Stephen Carr: Big Benn is failing us

These may well be the dog days of New Labour but for now his height makes him prominent in Westminster and he is listened to across the country.

Read Hilary Benn’s response to this article
Indeed, at times it seems a television newscast can hardly begin without hearing big Hilary Benn chime out – ringing the changes for British agriculture.

But has this impeccably honed, clockwork reliable, piece of party political machinery lost his socialist tick during his two years at DEFRA? It’s hard to believe that one so well sprung and wound in the principles of looking after the economically vulnerable has allowed the sand of free market dogma into his mechanism. But listen to our DEFRA Secretary’s own headlines:

Bong! “I want British agriculture to produce as much as possible.”

This is something that Mr Benn has been saying at every opportunity in recent months in both interviews and speeches. Whether this is simply a panicked response to the hard statistics that demonstrate a clear downward trend in UK farm output is hard to tell.

But in every one of the previously supported farm sectors the news is bad. UK milk production, having fallen for five consecutive years, is now at a 35-year low. The sheep flock and beef breeding herd continue their steady numerical decline and even total UK grain production has just fallen below the five-year average.

Bong! “I believe that farmers have a bright future.”

Average UK farm incomes last year came in at just over £18,000. This was up on the previous year but still leaves farmers in the bottom one third of, say, public sector pay. Farm economists forecast a drop in incomes in the current year so if the SFP were to be taken away (something Mr Benn apparently advocates) that would leave the average UK farmer with no income at all.

Bong! “Farmers need to play their part in strong domestic production.”

What evidence is there of strong domestic production? Can Mr Benn point to a trend of increasing profitability in some sectors? Perhaps he should try flicking through the latest EBLEX booklet, published at great expense through a statutory levy on hard-pressed livestock producers, for a reality check on the profitability of producing beef and sheep. Even with sterling helpfully plunging to near parity with the euro all categories of red meat production remain stubbornly in the red for average producers.

And wheat at £90/t? In terms of producer losses, don’t even go there.

Bong! “We need to invest in food security.”

In the milk sector, Andersons predicts that its hypothetical 150-cow Friesian Farm will have to subsidise its own production to the tune of 1.3p/litre this year from its own SFP. That is even though the the UK is now importing one million litres of fresh milk a day.

It was the Labour Government of 1945 that recognised that if UK food security was to be achieved then price security at the farm gate would have to be a pre-requisite of that objective. So why is such a bona fide Labour man pretending that farmers have both a profitable and productive future ahead of them when all the current evidence and trends suggest precisely the opposite?

Like many good socialists before him it would appear that even “big Benn” can get lost between Treasury and Whitehall – neither of which has ever accepted the CAP or the principle of the tariff protection and subsidy of farmers.