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Muckspreader - Private Eye 25 January 2005

For reasons which may become obvious, the hero (or villain) of this everyday story of farming life is keen not to be identified, so let us just call him ‘Mike’. Faced with a quality inspection under the ‘beef and lamb assurance’ scheme, which means he can sell at a premium price to supermarkets, Mike was recently having a tidy-up on his Cornish farm, since a ‘tidy farm’ is one of the scheme’s requirements. Having collected a pile of scrap machinery and zinc sheeting, he loaded them up behind his tractor and set off for the nearest metal recycling centre in Bodmin. A policewoman waved him down and demanded to inspect his fuel tank. When her dipstick came out showing ‘red’ diesel, she got onto Customs and Excise.

For farm use, farmers are allowed to buy ‘red’ rather than ordinary white diesel, which gives them a huge benefit, because the duty on red is only 5.22p a litre, as opposed to 41.88p on the white stuff. This subsidy totals £840 million a year, almost exactly half what farmers will receive under the EU’s new Single Farm Payment scheme. Not unnaturally, Gordon Brown is keen to cut back on this massive subsidy, and the forces of the law have therefore been told to be zealous in sniffing out any abuse.

The use of red diesel is permitted to farmers so long as they don’t travel a few miles from the farm. This was what drew the attention of the policewoman who stopped ‘Mike’. Even though he was on legitimate farm business, she thought he had overstepped the permissible distance, and therefore impounded his tractor. Although ‘Mike’ was allowed to deliver his load, his tractor was then taken away on a low loader to a nearby pound. He had to call another tractor from home to pick up his trailer. Only after a week was he permitted to pick up his original tractor, after paying a storage fee of £120 plus £300 for the low loader. He was then fined £250 for driving his tractor on red diesel, another £250 for driving it illegally on the highway,making a grand total of £920.

This is particularly relevant in light of the EU’s new farm waste regulations, which will soon make it illegal for farmers to keep any ‘waste’ on their farms. Either they will have to take it themselves to a licensed waste centre, or they will have to pay huge sums to get a licensed contractor to take it away for them. But if they wish to save money by moving it themselves, the only practical means of doing so will be to use a tractor. And under EU waste directives, the number of waste disposal sites is being drastically reduced, particularly those licensed to take ‘hazardous waste’, of which there are now only 10 in the entire UK. Many farms are now hundreds of miles from the nearest hazardous waste site (in Scotland and Wales there are none). And since the EU’s classification of what constitutes ‘hazardous waste’ has also been vastly extended (to include paint tins, batteries, asbestos sheeting and anything which has been in contact with oil), this poses farmers with quite a problem.

The only real winner will be Gordon Brown. Either he will benefit from fines on farmers who use their diesel illegally, or he will clean up from the taxes charged on the profits made by the contractors farmers will now have to employ to remove their waste legally. Nice one, Gordy.