RSPB CONFERENCE, TUESDAY 17 JULY

SECRETARY OF STATE: MEETING THE CHALLENGES - A VISION OF THE FUTURE
(with some sub text... my visionary but silent thoughts as I was talking to the RSPB..M.B.)

1. Delighted to be invited to speak at this event and pleased to extend a warm welcome to my colleague in the Agriculture Council, the German Agriculture Minister Renate Künast and her call for a combination of quality food and modern techniques - a welcome which I think would be echoed around this room. ( Renate knows what she means, says it well and I am hoping you will assume I do too. I don't. )

2. You've heard from spokespeople for environmental issues, from the producers and from a retailer. Renate and I have the task of beginning to try and draw together these strands of discussion and debate. The CAP's policies of market support and direct payments to farmers are very blunt, inefficient and ineffective instruments. Market price support and production controls are outdated mechanisms that should be phased out, with farmers being helped to adjust with transitional support payments. So this could hardly be a more exciting time to discuss the future of European agriculture and the UK Government's vision for positive change. ( An exciting time indeed...except for those not having an exciting time - but then no one listens to them.....Cap payments are going... "inefficient blunt instrument" metaphor..so original, and ..er... topical )

3. In the UK we have now created a new Department with sustainable rural development at its heart, bringing environment, rural affairs and food and farming under one roof. What do we mean by sustainable development? We mean dealing with economic, social and environmental issues together - not in isolation - it means tackling social exclusion, protecting the environment and natural resources and pursuing sound economic policy at the same time. ( lets hope you don't spot that "sustainable" development actually means wondering what direction to take while talking loudly about "the environment" - but it's OK, I see you lot have already gone glazed. I'll mention birds in a minute.)

4. Within the Department we will be preparing our own Sustainable Development Strategy, and will want views and ideas from outside the Department fed into deciding what our future priorities and commitments should be. But clearly we cannot effectively pursue just within the UK unless we do so in the context of promoting sustainability in the CAP. ( Good old "consultation" ..It will look like a British plan and it will look like we are consulting you....but then, you have hardly heard of Brussels anyway, have you?)

5. And it is in this wider context that the new Department is seeking to promote a new approach to the countryside. (the traditional British countryside has got to be changed you see because...er...because...um...well because the EU has jolly well got other plans for it, so there! )

6. Agriculture shapes the countryside we live in - most of the land in this country is farmed, and in the EU, 42 per cent is either farmed or afforested. So policy decisions we make in the Agriculture Council have a significant impact on the countryside throughout Europe. Conserving and enhancing what we have is essential. That is why my Department's public service agreement targets include reversing by 2020 the long-term decline in farmland bird populations and bringing 95 per cent of our nationally important wildlife sites into favourable condition by 2010. (We are going - some time in the next twenty years - and since this is the RSPB conference - to have more birds on what was farmland and in the next ten years we will decide which "wildlife sites" are "nationally important" - birds and stuff - and just look at the way I have put in real dates and even a percentage and everything!... Now, no one can say that's vague!)

7. On issues like desertification, the health of the wider rural economy and on biodiversity and the environment, agriculture plays a key role. And the tragic impact of recent crises in animal health, from BSE to FMD have sharply and starkly reminded us of the impact crises in agriculture can have on other industries, most obviously such as tourism but also on a whole range of business and economic activity. ( "Desertification" hmmmm...not quite sure what I mean there, but it does at least have six syllables. As for the "tragic impact" and the sad tremolo in my voice, well lets hope no one's noticed that if you kill millions of farm animals as part of an insane economic policy, you do tend to find you have mucked up all the other rural industries too)

8. In the trauma of recent events we have heard concerns about whether UK farming has any future, let alone a strong and prosperous one. Let me say loud and clear that we are committed to facilitating the development of competitive and diverse farming and food industries, and to do so within the context of sustainable rural development. This means not just viewing agriculture in terms of its economic contribution, but recognising its role as guardian of three quarters of our land and bedrock of rural communities. We will also be looking closely at agriculture's relationship with wider society, in particular the consumer. ( Well..I said it "loud" all right but lets hope it wasn't too clear...cheap food, big farms and liberalisation are what we'd like - and parks for the money-spending tourists of course. Lets keep these wretched farmers where we can see them)

9. Our Manifesto committed us to set up an independent Commission, to advise on these issues. (And we're thinking what a good plan it will be put it in the hands of a former chairman of the Meat and Livestock Commission, Sir Donald Curry. Mind you, there won't be any hope of finding funds for it. But Curry is off to a SAC Conference in November to talk on "The Changing Shape of the UK Rural Sector - Evolution or Revolution" talking on "Re-building Consumer Confidence in Food". An open mind? We think so.)

