24 July 2002


The Chancellors

£421m/year hand-out

to agriculture will

mean nothing if those

in charge have no idea

of the best ways

to use it

THE Chancellors parsimonious present to farming last week looked grudging and half-hearted compared with his apparent generosity to education and other sectors. There are, of course, more parents than farmers, so the difference was a predictable reflection of perceived voting power. The extra £421m/year allocated to agriculture in the Comprehensive Spending Review does not match the £500m recommended by Donald Curry. And it is far from clear how much of that extra will be available to farmers, or when.

A figure of £150m, for instance, has been set aside for coastal defence, which few would deny is needed and the insurance industry had demanded it in any case. Nor is it clear how much of the new money will be spent on recycling plants for domestic waste. And animal health schemes, urgently needed to avoid another foot-and-mouth disaster, will also need funding. If these initiatives are to come from the modest amount announced, and nobody yet seems to know for sure, how much will be left to help farmers with "broad and shallow" environmental schemes? The confusion does not end there, for in spite of a pressing need for help across the industry DEFRA ponderously says it will take at least a year to work it all out and complete pilot projects currently being set up.

The truth, as I see it, is that those in charge have little or no idea what to do. Their behaviour over the past 12 months has indicated the classical symptoms of indecision. For when politicians dont know what they are doing they set up an inquiry. When they read it and still dont understand they set up another to report on the first, and so on. That is exactly what DEFRA has been doing since it was created just over a year ago and it leaves farmers, like sailors, lost at sea in a small boat, destined to pitch and yaw in increasingly dangerous currents without the benefit of a captain, a rudder or even oars to steer by. It is not a happy prospect.

For a day or two before Gordon Brown announced his verdict there were reports that farming would get over £1bn of new money in the spending review. Alas, that was not to be and the leak, presumably from DEFRA, must have been made more in hope than anticipation. But even if we had been granted that much it would have done little to turn the tide.

For total income from farming has slumped from over £6bn to a little over £1bn/year in the past five years. To return our industry to the level of viability we enjoyed in the mid-1990s, it would have been necessary for the government to allocate us at least 10 times what it did. That was never a possibility, of course, for we were always expected to cut costs and raise incomes in other ways. But one-tenth of the deficit, much of which seems destined to be diverted away from farmers anyway, makes the award look like a sick joke.

Now, under most circumstances it would be easy for DEFRA to dismiss the views expressed above as the rantings of someone with vested interests; to label my allegations of incompetence across the department merely as petulance. But it so happens that my views have been confirmed by no less a body than the All-Party Commons Select Committee whose job it is to supervise DEFRAs performance. The comments of the committee on DEFRAs annual report, published last week, are more damning than anything I could have said.

I quote: "We are thoroughly dissatisfied with the Departments annual report… The problem is that there are serious omissions and it is riddled with inaccuracies… It contains too many warm words and vague aspirations, and too few real figures against which its performance can be measured."

Interviewed about it on BBC Radio 4s The World at One, select committee chairman David Curry added that the report contained "too much poetry and not enough maths" and he went on to suggest it might be appropriate for Charlotte Church to sing it.

The select committee report continued: "But we are also concerned about administration in the department. It faces many challenges, not least of which is the need to bring together its component parts to form a department with a single sense of identity and purpose… There is evidence of difficulties such as high rates of staff turnover… We are not confident that current management is capable of meeting the challenges the department faces."

The report concludes ominously with the words: "We expect to see real improvements during the next 12 months."

And so say all of us. Whether it will happen given the prevailing attitudes of those in charge, together with lack of resources, is clearly open to doubt. For, sadly, farmers are likely to be the victims of the growing turf war between traditional Left Wing issues, like public services and Right Wing issues, like farming. Remember what happened to the mining industry when Margaret Thatcher was PM? With Gordon Brown in the ascendancy, the left wing is firmly in the driving seat.

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