Parliament October 2015

Business diverted to the Party conferences recently, with agriculture being a battleground. Catherine Paice reports

DEFRA’s farming minister George Eustice (Con, Camborne, Redruth & Hayle) cast off rumours his department will be disbanded due to central Government funding cuts, but admitted it will be forced to make “significant savings”. Speaking at the Conservative Party conference, Mr Eustice said DEFRA was bracing itself for a 25-40% reduction in budget and the department would look to share resources such as press offices and HR with other agencies, but insisted there were no plans for a merger.

Environment secretary Liz Truss (Con, South-West Norfolk) warned that Labour’s proposals for the environment and countryside are “fundamentally backward, dangerous and wrong”, and accused the Opposition of seeking to hold back the farming industry by ignoring advances in science and technology. Her plans for turning the UK countryside into an “economic powerhouse” are based on technology and innovation in tackling climate change, improving air quality and feeding a growing population, she said. Ms Truss also discussed plans to release a “treasure trove” of environmental data held by DEFRA, reiterating her pledge, first made in July, to liberate over 8,000 data sets in the coming months to help entrepreneurs, scientists, farmers and others to help create new opportunities in the rural economy. She suggested farmers could use the data to improve crop yields.

Ms Truss promised to make further cuts to red tape, to alleviate planning constraints on businesses and to introduce a single farm inspection task force to help prevent farmers become “form-fillers”. “I want to unleash a new generation of pioneers in the countryside in food and in the environment,” she said. “I want us to compete, reform and liberate.”

Farmers and landowners should be given the power to manage their own watercourses, she suggested, saving money and reducing flood risk.

Shadow secretary of state Kerry McCarthy, now the best known vegan in the UK, with the new shadow farming minister Nick Smith (Lab, Blaenau Gwent) in tow, pledged to back British farming and called for people to buy British food (including lamb). “The world’s not going to turn vegan because I’m in post,” she said on the conference sidelines. “I accept we must have a livestock industry in this country. What I want is for the industry to have the best welfare standards possible, to be sustainable as well as economically viable.”

She also drew attention to the need for improved food labelling, but accused government of trying to bring back the hunting of foxes with hounds “by the back door” and promised to fight any attempt to legalise what she described as a “cruel sport”.

While recognising the damage done to farmers by bovine TB, she called badger culling “inhumane and unscientific”, and said the pilot culls were an “epic failure”.

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