In Parliament 12th August 2016

In July, the EFRA committee got down to some last-minute agri-nitty gritty by calling in farming reps to look into farmers’ worries over changes to cattle payment grades, that have cut bonuses on better quality cattle and pushed more animals outside the desired grades, with increased penalties for heavier carcasses.

Chris Mallon, chief executive of the National Beef Association, told the committee it was nothing more than a means of penalising farmers by putting an upper limit on the value of their animals. Ubiquitous EFRA chair Neil Parish (Con, Tiverton & Honiton) again showed an extraordinary grasp of technical issues and what appears to be a somewhat shocking state of affairs.

Two conclusions, largely squirrelled out by Rebecca Pow (Con, Taunton Deane), are that that the industry is increasingly monopolistic and the scheme’s not being adequately policed. The impact appears to be worse when there’s a plentiful supply of cattle, and it’s difficult for farmers to challenge processors on grading.

Food waste is also on the EFRA agenda, and so too (oh dear, here we go again) is forestry. Will behemothic forestry administration, and DEFRA’s role in supporting it, ever be sorted out?

The sector contributes £1.7 billion a year to the economy and indirectly supports 43,000 jobs, according to the inquiry documentation. No-one would dispute the huge environmental, biodiversity and amenity benefits, but the committee’s now seeking recommendations on how effectively current government policies achieve practical and economic objectives – management, income, energy, strategy, resources, research – and how they should be developed in future. Written evidence is invited by 18th October. Good luck EFRA.

In a committee re-shaping, Simon Hoare (Con, North Dorset) – nominated by outgoing chair and new assistant government whip Heather Wheeler (Con, South Derbyshire) – has been elected chair of the Dairy All-Party Parliamentary Group. Steven Double (Con, St Austell & Newquay), Angela Smith (Lab, Penistone & Stocksbridge), Steven Paterson (SNP, Stirling) and Margaret Ritchie (SDLP, South Down) are all vice-chairs.

The autumn will see a slimmer DEFRA. The annual report flagged up the loss of 900 jobs there in the past year as budget cuts bite, and the 22,000 still in situ will have their work cut out re-shaping food and farming post-Brexit. Apparently, most of the UK officials with the skills to negotiate trade deals are in Brussels with the European Commission. Even if we repatriated them all, an article in the Financial Times argued, we would struggle to put together a team of more than 25 people with the practical experience needed. Time to retrain as a trade negotiator, maybe?

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