Even newer MuckspreaderBritain's farmers will be consoled to know just how well those who have been paid to look after their interests manage to look after their own. Lord Haskins, of course, is the expert chosen by the Beloved Leader to advise on the future of British farming as his 'rural recovery co-ordinator'. His chief qualifications for this role were that he was chairman of two large public companies with agricultural links. Northern Foods is the largest supplier of processed foods to our supermarket chains. Express Dairies is our biggest milk marketing company. Sadly Lord H has now had to step down as chairman of Express Dairies, shortly after it was found by a Management Today poll of Britain's businessmen to be among the top five of the country's 'Least Admired Companies'. Its rivals for this coveted title included Railtrack and the now bankrupt Independent insurance company. In tribute to the noble lord's management skills, Express Dairies was singled out for its 'inability to innovate'and its 'prospects as a long-term investment', which certainly equips him to advise on Britain's rural recovery.
The dynamic figure chosen to replace Lord H as Express Dairies' chairman is none other than Sir David Naish, former boss of the National Farmers' Union. In 1994 it may be recalled, Naish led those who supported the breakup of the old Milk Marketing Board, which at least guaranteed Britain's dairy farmers the chance to sell their milk at the kind of prices enjoyed by their French and Irish competitors. If the main losers from the disappearance of the MMB were the very farmers whom Naish was paid to look after, the main beneficiaries were the big corporate buyers of milk, headed by Northern Foods and Express Dairies. Not only were they now free to buy milk at ever-lower prices from British farmers. They were also free to import ever greater quantities of surplus milk from other EU countries which, thanks to the collapsing euro, was more than able to compete in price. Tens of thousands of British dairy farmers have gone out of business as a result. But least Sir David himself has been able to benefit from a disaster which he and the NFU did as much as anyone else to bring about.
If anyone else did as much to preside over the collapse of British agriculture in recent years it was Richard Packer, the Maffia's top civil servant until last January he was asked to 'take early retirement' in return for a payoff of £500,000. Affectionately known to his intimates as 'the barrow boy' or 'the ocean-going s***', Packer showed conspicuously little interest in farming as it lurched from one disaster to the next. But he has now made up for this by producing a learned paper on the industry's future for the Centre for Policy Studies. His chief recommendation is that British farmers would be better off without subsidies, ignoring the fact that all their main competitors are more highly subsidised than they are and that, under the EU's Common Agricultural Policy, this would not be allowed anyway. He talks blithely about how the CAP is to be reformed next year, apparently oblivious to the fact that this 'review' has been officially put off until 2006. It seems he knows even less about farming now than when he was in charge of the ministry. But at least his paper might help earn him that knighthood he was so pointedly not given when he was invited to clear his desk.