12 September 2000
NFU walks tightrope over fuel prices
by FWi staff
THE National Farmers Union is walking a tightrope after refusing to support direct action by its members who are protesting against high fuel prices.
Union officials were forced to distance themselves from the blockades after Richard Haddock, an NFU national committee member, appeared on television.
Footage of Mr Haddock, who is also a leading light in the pressure group Farmers For Action, was broadcast with a caption detailing his NFU role.
The Association of Chief Police Officers says Mr Haddock and other protestors are doing nothing illegal because they have not blocked any roads.
However, the union believes that its assets could be seized if it is seen to fall foul of the law by asking its members to illegally blockade fuel terminals.
Mr Haddock is a Devon farmer. A press statement was hastily issued by the NFUs regional office at Exeter soon after his television appearance.
The statement said: “The NFU in the south-west does not support the fuel blockades and is urging its members not to take part.”
It added: “While weve long campaigned for a reduction in the rate of duty on fuel we cannot condone actions which inconvenient vast numbers of people.”
The words illustrate the increasingly fine line which NFU leaders must tread if they are to satisfy all of their members when it comes to the issue of fuel.
On one hand, the union recognises that farmers are suffering from high fuel prices, especially the cost of red diesel which has soared in recent months.
But blockades of fuel terminals by farmers and hauliers are impacting on producers, especially arable growers who are still harvesting their crops.
Dairy farmers have also been warned that milk collections from their farms could be threatened if the blockades continue towards the weekend.
NFU president Ben Gill said he sympathised with protesters. But instead of supporting direct action, he has asked the Prime Minister to reduce fuel taxes.
In an open letter to Tony Blair, Mr Gill said the protests reflected the scale of the anger and frustration being felt by farmers and the countryside at large.
Describing the duty on fuel as extortionate, Mr Gill said: “The situation was a bomb waiting to go off given the Governments refusal to act.”
He added: “No-one wants to see the kind of protests we are witnessing now, least of all farmers themselves who are busy at this time of year with harvest and
who need milk and produce collected.”
NFU analysts believe that spiralling fuel prices have cost some farmers up to 10,000 extra a year and could be the last straw for producers fighting recession.
Mr Gill said he shared the frustration of the protestors. “Farmers are telling us that they feel torn because they want to highlight the impact of rising prices.
“But at the same time they are concerned that the agriculture industry could begin to suffer and also about the disruption it is causing for the public.”
What do you think? The fuel protests were started by farmers angry at high prices. But now many producers are suffering as a result. Should the protests continue? Click here to have your say. Responses will be published on FWi.