The first session of Oral Questions to Defra ministers took place on Thursday. You can read through the whole lot here on the excellent “they work for you” website.
Reading through the questions and answers, three things jumped out for me.
- New biodiversity minister Rory Stewart answered with intelligence, wit and an apparent desire to work with the opposition, rather than score points – which is his Secretary of State’s usual modus operandi. He answered a series of questions about Badgers eating hedgehogs, and refused to be drawn into supporting claims that badgers were causing their 95% decline over the past 60 years, while quietly agreeing with Labour’s Barry Sheerman that this was black (and white) propaganda.
In answer to a separate question Badger cull minister George Eustice surprised everyone by announcing that the Dorset badger cull was not part of the pilot but part of the roll-out. The failed pilots in Somerset and Gloucestershire have been magically transformed into successes and the roll-out has begun. The Government had previously announced its intention to roll-out the cull to 25 areas over a 25 year period.
2. The most popular subject of the day was the dairy crisis. Various calls were made to extend the existing support for Dairy farming (dairy farmers no longer receive production subsidies linked to the amount of milk produced, but do receive direct support at around £200 per hectare of farmland, per year, plus more if they enter other schemes).
It is worth noting that there are 9,694 dairy farms in England and Wales. This compares with 7851 in Slovenia, a tiny country nearly eight times smaller, a fair chunk of which are covered by the Alps. The average size of a Dairy herd in England is now 136 cows, and this is up from 78 19 years ago – a 75% increase in size in less than 20 years. In 2013 there were 101,000 Dairy Cows in Slovenia in 8152 herds, making the average herd 12 cows.
In the same time period the area under forage maize, the most environmentally damaging crop grown in the UK, has nearly doubled, as Dairy farmers shift from growing grass to feed their cows, to growing Maize to produce Maize silage. More maize means more unhealthy cows and more unhealthy badgers, contributing to the bovine TB problems.
These figures clearly show that Dairy production in England and Wales is intensifying. This intensification is having a significant impact on the environment, but doesn’t appear to be helping the Dairy farmers, who are in crisis. Dairy farmers are in crisis because they are receiving less income for their products than it costs to produce them.
3. Not unrelated to the above, there were questions about Farm Inspections. The Secretary of State was asked what was being done to reduce the number of farm inspections. She confirmed the Government wanted to reduce the number of inspections and the amount of “form-filling” to let farmers get on with farming.
It’s worth drawing another parallel here.
One of the reasons that the charity Kid’s Company ran into the ground and lead to all the various investigations and general fur-flying, was because the Cabinet Office seemed happy to hand over millions of pounds of tax payer’s money without carrying out the necessary checks, audits and err inspections, to see that the money was being used
a) for the purposes for which it was given and
b) to ensure that it was delivering the public benefit it was supposed to.
The last wadge of money from the Cabinet Office was £3M and this seemed like enough “wasted” cash for the Daily Mail to go into a tarantella of righteous indignation.
Farmers receive £3 Billion pounds a year of subsidy from UK taxpayers. That is a thousand times as much money as Kid’s Company received. Every year. And the Government wants to reduce the inspection regime. I think it’s reasonable for the taxpayer to be shown how its money is being used by farmers, just as it’s reasonable that Kid’s Company should have been audited and inspected to ensure it was properly using the grant it received.
For some reason a different set of rules seems to apply for owners of farmland.