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Will farmers ever receive their just rewards?

Friday 14 July 2006

Our countryside commentator John Sheard, who has long championed the role farmers play in conserving our countryside, fears that they may be repaid in spite rather than gratitude by vindictive politicians

WE reported on Monday on an unusual alliance between the Campaign to Protect Rural England and the National Farmers' Union, two bodies often at odds in the past but which had got together to draw up the first ever report on just how much free labour farmers put in to preserve our glorious countryside.

The result was staggering - English farmers do unpaid conservation work worth some £400 million a year, an average of over £2,000 apiece - and for this the CPRE gives them a well-deserved pat on the back. Nice, this, because agriculture has long been accused of "destroying" our countryside by urban-based, so-called "green" pressure groups who regard rural areas as a pleasure park for their personal use rather than a working environment.

Farmers: thanks or spite?

However, no-one should be naïve enough to think that the farmers will eventually get their belated reward for all this unpaid labour from the people who really decide whether English farming will prosper or die, the politicians. And the reason why the CPRE and the NFU got together was a report that the rural affairs agency Defra has been considering dropping farm subsidies altogether

In this, one should never forget two of the prime emotions that drive modern politicians: spite and the desire for revenge against any person or organisation that has crossed them. And of all the sleights worthy of massive retribution, the worst is to prove some pompous, preening, puffed up politico wrong!

As even townies know today, the present government has made a shambles of most of its highly-spun targets in virtually every sphere of its operation but this column has particular concern over the non-function of its much heralded creation, the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and its even newer creation, the Rural Payments Agency.

If the Home Office is said by its own boss to be "unfit for purpose", Defra and the RPA are simply a total catastrophe when it comes to management skills. Not only has it been unable to pay thousands of farmers their re-negotiated subsidy grants, it might now even to pay out more tax payers in fines to the European Union for not making those payments in time.

Few people realise that these grants are not, technically, paid by the British Treasury but by the EU (although, of course, we pay the money into the EU in the first place, which makes a lot of work for a lot more well-paid bureaucrats). All Defra has to do is hand the money over .. and it has proved to be singularly incompetent even at that. Thus more money from our taxes in fines.

This has made Defra a laughing stock throughout the 25 nations that now make up the EU - despite the fact that the British Government played the leading role in setting up the new single farm payment system in a way that would, it said, encourage more environmentally-friendly farming.

In doing so, it thought it had pulled the wool over the eyes of the French and the Germans but it has now emerged that the opposite is true. The small print reveals that Tony Blair was ambushed by the far more cunning President Chirac, who has not only kept France's obscene CAP subsidies but also forced Blair to give up billions of our EU refund bludgeoned through by Margaret Thatcher's handbag.

So the politicos involved in farming and conservation have become a laughing stock across the world's biggest trading group - and that hurts. There will be people in the darker corners of the Palace of Westminster plotting revenge.

And who would make a better scapegoat than Farmer Giles? So let's scrap farm subsidies altogether and save ourselves all that tedious accountancy. Apart from anything else, he rarely votes Labour anyway - so what is there to lose?

Well, I'll tell you what is at stake here: £400 million of free labour in the countryside by people who, unlike the politicians, actually know what they are doing. The result, say the CPRE and NFU, would be the wholesale neglect of our countryside, which is held very close to the English heart, even by townies. But who cares what the people think when a politician feels the need to vent a little spite!

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