Defra secretary Elizabeth Truss outlines her post-election pledges for East Anglia's farmers
Archant © 2014
Last week, East Anglian farmers told us their demands from the incoming government after the General Election. In an exclusive interview following Elizabeth Truss' reappointment as environment secretary, CHRIS HILL asked for her responses to those issues.
When Elizabeth Truss was originally appointed as the secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs last July, the role had something of a temporary feel about it.
With the inevitable uncertainties of a General Election ahead, all that was required was a safe pair of hands to steer Defra’s ship to the end of the Coalition’s voyage.
But now, with nine months of experience in the role and a five-year term stretching ahead, the expectations to deliver results will be higher for the South West Norfolk MP as she returns to the role in the first all-Tory cabinet for 18 years.
Before the election, we asked East Anglian farmers what they thought the new government’s priorities should be, and their demands were published last week in the EDP’s Spring Agricultural Review – you can read the online edition at www.edp24.co.uk/business/farming-news.
And now we have put those concerns to the re-appointed minister as she lays out her policy objectives for the next parliamentary term.
Q: The most common issue raised by our arable farmers was the need for decisions on the regulation of pesticides and agro-chemicals to be determined on scientific evidence. What will you be doing to ensure that?
A: I am very clear that we must be led by the evidence and science must be central to decisions on what pesticides we use and I have been very clear in that with commissioner Hogan (Phil Hogan, the European Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development) and I will continue to press that case. I also want to see as many decision as possible made at a UK level, and that’s another thing that I will be pushing.
Q: But how will that be possible if the ultimate decision rests with the EU?
A: We have succeeded, for example in the common fisheries policy, in getting more local decision-making, so its perfectly possible to achieve that, and it’s something I’ve raised with commissioner Hogan, but I think that for Europe to be successful we need to be making decisions at the right level, and not having blockages in the system, so I will be pushing further on that.
The European Union
Q: Your party is committed to an in/out referendum on the EU by 2017. Given agriculture’s importance to the EU budget, what will be your role in the renegotiations before that vote is put to the public?
A: We are already working to put the case for a simpler CAP (Common Agricultural Policy). We’ve made some progress on that with EFAs (Ecological Focus Areas) under commissioner Hogan’s simplification programme.
Ultimately, the prime minister has laid out the areas he wants to see reformed. One of them is red tape and I know from my experience in this role that there is a lot of red tape affecting both the agricultural and the environment sides.
Q: If a lot of Defra’s red tape comes from Brussels, is that an argument for leaving the EU?
A: There are benefits to being in the EU – access to a huge market and the stability that it provides, but the whole of the EU needs to become more competitive. We are not just facing competition from France, Germany, and Spain, we are facing competition from Asia and so it is important that we remain competitive and that our farmers have access to the right technology from across the world. We have made progress on that and there will be more decision-making at a member state level on GM (genetically-modified foods) and I would like to see more of those types of decision taken at a member state level.
We are very clear that we want to stay in a reformed EU and I’m very confident the prime minister will succeed in negotiating such a settlement.
Q: If that’s the preference, does it worry you that UKIP – an anti-EU party – attracted 3.9 million votes last week?
A: I think people vote for political parties for all sorts of reasons, and I wouldn’t treat that as a straight read-across. Of course, the important point is that we were the party who were elected on a manifesto of allowing the British public to have their say. When it comes to it, ultimately it will be a decision by the people and I wouldn’t pre-judge how people would vote in a referendum.
The Basic Payment Scheme
Q: While we’re talking about red tape, what is the current situation with BPS (following the failure of the online application system for farm subsidies)?
A: We are making good progress. The pre-populated forms and maps have gone out, we are getting a lot of applications through the system. I would strongly encourage people to get their applications in as soon as possible, also if people don’t have the right information to call the helpline (03000 200 301).
We are making good progress, we are on track with it and through the election campaign I have been having regular meetings with and phone calls with Mark Grimshaw (chief executive of the Rural Payments Agency) to make sure we are going to deliver it on time.
