Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Finally, we have a governing party that will champion rural issues

ConservativeHome have published excerpts from the maiden speeches of Neil Parish and John Glen, both bringing attention to some of the big tests for rural Britain.

Mr Parish, himself a farmer, focused on food production and the role of the proposed ombudsman to regulate fair prices for farmers in their business with the monolithic supermarkets.  Mr Glen highlighted the importance of stringent country-of-origin labelling and government food procurement, both of which are addressed by coalition government policy aims.  Criminally, less than 1% of the bacon served to our armed forces is British.  This is precisely the type of statistic that must be reversed.

For too long the countryside has been neglected at best and hurt at worst.  The Labour Government took the partisan view that rural communities were not worth much of their attention relative to their homeland conurbations.  This happened for three prominent reasons.

First, rural people do not largely vote for the Labour Party in local or national elections (apart from in Scotland).  By focusing efforts on towns and cities, Labour was rewarding those voters sensible enough to vote for them and not the nasty Tories or flimsy Liberal Democrats (the parties of choice for rural constituencies across Britain).

Secondly, it was assumed that because rural constituencies largely returned Conservative MPs they must be full of wealthy, landed sorts who can look after themselves.

Thirdly, aside from a smattering of MPs, the Labour Party just does not, never has, and never will, understand the countryside.  The way it has acted over farm payments, outbreaks of disease, rural transport policy, conservation and legislation like the Hunting Act demonstrates a deep ideological misconstruction of rural ways.

The Labour Government promoted a series of incompatible Secretaries of State and Ministers of State to oversee rural affairs.  None of Hilary Benn, David Milliband, or Margaret Beckett (in spite of her love of caravan holidays) had any relevant experience of agriculture or rural life.

Mercifully, we are released from the iron grip of insensitive metropolitan politicians and we now have a team of ministers with a veritable affinity for the countryside.  Caroline Spelman, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, has worked for the National Farmers Union, the Centre for European Agricultural Studies (now the Centre for European Agri-Environmental Economics) and runs a food & biotechnology business with her husband.  She is well versed in this brief having originally been assigned to environmental affairs by Michael Howard.

Jim Paice, Minister of State for agriculture, was a farmer before entering politics and holds a National Diploma in Agriculture from the Writtle Agricultural College.  Richard Benyon, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at DEFRA, studied at the Royal Agricultural College.  Both Mr Paice and Mr Benyon have covered the environment and rural affairs in Opposition.

This is a strong team that is well positioned to put as much emphasis on the “F”, “R”, and “A” of DEFRA as Labour predecessors put on the “E”.

Conservative Party policies on overhauling farming regulations, reforming the Common Agricultural Policy, country-of-origin labelling, public procurement and an independent supermarket ombudsman are well-formed and good starting points.

Crucially, the party promises to “respect rural people”.  This is the most important pledge of all.  Please honour it.

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