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YOU'VE LOST RURAL PEOPLE
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11:38 - 20 September 2004
A scathing attack on the Government's handling of the hunting issue was launched last night by Anthony Gibson, the South West regional director of the National Farmers' Union (NFU), as hunt supporters warned that the countryside was now a "no-go area" for government ministers.

The attack comes at a time of increasing desperation in the countryside over the way the Government has been dealing with a range of rural issues. Mr Gibson warned last night that the Government's "appalling mishandling" of the Hunting Bill would have ramifications going far beyond the hunting debate.

He said: "So deep is the bitterness and disaffection that has been generated in rural areas - not just by the Hunting Bill, but by many other real or perceived slights on the countryside interest - that I do not see how anything approaching a spirit of constructive engagement in a common agenda can ever be achieved for as long as this Government remains in office."

Mr Gibson said that the Hunting Bill would be seen by many in the countryside as "only the latest in a series of snubs, rebuffs and indignities visited on the farming community by an ignorant, dictatorial, uncaring, urban Government."

Mr Gibson's withering attack on the Government's handling of rural matters coincides with a revelation from former Devon NFU chairman John Daw that the Queen has previously warned Tony Blair that neither he nor his Government have any real grasp of rural issues.

Mr Daw, who farms near Crediton, revealed that during a reception at County Hall, Exeter, as part of the Queen's Golden Jubilee in 2002, he told the Queen: "I don't think Tony Blair and this Government understand the countryside."

Mr Daw said the Queen replied: "I know. I tell him that every week when I see him."

Mr Daw said his remark was not just about hunting. "It was about the whole agriculture thing. I think she and her family have a very good understanding of the countryside," he said yesterday.

The Government faces further woes over its handling of the Hunting Bill as hunt supporters warned that the countryside had effectively become a "no go zone" for ministers.

Already this weekend the Rural Affairs Minister, Alun Michael, bowed out of a commitment to join a "right to roam" celebration.

Mr Michael said he dropped out because he wanted the event to celebrate the start of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act to be able to take place without disruption by hunt supporters.

He told the BBC: "The police were quite clear they would defend my right to be there, but it would involve an enormous police presence and possibly it might be innocent bystanders rather than me, who might be the subject of violence."

Alison Hawes, the South West regional director for the Countryside Alliance, said feelings were running high in the countryside and many people felt they had been lied to by the Government.

"Alun Michael promised any legislation would be based on principle and evidence, but it's been passed to pacify a bunch of backbench MPs and their prejudices," she said. "If country people don't want to have Alun Michael and his cronies in their area, I am sure they will make their feelings known."

She added that the organisation had always predicted that trying to police a hunt ban would add enormously to operational costs for some police forces - reported in some quarters to be as much as 30 million.

"People will have to ask themselves if they want the police to pursue basically law-abiding citizens or deal with real crime such as drugs, theft and violence. They will either have to put money into the police force or the police will be diverted from other work," she said.

Peter Anderson, South West regional spokesman for the League Against Cruel Sports, said that warnings of a "no go zone" for ministers were entirely consistent with the "bullying tactics" of hunt supporters.

"I am sure the Government won't tolerate such threats and intimidation. These people have taken it upon themselves to claim that they speak on behalf of the countryside, when nothing could be further from the truth," he said.