Owen Paterson interviewed in the Farmers Guardian

OWEN Paterson says he is back to finish what he started almost a decade ago. Alistair Driver met the new Defra Secretary this week.

Even before he said a word, Owen Paterson’s broad smile confirmed he was very happy with the hand he was dealt in last week’s Government reshuffle.

The North Shropshire MP and new Defra secretary of state feels he is returning to complete a job he started [as a Defra Shadow Minister] nearly a decade ago.

Self-assured and enthusiastic, Mr Paterson is credited with a doing a good job in the tricky role as Northern Ireland Secretary for the past two-and-a-half years and appears to be a good fit for the Defra role he inherited from Caroline Spelman last week. He certainly thinks so.

Country man

“I was sad to leave Northern Ireland, but it’s tremendous to be back at Defra. What’s interesting is Jim Paice and Caroline Spelman picked up some of the things I started in opposition, and here am I picking up some of those things from them,” he said when we met in his office at Defra this week.

Frequently referring to himself as a ‘country man’, he explained how he hails from a farming background and still keeps horses, chickens and Black Welsh Mountain sheep at home. He has been an MP in a ‘rural constituency’ for 15 years and said he has close links to the local NFU and farmers.

He added, even since moving on from the Shadow Defra role in 2005, he has ‘kept in touch through the medium of Farmers Guardian on a weekly basis’.

“I am not coming into this blind,” he stressed. “When I was in opposition, we always had very well-meaning, well intentioned Ministers at Defra who were completely urban and completely clueless. That’s not going to happen with me. And I eat meat.”

He acknowledged he, along with the other Defra newcomers, will be on a steep learning curve when it comes to policy detail. But the direction of travel, in many cases, appears to be clearly set.

There is no doubt where he stands on the badger cull. He made his name in politics by tabling around 600 questions on bovine TB in 2004 - a record on a single topic - as he campaigned against the Labour Government’s refusal to cull badgers to tackle the disease.

“I come at this from a practical countryman’s point of view. Nobody likes killing any animals, but we want healthy cattle living alongside healthy badgers.”

He refused to be drawn on the timing of the planned English pilot culls, but said: “I very much hope we can get going soon. The quicker we can get on top of this disease, the better for dairy farmers, the rural economy and wildlife.

“I am convinced it is the right thing to do until we get a vaccine. We cannot allow this pool of disease to keep on growing, and I find the attitude of those who want these wonderful animals to die of this disgusting disease completely incomprehensible.”

Mr Paterson praised the work of his predecessors, particularly on bTB, and, in Mr Paice’s case, on the dairy industry and the code of practice specifically.

He pledged to build on this work and identified targeting new markets, such as the dairy dessert market, where the UK is currently a big net importer, as key to a delivering a prosperous dairy industry.

CAP reform

Farmers might be less enthused by his views on CAP reform. Mr Paterson is likely to lead for the UK on crucial reform negotiations in coming months and, as a right-wing Conservative and passionate advocate of free market economics, he readily embraces the Defra/Treasury mantra of phasing out direct subsidies to farmers and targeting EU support at the environmental goods provided by farmers.

“I am quite clear on where I would like us to end up, without putting a definitive timetable on it. Ideally, I would like all farmers to grow crops demanded by the markets.

“I am absolutely of the view you leave food entirely to the market, but it’s quite right the taxpayer should compensate farmers for the environmental benefits they provide.”

Mr Paterson’s appointment has already caused a stir in the national media, where, labelled as a ‘climate change sceptic’ and someone who cares little for the environment, he has been held up as a symbol of David Cameron’s retreat from his claim to lead ‘the greenest Government ever’.

Mr Paterson insists the picture has been skewed. He acknowledged he has opposed the construction of wind farms in his ‘inland’ constituency, but insisted they were ‘incredibly unpopular and we proved they were not going to be viable’.

“I am simply taking a ‘horses for courses’ approach,” said Mr Paterson.

“It is perfectly obvious climate change is there, and there is a human contribution, but I want to be sure the measures we are taking to ameliorate the problem don’t create other problems. So that’s why I am sceptical.”

When Mr Cameron handed Mr Paterson the role, the Prime Minister gave him a single overarching objective ‘to promote and revive the rural economy and encourage rural businesses to prosper and expand’.

As the interview drew to a close, he explained his first major engagements would be a Downing Street summit on skills in the food and farming sector, followed by the launch in Cumbria of Defra’s Rural Statement.

“It’s all about promoting food and the rural economy full bore. It’s nice to be back.”