10. But even before that committee could possibly report I am clear that we must be much more innovative in our approach to diversification. While we tend to think primarily of farmland as producing food, it can grow energy crops, can protect and enhance biodiversity and promote tourism, to name just a few things. Renate mentioned a range of issues, which I saw in action in Gloucestershire yesterday. ( GM crops and picnic places with "managed" wilderness is actually what Tony wants...and what Tony wants Tony gets. Just as well to mention Gloucestershire there to show that I am able to venture into the depths just as well as blasted, popular, knowledgeable, wretched Renate...terrible place...got my shoes dirty...just like that dreadful Skipton in Yorkshire...or do I mean Lancashire? ... )

11. And I too see organic farming as a useful and important element in our new approach to farming. The sector is already expanding fast in response to consumer demand for high-quality and branded food. It cannot satisfy our needs in isolation, but it can contribute perhaps significantly to achieving sustainability and it is certainly a sector I would be happy to see develop further. ( I'd be happy to see it "develop further" up its own compost actually...achieve sustainabilty with that bunch of open-toed sandal freaks?...don't make me laugh..."perhaps" Chris Haskins will be encouraging organic farming and getting them all making organic Ski yogurts, ha ha..oh dear, better look serious for the next bit .... )

12. The recent outbreak of Foot and Mouth disease has been an appalling tragedy and I express my heartfelt sympathy to all those affected by the outbreak of the disease. But the farming industry and the wider rural economy faced difficult challenges before that outbreak. The epidemic has both highlighted those challenges and accelerated the need for change. In common with many in farming and most in the countryside, I am determined to make the most of the opportunity we now have to look again at the future direction of farming and how best to deliver the necessary changes. (What a blessing this FMD "epidemic" is. Must remember to talk about it in the past tense. It is giving us the chance to "divide and rule" that really dangerous Countryside Alliance bunch, to clear whole swathes of farmland of animals on mere suspicion and without benefit of blood test, and the Brecon Beacons! Who'd have ever dreamed it could be that easy? We finally get to see the back of most of those annoyingly heartbroken farmers who refuse either to become agri-businessmen or work for them. It's costing a bit - but talk about "value for money"!)

13. The first steps to aid the recovery of the rural economy have already begun to be taken. Acting on the new Department's open and inclusive approach to policy making, we are working as in Germany with farmers and other rural stakeholders to plan for the future. ( Well..naturally Britain's own "stakeholders" - her population - have not been consulted, and luckily animals don't have votes! Seriously though, we know best.)

14. Earlier this month we issued a consultation document setting out the proposed rules for a new round of the Agricultural Development Scheme to improve the marketing performance and competitiveness of the agricultural sectors most affected by foot and mouth. We have also introduced the enhanced Farm Business Advice Service, which will offer those farmers who have had all their livestock compulsorily slaughtered the opportunity to take a completely fresh look at their business on the basis of good professional advice. This should enable them to develop a plan for making the most of the business and environmental assets on their farm. ( For any doubters among you, let me say at once that this will go much further than teaching them to suck eggs. It will give them a chance to learn how to market and package eggs, how to be competitive with eggs...NO! not on spoons and not on any account by splatting my honourable friend...Any eggs - real or metaphorical - will of course be produced in sufficient quantity to enable producers to overlook the existence of any animal involved in the process- and anyway we will be getting most of them from abroad.. )

15. Government must also ensure that the wider rural communities get a fair deal, - both in the delivery of its policies and also in the services provided by both the public and private sectors. In the past, rural communities seeking better services complained they too often faced a series of closed doors. In the future I envisage there being only one door, that of my Department, and it stands open wide. (not unlike my mouth ...and with about the same chance of getting anything "sustainable" from it...ha ha)

16. Last year's Rural White Paper set out for the first time the need for a Rural Service Standard, and demand that all major new Government policies be "rural-proofed" to ensure that they have taken account of rural interests. The independent rural advocate, Ewen Cameron, is charged with holding Government to account on our delivery. (There! I said "rural" five times in two sentences according to the New Labour maxim that the less you intend to do about something the more you must mention it.)

