Blair to cull Brown in farm reform

April 25, 2001 British PA News by Valerie Elliott and Martin Fletcher

TONY BLAIR has decided to abolish the Ministry of Agriculture and is ready to appoint a senior Cabinet minister to head a new department of rural affairs with a brief fundamentally to reform farming.

Whitehall officials are openly discussing the inevitability of the new department after the foot-and-mouth epidemic, with Geoff Hoon, now Defence Secretary, favourite to run it.

Mr Hoon is increasingly seen as one of the Prime Ministerís trusted lieutenants and he has recently been chairing the daily co-ordinating meetings about the epidemic in Mr Blairís absence. It is understood that he could be given a senior ranking in the Cabinet pecking order to reflect the new role and to persuade him that it would not be a demotion.

The impetus towards overhauling the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) has been strengthened by the prospect of real progress of reform in the common agricultural policy (CAP), shifting subsidies away from paying farmers for food production and towards managing the landscape.

Ministers have been encouraged by Germanyís new willingness to make CAP reform a priority so that ìgreenerî farming is promoted and farmers are not paid simply according to the number of animals they keep. It has been converted to more environmentally sensitive farming with the appointment of the Green politician Renate K¸nast as Agriculture Minister, and this has shifted the Franco-German axis that for years frustrated reform.

Foot-and-mouth and BSE have also rallied public opinion across Europe against the sort of factory farming encouraged by the CAP, and the Prince of Wales has again spoken out for farmers as managers of the countryside.

In an article for the Globe and Mail in Canada in advance of a visit to the country, the Prince has written of a ìsilver liningî for farming from ìthis fearsomely black cloudî of foot-and-mouth. ìFor as long as we care about our identity and spiritual wellbeing, I believe that we have to ensure that the farmer, who has always brought meat and drink to our table, is able to continue his duty as provider and, equally important, as custodian of the countryside.î

Mr Blair and senior officials have been confirmed in their determination to abolish MAFF after numerous tensions became apparent between Mr Blair and Nick Brown, the Agriculture Minister, over the foot-and-mouth outbreak.

Mr Blair is understood to be livid about Mr Brownís failure to persuade farmersí leaders to accept a programme of vaccination. He has even questioned Mr Brownís own commitment to the use of vaccine to control the disease and believes this could have fuelled farmersí entrenched attitudes.

Mr Blairís resolve has also been strengthened by various rural organisations, including the Country Land and Business Association, whose president, Anthony Bosanquet, described the handling and pre-planning of the foot-and-mouth epidemic as a national disgrace.

It is understood that responsibilities for various aspects of farming are to be shared between two other departments of state. That will effectively undermine the negotiating strength of the National Farmersí Union and its regional counterparts.

Responsibility for the food industry is to go to the Department of Trade and Industry, though competition policy, and the relationship between farmers, processors and supermarkets, is expected to move to the Treasury.

Besides Mr Hoon, Andrew Smith, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, has also been mentioned in connection with the new department. Mr Brownís friends remain sceptical, however, about reports of change and insist that the epidemic has made him more difficult to move.

There is meanwhile general concern among rural groups and the tourism industry that the Government has still not fully taken on board the difficulties facing thousands of businesses as a result of the foot-and-mouth outbreak. They are exasperated by what they see as the Chancellorís intransigence and are ready to appeal directly to Mr Blair for more practical help before the general election. Without it, various bodies believe that the Prime Minister is facing another big rift with people in the countryside.

The rural recovery task force is expected today to demand large interest-free loans for troubled businesses without the costly arrangement fees charged by main banks. It also wants rate relief for struggling English companies, many of them family hotels and guesthouses, to match that given in Wales. There, it is available on business rateable values of up to £50,000, compared with £12,000 in England.

The grim picture of rural business in Britain is reinforced by a new survey from the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, which suggests that up to 40 per cent of farm businesses are likely to cease trading this year.

Some 75 per cent of rural surveyor firms say that the rural property market has slowed, with inquiries down by 63 per cent, and that one in three firms has had to make redundancies.

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