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Ben Gill, President NFU
Ben Gill, President NFU

AUGUST 12TH, 2001

Please note "BBC Breakfast with Frost" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used

The foot and mouth crisis has prompted a new wave of outrage this week. The government's announced a whole series of inquiries looking at what went wrong in the handling of the disease and at the whole structure of the farming industry itself. Some farmers aren't happy about that and then there's the row over compensation that just won't go away. Joining me now from Leeds, the President of the National Farmers' Union, Ben Gill and here in the studio Britain's leading environmental campaigner George Monbiot. Good morning to you both, good morning Ben.

Good morning.

Now let's get out of the way first these things that are being written about farmers in this morning's papers. The new countryside supremo Lord Haskins is suggesting that small farmers take day jobs to get ends meet and he can see people milking their cows in the morning, working on a BMW assembly line during the day, then milking their cows in the evening. And he also thinks that in the foot and mouth crisis the people who've economically come out of it best of all have been the farmers who have had foot and mouth on their land, because they've got massive compensation. Now this sort of language, Ben Gill, how do you react to it?

Well, with anger. It's extremely annoying that anybody who's been put in a position, particularly for the area of Cumbria as they co-ordinated the recovery plan there, should make some crass over-simplifications as that and quoted further in that article as saying. The reality is that yes many small farmers have other jobs and have done for a long time. The reality is according to the surveys that have been done, the structure of our farming industry with part time farmers doing other jobs is broadly the same as France and always has been. But to suggest that they need to change in that way shows how out of touch he is with reality. PETER SISSONS:
Is he the man for the big job he's been given?

Well, if he goes on making any more statements such as this he, all he is going to do is antagonise the very sensitive feelings that are prevalent throughout the areas he's been asked to look at in Cumbria, not just the farmers but all the rural trades, the allied trades, and the tourist sector. What we need to do is have sensitivity and understanding for a region that has had, in north Cumbria 75% of its livestock killed, and is under extreme tension at the moment, both whether you've been sorted out or the forgotten farmers in many cases those who have livestock on their farms who fought this virus off during that period and had very little or no income during it.

George Monbiot, what's your reaction to this change of tone by the Government? We've even got Eliot Morley, the agriculture minister, branding farmers a pretty ungrateful lot. No one in this country has a guaranteed right to an income or a living and businesses change all the time. What's the message, do you think, from the Government to the land?

I don't think it's that new a message. It's a message which the government's been putting across now for at least three or four years, possibly a lot longer, which is that they are trying to get rid of small farmers. What they want to do is see what they call a consolidation in the industry. A rationalisation. And what that means is the culling not just of vast numbers of sheep and cattle but the culling of the majority of the country's farmers. This is a total disaster. It's a disaster in environmental terms, a disaster of course in social terms, a disaster as far as consumers are concerned. Because all we're going to get in the future, if the Government's plans unfold as it intends, is huge mega-farms with low-quality, high-volume production. It makes no sense for anyone, except those very, very big farmers.

Well, we have three inquiries into the mess that the agriculture industry is now in, bringing to ten the total number of inquiries of various sorts going on into the crisis. If the Government wanted to muddy the waters and to dodge any blame being attached to ministers that might conceivably stick to them, are these three inquiries the way to do it by just making it difficult to pin down who's responsible for what?

Well heaven forfend that this government might try to obscure the issue as far as farming is concerned. This seems to be absolutely consistent with not just previous Labour government policy but all of, that as well, previous Tory government policy, of clouding things as much as possible so that we can't get to the truth of who was responsible for what. And the fact that these three inquiries are not going to be public inquiries shows that the government really has very little interest in engaging with the public's very real concerns about what's gone wrong with farming and what's gone wrong with the food chain. If it's genuine about explaining to people what's happened, about finding out who was responsible for what, how it all went so desperately wrong, why on earth aren't these inquiries in public?

Ben Gill, these inquiries, do you think at the end of them you will get at the truth?

Well, we'll do all that we can to ensure that the truth comes out. What we don't want is something that has become synonymous with a public inquiry in recent years whether it was into BSE or the illegal import/exportation of arms, is that a semi-judicial inquiry that takes an eternity, costs a fortune and at the end is just a whitewash and tells us nothing. The BSE inquiry fell into that category. It took us down so many red herrings and was out of date by the time we actually wanted it. With foot and mouth we need answers and answers quickly on the two key areas and only two of these main three are just limited to foot and mouth, the science and the running of the whole organisation since February. Even the science one is broader than foot and mouth because my worry is that we have not got properly protected borders. Even now, six months after this started, we have a pathetic attempt at protecting this country from the rest of the world. Just compare us to Australia, North America, New Zealand and you see the difference. This is not protectionism, this is actually looking after the security of our industries in a proper and organised way.

Ben Gill, thank you. And very briefly, George Monbiot, were we lied to when ministers back in May told us that it was all under control?

It was an extraordinary situation when even the Government's own scientists were trying to claim that it would all be over by June 7th, conveniently enough by the date of the election. It turns out that there's no possible way that could have happened. So whether they were lying to us or whether they were simply believing their own propaganda, I don't know. But it was blatantly false.

George Monbiot, Ben Gill, thank you both for joining us.


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