Speech to the Farmers Club
When the agricultural writer William Shaw first mooted the idea, in 1841, of establishing a Farmers Club, he wrote that it should be "a gathering place for farmers which could also serve as a platform, from which would go out to England news of all that was good in farming, with reports of any discussions about those things that needed to be done".
It might be difficult today to implement the first of Shaw's objectives. There's not much good news about.
But I would like to use this opportunity to follow the second part of Shaw's advice and set out what needs to be done to help British farming.
I am delighted to introduce my new shadow secretary of state for agriculture, Jim Paice. Jim represents a large rural constituency in south east Cambridgeshire. Jim was a farmer and went to agricultural college, so I hope you will agree that he is an excellent appointment. I am also delighted to say that Owen Paterson is here with us today as well.
The State of British Farming
It's never been easy to be a farmer. But farming in Britain today is probably more difficult than ever. The pace of change and the threats to the industry have increased significantly in the last couple of decades. Few here today could be criticised for telling their sons and daughters to think hard before deciding to go into farming.
In the 1990's you faced the crisis over BSE. In 2001, you were hit by the catastrophic outbreak of foot and mouth disease. The total cost to the UK economy was up to £20 billion. The effects are still being felt today. Yet the Government refused to hold a public enquiry, we have not learnt from the mistakes that were made, and I fear that we are still doing far too little to prevent any future outbreak.
There are two issues that arise from BSE and FMD. One legacy of BSE that still remains is the Over Thirty Month rule for cattle. While at the time of introduction it was an essential safeguard for public health, the justification for its continuing has long gone. It is over a year since the Food Standards Agency said the ban could be lifted. In May, the European Food Safety Authority reached the same conclusion. The rule costs the British taxpayer £360 million every year, and costs the cattle industry itself £100 million a year. Yet the Government has still refused to say when it will be lifted. We will continue to press them to do so as soon as possible. And we will lift it ourselves after the election if the Government has not already done so.
Secondly, we will ensure that we put in place a proper strategy to deal with any future FMD outbreak, fast, effectively and coherently. That is absolutely essential if farmers are to have confidence in the future.
The foot and mouth outbreak hit British farming at a time when it was already under severe pressure. Although farm incomes recovered a little last year, they remain far below the levels of the 90s. And since 1997, there has been a steep decline in the number of farmers and farm workers. Take dairy farming as an example. A third of the dairy holdings in England, a quarter of England's dairy cows and half of the dairy workforce have gone in the last ten years. The average dairy farmer earns about £2.90 an hour, for a 70 hour week.
And to top it all, this year we have had one of the worst harvests in living memory.
That is the bleak picture for the industry.
The key to the future of British farming is to get the policies right, so that farmers are able to minimise the threats and take maximum advantage of the opportunities that exist.
The biggest change to farming this year - and indeed, probably for a generation - are the reforms of the Common Agricultural Policy.
It was absolutely clear that CAP had to change. It had become enormously expensive, and consumers were no longer prepared to subsidise food production as they had done in the past. And of course, there has been quite proper pressure from the third world, via the World Trade Organisation, to reduce the amount of subsidy received by farmers in the developed world.
So we support in principle the changes to CAP. We also believe there has to be further reform of CAP some time in the near future. The overall cost of the CAP has not come down. The inclusion of the EU accession countries within CAP will bust the budget unless there is reform. Further WTO agreements will also increase the pressure.
Reform should see an end to export subsidies and a phasing out of quotas. It should also see individual member states gradually regaining more control of their own domestic agricultural policy. There is nothing common any more about CAP. Different member states are implementing reforms in different ways and at a different pace, with an eye to local circumstances and needs.
Sadly, in Britain CAP reform is not so good in practice. What we do not want is what we are getting at the moment - botched implementation. These reforms should have meant a simpler, less bureaucratic and much freer regime for British farmers. Instead, the Government looks to be creating a new and at least as onerous bureaucratic machine to replace old regime. It's a case of out of the frying pan and into the fire.
And of course there is the on-going and well-publicised saga over the 2 metre buffer zones for hedges. Pretty much every one told the Government that the inclusion of these buffer zones is a nonsense.
