Opinion: It’s not just what you say, but how you say it

My friend, Jules, called to have one of our chats about weather. He suggested that if farmers only received rain on a Saturday night, about 12mm ideally, followed by a sunny Sunday, it would make farming more efficient. He thinks our government should be negotiating for it at a European level. We both agreed that it could be a rural vote winner.

Our conversation then turned to the other matters of the day. We were both annoyed by a letter we had received from Hilary Aldridge, the chief executive of the Food and Environment Research Agency (Fera).

Fera is the body that inspects our flowering bulb crops twice a year for quarantine pests to certify them as suitable for export. Until recently, this correspondence came from the PHSI. Before that, it came from MAFF. I am too old for name changes now, so I simply refer to them as “the ministry” because that’s what my grandfather called them. They can change their name and have a new logo as much as they like, but our bulbs will still be inspected by “the ministry” in much the same way that strawberry “Opal Fruits” will still be my least favourite sweet.

Hilary’s letter explained that “ an error was made in the charging process. An increase… came into effect on 6 April. The review referred to above has established that [the fee] was incorrectly invoiced. Any previous undercharge will be added to your next invoice.” The upshot is that the ministry had only been charging us at the hourly rate of £152.20, not the £184.40 it should have been. They expected us to pay the difference.

Maybe some farmers would have stuck their thumb to their nose and waggled their fingers, saying “finders keepers, losers weepers”, but that isn’t in Jules’ nature, nor in mine. We paid up happily; £184/hour represents great value for money in this day and age. Heaven knows it costs a lot of money to run a government agency; champagne isn’t getting any cheaper and the peacocks still have to be fed.

The thing we both picked up on, however, was Hilary’s complete lack of contrition. The letter contained no hint of apology or regret. I wasn’t expecting Hilary to resign or to burst into tears over the matter, but the word “sorry” would have been nice. I would even have settled for “Whoops LOL” with a winking smiley. Instead the letter contained the snooty phrase, “This increase was published on the Fera website” implying that this was our oversight and not theirs.

Hilary’s remorselessness made me wonder why public sector workers often struggle to take responsibility or express regret. This isn’t China, we don’t execute civil servants for making mistakes, we aren’t even allowed to put them in the village stocks any more.

Government departments are not famed for showing sympathy or understanding when farmers interpret rules incorrectly or make errors, so it is not clear why it should be glossed over when the shoe is on the ministry’s foot.

If they want to be fully effective, the makers and enforcers of policy need to have a strong and mutually-respectful relationship with the farming community. This is why it is important that the tone of their communication is right, as well as the contents. With a bit better understanding of this, perhaps between us we can move on to getting this weather problem sorted out.

Matthew Naylor farms 162ha of Lincolnshire silt in partnership with his father Nev. Cropping includes potatoes, vegetables, cut flowers and flowering bulbs. Matthew is a trustee of LEAF and a Nuffield scholar.

Got a view on this or any other subject in this week’s Farmers Weekly? Email us your opinion fwfarmlife@rbi.co.uk

See more