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LORD HASKINS, the Irish multi-millionaire appointed by his friend Mr Blair as "rural affairs co-ordinator", to draw up a long-term plan for the future of British agriculture, began by betraying astonishing naivete about his new role, in at least two respects. Farmers may protest that inviting one of our leading supermarket suppliers, as chairman of Northern Foods and Express Dairies, to advise on the future of small farms is rather like "putting a fox in charge of the henhouse". But just as worrying have been the bizarre technical blunders already perpetrated by the man who, only last month, was cheerfully telling a conference organised by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds that half of Britain's farmers would be out of business within 10 years. Lord Haskins's first howler was his warning that farmers could not in future expect compensation for animals slaughtered by the Government in foot and mouth epidemics, and that it was up to them to insure against such losses. Not untypically of a fanatical Europhile, this showed remarkable ignorance of EU law. Compensation in such cases is not decided by the British Government but is laid down by Council Decision 90/424. There is no way other EU countries would agree to repeal this law (although it has been wrongly claimed that Brussels will foot 60 per cent of the foot and mouth compensation bill when, under the arcane rules of our EU budget rebate, British taxpayers will in fact end up paying 83 per cent). What Lord Haskins should also have established, before shooting from the hip in this way, is that insurance against foot and mouth is a complete non-starter, since so much of any potential loss is out of farmers' hands. Under EU law we are compelled to import food from countries with the disease. Ninety per cent of the animals slaughtered are healthy and only killed on Government orders. And, under both EU law and UK Government diktat, they are not free to minimise their losses by protecting their animals with vaccination. Lord Haskins's second howler came when, after talking about how British farmers were "mollycoddled" by subsidies, he was interviewed on the Today programme while holidaying in France. He waxed lyrical about how French rural communities "appear to be more affluent than their equivalents in Britain", obviously without any idea that the chief reason for this is that the French government uses Brussels subsidies and its own tax laws to "mollycoddle" French farmers in a way their British counterparts can only dream of. The same goes for the farmers of Lord Haskins's native Ireland. British ministers like to boast, for instance, about the £1.6 billion "they" are spending on farm subsidies under the rural development fund, without ever letting on that this is a Brussels scheme covering seven years, under which Britain claims £230 million a year while, on behalf of those "affluent" French farmers Lord Haskins is so keen on, their own government is claiming £8.4 billion, or £1.2 billion a year. Even the Irish government, for which Lord Haskin also works under one of his many hats, claims £3.5 billion, or £500 million a year, twice the amount claimed by the UK, although its farming industry is only a quarter the size of Britain's. The truth is that, far from being "mollycoddled", British farmers are forced to compete with their main EU rivals in the famous single market, on a playing field about as unlevel as the north face of Everest. Their greatest enemy is not so much the Common Agricultural Policy as their own Government, which deluges them with a unique overload of regulations and then ensures they receive less financial support than any other farmers in the EU. As he is a generous supporter of the Labour Party, it is highly unlikely we will hear any of this from Lord Haskins. Certainly appointing this outspoken champion of "big is beautiful" to look after the future of Britain's small farmers can be compared to putting a shark in charge of a tank of goldfish. But at least in future the great man might like to check his facts before getting his foot confused with his mouth. Aug 12

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