to fallow. We have used environmental schemes very well and show how conservation charities can work with farmers where land is not in use to provide big landscape benefits and it would be a tragedy if that progress was put at risk.

How is planning going to be addressed to help rural communities who need developments?

We need homes in rural areas. We want to see homes and transport connections in rural areas built, but our policy was clear – build on brownfield sites first so you are recycling land, then build on a regional basis for the number of homes you need.

Mary Creagh in a minute:

When was the last time you went on a farm?

I visited one in the summer. I had tea with the children at Shelley in my constituency – nice dairy farm, they have some German cows – I can’t remember their names, they’re brown and good milkers. They have a very good tea room. I also went fruit picking about a month ago.

Last book you read?

I’m reading Tony Blair’s A Journey at the moment, though the last “real” book I read was A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway.

Twitter or Facebook?

Twitter. I haven’t got into Facebook, but I have Twitter on my Blackberry and now I really get it. It can be brain farts and a lot of old crap, but I like it for instant news feeds and for great thoughts from the Daily Mash or people like Caitlin Moran.

Favourite place in the countryside?

There’s a view in my constituency as you come out of Wakefield on the way to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park – it’s just heart-stoppingly beautiful countryside around there.

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