Saturday, 24 November 2007

Competent authority

Government cuts, mergers and attempts to save money are all horribly and visibly coming home to roost. Something has got to change before we all explode with frustration. Has not getting involved in politics become the new political correctness? Is that why we let this destructiveness continue? 62% of Britons aged 18-24 now "believe in" horoscopes, apparently. But considerably more of us seem to have been content to believe at least six impossible things before breakfast. We believed that experts were running the country, that newspapers told the truth, terrorists were all around us, government secrecy was necessary for security, processes were too complicated to understand and any kind of public protest both fruitless and really rather embarrassing.

But when people start noticing that the Emperor's credibility has finally lost its elastic and is crumpled around his ankles, this is surely a time to act. Our docile handing over to such a naked dullard the responsibility for our lives needs looking at. It is time to reclaim common sense.

The personal details of 25 million people sent from the HMRC offices at Washington's Waterview Park to the National Audit Office by courier disappeared, taking with them with the very last shred of confidence in a government ID scheme. Had the HMRC not heard of Access Control? The technology exists to make systems safe. But then, cutting edge technology seems only to have reality in the private sector along with management skill, creative thinking and rigour. In the public sector what we see are cuts.

The Treasury has funded small-minded policies with a big tight fist. As more cuts are made and more jobs go, morale of the staff reaches an all time low. This has been true at DEFRA for years now. In a Department that has become more and more politicised, the rank and file of DEFRA staff have kept their heads down near their boots - and, from all we hear, their spirits have been even lower.

But the Army, Navy and Air Force have much greater power to raise concern. When no fewer than five ex-service Chiefs angrily and very publicly deplore cost cutting, lack of understanding and government contempt for its personnel, newspaper headlines start seriously to reflect a national unease. Lord Boyce in the House of Lords, put it rather well:
"The smoke and mirrors work of the Government and, in particular the Treasury, actually means that the core defence programme has had no effective budget rise at all."
Sure enough, up popped Des Browne to proclaim on the Today programme that black is white, day is night and
"We have in the UK the second highest defence budget in the world in real terms."
These real terms are as real as Hilary Benn's commitment to meat and two veg. - or his assertion that "Working in partnership with the farming community has been an integral part of our approach..." There has been precious little partnership with anyone in the past years and funding has been the meagre pittance that a Treasury, wholly indifferent to rural and farming concerns, has seen fit to toss to the despised Department. It is Treasury cuts, mainly overseen by our present Prime Minister, that have resulted in our lamentable animal health record: a woeful lack of resources has given us a third rate level of expertise, lack of state of the art diagnostics, rotten surveillance and a defensive attitude from the heirarchy that will brook no criticism.

Meanwhile, animals go up in smoke and farmers go out of business.

Which all brings us back to the home life of our own dear DEFRA and the spectacle of Helen Ghosh, Defra's Permanent Secretary of State, and her attempt to repackage the swingeing cuts that everybody knows are going to be made. Wearing one of her Department's white exterminator's suits she bludgeoned the English language into insensibility:
"It's just a reprioritising exercise against a new strategy."
And poor Hilary Benn, looking more and more like a bewildered aunt from the world of P.G.Wodehouse, has also caught the DEFRAspeak virus. Of the plan to get farmers to bail out DEFRA after so much expensive failure (the RPA managed to send out a cheque for one penny this week) Mr Benn talks of farmers becoming "much more deeply involved in the key policy and operational decisions" and that formal proposals on disease cost and responsibility sharing will be put out for consultation ‘before Christmas’.

Spare us the consultation.Of course those who pay for them must be deeply involved in "key policy and operational decisions". And for this to happen we need to get free from the tyranny of a Department that murders animals and the English language.

The EU likes to refer to "competent authorities" but this is now a contradiction in terms. Europe's massive one-size-fits-all mentality needs some trenchant downsizing. We need a panel of independent experts who understand the science and technology, can manage people and funding and who are not allergic to change. Such a new kind of group to keep things grown-up, rigorous and efficient is long overdue. Its members must be seen to be independent of the government and they must, with DEFRA but not answerable to DEFRA, set the Performance Bechmarks by which policy is judged. We need them - and they need clout enough to tell DEFRA where it needs to go.

Post script. Cuts at DEFRA? Not for officials in Suffolk

When Vincent Cable spoke in the House of Commons about the 24 billion pounds-worth of public money used to bail out Northern Rock, he pointed out that this amounts to £900 for every taxpayer. Our money, it seems, can be found when it is needed. And where it has also been needed lately, apparently, is to accommodate DEFRA officials in some of Suffolk's most prestigious and expensive hotels more than 20 miles from the site of the H5N1 outbreak. The East Anglian Daily Times tells us that the officials are staying at the Ickworth Hotel in Bury St Edmonds. This is a hotel which charges £310.00 for dinner, bed and breakfast in a "standard double" room. DEFRA is not revealing how many of its staff are staying there nor what the price tag will be. Its "accommodation needs" are handled by the private company,Expotel.

At a time when family and tenant farmers are in such deep distress, and DEFRA is being pressured to make savings of £270m. this decision to flaunt such wads of cash might be considered unwise.

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

Paying the Piper

Paying the piper should mean calling the tune - not reluctantly dancing to the government's limited repertoire - so often a danse macarbre.

This is what, in DEFRASpeak, the government would have us believe:
"Government works in partnership with stakeholders to help us arrive at policy decisions that reflect a robust, fair and cost-effective approach taking into account and balancing stakeholder perspectives..."
In a pig's ear.

