Should farm minister be in know about farming?

21 August 1998

Should farm minister be in know about farming?

Nick Brown has three farms in his constituency, one of

them has a cow, and he thinks it might be Scottish. So

how much do you have to know about agriculture be an

effective farm minister? Johann Tasker reports

WHEN Graham England took 70 pig farmers to lobby new farm minister Nick Brown at the House of Commons last month, he knew he was meeting a man who knew more about soap-powder than sow prices.

Mr Brown, a former ad-man for Proctor and Gamble, was fresh in the job, represented an inner city constituency, and had spoken openly of his ignorance of farming matters.

"Ive got three farms in my constituency," the Financial Times reported him as saying. "One of thems a city farm, which has one cow. It has long horns and long hair – I think its Scottish."

Mr England, chairman of the NFU pigs committee, hadnt expected too much. But he was soon impressed with Mr Browns enthusiasm.

"What really impressed everybody was that he took the trouble to come out to the central lobby, shook our hands and really tried to learn about our problems," says Mr England. "I asked him what he knew about farming and he admitted that it was very little but added that he was interested in visiting some pig farms."

Mr Browns appointment as farm minister surprised the farming community almost as much as it did the man himself. The mainstream lobby groups, including the NFU, soon extended a welcoming hand. But many grass-roots farmers felt that a farm minister who knew nothing about farming was beyond the pale.

Not so, say the experts. Theres a lot more to the job than being able to drive a tractor or milk a cow and history shows that the most effective farm ministers are often those without a farming background.

"The single best farm minister proves the point that you dont need to know anything about farming," says John Barnes, an expert in cabinet government at the London School of Economics. Former coal-miner Tom Williams was the longest serving farm minister this side of World War II and is still fondly remembered by farmers (see box left).

One of the first things Mr Brown should do is brush up on his language skills, adds Mr Barnes. With farm policies today frequently decided in Brussels and 11 European Farm Council meetings a year, its probably more vital to get on with foreigners than farmers.

"Its probably an advantage to speak French. The French hate anybody who doesnt speak their language," Mr Barnes says.

Mr Browns lack of any farming background could actually be an advantage, according to Sir David Naish, who spent seven years as NFU president before retiring earlier this year.

"I honestly think he will be able to put a more valid case for farmers than if he was deeply involved because he hasnt got a pecuniary interest," says Sir David.

Government officials agree. They say a farm minister from farming stock would only be accused of being in farmers pockets. That would make it extremely difficult to boost public confidence in an industry still reeling from the after-effects of the BSE crisis. And it would probably leave the minister open to heavy criticism from consumer groups.

Now back on his Devon farm, Graham England is still grappling with plummeting pigs prices and fielding calls from concerned farmers. But when parliament returns after the summer recess, hell be on the phone again to the ministry.

"If youve got a leaky pipe you call a plumber," says Mr England. "But if youve got a political problem you dont necessarily call a farmer, you call a politician."

Nick Brown shows how much he knows about farming.

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