Such measures should be part of an environmental scheme. They should be targeted where the environmental need is greatest. Farmers should be rewarded for complying. Instead, they are to be applied across the board with farmers being penalised if they fail to comply. The result is that some farmers stand to lose ten per cent of their arable land, whereas those who have already ripped up their hedges - and often received payment for doing so - will be relatively unaffected. It is ludicrous that those farmers who are most concerned about wildlife and the environment should be penalised by what is meant to be an environmental measure.
This is just one of many examples of how the Government has taken sensible reform and gold-plated it, causing unnecessary hardship and confusion, despite Tony Blair pledging to avoid "all gold-plating of legislation, its implementation and enforcement" in his Action Plan for Farming in 2000.
Yet time and again, we see examples of the Government implementing European regulations and gold-plating them so making it harder for British farmers to compete. The introduction of compulsory horse passports is just one example. We have said clearly that we will give farmers a weapon to fight back against gold-plating. We will allow you to take the Government to court and ask for regulations that have been gold-plated to be judicially reviewed. This will give DEFRA's civil servants a real incentive to implement new European regulations as lightly as possible.
So many farmers that I speak to tell me that paperwork and bureaucracy is the curse of modern farming in Britain. Such is the fury of farmers that Farmers Weekly has organised a War on Red Tape survey. The results have produced a Rage Board of the worst red tape outrages, as farmers have vented their anger over the demands made by the way the Voluntary Initative spray register, Crop Protection Management Plans, scheme verifiers, Nitrate Vulnerable Zones, Health and Safety Regulations, DEFRA's annual census and overcomplicated Inland Revenue forms have all been implemented.
Cows and sheep now require two ear tags, and can be rejected at market just for being too muddy - which must have been particularly aggravating during this unprecedented rainy and muddy summer.
This is madness. It is a graphic illustration of a Government and a Department cut off from the people it is meant to serve and to work with.
Cutting back on paperwork and red tape for farmers will be an absolute priority for my Government.
Instead of employing armies of inspectors and bureaucrats to enforce a plethora of regulations, we want to work with farmers by agreeing on sensible farming practice which will deliver the objectives we seek. The implementation of the forthcoming Water Framework Directive will be a good test. It will be far more effective if government can agree with farmers a code of good practice rather than impose on them a whole new set of detailed regulations.
And instead of having five different inspectors turn up at the farm each week to check up on exactly the same thing, we will look at introducing a procedure whereby farmers themselves are responsible for meeting the standards required and are then subject to spot-checks.
As well as appointing Jim in my reshuffle, I have also asked John Redwood to join the Shadow Cabinet. John is our Shadow Minister for Deregulation. It is the first time any Party, whether in Government or opposition, has had a minister at the top table with sole responsibility for deregulation. It is a real breakthrough. I have asked John to look at several areas in particular, and one of them - specifically - is farming. So please, do write to John as soon as possible with specific suggestions for what can be done. I know he will act on them.
Another way to cut back DEFRA's bureaucratic meddling is to cut back DEFRA itself. The Government has increased DEFRA's budget by two-thirds since 1997. There are now more bureaucrats in DEFRA than there are dairy farms in England.
Last month, we set out detailed plans that would save almost half a billion pounds a year from the DEFRA budget. We will, among other things, reduce the headcount at DEFRA's headquarters, review the number of quangos and slim down the Environment Agency.
I can also announce today that we will abolish the Agricultural Wages Board. This quaint quango is a hangover from another world. It has no place in a modern world where employers should be free to set their own wage levels that are suitable in a competitive market place.
As the President of the National Farmers Union, Tim Bennett, rightly points out, the Government frequently says that agriculture must be more like other industries. So there is no reason why that should not apply equally in the setting of wage rates.
The first role of farming, which we should not lose sight of, is to feed the nation. We should never forget this, and indeed a Conservative government will not.
One of the great difficulties farmers face is the continued downward pressure on food prices. We are entirely sympathetic with farmers' concerns in this area, and understand your frustration in seeing your products, bought so cheaply, on sale in supermarkets and elsewhere at far higher prices.
