Comment: Owen Paterson’s continental foray as Defra minister did not pay off

Environment Secretary Owen Paterson. Picture: Getty
Environment Secretary Owen Paterson. Picture: Getty
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Last week was a bad one for Owen Paterson, and if you have been out finishing the harvest and do not recognise the name, he was shuffled into the top political job at Defra earlier this autumn

This followed the expected departure of Caroline Spellman and the totally unexpected departure of farming minister Jim Paice, the latter departing with a knighthood to ease his pain.

Like so many other instances where matters go wrong, Paterson’s week had promised so much. He was due to head the UK group at the European Union Agricultural Council in Luxembourg as the Common Agricultural Policy talks slowly come to the boil.

This was to be followed by a visit to the Sial food fair in Paris where, according to his press people, he was going to spearhead British food exports, including I may say, those of Scotch whisky.

This Parisian leg of the ministerial journey included the top speaking slot at a dinner hosted by Eblex, the red meat promotional body in England which was attended by more than 300 buyers and potential buyers.

So, where did it all go wrong?

Apparently the wheels started to come off the planned programme in the departure lounge of the City airport in London, where flights were being cancelled or postponed because of fog.

Now, the UK minister will neither be the first nor last to see transport plans being thrown into disarray by the weather. He might have thought, although it is unlikely, that this is what farming is like, being buffeted by the outrageous slings and arrows of bad weather.

So the baton for leading the UK agricultural delegation was handed at short notice to Richard Benyon, UK fisheries minister, rather than Richard Lochhead or the Welsh farming minister, both of whom were over for the meeting.

Meanwhile, back in London, plans were being made to get the minister to Paris via Eurostar for this all-important export drive of British food and drink.

Here the trail goes murky, and all that is known is as the 300 diners were expectantly waiting for Paterson, there was a huddle around the table where the UK ambassador was sitting.

Within minutes, the urbane diplomat was on his feet saying there would be no ministerial presence.

Neither would he tour the British stand the next day, visiting the firms who are doing that most difficult task: selling food abroad. According to a food trade magazine, the ministerial absence and lack of support were greeted with much grumbling to the effect that the current government was no more interested in the food sector than the previous one – and that was minimal.

Remember that most other countries, for example France, have large organisations supporting exporters. Since the demise of Food From Britain a decade ago, export drives from this country have largely been left to private enterprise.

The official reason given for the non-appearance was parliamentary business and, by Tuesday morning, Paterson was announcing a delay in the proposed cull of badgers in two tuberculosis hot spots. This postponement was greeted with jubilation by badger lovers and stoicism by the English farming union and the British Veterinary Association.

However, it turned out that the postponement was on the cards for months, with required cull numbers being doubled when someone actually got round to counting the nocturnal creatures and the company involved in the cull would not sign up to the increased workload.

For my money, the cull will never go ahead. The £80 million it costs the UK in TB compensation annually and the whole issue of welfare in dairy cows will be parked away by the politicians.

So, in my opinion, the new minister, who so far has only sorted out the grammar of his civil servants and repeated the UK government line on reducing the CAP budget, did not have a good week.

It was little wonder that when I met Lochhead later in the week, he had a smile as wide as it could be. After all, any fumbling by the UK government plays right into the hands of a Scottish Government now playing the independence card as hard as it can.

However, at that same event, a conversation I had with a farmer might also give Lochhead something to ponder.

“I quite like the minister,” the farmer told me. “I quite like the Scottish Government but I am not in favour of independence.”

I find this view is not uncommon in the farming fraternity.