Countryside plans of
the big three
Manifestos have been released by the three main parties. Tony McDougal reviews the key farming issues with the NFUs parliamentary advisers, Barney Holbeche and Claire Jarvis
COMMON AGRICULTURAL POLICY
All Parties want to see reform of the CAP, but the Liberal Democrats wish to see it replaced by more broadly based countryside management contracts with direct payments made to support economic, environmental and social goals.
Both the Conservatives and Labour wish to move away from intervention and price subsidies to support which will enhance the rural economy and environment. The NFU supports such a move but wants to see changes linked to similar reforms in the USA to assure a level playing field.
ECONOMIC MONETARY UNION AND THE SINGLE CURRENCY
The NFU favours a move towards the introduction of a single currency, claiming that it will lessen the strains on the CAP and halt the provision of national aids launched by some countries to overcome strong currencies elsewhere. The Lib Dems are most keen to join the single currency, though all three have promised referendums.
Labour has given tacit support to economic and monetary union as long as there is a full convergence of the EU basket of currencies, while the Conservatives want to delay joining rather than rush ahead and meet the 1999 deadline.
BEEF, BSE AND EUROPE
Mr Holbeche believes that whoever wins the election will have a crucial role in repairing relations damaged at farm council and EU Commission level by BSE and Mr Majors non-co-operation policy adopted before the Florence Declaration.
The NFU also wants to see sufficient funding for meat promotion. All three parties are committed to lifting the beef ban, continuing with the selective cull and the certified herd schemes.
Labour has said it plans to spend more on scientific research into BSE, but admits it will be hard to find cash.
INDEPENDENT FOOD BODY AND FUTURE OF MAFF
The NFU believes that change is necessary in order to restore public confidence after the wave of food scares, including salmonella, listeria, BSE and E coli. Mr Holbeche is concerned that public confidence in MAFF as the UKs food regulator will not be improved by the Conservatives food safety council, as consumers will question its independence.
More radical proposals put forward by Labour through its independent food standards agency, which will be responsible for food safety, labelling and diet, or the Lib Dems food commission, accountable to parliament rather than government, may be necessary. But the NFU insists that an agriculture minister at Cabinet level is essential.
Further environmental constraints must be based on sound science, according to the NFU, which was not the case with nitrates in water legislation. Labour has committed itself to a minister for environmental protection at Cabinet level, while the Conservatives have stressed they will continue to explore polluter-pays policies concerning land contamination and environmental pollution.
AGRI-ENVIRONMENT AND FORESTRY
The Rural White Paper has been significant in developing forestry and agri-environment measures, according to Claire Jarvis. She believes the next government will link current agri-environment packages into one agency, and the union will be pressing for the restoration of the lapsed farm and rural conservation grant scheme.
The Conservatives have promised additional funding for countryside stewardship, but aims to extend cross-compliance wherever it can. Within their countryside management contracts, the Lib Dems would offer farmers a menu of options, including conservation and upland farming, directed to environmentally sensitive farming. Labour favours expansion of organic farming and would pay green premiums to farmers.
Labour also plans to introduce a moratorium on Forestry Commission land sales, while the Conservatives wish to double Britains forest cover over the next 50 years.
The Conservatives and Lib Dems have sections on animal welfare in their manifestos. While the Conservatives plan to publish a green paper on rabies protection in the new parliament, the Lib Dems want to create an animal protection commission to enforce standards. The Party wants a stricter timetable for banning veal crates across the EU and improved rearing conditions for pigs and poultry.
Labour places much importance on animal welfare, working towards phasing out live exports and battery cages.
Tax relief for farmers through the Conservatives plans to abolish capital gains and inheritance tax are likely to come under pressure if Labour wins the election. But the NFUs call for support for a rural business unit to allow all commercial activities to be treated as a trade for taxation purposes has yet to win support from any Party.
Labour plans constitutional changes, including reform of the House of Lords and will put forward, in time, referendums on whether to set up a Welsh assembly and a Scottish parliament, which will indirectly affect agriculture, according to the NFU.
ACCESS AND OTHER SINGLE ISSUES
Labour favours a right to roam in open country, a policy rejected by the Conservatives, who want to encourage managed access to private land in agreement with landowners. Lib Dems support grant aid for farmers to meet the environmental costs of increased access.
In their 10-year national strategy for agriculture, the Lib Dems would also tackle rural crime through more grass-roots based policing and protect rural areas from urbanisation through greater use of brown field sites. *
The future prosperity of UK agriculture and rural areas will be shaped by the policies implemented by the next government.