We do not think it is practical to intervene directly in the relationship between supermarkets and their suppliers. We do not believe that heavy-handed, inflexible Government regulation is the answer. But we do support a much tougher voluntary code as the NFU is recommending. The existing statutory code of practice has made no progress in addressing the 'abuses of power' within the supply chain. There remains room for improvement. A key goal is to make supply chain relations more transparent.
To be fair to them, and it makes commercial sense, many supermarket chains are leading the way in actively seeking to source more local produce, and this can only be a good thing. Sainsbury's sources 96% of its beef and pork from UK farmers, 95% of beef in Marks and Spencer is from the UK and Waitrose potatoes are 99% UK sourced. But more could be done.
We also see more scope for farmers to develop co-operative ventures, both to maximise their own selling prices and also to reduce input costs. Such ventures are much more successful in other European countries, and in New Zealand, where they enjoy considerable tax-breaks and other financial support, which are not available to British farmers. A Conservative government, therefore, would examine how British farmers are disadvantaged in this way, and see to what extent we can level the playing field.
There is no doubt at all that British food is produced to some of the highest standards in the world, in terms of animal welfare, health and safety standards and the environment. It does not make sense to require our farmers to maintain those standards - which they do willingly - while allowing cheaper, imported goods, produced at much lower standards, to flood in.
The next Conservative government will push for much clearer food labelling. If we are to have very high food production standards, it is right and proper that consumers should be made aware of the difference in quality between British food and food imported from elsewhere. Then they can make a much more informed choice about what they want to put on their dinner table. It is quite wrong that, for example, pork that is not produced in this country but simply packaged here can be sold to consumers as though it was British. That kind of abuse will stop under the Conservatives.
We must also be much tougher in stopping the estimated 17,500 tonnes of illegal meat products that come in every year, a figure greater than the combined imports from France, Uruguay and Argentina. This trade is not only threatening endangered species abroad, it represents a daily risk of the importation of diseases such as swine fever, foot and mouth or worse.
I don't want to be unfair to the Government. It has taken action. It has trebled the number of sniffer dogs - from two to six. But compared to the measures being taken in other countries, the British Government is guilty of criminal complacency. Just the other day at the Royal Show, I saw a demonstration of a new system which uses software that can show up meat in luggage at the start of its journey and send the image to customs officers in the UK, allowing them to seize the meat when it arrives in the UK. Yet despite a trial that demonstrated its effectiveness at detecting illegal meat, the Government shows no sign of adopting it. We would look urgently at adopting this new technology as soon as we came into office.
It is not just the importation of disease that the Government is failing to prevent. They are also doing nothing to tackle a disease which has now reached crisis proportions across the West of the country.
We continue to press the Government for action on bovine TB and have done a huge amount to raise the public profile of this issue - including, I believe, over 500 questions tabled by Owen Paterson, 300 in one day! According to its own figures, bovine TB is expected to cost the Government £2 billion over the next ten years, mainly on compensation and cattle culling. Yet it does not plan to have a fully worked through policy on disease control until 2008 at the earliest. As the Royal College of Vets has said, such a policy is not sustainable. Action is needed now if we are to return to the position of both a healthy cattle population and healthy wildlife that we all want to see.
Farming today stands at a crossroads. It can continue to decline gradually, or it can enjoy a brilliant renaissance with new markets in organic produce and local indigenous varieties, and diverse methods of land use to help manage flooding and produce renewable fuels.
As with any industry, government cannot provide all the answers. Salvation lies largely in your own hands. Diversification and consolidation may be the answer for many. Government here can help by removing as many barriers as possible.
But farming is not just any industry. We all benefit from your stewardship of the countryside, and we all have a role to play in helping you to do your job. We will continue to press for the fair implementation of the CAP reforms. We will reduce the amount of burdensome and unnecessary regulation that makes it even harder to do a difficult job.
Farmers are extraordinary people, dedicated to your task and resilient in even the most difficult and trying of circumstances. Your dedication to your work is an example to us all, through the most difficult and trying of circumstances. You do a huge amount for the countryside, a countryside which is recognised and respected throughout the world. Your track record in harnessing technology to produce quality food at competitive prices is second to none.
It is incumbent upon us, mere politicians, to do our best to help you. And that is indeed what the next Conservative Government will do.