It’s a real pleasure to be here and to have the opportunity to mark the tremendous work that RABI is doing to support the farming community.
Aware that last year was remarkably the 150th anniversary of the RABI.
This week in fact marks my own anniversary - of one year in post as the Agriculture Minister. So it is timely for me to set out my thoughts on the Government’s position and progress we are making.
It has been a challenging year to take on my role. We have been operating against a particularly tough economic backdrop and have had to take swift action to deal with the economic problems we inherited. But that hasn’t stopped us from moving forward quickly on a number of priorities for Defra, which I’ll come back to.
Whilst the recession has been hard for us all I’m only too aware of the enormous challenges faced by the farming industry in particular. On the whole the industry has remained resilient, has risen to the challenge and adapted in order to survive and thrive. But it is tough.
The approach the RABI takes - to help farmers to help themselves in the difficult trading environment in which they are operating - that is very much the approach that Defra and the current Government is taking. We are very much looking ahead to how we can support you in the future.
Within Defra, for the first time we have put support for British farming and sustainable food production at the forefront of what we are doing. The first key priority in Defra’s Business plan is to enhance competitiveness of the food chain. It is a long time since any Government has put that at the heart of what it is trying to achieve. Over the last year we have taken a number of steps to deliver on that commitment.**
Farm Regulation Task Force
Addressing the burden of regulation was a key priority for me from the outset. I noted in one of your recent annual review documents that the RABI often struggles to determine “if a business is viable or not, particularly where the farmer has become overborne by the burdens of administration and paperwork”.__
I share this concern and have been determined to take a thorough look at the regulatory burdens you face. What I can’t promise is that the current Government will tear up swathes of regulation - that never works because most regulation has a sensible purpose. What we need to look at instead is the way that regulation has been implemented - the red tape and the form filling.
That is why I appointed Richard MacDonald a number of months ago to head up a Task Force on Farm Regulation.
I asked Richard to look at how we could develop a greater degree of trust and collaboration when developing and delivering policy and a recognition of where most people are trying to do the right thing.
The Task Force has looked at a number of areas of concern. Particularly around arrangements for livestock movement and identification, for cross compliance and nitrate vulnerable zones, as well as inspections. I’ve been impressed with Richard’s ideas so far and I’m very much looking forward to the final Task Force report next week and to responding to his suggestions quickly.
Campaign for the Farmed Environment
The issue of trust plays out in the voluntary and collaborative initiatives set up by the department. A particular example here is the Campaign for the Farmed Environment. The Campaign gives the industry an opportunity to show everyone that the farming community is best placed to deliver the required environmental outcomes from their land. But it’s important that we get across that we’re serious about this campaign, and explain clearly what farmers need to do to participate in it fully.
We are at a critical review point now with the Campaign - I have received statistics published only yesterday setting out the progress of the Campaign, which I will be looking at carefully.
Rural Payments Agency
I am only too aware of the frustrations that all those involved with the Single Payment Scheme feel about the way in which payments have been delivered to date and I share those frustrations. I know that there are farmers who face a real struggle if annual payments do not reach them quickly.
I am determined to draw a line under the legacy issues so that the uncertainty and delays that have built up in recent years are removed and that people can have confidence that they will get a greater service from the RPA.
For that reason I established an oversight board for the RPA which I chair personally. I have also appointed a new Chief Executive of the organization, who I am pleased to say is getting to grips with things very quickly.
We are taking tough decisions to make sure that we not only improve the speed and accuracy of payments, and that historical problems are resolved, but also to improve the customer service provided by the RPA, and I will continue to make sure we do everything needed to ensure the RPA delivers the service that it should.
You will no doubt be aware that the Government has pledged to get to grips with bovine TB, to address the devastating effects it is having on the farming community.
This particular issue is of extreme importance to me. The consultation process has completed and we are looking at a package of measures to effectively eradicate this disease affecting our community.
It is important to highlight that this is a sensitive issue which we have to consider carefully to get things right. We will announce our decision as part of a comprehensive and TB Eradication Programme for England as soon as possible.
We have worked with the industry, retailers and suppliers to encourage more honest labelling of food. The industry has signed up to the Voluntary principles we’ve proposed and they were published in November 2010. These build on current legislation to provide even clearer labelling for consumers.
All of these steps are helpful, but of course much of what we do is shaped by Europe.
I am determined we will engage constructively at European level, and that we will therefore have a voice that is taken seriously.
We have already started that engagement in earnest. Now going into this new year we are seeing the start of serious negotiations on the Common Agricultural Policy. You have no doubt seen that the Commission have published their initial ideas.
Reform of the CAP is vital if farmers are to adapt to the many challenges and opportunities of the future. We want to see a clear focus on greater competitiveness and more efficient use of taxpayer resources.
We do think the current EU budget must be smaller, and the CAP can’t be immune to the hard choices being made elsewhere in the EU. The key will be to ensure that the spending under CAP is prioritised wisely to ensure that CAP provides the best value for taxpayers money, but is targeted at measures that really will help farmers. We need to help farmers to reduce their reliance on subsidies - but this will not and cannot happen overnight.
A key priority will be to ensure that there is a better focus in pillar 2 that will stimulate competitiveness and innovation.
So we are already moving forward in a number of areas, but I’m aware that there is still a vast amount to do. But I am very excited to be where I am and feel lucky to have this opportunity to shape the way forward. I hope that you have, and will see a shift in the way that the approach Defra is taking to working with the farming industry.