DEFRA listens to farmers only if they happen to be one of the so-called "core" stakeholders. Do most farmers have any idea who these people are, let alone feel represented by them? As for other 'stakeholders', prepared to give up time to attend Defra meetings and offer views and advice, too often one hears complaints about meetings getting scheduled at oddly inconvenient times, papers arriving too late to be read beforehand, minutes not being taken, meetings not efficiently chaired, questions not answered, time wasted and outcomes disappointing.

DEFRA's management skills, in short, are non existent. Such incompetence and contempt.

And yet it could all be so different. The best blueprint I have seen on the subject of Industry Cost Sharing is the paper by Roger Breeze with its suggestion that 'Performance Benchmarks' should be established for both sides. If the government failed in any of its parts of the bargain, failed to meet its Performance Benchmarks, then payment could not be demanded. If farmers failed to keep to what had been jointly decided then there would be pre-agreed penalities.

There would be accountability.

The serious and possible suggestion is this:
With all Performance Benchmarks met, by government and industry, the goal is to snuff out an outbreak in two weeks after diagnosis by active commitment of all sections of the industry and related industries.
Such a levy would give cause for real optimism. All those involved in farm to fork food production would share responsibility for safety and disease control.

But what farmers fear is that it will not be like this at all. 2007 has been a relentlessly terrible year. Can anyone deny that trust is at an all time low; confidence in the Ministry long since lost in a fog of disillusionment? If a levy on farmers goes ahead without genuine power sharing it will be taxation without representation at an almost undreamed of level.

With a savage twist of the knife, the Ministry will be telling the very farmers it has bossed, bamboozled and bankrupted that they themselves must pay for all that threatens to put paid to their very existence.

Sunday, 18 November 2007

Consider the birds of the air

Poor old farmers. Can there be a more smeared and sneered at group in Britain - or one that has had so much thrown at it in so short a time? And are journalists really unable to see a difference between farmers (people who farm)and those grotesque agri-barons who treat animals as mere parcels of protoplasm to be crammed behind the high walls of factories? Or is it all part of some campaign smiled upon by Downing Street and upheld by Fleet Street that has kept public sympathy away from farmers for so long? In the Observer, for example, we read yet another paragraph implying that farmers bring problems upon themselves:
".... Some disease outbreaks, however, have been caused by clear lapses in biosecurity on farms. The bird flu found at a Bernard Matthews plant last year was traced back to its plant in Hungary..."
The Holton outbreak had nothing to do with 'farms' and everything to do with the dangerous and miserable practice of turning animal husbandry into dreary mass production.

So many disease outbreaks are making people wonder more and more about the health of the animals themselves - and they are beginning to question the ethics of the huge producers. Farmers who farm are thus a problem for the factory barons and they are "demanding" change. Those enterprises that still make contact with nature make them "incensed" apparently. Consider the birds of the air. Valerie Elliott's Times article on Friday concluded:
"Poultry farmers are incensed by what they perceive as lax biosecurity at the farm which allowed turkeys, geese and ducks to mingle with wild birds near an ornamental lake. Many are now demanding new rules for free-range and organic birds and for the Government to regulate rather than offer guidance ...."
Such "farmers" would indeed love to see yet more regulation tangling up the lives of those who produce free range hens and eggs. Such dastardly laxity, such "mingling" between the free and the enslaved must be outlawed for good.

Interesting that on the 13th November the 'spread by wild birds' theory was the first to be trotted out in relation to the finding of H5N1 at Redgrave Park farm in Suffolk. It was the same story at Bernard Matthews too in February. If it is said enough times, will people forget the self-evident fact that overcrowding breeds disease? Where a virus can mingle among so many it can mutate. On Friday night, at a public meeting in the Diss area, someone from Defra confirmed that tests on wild birds have shown no signs of bird flu at all. Suspicion that the virus was imported - as it was last time - is inescapable. It looks certain that, back in February, the Bernard Matthews factory imported the H5N1 virus as a result of the utterly mad to-ing and fro-ing of carcases and meat products between the UK and Hungary. Free-range poultry keepers were inconvenienced and worried for weeks as a result.

What was it that allowed the Holton factory not to be prosecuted? Dangerous practices were ignored. Why was the Bernard Matthews factory actually compensated by taxpayers to the tune of something like £600,000? Cui bono? One Holton statement said
"... we will not be complacent because bird flu did strike us. Together with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) we're working hard to learn all we can from this episode "
Unfortunately, in the area of animal disease, the UK's record on learning lessons is pitiful. The Bernard Matthews outbreak left many questions unanswered . Free range poultry owners are not going to be allowed to protect their birds with vaccines because of the old mantra, rolled out yet again a few days ago that " is possible that some vaccinated birds would still be capable of transmitting the disease if they became infected whilst not displaying symptoms...." Dr Ruth Watkins says this is not true if the whole flock is vaccinated. And who in their right mind would suggest vaccinating only a few?

"If 3 weeks has passed since commencing the vaccine course (2 doses) (or the time stated by the manufacturers for full immunity) then there will be a solid immunity in the flock. We are not talking about vaccinating an already infected flock."

Intensive factory farms seem set to go on transforming the miserably short, unnatural lives of farmed poultry into vacuum packed meat products for the supermarkets. That the cost of all this is much too high must surely now be self evident.

In East Anglia the high densities of poultry and of pigs is a disaster waiting to happen. It is regulation of the intensive exploitation of food animals that is needed - not only because industrial scale production is cruel but because it is dangerous. And we need a vaccination policy.