Muckspreader News/27 march 2002


Critics were rightly scornful of the vacuous statement issued by rural affairs minister Margaret Beckett after Tony Blair's recent Downing Street 'seminar' on the future of British farming. A Daily Telegraph editorial described Mrs Beckett's jargon-ridden list of 'farming initiatives' as 'a parody', and like "something dreamed up by Private Eye". But what the Telegraph and everyone else missed was the central confidence trick Beckett is hoping to work, not just on farmers but on the media and everyone else.

Defra's 'Big Idea', dutifully parroted by the Curry report on the future of British agriculture, is to switch farming subsidies away from food production to 'maintaining the environment' (code for 'keeping the countryside looking tidy for tourists'). Defra wants to transfer £220 million of the £2.2 billion it gets back annually from Brussels (out of £5.5 billion sent there by UK taxpayers to pay for farm subsidies in the first place) away from direct grants to farmers and into the so-called 'rural development fund'. One problem is that most of the money taken away from farmers to be put into the RDF would go not to improving the environment but to regional development agencies, simply to pay for propaganda, consultants, 'marketing schemes' and hiring more officials. In France, which already claims five times more than Britain from the RDF, almost all the money does go to farmers. A second problem, over which Beckett is being noticeably coy, is that, under EU rules, all funding to the RDF has to be matched pound-for-pound by the Treasury. The word from George Street is that, having already handed over £2.50 to Brussels for every £1 Britain gets back in farm subsidies,Gordon Brown is flatly refusing to play ball. So the net result of Beckett's Big Idea is that (a) it would achieve none of the results she claims, and (b) it is not going to happen anyway.

P.S. In our last issue we inadvertently misprinted the website revealing devastating new official figures on the foot-and-mouth cock-up which played a part in the Lords' shock defeat of the Government's Animal Health Bill, leaving ministers 'incandescent'. The correct address is