Back to warmwell.com website


That keen Europhile Chris Haskins has of course been elevated to the peerage as Tony Blair’s chief adviser on agriculture. He moved on from Northern Foods to become boss of Express Dairies, and when he stepped down from that, he was succeeded by his old friend Sir David Naish, who was able to see the firm eventually taken over by the Danish giant Arla. So everyone it seems has come out well - except those 20,000 dairy farmers who have been forced out of business.

Private Eye - Muckspreader Feb 2005

New light was recently shed on what has become perhaps the greatest puzzle in British agriculture – the disaster which in recent years has engulfed our dairy farmers. How is it that the most efficient dairy industry in Europe could have been brought to near-terminal collapse, with thousands of farmers forced out of business every year (numbers have halved since 1997, to below 20,000)? How is it that supermarkets can squeeze down the going price for milk to below the farmers’ cost of production, but then charge their customers more than twice what they pay for it?

It does not usually take long for any discussion of these mysteries among farmers to get back to the black day in 1994 when a Tory government abolished the Milk Marketing Board, which could use its monopoly clout to ensure that milk was sold on to the supermarkets at prices which gave farmers a fair price for their product. One of those most active in lobbying the then-agriculture minister William Waldegrave to scrap the board was Chris Haskins, then running Northern Foods, a major milk-buyer. Another, rather more oddly, was David Naish, then president of the NFU. The reason given at the time for bending to their pressure was that it was simply time for milk production to be opened up to the free market, which would benefit everyone, consumers and farmers alike.

But on a recent BBC Farming Today, Haskins came up with a fascinating new slant on why the MMB was abolished. Asked by the ineffable Anna Hill whether he would like to see an end to the “state aid rules” which prohibit ‘monopolistic organisations’ (she actually meant ‘competition rules’, but no matter), Haskins replied “no, because if they are monopolistic within one state that is against the rules of the single market. That is why the Milk Marketing Board had to go ten years ago, because it was a national monopoly, which could use its powers to undermine competition coming in from outside Britain – that is the spirit of the single market”.

So there at last it was being admitted - that the real reason for the scrapping of the board was that it was found to be in breach of EU law, because it protected Britain’s dairy farmers against competition from their EU rivals. Under other EU rules, of course – namely the milk quota system - Britain is forbidden to produce as much milk as she consumes, while other countries such as France, Germany and Ireland are allowed to produce a lot more than they can use. The resulting surplus of milk elsewhere in the EU has enabled Britain’s supermarkets to buy in cheap, imported milk from abroad, which means they can present British dairy farmers with a knock-down price, take it or leave it, knowing that the Milk Marketing Board is no longer there to protect them.

But the news isn’t all bad. That keen Europhile Chris Haskins has of course been elevated to the peerage as Tony Blair’s chief adviser on agriculture. He moved on from Northern Foods to become boss of Express Dairies, and when he stepped down from that, he was succeeded by his old friend Sir David Naish, who was able to see the firm eventually taken over by the Danish giant Arla. So everyone it seems has come out well - except those 20,000 dairy farmers who have been forced out of business.