Opinion: Déjà vu when it comes to farm regulations

David Naish was president of the NFU; John Gummer was minister of agriculture. The occasion was an annual general meeting of the union and the minister was keynote speaker.

In his opening address president Naish had complained about the increasing number of regulations affecting and costing farmers. Responding, minister Gummer declared his intention and to abolish unnecessary regulations and amalgamate many others to avoid duplication. The president then publicly handed him a list of over 50 rules that the NFU believed were superfluous.

I have since witnessed and/or seen reported several similar exchanges between farmers’ leaders and government ministers, the most recent being at the Conservative Party conference where Liz Truss is reported to have promised, yet again, to “challenge pointless regulation” and “reduce red tape”.

David Richardson
David Richardson farms about 400ha (1,000 acres) of arable land near Norwich in Norfolk in partnership with his wife Lorna and his son Rob

All I can say is it’s a good job we farmers didn’t hold our breath after the Gummer/Naish exchange. I am sure there are more, not fewer, regulations inhibiting efficient farming than there were all those years ago.

The truth is we live in a litigious society, aided and abetted by the EU, that demands more and more safeguards to health, wellbeing and political correctness every year. Against such pressures, ministers’ promises are meaningless.

And Britain being Britain, our officials (unlike some in other EU member states) feel honour-bound to enhance and police each new piece of legislation as it is introduced.

That policing role is, of course, expensive. And I wonder how it will be funded when the latest austerity cuts bite into Defra – always assuming it still exists following recent speculation as to its possible demise.

As you may be aware, all non-protected (ie health and education) government departments have been told to cut their budgets by between 25% and 40%. And Defra’s budget had already been reduced by a third by the coalition that ruled before the present lot.

Might such financial stringency force a significant regulation reduction this time? Frankly I doubt it. Far more likely is that ministers will seek to recover more of its costs from the industry or from the cash it receives from Brussels on farmers’ behalf – always assuming, of course, that after the In/Out Referendum (next year?) we are still associated with Brussels and eligible for such payments.

See also: David Richardson wins ‘Lifetime Achievement Award’

The other thought is that you cannot get blood out of a stone. Because, despite all the party conference rhetoric from Truss and Eustice, our industry is not “turbocharged” nor is it likely to be any time soon even after the release of the “treasure trove of data” the secretary of state claims resides in Defra’s archives.

Just last week news emerged of yet another cut in the price Dairy Crest will pay for milk. And, although the value of grain worldwide has been yo-yoing up and down within a limited range, the ups have not reached levels anywhere near high enough for most UK growers to be able to post a profit.

Nor were there more encouraging messages at the Grain Market Outlook Conference hosted by AHDB last week. AHDB lead analyst Jack Watts warned that increasing world stocks of grain indicated little prospect in the foreseeable future of any improvement in ex-farm values. Indeed, he suggested the reverse may be the case.

And he concluded by recommending every farmer to work out a low-cost production strategy in order to try to stay as competitive as possible. The dominant trend is for margins to tighten, not ease.

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