Testing times when you’re trying to find a better class of monkey for the circus

Testing times when you’re trying to find a better class of monkey for the circus

As you can imagine, a slaughterhouse will get an awful lot of paperwork, and a lot of it has to be properly disposed of because it’s government documents. So a manager I know installed a shredding machine to dispose of it securely. Last time I talked to him he saved this paper for bedding up the pen in the lairage that they put the old bulls in. As he said, bullshit to bullshit.

But yes, one for the problems of farming in Europe, (for the purposes of this blog, consider the UK, Switzerland and Norway to be part of Europe. I mean the geographical not the political entity) is that the inhabitants, the consumers, our customers, set high standards. It isn’t merely they want decent food, they want it cheap, and on top of that they want it to be produced with high animal welfare and environmental standards. The latest thinking seems to be that we farmers will cut our CO2 production so that they can continue to fly abroad on holiday.

Within the EU (and the western non-EU countries) there was a political acceptance that there was no way to square that particular circle other than by the state covering the costs that farmers couldn’t recoup from the market.

Now the world market price for some crops is set by the use of GM varieties. They can undercut EU produced crops produced to different (and more expensive) standards. Even if you don’t accept these standards as higher. It’s the same with beef (and not using hormone growth promoters) or milk (unable to use bovine somatotropin.) Whether European farmers should or should not use these products is a different argument. I start from where we are.

Then there’s the weird randomness of regulation that suddenly hits farmers. For example the EU suddenly introduced the Three Crops Rule. It required farmers with more than 30 hectares of arable land to grow at least three different crops on that land. Even if they didn’t want to. Even if they hadn’t got suitable machinery, storage or a market.

The reason this came about what probably because of the Germans. The EU encouraged biodigesters to produce energy. The idea was that they would turn pig slurry or whatever into clean, green energy. The problem was that you cannot efficiently run a biodigester on pig slurry alone. But add some maize silage and it works well. From what I’ve been told the more maize silage the better. As always with political decisions, the law of unintended consequences is the only law that is ever binding. To quote,

“A combination of bioenergy, especially biogas, with livestock activities, have together been a strong engine for the “maizification” of the German countryside. In northern parts of Lower Saxony, e.g., the district Rotenburg (Wümme), there are more than 150 large biogas plants and maize is grown on 63% of the total arable land. In some areas, this rises to 75%, and places even greater pressure on biodiversity.

“The conversion of the cultural landscape to maize has displaced many grassland birds. In this way, Northern Lapwing, Grey Partridge, Eurasian Curlew, and other species have no future. Nests are being destroyed and feeding grounds have become worthless. For species like the Barn Owl and Red Kite, life has become even more difficult as giant grasses and maize remove the clear views from fields where they normally hunt for prey. When food is scarce, breeding success declines or even worse, no chicks survive.”


So the EU realised they had to stop this. But being politicians and bureaucrats the last thing they were going to do was go to the Germans and say, “Come on chaps, let’s stop taking the mickey here.” After all to do that would have been to admit a policy failing. Heaven forfend!
So they brought in the three crop rule so farmers in, for example, the UK, Greece and Spain who hadn’t been taking the mickey, were hit by a whole new raft of regulation. So, in a nutshell, that’s one of the reasons why agriculture in Europe needs support.

Now we’re leaving the EU, and the UK government has seen this as an opportunity to put in a better agricultural support system, one tied to delivering environmental benefits. Obviously there are arguments to be had over this, but nobody seems to have started from the stance that after decades of trying, the EU system had reached such a high level of perfection that it would be foolish to abandon it.

The government (this is well before the last election so we’re thinking May as PM, not Boris, so it’s not an attack at one or the other) put forward a timetable. Under this, the current support, BPS (Basic Payment System) would be tapered off and the new system, ELMS (Environmental Land Management System) would be brought in to take up the strain. The idea behind ELMS, to make sure that the money goes to provide clean air, clean water and all sorts of other environmental benefits is basically a good one. Creating a scheme from scratch to do it is complicated. The scheme designers couldn’t just tweak an existing scheme as no existing scheme attempted to do this.

But thanks to the monkeying about by MPs, everything got delayed. Given that we had two years where, effectively government couldn’t govern and nobody knew whether we were leaving or not, Defra was trying to plan the future with its hands tied. It was going to be the loser whatever happened. If we left and the system wasn’t ready, it would be Defra’s fault. But if we didn’t leave and Defra had spent £150million getting a new system ready to go, only to have all the work abandoned because we’d be sticking with the EU system, Defra staff would be slammed for wasting money.

