Cut out the middle men - let's get back to some straight talking
Amid warnings of inevitable rises in food costs and fears of global shortages, Devon farmer Richard Haddock argues it’s time for farmers and politicians to really start working together again.
Lord Cunningham has been in the news of late for what most people would regard as all the wrong reasons: allegedly seeking cash for using his parliamentary connections to the benefit of a solar energy company – actually a sham set up by a couple of investigative journalists.
Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised since this kind of thing appears to run in the family of the man who performed so dismally as a Labour Agriculture minister – his father, Andrew, was heavily implicated in the Poulson affair.
Cunningham's time at MAFF was distinguished by the evidence of his never-concealed love for the trappings of office, from the £10,000 mahogany desk he ordered when he shifted his offices from Whitehall to Smith Square (cost of the move: £2.3 million) to the fresh flowers he insisted on being placed on it every morning after having been cut fresh in Kew Gardens.
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But his greatest disservice to the farming community (for which he clearly had no affection or respect) was to scrap the regular ministerial briefings with grass roots farmers which for decades had kept his predecessors in touch with life at the sharp end of the business.
Jack didn't want to know anything about farmers, who he regarded as ignorant and (probably) smelly. He was content to take advice from the hierarchy of the NFU via his senior civil servants. A recipe for total disaster: the former told the department only of those matters it felt were important and the mandarins only passed on the bits they understood.
Little wonder, then, at the end of the day, Jack and his successors ended up knowing little, if anything, about the true state of one of this country's most important economic sectors: it was like handing them a square inch cut from the background of a portrait and asking them to imagine the rest of the picture.
Never has this become clearer than with Owen Paterson, a Defra Secretary who hails from a rural constituency and thus at least understands how the countryside works but who has been left woefully under-informed by the civil service.
Thus he came down to the Westcountry earlier this year totally unaware of the havoc that Schmallenberg was wreaking among cattle herds. He came back to the Royal Cornwall Show still less than fully-briefed about the devastating impact the disease was having – and it was only when I managed to steer him to the cattle lines and he could talk to real hands-on farmers that the magnitude of the problem began to dawn on him.
My only reward for ensuring the Minister who holds the reins of agriculture in his hands was properly informed about the health of the horse was a snide ticking-off from the NFU for making him late for lunch, coupled with a very firm instruction from the regional director that Owen Paterson had been fully informed about Schmallenberg through the usual channels.
Which clearly he hadn't: hence his interest in talking to farmers on the ground.
It's all part of the wonderful legacy of Junketing Jack Cunningham. Since the abolition of the regular ministerial briefings and following the appointment of so many feeble political figures to the Defra hot seat, farmers have gained the impression that the government just doesn't want to listen to them.
Which may just account for the paucity of complaints MPs in the region have been receiving from farmer constituents on issues such as the delays in producing a vaccine for Schmallenberg virus. There's no point in complaining, the farmers reason, because no-one cares what they think.
My message to them is twofold: we now have a Secretary of State who does care what farmers think and wants to help them – but they shouldn't rely on the 'usual channels' because even if their grievances are forwarded to Stoneleigh they risk being left permanently in the pending tray, doctored before being submitted to Smith Square and, once there, ignored if the civil servants don't consider them worthy of Owen Paterson's attention.
There is another method: take yourself along to one of your MP's regular surgeries and raise the issue there, because that's how it stands the best chance of being dealt with at the highest level.
Meanwhile I shall continue to use my working relationship with Owen Paterson's team to press for the reinstatement of those invaluable regular briefing sessions which Jack Cunningham scrapped.
We and the rest of the country are heading into uncharted waters as a growing global food crisis looms on the horizon: there's never been a time since the war when it was more important for government and farmers to work together.
Richard Haddock owns Churston Farm Shop in Brixham and is chairman of the Conservative Rural Affairs Group