Richard North, 06/10/2004  

Because of various technological problems though I went to Bornemouth, to the Conservative Party conference, it was my colleague who produced the trenchant analysis of the main speeches. My role was to attend some of the more interesting (from this blog’s point of view) fringe meetings, the only part of the conference where any debate or discussion takes place.

So my first report could be entitled Mr Paice promises Conservative legislation that will, if needs be, break EU rules on labelling. Something of a mouthful, that title, but the statement could be quite important. (If, that is, Mr Paice knew what he was talking about.)

And who is Mr Paice, I hear our readers ask, that his words should be of such great import? James Paice MP is the recently appointed Shadow Secretary of State for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The occasion of this momentous announcement was at a Rural Seminar, organized by the Conservative Rural Action Group (CRAG), which is chaired by Owen Paterson MP, Shadow Minister for Agriculture and Fisheries.

Other participants in the seminar were Meurig Raymond NFU Vice-President, David Fursdong, Deputy President of the Country Land & Business Association(CLA) and Simon Hart, Chief Executive of the Countryside Alliance.

Much of the discussion, when it was not about right of access, rural planning and other issues of that kind was about country sports (for the benefit of our non-British readers I should add that country sports are hunting, shooting and fishing, all of which are under threat from the endlessly interfering control-obsessed government and dysfunctional MPs who dislike to see anyone enjoy themselves) and CAP reform.

We need not go in any detail into CAP reform except to say that its reforming credentials leave something to be desired but it does change the basis on which payments will be made to farmers. The problem with payment through subsidy rather than through the market is that it is dependent on political decisions and political moods. The political mood of thirty years ago has changed and new rules apply. Naturally, this produces feelings of uncertainty that are far worse than the uncertainty of the market, something many farmers feel they should be exempt from.

There was a great deal of discussion of what can and should be done to protect farmers, that is primary food producers from the exigencies of the market and normal economic forces, accompanied by the usual lack of understanding of economic laws and forces that one has come to expect at occasions like this.

In response to one question about what a Conservative government will do to help farmers and rural communities, Mr Paice promised all kinds of new legislation and repeal of legislation as well as laws about clear and useful labelling. He was then reminded, also from the floor that most of what he was promising was not actually in his power to deliver as almost everything to do with agriculture and food production was EU competence. In particular, labelling was not something any British government could have any rules about. Why mislead the public?
Mr Paice did what all politicians and civil servants do when they are forced to admit to the unpalatable truth. He hemmed and he hawed. Eventually he told the audience that a Conservative government will do whatever it could within the framework of EU rules.

He obviously realized that he was no longer sounding quite so swashbuckling and added rather portentously:
“You heard what Michael Howard said, you heard what Tim Yeo said. The British producer and the British consumer come first. We shall put in rules on labelling that wil, if needs be, break EU rules. If needs be we shall challenge them in the courts.”
Well, there you have it and you may believe it or not. Actually, it is not quite clear which courts Mr Pace had in mind for challenging EU legislation on labelling but it sounded good.

Soon afterwards Meurig Raymond of the NFU managed to slip in the usual economical with the truth statement about the Little Red Tractor label on foods. This label, much promoted by the NFU and one or two other organizations purports to show that the food is produced to British farming standards, whatever that may mean. There are various way of assessing this, I am told. What it does not mean and cannot mean according to Single Market rules is that it is produced in the UK. Any food producer or grower anywhere in the EU can apply for the logo, though as it does not mean much to anyone, they do not bother, if they can prove to the various assessors that they produce to British farming standard. However, Mr Raymond has chosen to repeat that particular canard, so anxious was he to disavow any suggestion that food growing and food production in this country is regulated by the European Union and, beyond lobbying, there is precious little to be done about that.

Except for Mr Paice. He is promising to do something, should he ever find himself in government.

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