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Lord Haskins
Lord Haskins

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

PETER SISSONS: Well the man who's got the job of getting much of rural Britain back on its feet is Chris Haskins, the Labour peer and boss of Northern Foods. He joins me now from his own farm just outside Hull for his first big TV interview since his appointment. Good morning, Chris.

LORD HASKINS: Good morning.

PETER SISSONS: Now farmers apparently see no evidence so far that you're their friend, which is what you're supposed to be.

LORD HASKINS: Well people believe what they want to believe. I am a farmer, I've got two sons who are farming. I'm desperately keen to see farming prosper just as I am the whole of the rural economy prosper. And Cumbria is going to be a great challenge in that respect.

PETER SISSONS: But do you accept that you have got up the noses of most of Britain's farmers? Do you regret saying things like, you know, they want to be rescued instead of helping themselves, they should take day jobs to make ends meet, those who've lost their land, their herds, are better off because of the compensation they've got?

LORD HASKINS: These are all emotive twists to what I didn't say. What I said was that actually the people, the farmers, who suffer most in Cumbria probably are the ones who still haven't had the disease but are not compensated at all. That's a problem. I didn't say that it was a good thing that people had got foot and mouth disease. The area up there is a tragic situation. Fifty per cent of the farms, the livestock farms, have been wiped out. My job is to get them back into business. Not to destroy them. The whole purpose of the exercise is to regenerate the countryside in Cumbria. And if we can regenerate Cumbria then maybe we'll learn lessons elsewhere. But then everybody in farming recognises that those changes have to be. Everybody who's interested in the environment recognises change will have to take place. Everybody who is running a small post office, or a small shop in the countryside recognises that change will have to take place. Now the government has got a role in that clearly, but so has everybody else. And one of the great things I've found going to Cumbria this week was the sense of co-operation between everybody concerned, people in the tourist trade, people supplying farmers, the farmers themselves, the local authorities, that's to be built on. When this is all over Cumbria I hope is going to be an even greater place than it was before. Nobody particularly wants to go back to the way it was before.

PETER SISSONS: Do you still stand by the thought that farmers have the time to take day jobs, working on production lines, and milking the cows in the morning and the evening?

LORD HASKINS: I'm just observing that the reality is there's 50% of farms in this country today depend on non-agriculture income. That's not saying it's good or bad, that is a reality. And farmers particularly small farmers, say in Cumbria, recognise that there's a role for them as a bed and breakfast operator as well. Now I think one of the aspects of the way to keep small farms going is for them to diversify. To diversity into tourism, as well as being farmers. There's nothing new about that. I mean this picture of the BMW workers, is a 30-year-old picture in southern Germany which everybody knows about. I'm not suggesting, there aren't any BMW factories here now at any rate, so I think it's rather an inappropriate analogy. But the reality is that farmers more and more realise that they need to diversity.

PETER SISSONS: Do you practice what you preach? What's being done on your farm that others could learn lessons from? Presumably you take subsidies like everybody else, something which you've, again your attitude to subsidies seems to have offended some other farmers. And I gather

LORD HASKINS: Again, I take subsidies because if I didn't take subsidies my farm would be hugely uncompetitive against others. But what I've said on the record is that in the process of reform the larger farms like mine should probably expect lesser subsidies and the smaller farms should expect more subsidies. I've also said that in the future maybe farmers should not be paid to produce food that nobody wants but instead they should be paid to produce a countryside that everybody wants. Now all of those things are change. Now I don't think everybody disagrees with that, I think most people agree but as always, if people want to believe what they want to believe, I am the chairman of a large company, I am a large farmer and therefore you create bogeyman of large food companies and large farmers, then that's for them to say. But all I say if you go into Marks & Spencer and buy the food in Marks & Spencer, Northern Foods makes 25% of it, and people rather enjoy it.

PETER SISSONS: Let me just put this final question to you. You are the chairman of a large company, Northern Foods, your first concern surely is for the shareholders of your company and not for the small farmers.

LORD HASKINS: I don't agree with that at all. I cannot supply the needs of my shareholders except I've got prosperous suppliers including farmers. We have a contract with a large factory, for example, in Cumbria, Calverdou and Gray, or we've got big contracts with farmers producing potatoes and onions for us. We need prosperous suppliers if our shareholders are to do well. This idea that everybody is tearing eachother's eyes out is totally wrong. We need to work together with our customers, with our shareholders and with our suppliers. That's the future. It's not fighting with each other.

PETER SISSONS: Chris Haskins, thank you very much for talking to us. I really do like your hat. A New Labour hat it looks like.

LORD HASKINS: Well it's a summer hat. In the winter when I was asked on it was extremely cold out and I froze to death doing this programme. At least it's just wet today. That's for another day.

PETER SISSONS: Well, good morning to you anyway.

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