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Failure like this should be a national scandal

IN ANY other industry, the Newcastle University report on Britains rural economy would have prompted a national scandal. It is an account of ministerial failure after the 2001 foot-and-mouth outbreak. Incompetence, ignorance and apathy have characterised the behaviour of the Department for Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs (Defra) in its handling of the rural economy.

No lessons have been learnt from the affair. If there were an outbreak tomorrow, the insane killing that led to the unnecessary death of 6.5 million animals would happen again.

For a department whose prime responsibility is the countryside, to have lost touch with the rural economy should be a cause for outrage. Yet no minister is being held to account. A series of mishandled crises, from BSE to foot-and-mouth, has eroded the trust between the Government and those in the countryside. Because Defra is staffed mainly by bureaucrats, the gap between policy-makers and practitioners has widened.

With the changeover from production-led farming to the single payment policy, whose aim is to manage the environment, the plethora of paperwork that farmers face has increased, while the skills that once made British farming the envy of the world are no longer held in high regard.

Sooner or later, as the cost of imported food increases, future governments will need, once again, to enlist the support of British farming. By then it may be too late to regain the trust of an industry that has been made to feel that it is an encumbrance rather than an asset.