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Dairy Farming - articles in the Western Morning News on Feb 3 2005


11:00 - 02 February 2005

As the representative of livestock farmers in England and Wales, I am absolutely disgusted at the situation where not a single Government minister of agriculture had the decency to turn up at this debate to hear the tremendous problems that South West agriculture is facing.

It angers me very greatly that the Government should turn its back on us in this way. Our farmers are furious at this administration's totally negative attitude towards our community and the very considerable problems that we are facing.

By not turning up at this debate, it shows they simply don't give a damn for anything that happens in the South West. It is not difficult to see why that is. They only have a handful of Labour MPs down here, so the region is unimportant to them.

It is high time the South West taught this arrogant Labour Party a lesson. We should be calling for the resignation of all Labour MPs in the South West region for repeatedly turning their backs on their constituents. This non-attendance at the debate is just another example.

It seems to me that the Government's attitude is that it is all right for Mrs Beckett to come down here to talk about climate change, but she cannot be bothered to come to the Westcountry to hear about our agriculture. That does not add up, because it is agriculture that has the biggest potential to help.

I hope the NFU will register the feelings of disgust among its members in the Westcountry about the general attitude of the Labour Party to agriculture. Take, for example, the situation with tenant farmers who want to diversify their farming system. They now find they are faced with paying extra stamp duty if they wish to diversify and change their premises to a business lease.

If only they would take interest. If only they would sit down and talk to us. I do not believe they realise how much agriculture contributes to the wellbeing of the rest of the region. Without farming, there would be no Westcountry tourist industry, or the ancillary businesses that go with it.

We have very little manufacturing industry down here, and what there is faces decline. The Government apparently does not understand that if agriculture is allowed to wind down through lack of support, in a few years' time they may have to get out the ration books again.


11:00 - 02 February 2005

The extent of this Government's interventionism is truly astounding. Usually, when I start a column like this, you would reasonably expect a witty and well-considered critique - what some would amusingly call a diatribe - of Government assumption of expertise in, and responsibility for, parenting, smoking, diet, exercise and manners.

I would usually point out that such impertinent intervention is entirely pointless, since the only people who are likely to heed it are already responsible and concerned, while the shiftless will simply and correctly light fags with government leaflets or use them to convey their chips. But then, the point of such presumption is not to benefit the electorate. It is to establish the Government's right so to presume and to deny personal responsibility.

On this occasion, extraordinarily, we have cause to question the absence of Government intervention, with the intention, presumably, of establishing that the subject in hand is not their responsibility. Yesterday, at a major debate on the dire plight of the dairy industry, not a single minister deigned to turn up. Instead, a whip read a bland pre-prepared statement which contributed precisely nothing to the debate.

Mention the miners in Millbank and half-onions will be rapidly distributed. Eyes will film over and guitars will be pulled from behind the filing cabinets for renditions of Billy Bragg classics about the poor having their noses rubbed in the dirt by oppressive government and vicious bloated pit-bosses. Denis Skinner even attributed the hunting ban to a Labour desire for vengeance.

Somehow, however, the plight of farmers, not, as were miners, attempting to perpetuate an industry which was no longer financially viable, but producing products acknowledged to be both necessary and among the best in the world, is not even worth the time and effort required for discussion.

Yet these farmers, who are also serving a purpose supposedly sanctioned and supported by the Government by preserving our beautiful, precious countryside and its wildlife in the performance of their traditional function, are producing milk at a cost higher than the price paid by processors and being driven from the land in their thousands, and Defra is too busy to do anything about it.

How strange, that one culture should attract such nostalgia and another such despite. It is not even as though the problem were intractable. The supermarkets claim that it is not they who are profiting at the expense of the farmers but rather the processors. The processors blame the supermarkets. All parties might with reason blame government policy which insists upon imports of which there is no need from nations with lower standards of animal welfare, hygiene and bio-security than our own.

Indeed, a ministry which had power to solve the problem and was committed to helping its own people would long since have done so. The sad fact is that Defra is merely a sad, sick joke, now with no purpose save the imposition of absurd regulations imposed by bureaucrats in another country. Defra cannot initiate action, whether it be in response to farmers driven from business, to ecological damage or to an epidemic such as foot and mouth.

It is powerless save as an enforcement agency for regulations which, so far from respecting the needs of individual communities, are dedicated to uniformity, regardless of economic, cultural or ecological distinctions.


11:00 - 02 February 2005

The fact that no minister was available to take part in yesterday's important debate on farming in the South West is little short of a disgrace.

Sadly, it won't have come as much of a surprise to Westcountry farmers who have grown used to Labour ministers' indifference to their plight over the last eight years.

The Government has made it clear that it doesn't attach any importance to the British farming industry - it says there is no need for a policy on food security and it seems to just accept that the new Single Farm Payment will cause a dramatic further decline in production.

There is an unwillingness to do anything to shift the balance of power between the producer and the retailer, which is making life hard for farmers.

There is paralysis on the problem of bovine TB, where ministers seem content to just sit back and let the Krebs Trials take their course, while the disease gallops away at 20 per cent a year.

It all suggests that agriculture is to be sacrificed by Labour. Despite all the changes affecting farming there has been no debate in Government time on the future of agriculture for more than two years.

