5 May 2000
Workers slam ‘secretive’ MAFF
By Alistair Driver
THE union opposing government plans to close MAFF offices has urged the ministry to improve its communications with farmers over the proposals.
The Public and Commercial Services Union, which represents MAFF staff, described the consultation process so far as “very secretive”.
Geoff Lewtas, PCSU group secretary, said the union had not heard from agriculture minister Nick Brown about the proposals since February.
He added: “We want to be properly consulted so that MAFF is fully aware of the implications of the changes.”
Hundreds of staff could lose their jobs as MAFFs nine regional service centres and two Intervention Board sites are relocated to regional call centres.
Farmers currently applying for subsidies by post or in person at regional offices, would then be required to do so using the Internet.
MAFF this week cancelled a proposed meeting between PCSU representatives and farm minister Nick Brown at which the plan was due to be discussed.
The union claimed that MAFFs cancellation was due to a ministry delay in finalising a business plan.
When completed, the plan will be presented to the Treasury, and will form the basis of the decision about which offices will be closed.
Ministry insiders suggested that MAFFs Bristol office would be high on the list of expected closures because it has difficulty recruiting staff.
MAFFs Reading office could be merged with the Intervention Board office on the same site or relocated to the north of England.
Cambridge is also under threat because MAFF wages are low compared to the high cost of living in the town.
A MAFF spokesman said: “It is true that labour costs more in the south-east, but so do redundancies.”
But ministers would consider all options, he added, taking into account the function of offices, the age of buildings and their value to prospective buyers.
The relevant unions will be consulted about the business plan when the time is right, the spokesman insisted.
But there had never been a timetable for submitting the plan it to the treasury and it will months yet before this is done.
Farmers who may be suspicious of the changes now would see the benefits when they were used to applying for subsidies over the Internet.
“The key reason for the changes is to save time in getting subsidy money to farmers,” said the MAFF spokesman.
But farmers who had difficulty using computers and those that have trouble filling in forms will be not be excluded by the changes, he pledged.