Country matters

Jim KnightJim Knight on why Ministers must start to listen to the concerns of rural England

Over the weekend dairy farmers blockaded milk processing plants to draw attention to the exploitative pricing that is making production uneconomic. Two supermarkets have already responded by raising prices. These farmers clearly believed more conventional methods were not being listened to.

Is this any wonder? Now it is reported that Jim Paice, the Farming Minister who doesn't know the price of milk, has raised the possibility that an adjudicator be created to oversee a voluntary code for the dairy supply chain. This is something my Labour colleague John Grantchester suggested in the Lords recently but Coalition peers were whipped to defeat his proposal. Clearly the government's dairy policy is churning thanks to direct action rather than parliamentary pressure.

This follows a succession of protests that have bounced DEFRA Ministers. Their proposals to sell off the nation's forest met huge protests and they have now backed down. The same happened with national nature reserves, changes to reduce environmental protection in planning law and wild animals in circuses. Over Easter they suggested allowing the shooting of buzzards, a native species, to protect pheasants, a non-native species bred to be shot; unsurprisingly that was laughed out of the court of public opinion within days.

This lack of long term strategic thinking now bedevils the Department. At the same time rural England feels the effects of policies and cuts from other parts of government.

It emerged this month that the rate of NEETs (young people not in education, employment or training) is rising faster in rural areas than urban ones. Also, rural councils, which tend to have older and less deprived populations receive lower grant allocations, spend less on social care, charge more for home care and allocate lower personal budgets than local authorities serving younger, more urban and more deprived populations. New research finds that social tenants in rural areas will be more likely than those in urban areas to have to move house as a consequence of reductions in housing benefit, and yet there are fewer smaller dwellings for them to move into.

I know these things thanks to the July newsletters, on the DEFRA website, from the Commission for Rural Communities. This is an independent body set up to collect evidence and report on the impact of government at all levels on rural England. Its reports can make for uncomfortable reading across Whitehall.

This week, Peers debate a government order to close down this Commission and abolish the post of Rural Advocate. A letter in The Daily Telegraph from three bishops, a duchess, the High Sheriff of Cornwall, myself and the Shadow DEFRA Secretary Mary Creagh challenges this decision and highlights the fact that there has been an independent voice for rural concerns to government since 1909.

What does the Government propose instead? Its new ‘independent’ voice will be provided by DEFRA's very own Rural Affairs minister Richard Benyon – he of the buzzards u-turn. So Rural England's new champion will be inside the tent, but unusually pointing inwards. The fact that he has failed to deliver a Rural Statement by spring 2012, as the DEFRA website still promises shouldn't put us off. Then again, the fact that he also hasn't delivered the new rural proofing guidance should be sufficient evidence this is not the government priority it should be.

I hope that Ministers listen in the Lords and give us some form of independent rural advisor reporting publicly, direct to the Prime Minister. But I fear not, they seem more than willing to respond to protesting farmers and online campaigns – but not to the mother of all Parliaments.

Lord Jim Knight of Weymouth is Labour’s Shadow DEFRA Minister in the Lords

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