So it is a great pity that ministers did not attend yesterday. The Government whip who was there just read from a prepared statement and was not able to give any undertakings at all.

Yet the problems faced by farmers in the South West are very real, particularly in the dairy sector.

Take an issue like TB, where the evidence of a link between badgers and the spread of the disease in cattle is now overwhelming.

I do not agree with the Liberal Democrats that the Krebs Trials have proved that reactive culling of badgers does not work - how can they have when the culling rates were as low as 30 per cent? We need to find a way of removing infected clusters of badgers and enabling healthy ones to recolonise - we want to see a healthy badger population alongside a healthy cattle population.

It's also clear that the supermarket code of practice is not working - farmers and suppliers have no confidence in it. Obviously we have to await the outcome of the latest audit by the Office of Fair Trading, but in principle we have to accept the need for a more rigorous code, if necessary statutory.

Then there is the issue of co-ops, where we have had a lot of talk from ministers but precious little positive action. It is ludicrous for the Government to have broken up Milk Marque, when at the same time we have huge European co-operatives operating in the UK.

The important thing now is where we go from here. Farmers in the South West need a Government that gives them every chance in a competitive market place through honest labelling, regulations no more stringent than other EU countries and immediate steps to halt the spread of bovine TB.

What they have at the moment is a Government that does nothing while farm incomes drop, production declines and jobs are lost.


Ministers were accused of "fiddling while the dairy industry burns" yesterday after they failed to attend a major Commons debate on the plight of the Westcountry's dairy industry.

In an extraordinary snub, no minister from the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was made available to respond to the 90-minute debate on farming in the South West, which focused on the dairy crisis. Instead, a lowly Government whip was sent to read out a bland, pre-prepared statement.

David Heath, the Somerset Lib-Dem MP who called the debate, described the lack of Defra representation as "very disappointing".

He told MPs: "I think many people will interpret this as symptomatic of the indifference which they perceive on the part of the Government towards the issues of agriculture. I find it incredible that agriculture has been virtually airbrushed out of the political agenda. When we have had the chance to tackle ministers, the attitude is often one of complacency towards what I see as a crisis. Today we have not even got that."

The debate heard that more than 1,000 South West dairy farmers had gone out of business during the last three years and that 30 per cent of those remaining were expected to go during the next two. Mr Heath urged the Government to intervene to tackle "abuses" of supermarket power. He said it was "perverse" that ministers had intervened to break up the farmers' co-operative Milk Marque, but would not take action against far more powerful forces in the market like Tesco.

He added: "Until we get the farm gate price of milk up to a sustainable level then we shall not have a fair market for milk, and without that we shall not have any sort of future for dairy farming - the industry will move towards extinction.

"We have got to do something now to save an industry that is crucial to the economy of the South West and the country. We need an effective supermarket code and we need Defra to stand up for the industry."

Shadow agriculture minister Jim Paice told MPs that he shared Mr Heath's concerns about Defra's no-show. He said he had some sympathy for the Government whip Nick Ainger who was asked to stand in, but that dairy farmers deserved a better response than the "constrained" reply he was able to give.

A Defra spokesman said ministers had been unable to attend because of "diary pressures". The Rural Affairs Secretary Margaret Beckett and animal health minister Ben Bradshaw were attending a climate change conference in Exeter, the Environment Minister Elliot Morley was viewing flood damage in Carlisle for a second time and the Rural Affairs Minister Alun Michael was in a committee meeting, although he was able to attend a separate debate on another issue just a few minutes later.

"We are obviously concerned about the South West, but ministers could not attend the debate because of diary pressures," the spokesman said. "Mrs Beckett is hoping to meet some farmers while she is in Exeter."

However, the Lib-Dem rural affairs spokesman Andrew George was not impressed by the departmental absence note. Mr George, MP for St Ives, said it was not clear why both Mrs Beckett and Mr Bradshaw had chosen to be at the climate conference. He told the WMN: "Quite why they need to hold hands at a conference that apparently has no political consequences I'm not sure. It seems like another example of Defra fiddling while the dairy industry burns."

Mr George said many farmers now had little confidence in either the willingness or ability of Defra to cope with the changes faced by the industry. Earlier the debate had heard criticism of Government policy on dealing with the epidemic of bovine TB. Mr Paice said ministers appeared to be "paralysed" over the issue of dealing with the disease in the badger population. And he said there was "a very big question mark" over the validity of the Government's own badger culling trials.

The Labour MP David Drew criticised the system chosen for implementing reforms of the Common Agricultural Policy. Mr Drew acknowledged that it had been difficult to balance the needs of different farmers, but he added: "This is an incredibly complex system and we have made it more so."

Mr Heath said it was "unacceptable" that farmers may have to wait until June of next year for vital payments that would normally be due this November because of the "shambles" of the new system.

Mr Ainger said ministers were "well aware" of the concerns that many farmers have about the power of the supermarkets. But he said the Office of Fair Trading was still trying to find hard evidence of abuses to justify action. He said the Government had established the Dairy Supply Chain Forum in a bid to help the industry resolve its own problems. And he said ministers were prepared to consider badger culling as a possible control measure for dealing with the spread of TB "if scientific advice supports it as a cost-effective and sustainable solution".