17. Again, innovation, and tailored, local solutions are key. The imagination and innovation which local empowerment can unblock is truly astonishing. For instance one parish council [in Waters Upton] is developing a community building with a Post office, shop and IT facilities as well as space for a range of local activities. In Lincolnshire, pubs, as well as post offices, church halls, and doctors' surgeries are locations for computer based library facilities as part of their Linnet Local network. The Countryside Agency's Vital Villages Scheme - which I launched yesterday - is a partnership with local people as the drivers of change. (You see what marvellous innovations you'll be helped to deliver with our new schemes... such modern wonders as a pub, a post office, a shop... and space for a whole range of rural activities - like computing. Traditional farming won't, of course, be one of them...but this is all for the BEST)

18. So environmental protection, rural development and farming all play their part in the £1.6 billion England Rural Development Programme. (Um...yes I know we have spent more than that already on killing the animals - but that was "taxpayers' money" - quite a different concept. And anyway, we have got the population thinking it was all the fault of the greedy farmers - now all millionaires of course ...really the press and the BBC are such a pleasure to work with these days. )

19. That should allow us to assist projects which contribute to the creation of more diverse and sustainable rural sectors and to increase significantly the area of land managed to achieve environmental improvements under the agri-environment schemes. Last week we announced that - subject to European Commission approval - we will be including new arable options in the Countryside Stewardship Scheme next year. This will give more opportunity for arable farmers to contribute to the environmental benefits that the schemes can provide, for plants, insects and birds. ( Oops, I shouldn't have said "European approval"...British farmers who grow arable crops as the Europe Union bosses want them to will find lots of incentives but we don't want people to know that the EU is telling us what to do.. not quite sure about the environmental bit yet either ...but I notice the audience are all asleep so it hardly matters)

20. I know that our hosts today, the RSPB, are involved in a ground-breaking project linking farming and biodiversity. Their "volunteer and farmer alliance" surveys the range of birds on a holding and provides the farmer with a laminated map of their locations which can be used to inform an application for the Countryside Stewardship Scheme. It is exactly this kind of partnership that we must support and encourage. And again yesterday I heard encouraging evidence - not just of individuals but of groups of farmers embarked on stewardship programmes. ( free laminated maps...birds...biodiversity...it all sounds jolly good. Maybe I wasn't entirely wise to use the phrase "ground-breaking" ...it might sound a tad destructive in the context of changing the face of the countryside)

21. I don't think any of us are under any illusions that it will be easy to drive through the positive changes we envisage for the farming industry. Not least because the CAP is one of the EU's oldest common policies, accounting for almost half of the total EU budget. (Wonder if anyone has noticed that I haven't said an RSPB dicky bird yet about what these "positive changes" actually are going to be...)

22. But more recent public (and industry) concerns about the role and future of farming as Renate said are feeding on an increasing awareness that the CAP is failing to deliver on many of its objectives. Indeed there are many in farming and beyond and which see CAP structures as all too often producing economic incentives which obstruct development of sustainable development and drive behaviour in opposite direction from what environmental or animal welfare considerations might suggest. A classic example of the interaction of factors which make up sustainable development and classic examples of what can happen if these factors are out of balance. Consumers and taxpayers are demanding better value for money, as well as greater reflection of animal welfare and environmental concerns. (Something very wonky about those sentences but as long as I mention "animal welfare" and "value for money" and "environmental concerns" at the end like this...)

23. To be fair Agenda 2000 has already done much more to help - not least to bring farmers into closer contact with the needs and the demands of the market. It reaffirms the principle that farmers can be paid for providing environmental services It also established the Rural Development Regulation, which will mean that the proportion of CAP budget invested in rural development will rise from less than 1 per cent in 1997 to 15 per cent in 2005. (It's brilliant! We collar a lot more of this EU money and then spend it on New Labour Countryside.plc instead of doling out dosh to struggling farmers)

