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NFU president Ben Gill
Reaction to Tony Blair's speech
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Tuesday, 1 February, 2000, 15:33 GMT
Farmers get the message

Blair speech 300 Blair: Little of substance to offer

Environment correspondent Alex Kirby listened to Tony Blair's speech - and to the farmers' reaction.

The language, even the body language, was mild and emollient enough. But there was no mistaking the steel of Tony Blair's message to the UK farming industry: without change, you have no future.

The prime minister, addressing the annual conference in London of the National Farmers Union of England and Wales, gave his listeners the key message they wanted to hear - that farming does matter.

"Farming is not the countryside, but the countryside without farming is a contradiction in terms. Britain needs a strong, thriving agriculture industry".

The president of the NFU, Ben Gill, had made the importance of Mr Blair's words clear - rarely had a speech been so important to so many people, he had told delegates as he introduced the prime minister.

Gill 150 Ben Gill: "What we've been asking for"
Afterwards, Mr Gill said the message was "something we've been asking for - though I wish Mr Blair had said it sooner".

It was enough to earn the departing prime minister a round of applause which Mr Gill descibed as "polite and appropriate". The boos and hisses heard in one part of the hall came from a minority.

Having told the farmers that they were essential to British society, the prime minister had little else of substance to offer them. He acknowledged straightaway: "It is not sympathy you need".

He did hold out the hope of aid to those in deepest trouble: "In areas such as the pig industry, which is the most parlous at the moment, I do not rule out further measures to help".

Mr Gill seized gratefully on that as "an enormous move forward", which could mean support beyond the pig sector itself.

Delegates 150 Delegates gave Mr Blair a polite reception
Mr Blair also announced the scrapping of plans for a pesticide tax, originally proposed to protect the environment by discouraging profligate use of chemicals, in favour of a voluntary approach.

Mr Gill said that was "a very important litmus test, showing that things are about to change", and estimated that it could save farmers up to 100m annually.

There were other hints of help from the prime minister, including cuts in the hated farming bureaucracy, with details announced later in the conference by the Agriculture Minister, Nick Brown.

There is to be more money to help farmers diversify into other ways of earning a living, a new scheme to promote environmentally friendly energy crops, and a trebling by 2006 of the area farmed organically.

Yet behind it all was a colder message, one that Mr Blair sought to reiterate throughout his speech.

He said there had to be a new direction for farming, one which met the demands of globalisation, consumers, the environment, and the demands and opportunities of the new technologies.

'Healthy future'

"My basic point remains. We do offer a partnership for the future, and we can work out together the answers to the questions we face.

"But we have to do it, not as part only of crisis management, but as part of a plan, properly thought out for the future.

"There can be a healthy future for farming. But it will mean change."

And the prime minister left the NFU leadership, if not ecstatic, at least a lot less apocalyptic than recently.

The speech "sets a challenge, and we need to deliver on it", said Mr Gill.

Not all his members may be as sanguine as he is.

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See also:
01 Feb 00 |  Business
No quick fix, Blair tells farmers
01 Feb 00 |  Business
Fischler pledges aid for farmers
31 Jan 00 |  Business
Farmers win sympathy but no cash
11 Nov 99 |  UK
UK farmers angry and dismayed

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