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Muckspreader 6 april

If the election was to be decided by the government’s record on farming issues, Labour would be lucky to receive a single vote. Not for nothing has Defra, set up in 2001 after the foot-and-mouth disaster, been known ever since as the Department for the Elimination of Farming and Rural Affairs. Since 1997 a sorry crew of farming ministers, from Jack ‘T Bone’ Cunningham and Nick Brown to Rosa Klebb (aka Mrs Beckett), from Elliott Morley and Lord Whitty to ‘Baby Ben’ Bradshaw, have displayed a contempt for Britain’s farming community without political precedent.

The 2001 election, of course, coincided with the end of the FMD crisis, perhaps the greatest act of maladministration by any government in history, costing the UK economy at least £8 billion. As any proper public enquiry would have found – which is why the Beloved Leader did not allow one, but set up instead three ‘pseudo-enquiries’ - the “pre-emptive cull” of more than 8 million healthy animals was ordered by ministers in clear breach of the criminal law. This they implicitly admitted when, in 2002, they shamefacedly sneaked in their new Animal Health Act, to give them all those powers to kill any animal they wish which they had falsely pretended to possess in 2001.

Then there was the refusal of the European Commission to hand over most of the £900 million claimed by the UK, on the grounds that Defra had ludicrously overspent on the crisis. This led in turn to Defra ministers such as Elliott Morley taking it out on the contractors who had fallen over backwards to help them in 2001, by refusing to pay £100 million for work Defra had pleaded with them to carry out, and which was all fully accounted for.

But the FMD debacle was only the most glaring example of how New Labour’s ministers have routinely bullied, blustered and abused their powers in tyrannising over the farming industry, usually followed by lying to justify their blunders. There has, for instance, been the astonishing and continuing shambles of the ‘fallen stock’ scheme, Defra’s pitifully inept effort to enact a diktat from Brussels that no dead animal can any longer be buried on the farm. For nearly two years after making this a criminal offence, Defra had to continue to allow farmers to break this absurd law, because it had not made any proper arrangements for the fallen stock to be picked up. This is why even today the farmyards of Wales are littered with rotting, stinking carcases which should long since have been given a decent burial, or left out for natural disposal by foxes and birds.

Then there has been the fiasco over bovine TB. ‘Baby Ben’s’ refusal to listen to the advice of almost every vet in the land that he should cull sick badgers is resulting in an epidemic of TB in cattle which even Defra admits will end up within ten years costing the taxpayers £2 billion. The list of Defra’s blunders goes on forever, from the mass-closure of abattoirs to its ludicrous mishandling of the EU’s new single farm payment scheme, forcing farmers to grub up their cider orchards and robbing dairy farmers of £600 million in compensation specifically allocated to them by Brussels. But fortunately for New Labour, it has done so well in putting farmers out of business – an estimated 50,000, or more than a third, since 2000 alone – that there are no longer enough of them left to sway the vote in any constituency in the land.