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Villain or visionary?
(Filed: 25/01/2003)

Robert Uhlig meets Lord Haskins, rural tsar and most hated man in the countryside

He has been called the bjte noire of small and family farmers, a grim reaper in the countryside, insensitive, ignorant, a multi-millionaire food-processing baron who makes absurd and sometimes insulting comments that demoralise and humiliate hard-working farmers.

Lord Haskins, the Prime Minister's closest adviser on rural, food and farming matters, seems to have developed an ability to irritate small farmers and those - in particular the Prince of Wales - who believe agribusiness and the well-being of the countryside make uneasy bedfellows.

For his efforts, Christopher Haskins was this week branded villain of the year by Country Life magazine. One of the judges, Zac Goldsmith, the environmentalist heir to Sir Jimmy Goldsmith's fortune, said Lord Haskins deserved the award for "propagating the false atmosphere of inevitability that pervades rural decline. Rural Recovery tsar - he is the very opposite."

Lord Haskins, unsurprisingly, welcomes the award in characteristic style. "If all the people in the countryside can agree that I am villain of the year when they cannot agree on anything else, then that is a huge step forward," he says.

"I am a predictable nomination, particularly considering the judges are all the predictable brigade."

It is a fair point. Lord Haskins has as many passionate supporters as ardent critics. Many farmers believe he is the one public figure prepared to voice unpalatable truths about farming, rural poverty and the future for the countryside.

He is also unafraid to criticise the Government. The Animal Health Bill, which gives police and officials unprecedented powers to enter farms and slaughter animals, was a "terrible error", he says.

"The Government was traumatised after foot and mouth and they reacted in a knee-jerk manner, bringing in draconian legislation. It is completely over the top."

Yet this part-time farmer, who until he stepped down from the corporate cocoon of Northern Foods had never withdrawn cash from a hole in the wall nor bought himself a mobile phone, attracts the wrath of the countryside on a weekly basis.

On the face of it, he has the ideal credentials to fight for farmers' interests. He grew up on a dairy farm in County Cork and now farms 800 acres in Yorkshire, selling frozen peas to Birds Eye.

In his 40 years at Northern Foods - he married the owner's daughter, Gilda, and climbed the corporate ladder to chairman - he developed an intimate understanding of the mechanics of food production, processing and retailing, including inventing the ready-made lasagne.

These experiences led the Prime Minister to appoint Lord Haskins Rural Recovery Co-ordinator at the height of foot and mouth, a move that many in the countryside said was akin to putting a fox in the hen shed.

They said that by appointing Lord Haskins, who had to put the concerns of his shareholders before those of farmers, the Prime Minister appeared to be sending a very clear message to the countryside that he did not want a farming recovery at all.

'That's not true," says Lord Haskins. "I would argue that the Prime Minister takes a very great interest in the success of the countryside and in rural affairs. He frets about the rural crisis, he says, because he has rural seats where the vote is vital."

"And with the number of people in the countryside rising for the first time in 150 years, he knows he cannot afford to ignore them."

So why was the Liberty & Livelihood March, in which 470,000 people made clear their frustrations with the Government's rural policies, comprehensively ignored by the Government?

"It was a fantastic march and yet it had no political impact. Very strange, but I think the messages being put out were confused, and the one message that came across strongest - hunting - was not buyable to the rest of the electorate.

"The pictures of countryside people, who claimed to be poverty-stricken, going into clubs in Pall Mall for their lunch did not do the message any good. As soon as the MPs in London saw that, the March organisers lost the battle."

It is not so much what Lord Haskins says, but the manner and timing. Plus it is a bit rich of the former chairman for one of the country's most ruthless food processors (Northern Foods specialises in supplying low-cost own-brand staples to Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury's, Safeway and Marks & Spencer) to tell farmers the obvious truth that they have got to make money to survive.

Within days of his appointment as rural tsar, Lord Haskins had told farmers that those whose livestock had been slaughtered should consider themselves lucky to come out of the crisis better off.

It was a highly insensitive remark at a time of great emotional trauma, but he was proved right. The hidden victims of foot and mouth were those farmers whose businesses nearly collapsed because their animal movements were banned, but who received not a penny in compensation.

He has accused farmers of wanting to be rescued rather than rescuing themselves and told small farmers to take day jobs to make ends meet. He even managed to blame foot and mouth for a fall in sales of his pork pies, which he said were often sold from vans in tourist towns closed down by the crisis.

His vision of an economically successful countryside was formed during his Irish childhood. It taught him, he said, that successful farms get bigger and farmers with smallholdings, if they are to survive, have to go part-time. "When people hanker after the past, I just cannot believe it.

"The poverty in Ireland was just appalling. I left in 1960, when people were actually poorer than they had been 40 years before. I saw a lot of misery.

"It was the fault of Eamon De Valera trying to hold on to a rural idyll that was never there. The protectionism that he insisted on was absolutely catastrophic and Ireland did not recover until it realised that its non-agricultural side was the only way forward."

29 December 2002[News]: PM's adviser scorns 'unrealistic' Prince
6 November 2002[News]: Blair's farming Tsar condemns subsidies
15 August 2001[News]: Haskins tones down criticism on Cumbria visit
12 August 2001[News]: Cull farmers better off, says Haskins