A quiet Oxford life for Caroline Spelman?

DEFRA secretary Caroline Spelman will have a lower profile at this week’s Oxford Farming Conference following her 2011 call for the abolition of farm subsidies.

She has rescheduled her keynote speech and will no longer address delegates on the first morning of the prestigious three-day event.

It promises to be a very different conference to last year when Mrs Spelman set the cat among the pigeons by telling farmers to prepare for the end of direct payments.

“It’s certainly something the farmers I know want to see happen,” she said.

“Rising global demand for food and rising food prices make it possible to reduce subsidies and plan for their abolition.”

It was certainly a speech that raised eyebrows among industry leaders. And little more than a month later, Mrs Spelman decided to clarify exactly what she meant.

“I want to nail just a few of the myths about what our position on the CAP really is,” she told the NFU AGM in Birmingham.

“We say ‘No’ to a dogmatic scrapping of subsidies tomorrow. But we say ‘Yes’ to genuine and enduring reform.”

It now looks like no such feathers will be ruffled on the first day of Oxford this year.

Instead, Mrs Spelman will speak 24 hours later than originally planned when she takes to the platform on Thursday (5 January), with farm minister Jim Paice filling in the day before on the Wednesday morning.

Reasons for the delay were initially unclear.

But a DEFRA spokesman later told me Mrs Spelman had rescheduled her speech so she could address the issues raised by a global agricultural report.

The decision was made as far back as November, he said – although Oxford Farming Conference organisers did not update the programme on their website until the morning of the event itself.

The Power in Agriculture document, to be published on Thursday, will examine ways British farmers can rise to the challenge of increasing demand for food.

It is the latest in a series of major annual reports published by Oxford Farming Conference organisers.

Even so, Mrs Spelman’s decision to reschedule is a risky one.

As Oscar Wilde said: “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”

In the past, Oxford speeches by the Secretary of State responsible for agriculture have set the agri-political agenda for the entire year, not just for the conference itself.

That was certainly the case in 2010, when then DEFRA secretary Hilary Benn unveiled the government’s first major food strategy for 60 years.

Critics might argue that Mrs Spelman has little to say.

But that is unlikely during a year that encompasses CAP reform talks, a badger cull to combat bovine tuberculosis and government plans to deliver on promises to reduce farming red tape.

In choosing to speak later rather than earlier, Mrs Spelman has not only forsaken the opportunity to set the conference agenda.

It also means she will miss a Question Time session due to be attended by her opposite number shadow DEFRA secretary Mary Creagh.

1 Comment

  1. Spelman to respond to OFC Power in Ag report? Excellent – should stimulate some debate for Thu.

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