Q: So payments will be made on time?
A: Mark Grimshaw has committed to that.
Q: But can you give a reassurance?
A: Yes, we want to pay the RPA payments on time, and I’ve said all along that the core computer is working, we’ve got a plan in place to get the claims in on time and get that data entered on the system and to make the payments.
Water licensing reform
Q: The NFU was hoping for an announcement soon after the election to clarify how proposed reforms to the abstraction licensing regime would work. Is that announcement imminent?
A: What I’m very keen to do is make sure we work closely with farmers and the industry to make sure we have the best system in place. I want to listen to people and hear what they have to say about it, because of course we do need to reform the system. It is not perfect, and I think we can get to a better system than what we have at the moment, a modern system that’s more flexible, and that’s what I’m trying to do,
Q: Is there a timeframe for it?
A: We’re not announcing the timeline yet. The first thing is I want to hear what people have to say about it, and I’ve already heard many representations form farmers here in Norfolk.
Q: What about incentives to build reservoirs, such as their inclusion under agricultural investment allowances?
A: I think reservoirs are important. The Countryside Productivity Scheme does have elements for being able to build those facilities and on the tax system we have made a major change in terms of farmers being able to average their tax over five years, and of course the chancellor said there will be an announcement about investment allowances in due course.
Q: Any indication as to whether that announcement will be good news for farmers?
A: I can’t say anything about it at this stage.
Q: Internet connectivity is such an important issue for many rural businesses – many have been upgraded to superfast broadband, but what is being done for the so-called final 5pc?
A: We have made huge progress here in Norfolk, where currently 76pc of properties have access too superfast broadband. It was 30pc in 2010. I’m seeing villages like Sporle being connected which didn’t have those services before. Of course, there is more to do and I recognise that the final 5pc are going to be hard to reach but what we have committed to is that everybody will have access to those services by 2017. Everyone will have access to superfast broadband or to an alternative solution.
Q: Disease control is an emotive subject, but are you pushing ahead with plans to extend the badger cull to control the spread of bovine TB?
A: Absolutely. We’ve committed to a long-term strategy to eradicate TB which is a massive threat to the dairy and beef industries.
I think there is a general issue here too, which is I want people to be more connected to the countryside and understand where food comes from and that’s why it is so important we are now teaching that in school so children understand what is needed to produce really high quality food, which is what we have in this country.
Any other business
Q: What are the other priorities on your agenda?
A: Making sure we are properly protected against floods is, of course, very important, so we will continue with our investment programme to reduce flood risk across the country. Continuing to make sure we have the available vets in our organisation to deal with any animal disease outbreak is also vital. And I’ve got a role across government to make sure our rural communities are getting their fair share. They are getting access to broadband and mobile telephony which is really important here in Norfolk and we want to see a step change in mobile provision. We want to make sure villages and towns are able to thrive.
Farming industry reaction
Farming representatives in East Anglia welcomed the continuity of Ms Truss’s re-appointment as Defra secretary – but were quick to point out that there were major and urgent issues which needed to be addressed.
John Newton, Norfolk county adviser for the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) said: “There are some major issues to tackle, including abstraction reform, reversing the long-term in UK self-sufficiency and addressing the need for science-based decision making in areas such as crop protection products.
“But the most pressing priority has to be sorting out the problems still affecting the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS). We’ve kept in regular touch with Liz Truss on this issue during the election campaign and members will welcome the fact that we have continuity at Defra with just a few weeks to go until the final application deadline of 15 June.”
Ben Underwood, east regional director for the Country Land and Business Association (CLA), said: “The BPS roll-out needs to be examined and there needs to be clarification on how we move forward as soon as possible.
“She (Ms Truss) also needs to work with landowners to deliver long-term water management that covers not only periods of drought, but extreme flooding too.
“There is also a need for a concerted push on tackling plant and animal pests and diseases, including ash dieback and bovine TB.
“And in terms of funding, there needs to be continued backing for agri-tech to boost the efficiency of agriculture and productivity.”