We need to trust farmers again

Neil Parish writes for the Western Morning News on the Conservative's pledge for renewed trust and understanding of British farmers.The Government doesn’t trust our farmers. Once upon a time, many years ago, a farmer’s job was to produce food. I can barely remember it, but I know it existed. Back then if the farmer didn’t produce any food then he wouldn’t earn any money. Because the farmer wanted to continue to earn money he took great care to look after the land on which he grew his crops and to care for the animals which gave him meat, milk and eggs. Back in those days the soil was his bank account and his animals were his cash point. And the Government knew its role perfectly – it had to provide the conditions under which farmers could feed the nation. The Government trusted farmers back then. And farmers rewarded the nation with a constant supply of safe and nutritious food. If new rules had to be introduced, farmers would be consulted, because they were the experts. Farmers knew the land. They had generations of experience and they knew what to do. It was their livelihood. The Halcyon days. How times have changed. Over recent years the Government has lost its trust in farmers and decided to do things its own way. The consequences have been disastrous. Every UK farm sector has declined in the last ten years while imports of food, often produced to standards below our own, have flooded in. And all too often when farming suffers, society suffers too. The rural communities around which farmers have built their lives are crumbling. Rural shops, post offices, pubs and schools are dying a painful death. Farmers are quitting the industry in their droves and people no longer recognise the countryside. Everything they have ever cared for is disappearing. Farmers no longer feel valued by a Government that says you are guilty until proven innocent. Farmers should be getting more advice from Government to help with regulation not fines and prosecutions for genuine and minor mistakes. Farmers don’t want a Government obsessed by control. We had that with Margaret Beckett who chose to ignore farmers when she devised the complicated single farm payment. The result? Huge cost to farmers. It costs more than double to process an English single payment claim than one in Scotland. Defra is not all bad, of course. There are many people working within Defra who would like to help the industry but they are hamstrung by the Government’s obsession with control and regulation. We need people at the helm who understand agriculture. Problems such as TB – over 40,000 animals were needlessly slaughtered last year – get worse because of the Government’s refusal to listen to farmers or its advisors. Hilary Benn, the Defra Secretary, has no farm background: He doesn’t listen on TB. Jim Fitzpatrick, Food and Farming Minister, has no farm background: He doesn’t listen on TB. Every year farmers are left to deal with the consequences. Regulation also means form filling. Farmers spend more time working on paper work than they do in their own yard these days. We need a Government to trust farmers again. To have faith in farmers’ judgement. To take away the paperwork. A Conservative Government will commit to farmers. If we want our farmers to succeed in an open market we cannot continue to saddle the industry with costly rules and regulations that do not burden our competitors. We know we must look to facilitate our farmers to farm, not regulate them not to. Of course high standards are important – and must be maintained – but farmers recognise that. The land is their livelihood. Whether reducing nitrate levels in watercourses or increasing farmland bird numbers, as long as these outcomes are met we should leave the methods to the professional judgement of farmers. Farmers cannot operate when they are tied up in red tape and interference. I want to minimise on-farm inspections through much greater consolidation of inspections and improved information sharing, reducing costs to both taxpayers and farmers. I am pleased that Nick Herbert, Shadow Defra Secretary, has already pledged an industry-led review of all existing regulations, including cross compliance, within 3 months of taking office. He wants to remove the fetters to production. He wants to help farmers farm, trusting them to use the methods that best suit the conditions on their farm. Regulation must be opposed unless it offers meaningful benefit. And farmers must be protected. The Government cannot ask farmers to protect the environment one day, then forget to protect farmers against supermarkets the next. Farmers need to be in business to protect the environment. They need their food to be labelled as British, and for imported meat to be labelled as such. It is a scandal that supermarkets can sell a ‘British’ meal emblazoned with a Union Jack that has been made from imported meat. I want farmers to be free to produce food once again. Of course we must not repeat the mistakes of the past by adopting damaging farming practices. But farmers know that. It is not a revolutionary idea to ask those who know best what to do. Yet somehow Labour forgot to ask. The Government doesn’t trust farmers. It doesn’t understand farmers. A Conservative Government will provide the conditions under which farmers can feed the nation. We will trust farmers to farm. Only then will agriculture and the countryside thrive once again.