24. But seeing what has already been done, helps to reinforce the clear view in the UK that we need to create a new CAP that is sustainable ( Splendid word. . a totally nonsensical way of using "sustainable", but who cares? What a word!) and into the bargain delivers what European citizens actually want. (They will actually have what they're given and like it.) That includes a better deal for consumers - who pay higher prices in the EU as compared to the world market. (And any appeal to their pockets will make them forget what globalisation actually means) But it must also mean a better deal for farmers. Average farm income in the UK last year was only 8,500 pounds, and again many point out that the CAP can also discourage or prevent them also from responding freely to consumer demands. (Better not to mention that the income for many hill farmers was NIL last year and that government interference of any kind has never, ever, led to their being able to "respond freely" to anything ) And of course it might help to get a better deal for the environment as well as for all these other goals if we can remove artificial incentives to intensify agriculture, and targeting aid at rural, environmental and structural improvements to make our countryside more sustainable. (again..yippee..I've got in "aid", "rural", "environmental" and "sustainable" without actually saying anything at all!)

25. The CAP's policies of market support and direct payments to farmers are very blunt, inefficient and ineffective instruments. Market price support and production controls are outdated mechanisms that should be phased out, with farmers being helped to adjust with transitional support payments. ( and with DEFRA paperwork of the usual labyrinthine complexity, there wont need to be many of those! )

26. Recent negotiations again as Renate highlighted established a "2nd pillar" on the Rural Development Regulation, towards which resources should be moved. It should be developed and expanded as a key mechanism for delivering environmental, economic and social policy goals in rural areas, and for facilitating restructuring of the agriculture industry itself. We believe that the key to achieving this in a balanced way is to reduce CAP direct aids progressively over time so that farmers are able to adjust their businesses as rural development spending increases. ( There are a few baffled faces out there trying to envisage a pillar having resources moved towards it...You will note, Renate, that I don't have your own command of English.)

27. The CAP mid-term reviews of key regimes, due to commence next year, are bound to offer an early chance to secure significant reform. (And I am "commencing" to draw this meaningless drivel to a conclusion by saying we are going to agree with the EU that it can stop paying farmers subsidies)

28. But again as Renate indicated as yet not all Member States fully share our diagnosis of the situation, nor our prescription for change. Our objectives will therefore not be easy to negotiate. Nevertheless I am resolved to deliver the best deal for all stakeholders in our own countries and the EU as a whole. By working in partnership with our European colleagues, including, I hope, Renate - taking account of their concerns as well as our own, I believe we can, indeed me must achieve real change to benefit the whole Community. (Renate you're going to help me pretend it's going to be a big deal to "persuade" the other Member States aren't you?...Renate? Renate? Blow me, she's dropped off)

29. I hope I have demonstrated that our new Department really does mean a new departure and open up exciting new opportunities. And I have explored some of the mechanisms through which we intend to deliver change (Well I haven't actually, and although "exciting" is perhaps the last word they'd choose to use for our planned "reconstruction" of the English countryside not to mention the utter balls-up we have already made of farmers' lives - my masterly mangling of the language and the extreme dullness of my delivery will have deluded them into thinking they must have missed what were not, in fact - facts..... .)

30. In Government, part of the political challenge is that we all must work much harder to engage openly with as many of those with an interest in agriculture policy as possible. That means farmers, the food industry, consumers, taxpayers, environmental organisations and a host of other stakeholders, many of whom are represented here today. You have an important contribution to make and I want to develop the opportunities to feed in ideas to officials and Ministers as we develop policy. I am very interested in the reform project that Chris Haskins announced this morning. (Yes, good old Chris. He has us in stitches with all his jokes about British farmers. That reference to aggro-business was a bit of a Freudian slip! Tony's idea of appointing him to be in charge of the 'rural recovery programme..well it was a real stroke of genius of course but no one can deny it's really funny. Northern Fools sorted out by Northern Foods...oooh my aching sides..)

31. This Government is committed to working to secure for our food and farming industries and for our rural communities the future they deserve (ha ha)and a future which corresponds with the needs of wider society. It will not be easy to meet that challenge, but we can succeed if we and all our partners engage positively and contribute to the process of change. (Don't think I have actually said anything there have I? just hot air and meaningless platitudes? Thought so. Right, good,...on to the final bit about "working domestically" and then a large drink, phew)

32. Many thanks again to the organisers of this important conference for taking forward this debate. I look forward to working domestically and in Europe with all the organisations represented here today. (Now for the clapping...smiles all round... really, politics is such a pleasure.)

END