Now the dates for tapering BPS have been set in political stone, but because of the political nonsense we’ve had to put up with, the ELMS system has slipped. So we’re no longer talking about a smooth transition from one to another. There’s going to be a gap of some years where there’s going to be no meaningful income coming in from either scheme. Now we cannot just expect the market to fill the gap. I mentioned about the way farm gate prices have fallen here


and in the world of covid, with a lot of consumers having a lot less money to go round, I foresee consumer resistance to higher prices. I can understand that.

But to be fair to Defra, they could see the problem. So they set about trying to tackle it. The obvious thing to do would just be to delay the taper. Things would happen two years later and that would sort the job. It would take no more staff, indeed if you handled it properly you could quietly withdraw staff from this scheme to start working in the ELMS scheme.

But no, Defra has suggested a whole new scheme, the Sustainable Farming Initiative (SFI). This scheme will ‘bring forward’ some things from the ELMS scheme into the years 2022-2024, but will be retired as ELMS takes over. Now to be fair to Defra they’ve got a lot of people working on ELMS. There’s a lot of things they’re trying to get right, like the inspection regime. The EU didn’t seem particularly bothered if it inflicted overly cumbersome and expensive inspection regimes on member states. But Defra feels that this is a chance to do something better. So obviously the people working on ELMS have to stay working on ELMS. Because if they don’t, ELMS will be even later. Similarly Defra cannot withdraw staff from BPS because they’ll still be busy. So they’re going to have to find people from somewhere to create a scheme from scratch and get it running in a very short period of time only to shut it down again. Surely it has to be easier and cheaper for everybody just to slow the taper on BPS. But apparently it’s set in stone because somebody’s staked their political credibility on it. (Between ourselves anybody who stakes their political credibility on the civil service delivering a scheme on time and to budget when the House of Commons hasn’t finished arguing over whether we’ll need a scheme anyway, hasn’t got any political credibility to stake but obviously I couldn’t say that.)

This starts to fit in with a broader picture. At the moment the ‘test and trace’ system is being widely abused. Somebody commented to me that government were foolish to announce targets. But with my experience of Defra, the civil service will ask for a target. After all they need something to aim at. Without a target they don’t know whether they’ve succeeded or failed. “Produce a world beating testing system” isn’t a target, it’s a political aspiration and it’s impossible for the civil service to deliver. “Be able to test 150,000 people a day and get the results back to them within 24 hours is at least something they can work to.

The testing system shows some of the unforeseen problems. You get the sample to the labs. Apparently people discovered that the medium they use to preserve the samples doesn’t kill the virus. So you’ve got all this live virus coming into the office. Because it’s a live virus it has to be multiply wrapped and the people unwrapping it have to be careful. All this takes far more time than anybody predicted. It’s the same with any government scheme, there will be something that nobody thought of that screws things mightily and takes a while to get right.

Now this is where MPs can come in and scrutinise things. The systems are there. We’ve recently had all sorts of dubious regulations brought in by statutory instrument. Whilst an individual MP cannot block them, they can put down a marker. To quote from the Commons library,

“Motions to annul a negative instrument can be tabled by Members of the House of Commons or members of the House of Lords. In the Commons, the motion is generally tabled as an Early Day Motion couched in the form of a prayer.  An example tabled by the Leader of the Official Opposition is given below:

That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Education (Student Support) (Amendment) Regulations 2015 (S.I., 2015, No. 1951), dated 29 November 2015, a copy of which was laid before this House on 2 December 2015, be annulled. EDM 892, 08.12.2015

In order for a negative SI to be annulled, a prayer must be tabled and passed within 40 days of the instrument being laid. The 40 day period is known as praying time.

The Government will typically find time to debate an EDM praying against an SI that has been signed by Shadow Ministers, but is not obliged to. It is very rare for a Negative Instrument to be annulled; 1979 was the last time an SI was annulled in the House of Commons, in the House of Lords it was 2000.”

So if, for example, MPs of any party felt that government was going too far with regulations restricting personal liberty, they could pray against the regulation and force it to be debated in the house. Somebody told me that MPs seem to be happier moaning on twitter than in the Commons.

As an aside, somebody commented to me about the introduction of free public libraries, the act was driven by MPs not parties. I picked a couple of these MPs at random, here are their biographies from wiki.

