The Sketch : Brief whiff of reality amid a lot of mucky farm business

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The Independent Online
AGRICULTURE QUESTIONS are rarely thrilling. For the sketch writer this particular parliamentary chore carries all the seductive allure of a pre-dawn milking on a rainy winter's day, though obviously without the mud on one's boots. Or the smell. Indeed, it is one of the peculiarities of this session that it is so detached from the physical facts of the countryside. Ministers talk of "transparent support structures", they tut over "digressivity" and "CAP reform", they ponder the difficulties of "Commission infraction proceedings". But they hardly ever use a noun that still has earth attached to it. There were references to "pork" at one point, and a faint whiff of livestock briefly penetrated the dolorous fragrance of ring-binders and registration dockets but the bureaucratic vapour soon closed in again. The most bucolic moment was the sight of Desmond Swayne charging into a supplementary about GM food with his nostrils flaring wildly. All he needed was a ring through his nose and the impression of an enraged bull would have been perfect.

The minister was away, having been up all night trudging through the mire of Common Agricultural Policy reform. An agreement has apparently been concluded, which seems a good enough excuse for a lie-in, but naturally MPs are wary.

Tomorrow they will hear the details of this hard-won deal/ignoble capitulation (delete according to party prejudices). The rest of us will have to wait for Phil Archer to have one of those clunkily instructive chats with David before the full implications to sink in. In the meantime, with Elliot Morley standing in for his exhausted boss, we got the official headline: cheaper prices for consumers. Mr Morley is a kind of combine harvester when it comes to parliamentary questions; they go in the front and out of the boom at the back pours an even stream of reassurances and processed statistics. If you want something a little more human in manner, more redolent of a quiet natter over a five-barred gate, you have to wait for Jeff Rooker. He was positively hugger-mugger after a strong intervention from Ben Bradshaw on behalf of small abattoir owners - apparently faced with massive increases in inspection costs. I have to choose my words carefully, said Mr Rooker, "because of the lawyers and our friends across the water", but owners should wait to see what happened before panicking. He didn't quite lay his finger along his nose and wink but it wasn't far short. Mr Bradshaw looked unconvinced.

The minister was even less plausible on the Government's repeated claim that the experimental planting of GM plants only amounts to "two football pitches". The football pitch has clearly been chosen as a New Labour unit of measurement because it has the right demotic ring and delivers a low number. Suggestions that the acreage be described as one and a third polo pitches were dismissed and it was felt paraphrasing the area as 105 croquet lawns might be alarming. They'll have to think of something else, because Tory backbenchers have rumbled that the number is so low only because it is winter and nothing has been planted yet. In a few months, James Gray said, something more like 400 football pitches would be burgeoning with alien plant forms. Get ready for the golf course standard unit.

The front bench is not exactly consistent on food prices either, trapped between its double constituency of producers and consumers. The reform package was apparently good news because it would lower prices but Mr Rooker later noted that prices for British pork had been rising. "That's a welcome trend", he said, "and we will do all we can to promote it". Vote Labour - and we'll put up the price of your Sunday roast.

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