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Winterton: Conservatives will stand by British farmers

In a speech to the Conservative Party Conference in Blackpool this afternoon, Ann Winterton MP, Shadow Agriculture Minister, said:

"I don't think my feet have touched the ground since being appointed a Shadow Minister for Agriculture!

But what has pleased me more is that Iain Duncan Smith and the Conservative Party, in re-establishing the position of Shadow Agriculture Minister within the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, have recognised the importance of agriculture and the countryside to the nation.

I should like to pay tribute to my predecessor, Tim Yeo, for his outstanding contribution during a desperately difficult time for farming - there is no doubt that he was successful in galvanising the Government to act more quickly than it otherwise would have done in tackling problems arising from the foot and mouth outbreak.

Our countryside is in crisis - we are in the midst of an agricultural recession not seen since the 1930's. Agriculture is worth over £6 billion to the UK economy but on that bedrock rests both the food processing industry and tourism, each worth ten times more to the economy.

We are also witnessing the biggest exodus from farming in living memory. The industry shed almost 20,000 jobs in one year alone, in 1998/1999. That's 55 farmers, 55 families who lost their livelihoods on each day of that year. For those and thousands like them, life is bleak.

The tragedy of all of this is that farmers have been left almost without hope.

There are tenant farmers retiring after 50 years working the land with only a few thousand pounds to show for it. No retirement bungalow, no pension and no nest egg after a lifetime's commitment to hard work, out in all weathers for 365 days each year.

Two thirds of children of NFU members do not want to take on the family farm because they see no future in the industry and, if there is no future for farming, then the timeless traditions of the countryside will be lost.

However, it is foot and mouth disease - still not eradicated - which exercises our thoughts each and every day.

Who can forget those horrific scenes beamed into every home earlier this year of mud-coated starving lambs, or of ewes giving birth in fields without a blade of grass left, or of newborn lambs dying of exposure?

Will we ever learn the true story of what really happened, of the dithering and delays, of the times when perfectly healthy animals were slaughtered by mistake?

Will we forget that children on their way to school had to climb out of windows at the back of the farmhouse to avoid seeing the bloated carcasses of slaughtered stock lying in the yard at the front for days on end?

That is why we, together with virtually every rural organisation, have called for a full, independent, public inquiry into the cause and handling of the foot and mouth epidemic.

Critics say - why are you not satisfied with the three inquiries currently proposed, surely they are enough? I'll tell you why we are not satisfied!

Unless we have one main inquiry, the difficult questions that no one in Government wants to answer, including how and from which country the disease came, will slip unanswered into the cracks between the three inquiries. Someone will then slap on over them three thick coats of whitewash!

What use is an inquiry in which the difficult questions are dodged?

The inquiry must be independent. Without independence from Government influence, we will never gain a clean picture of the handling of the crisis. We will never learn from the mistakes if we only get a fudged picture of what those mistakes were, or worse still, no picture at all.

The inquiry must be held in public. Only when an inquiry has the powers to call and cross-examine Ministers and others involved in public, will the Government be held properly to account. Holding the government to account is the primary duty of opposition, a duty that we cannot take lightly.

In the meantime, the disease continues and could lead to further serious animal welfare problems.

Because movements of livestock have been so restricted, there is much overstocking on farms at present, and with winter fast approaching insufficient fodder and lairage may be available.

Everywhere I go, I hear about needless rules and regulations which cost valuable time and money. Farmers are hamstrung by red tape, exacerbated often by receiving contradictory advice from the authorities concerned.

We urge the Government not to impose any more regulatory millstones round our farmers' necks. The Nitrates Directive, Climate Change Levy, the proposed Pesticides Tax to name but a few, not forgetting of course the cost of abattoir meat inspection, are driving our farmers out of business. These are heavy added costs which are not imposed on their European competitors.

What is the point of enjoying the benefit of a temperate climate, ideal for the production of a variety of crops and food, if we import cheap food and products that do not meet our own high standards? Farmers accept fair competition but we must have a system of honesty in labelling which would enable consumers to select UK produced food with confidence. It is an unforgivable deception to allow a Union Jack to be displayed on a pack of food which may not contain any ingredients grown in the UK. Farmers deserve to be able to compete on equal terms both at home and abroad.

The primary purpose of farming is food production. Most farmers who can diversify, have diversified but the Government must realise that there are thousands of acres in upland areas where farming will always be marginal.

Yet, farming itself ensures the land is maintained and does not revert to scrub, silver birch and bracken. Agri-environmental schemes can assist but cannot fully replace falling incomes from food production. Farmers will build and maintain stone walls as a by-product of sheep farming, but not as an alternative to it.

And why, on the other side of the coin has the Government not applied for agrimonetary compensation from the EU in order to assist our beleaguered cereal farmers - other countries in Europe don't hesitate to do so. It saddens me that the Government is not prepared to use every means available to assist our farmers to get through these desperately difficult times.

The Common Agricultural Policy, which dictates the majority of UK agricultural policy, has long needed root and branch reform. It is now neither beneficial to the producer nor to the consumer and, although maybe born of honourable intentions, is now well past its sell-by date.

Much more competence and responsibility should surely revert to nation states to provide greater flexibility?

I remember spending time is Essex some years ago to learn about arable farming and one farmer said something I have never forgotten. He kicked the earth and said "always remember, Ann, this is where it begins. The soil has to be right for the purpose and it has to be kept in good heart!"

Now we cannot kick the seabed but one thing is for sure, we know that it is not in good heart. The Common Fisheries Policy has produced the greatest environmental scandal in living memory, and has created a situation which no other individual nation or organisation would be allowed to get away with.

The position is that fish are eating their own young because the sand eel stock has been destroyed and we are now dumping more fish dead back into the sea than we actually land.

Quota has been cut yet again and when the transition period ends in 15 months time, the situation will be worse.

National control of fishing grounds is perhaps the only solution which, I hasten to add, benefit greatly other countries as much as our own. No other solution can be found to restore good environmental management of the sea which would effectively safeguard fishing stocks for future generations.

Agriculture and fishing are vital to the UK as an island nation. Just as we stand shoulder to shoulder with our armed services who protect our freedoms and democracy so we, as Conservatives, stand shoulder to shoulder with our farmers, fishermen and rural communities who guard and maintain our environment and countryside for the benefit of us all."

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