Joseph Brotherton A nonconformist minister

In 1819, aged only thirty-six, Brotherton retired from the family business in order to devote his energy to his ministry. He used his position to actively improve the conditions of workers and campaign for reforms. Among his achievements the building of schools, the opening of a lending library and the establishment of a fund to support the victims of the Peterloo Massacre. He was also an overseer of the poor and a justice of the peace.

After the passing of the Reform Act 1832 which he lobbied for he was elected as Salford’s first member of parliament at the ensuing general election. He was re-elected five times, unopposed on two occasions. In parliament he campaigned against the death penalty, for the abolition of slavery and for free non-denominational education. He actively supported the Municipal Corporations Bill, which led to Manchester and Salford having democratically elected councils. He took an interest in the facilities provided by the new municipalities, and was largely responsible for the opening of Peel Park, Salford and Weaste Cemetery. And of course the introduction of free libraries across the country.

William Ewart

He was called to the bar at the Middle Temple in 1827, and the next year entered Parliament for the borough of Bletchingley in Surrey, serving until 1830. He subsequently sat for Liverpool from 1830 to 1837, for Wigan from 1839 to 1841, and for Dumfries Burghs from 1841 until his retirement from public life in 1868. In 1834 he successfully carried a bill to abolish hanging in chains, and in 1837 he was successful in getting an act passed to abolish capital punishment for cattle-stealing and other similar offences. In 1850 he carried a bill for establishing free libraries supported out of public rates, and he was instrumental in getting the Metric Weights and Measures Act 1864 passed to legalise the use of the metric system.

He remained a strong advocate for the abolition of capital punishment, and on his motion in 1864, a Royal Commission was appointed to consider the subject on which he sat. Other reforms which he advocated and which were carried out included an annual statement on education, and the examination of candidates for the civil service and army.

I think we need a few more MPs with Victorian Values! We might be better governed. At least these chaps knew how to actually do something and get things done.


There again, what do I know?

More tales from a lifetime’s experience of peasant agriculture in the North of England, with sheep, Border Collies, cattle, and many other interesting individuals. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is just one of those things.

As a reviewer commented, “This is the third collection of farmer Jim Webster’s anecdotes about his sheep, cattle and dogs. This one had added information on the Lake District’s World Heritage status. This largely depends upon the work of around 200 small family farms. Small may not always be beautiful but it can be jolly important. If you want to know the different skills needed by a sheep dog and a cow dog, or to hear tales of some of the old time travelling sales persons – read on! This is real life, Jim, but not as I know it.”


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8 thoughts on “Testing times when you’re trying to find a better class of monkey for the circus

  1. Eddy Winko September 18, 2020 at 5:17 am Reply

    I was speaking to a chap who is a policy adviser on foreign affairs for the EU and he was quite open to the fact that 90+% of the EU politicians that he served are simply there to serve themselves. He explained that there are some good ones (your Victorian examples) who run around and do all the work and come up with policy that is worth something, but they are few and far between. Time for a purge I think, a political inquisition anyone? (I thinking purple clad Monty Python Inquisitors)

    • jwebster2 September 18, 2020 at 5:45 am Reply

      My examples came from before MPs first got paid. My suggestion is that MPs don’t get a salary, but get offered the equivalent of a student flat and the national minimum wage, but will be encouraged to work and keep up with their jobs/professions. That way we’d get people who were still in touch with the world of work and weren’t trapped in the westminster bubble!

  2. Doug Jacquier September 18, 2020 at 6:51 am Reply

    A masterful stroll through the inanities of politics and bureaucracies, Jim. How you and other farmers maintain sanity is, like God, beyond understanding. Thanks to you, I have stuck in my head an image of MPs as praying mantises, although it seems we may lose those in the Germain maize epidemic. 😉

    • jwebster2 September 18, 2020 at 6:59 am Reply

      I suspect we’re used to it. That’s one reason why the current fuss over the covid testing in the UK just washes over me. I never expected anything else

  3. jenanita01 September 18, 2020 at 7:58 am Reply

    You have hit the nail on the head, Jim. Time to get rid of politicians and find people who really care about the rest of us!

    • jwebster2 September 20, 2020 at 2:39 pm Reply

      I think we have to weaken political parties. I’m still old enough to remember when the party wasn’t even on the ballot paper. If MPs wish to band together once they arrive in Westminster, that’s fine, but their loyalty should be to their constituents rather than the party apparatchiks

  4. M T McGuire September 18, 2020 at 9:55 pm Reply

    This is brilliant. The political stance: here’s the logical course of action … let’s do something else.



    • jwebster2 September 20, 2020 at 2:41 pm Reply

      well it would never do to admit to error or even worse, changing your mind!

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