DEFRA Secretary Liz Truss insisted food and farming remained at the heart of the Conservative’s economic plans as she outlined what her party’s manifesto had to offer the industry.
“We see the industry as a major area for jobs and growth,” she told Farmers Guardian on the day of the manifesto launch.
The manifesto promised a 25-year plan to ‘champion farmers and food producers’ and enable the industry to produce more British food, including the establishment of a Great British Food Unit to help trademark and promote local foods at home and abroad.
The Norfolk MP insisted this would be an industry-led that would focus on having the right skills in place, including trebling the number of apprentices in the industry, and backing research that improved competiveness across the supply chain.
“This is not about the Government telling the industry what to do, it is about the Government laying out its ambition to produce more food and for us to consume more food in Britain,” Mrs Truss said.
The manifesto also included pledges on better labelling, further CAP reform and to ‘champion’ the Groceries Adjudicator. But arguably the most eye-catching new policy pledge was the introduction of a single Farm Inspection Task Force to help ‘liberate farmers from red tape by coordinating all visits’.
The taskforce would involve farmers and use data from schemes like Red Tractor to base inspections on.
“Rather than having to deal with Natural England, the RPA, APHA and local authorities, farmers will be dealing with a single agency that would them and make us more efficient as we will avoid duplication,” she said.
“There would still be a number of inspections on farms but, as far as possible, we would do those inspections together and there would only be one set of people to deal with” Mrs Truss said.
She defended the Government’s record on red tape in response to suggestions it had not done enough to implement the Macdonald red tape review, claiming it has reduced the number of farm inspections by 34,000 and the volume of Defra guidance by 80 per cent.
Mrs Truss also defended the Conservative pledge for an in-out referendum on Europe in 2017, insisting it was right to give the public a say.
But she refused to comment on the implications for farmers of leaving the EU in terms of CAP support and access to the single market. “I don’t want to leave. We want to stay in a reformed Europe,” she said.
As part of the UK’s re-negotiation the UK would push for a reduction in red tape and a ‘more scientific approach’ to regulation on policy areas like GM and pesticides, with the UK having a greater say in these areas, she added.
However, she sought to clarify the Conservative’s pledge for further reform of the CAP. While pushing for simplification and gradually shifting the emphasis more towards environmental payments, she said: "I do not want to see our farmers disadvantaged relative to competitors and I think it is a long-term process."
Mrs Truss said funding had been maintained in the last Parliament in key areas like frontline vets and food defence.
She acknowledged Defra faced further cuts in the new Parliament but insisted there was scope to make more efficiencies, for example though rationalising inspections, without affecting frontline services.
Already one of the smallest Departments in Whitehall, the future of Defra has been brought into question by the prospect of further Departmental cuts in the next Parliament.
She said she expected Defra to continue in its current form but fell short of a firm commitment to retain it. “I am making all my plans on the basis Defra will continue as is. I think it’s doable to make more savings from our budget,” she said.
Undoubtedly, the issue that divides the main parties, as far as farming is concerned is bovine TB.
Mrs Truss pledged the Conservatives would roll out badger culling to new areas as part of the Government’s long-term TB eradication strategy, insisting the pilots showed culling to be ‘effective, humane and safe’. She said the Gloucestershire pilot failed to reach its target because it was subject to ‘sabotage’ by protestors.
She branded Labour’s pledge to scrap the pilots half way through their four-year licences as ‘very irresponsible’.
“The Labour Party have been very clear that even if Chief Officer continues to advise them to cull they wouldn’t do it and I think that is a very irresponsible attitude. Can you imagine a health Secretary going against the advice of the Chief Medical Officer?
“This is a disease that threatens the long-term future of the beef and dairy industries. We have set a long-term strategy which involves cattle movement controls, vaccination and culling where disease is rife.
"I am committed as Defra Secretary to doing whatever it takes to get rid of this disease,” she said.