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Friday, 4 January, 2002, 14:15 GMT
Beckett calls for farming reforms
Margaret Beckett
Mrs Beckett addresses the Oxford Farming Conference
Environment Secretary Margaret Beckett has warned farmers that in future they will need to justify the 3bn a year spent on them by taxpayers.

She told delegates at a farming conference that more subsidies must be directed towards environmental protection and the countryside, rather than supporting food production.

But the controversial message is certain to spark accusations by farmers that it is meaningless until the European Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is reformed.

Mrs Beckett is also calling for CAP reform, but there is little sign that the European Union (EU) as a whole is prepared to do more than tinker with the present system.

There is not going to be unlimited money

Environment Secretary, Margaret Beckett

The environment secretary told the BBC's Farming Today programme that the CAP had failed to produce secure incomes or stability.

And although it aimed to keep prices high, many farmers were unhappy with it.

She told the programme that it was important "to find a constructive and useful way forward whereby if we do need to put support and investment into farming like any other industry we are putting it in for things that people actually want to get out and we are doing it efficiently in terms of value for money".

"There is not going to be unlimited money," Mrs Beckett concluded.

'Endless subsidy'

The environment secretary made her keynote address on at the 56th annual Oxford Farming Conference on Friday, where the industry looks at long term trends affecting the agricultural sector and sets the agenda for the year ahead.

She told delegates: "Government has a responsibility to help the industry - but as a challenging partner in a vital business, not as a provider of endless subsidy.

"Surely the government should help the industry to do its business and pay for what the nation requires of the industry through our environmental and conservation agenda, not by subsidising the industry to produce goods not wanted in the marketplace.

'Get real'

"Demands on the budget for agricultural support are coming under greater scrutiny across not just the EU, but the world," Mrs Beckett added.

"The pressure to reduce market-distorting subsidies is probably at an all-time high.

"And with the pressure to reduce subsidies and curtail budgets comes the pressure to identify our real priorities - to choose where the funding should go, when it cannot and will not go everywhere."

Earlier on Friday, Mrs Beckett told farmers to "get real", accusing them of complacency for failing to take advantage of free business advice offered by the government in the wake of the foot-and-mouth crisis.

Young Farmers with a cardboard cut-out of Mrs Beckett
Young Farmers pose with a cardboard cut-out of Mrs Beckett

"Some of them do not even think it is worth doing," she said in an interview to The Times.

"I find that quite staggering when we are all talking about the future of farming."

Mrs Beckett urged struggling farmers to diversify and become more aggressive in pursuit of new customers.

After three months without an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, it was time to think ahead, she told the newspaper.

Outside the conference on Thursday, a group of Young Farmers staged a protest by posing alongside a cardboard cut-out of Mrs Beckett.

The protesters were giving their backing to a legal challenge to the decision by the environment secretary not to hold a public inquiry into the foot-and-mouth outbreak.

Margaret Beckett, Environment Secretary
"The public as a whole wants... to see perfectly legitimate change"
Tim Bennett, NFU
"We will work with her"
See also:

03 Jan 02 | Scotland
Finnie sets out rural vision
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