Taken to task

Yorkshire Post - Comment

LORD Haskins may not be the most diplomatic of political figures, but the candour of his views, and the passion with which he expresses them, are a breath of fresh air from a Government obsessed by spin doctoring and media manipulation.

A farmer and food producer himself, Lord Haskins argues that, unless the industry consolidates, small-scale agricultural production will provide neither an income for the farmer nor food for consumers at a price they are prepared to pay.

Yet, he also recognises that farming provides more than foodstuffs for the public. Over the centuries, the farming community has created a rural landscape which now acts as a recreational magnet for so many urban people. If subsidies are to continue to be paid to uneconomic smaller farms, he argues, these tax transfers should be used to support farming methods which improve the quality of, and access to, the landscape. Sadly, his all too brief report fails to show how this might happen.

.....As yesterday's debate in the House of Commons illustrated only too clearly, the Labour Party remains instinctively hostile to farming. Its newly pro-euro MPs resent the subsidies paid to agriculture, yet they fail to point out that it was not farmers who invented the Common Agricultural Policy, but politicians and bureaucrats. It is the farmers, however, who have to live with its consequences.

Until the CAP is either reformed or scrapped, the market-distorting system of payments to farmers will continue to skew agricultural production in ways which are neither beneficial to consumers nor to the farmers. But Britain has no way of forcing the pace of change on a Europe that seems content to keep the status quo. Lord Haskins knows this, of course, but he is so strongly in favour of the European Union that he can barely bring himself to admit its failures

Oct 19

Ovine waffle

A FAIRLY disastrous error  that is how Government scientists described the revelation that their colleagues had spent the last four years testing the brains of cows instead of sheep.

Had the mistake not been spotted by quizzical fellow investigators, it is possible that the Government would have recommended the slaughter of the entire national flock, since it appeared that the deadly BSE prion had been found in sheep brains. Millions of animals would have been killed and countless farms brought to the brink of ruin. Indeed, the talk in Westminster last week, when the interim findings from the Institute of Animal Health Laboratory in Edinburgh were first published, was that farming would soon be in the grip of another crisis.

Imagine the Government's relief, therefore, when it discovered that the four-year-long inquiry had been examining the brains of cattle, not of sheep. But that relief will have soon been tempered by another kind of panic. It would not look good that a publicly-funded scientific experiment had been so badly bungled. So, once again, the Labour spin machine went into whitewash mode. Rather than announce that the experiment had been an unmitigated disaster, Food and Rural Affairs Minister, Margaret Beckett, made no mention of the fiasco when she told the Commons about her plans for rural renewal after foot-and-mouth. Instead, the findings were quietly posted on her department's website and no-one alerted to its significance.

So much for open government. The consequences of this disaster are two-fold. First, it fuels the suspicion in some quarters that scientific evidence is not always as reliable as it should be. If Ministers and farmers are to base their actions on the advice of scientists, they must be confident that the evidence they are being presented with is accurate and subject to rigorous scrutiny. Parliament and the farming community have a right to know how it was that for four years the scientists at Edinburgh thought they were examining the brains of sheep when, in fact, they were looking at the brains of cattle. If the samples had simply been mislabelled, what does this say for other experiments being conducted into the safety of our food?

Second, the Edinburgh fiasco also casts the Government in a dim light. Mrs Beckett had the perfect opportunity to present these findings to the House of Commons on Thursday, but chose instead to have them posted, late at night, on a computer site. This was a double error of judgment. First, she was wrong to think that this was the proper way to disseminate embarrassing information. And second, she was wrong to think she might get away with it. Instead, she now has to explain not only the botched experiment, but also the attempted cover-up.

Once again, public trust in government and its scientific advisers has been eroded. The cynic might say that this does not matter. But it does. For instance, if Britain were to be the target of a biological-terror campaign, the Government would want to reassure the public that all the measures needed to deal with such a threat were in place. But would the public be so easily convinced? If scientists can mistake sheep brains for cow brains, maybe they could make other mistakes. And if they did make mistakes, perhaps the Government would prefer to "bury" these awkward facts rather than air them in public? For their part, Britain's farmers, who have long been sceptical about the alleged link between BSE in cattle and new variant CJD in humans, will see this latest sad episode as yet another reason for being distrustful of scientists and their political masters. Whatever Mrs Beckett eventually says in her belated defence, down on the farm it will be heard as nothing more than the murmurings of ovine waffle.
Oct 20