Terence Blacker: Don't be afraid to get muddy boots, David

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The Independent Online

Those who accuse the Government of lacking a sense of humour might usefully consider its record of ministerial appointments in the general area of farming and the environment. For the past five or so years, it has been as if those responsible for decisions that affect the countryside have, in a spirit of impishness, been chosen for the very metropolitan qualities most likely to antagonise those who live outside the greater London area.

The foot-and-mouth crisis was handled by Nick Brown, a man who wore the expression of one who had just caught his first whiff of a slurry pit. His replacement Margaret Beckett was said to be interested in rural matters on the basis that she occasionally went on holiday in a caravan, while her junior farming minister Ben Bradshaw wears the fastidious air of someone whose idea of a trip to the country would be a picnic in Richmond Park.

Elliot Morley, the only minister who showed the smallest sign of knowing something about farming, has just been sacked, and one of the new intake, Baroness Ashton was reported to have accepted a job in Defra but then changed her mind. Perhaps she had received her first invitation to a pig farm.

Judging by his debut appearance on Radio 4's Farming Today, the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, David Miliband, is part of this great Labour tradition. Asked whether he knew anything about the countryside, Miliband replied: "I'm not going to say 'Look at me, look at how soily my shoes are'." Farmers simply needed to know that "here is someone we can do business with".

But the soiliness of Mr Miliband's shoes is not as irrelevant as he would have us believe. Town and country priorities are different. For ministers to apply the same linen-suited, blue-sky-thinking approach to rural matters as they do to other policies is not going to work. There is no great mystique to understanding the way of life in the country, but it helps to have someone at the ministry who is not alien to it.

Decisions facing Defra affect the country as a whole. Farm incomes are in free-fall - they fell 8.9 per cent in 2005 - and will be further reduced by smaller subsidies, rising energy costs and the ruthless negotiations of supermarket chains. The response from the Government has been to miss several agreed deadlines during the shambolic introduction of the single payment scheme.

Compared to other government departments, the ministry punches well below its weight, and yet it should have an important say in many of the great issues and challenges facing the Government - the housing crisis, airport expansion, global warming, decisions concerning energy, the collapse of the fishing industry, avian flu, supermarket power, the water shortage, the future of the landscape.

Away from the urban centres, there is a profound alienation from Westminster politics. People in the country believethe Government not only fails to understand their concerns but is not much bothered by the fact. Once there was a Minister for Agriculture. Now the job, accepted this week and then rejected, can be a minor addition to the portfolio of a politician who is responsible for something entirely different.

The sad absurdity of the situation causes no great surprise to those who have become inured to government by insult. Unless Miliband and his fellow town-dwelling ministers dare to get their shoes just a little bit soily, they will pay a heavy price at the next election.

Anyone for an absurd tax policy?

We are probably meant to feel patriotic and proud at the news that, after an orgy of generosity at Marlborough House in London, a thousand good-hearted folk broke the world record for money raised at a charity gala, donating £18m. Sting, Jemima Khan and Bob Geldof joined guests whose tickets had cost up to £10,000 each.

Movingly, someone paid £100,000 for the chance to play tennis with Sir Elton John, £340,000 was paid for a Damien Hirst; and 25 guests forked out £35,000 each to help Romanian orphans.

Yet, at a time when the NHS spirals downwards, one might equally reflect that the occasion tells us less about contemporary commitment to charity than the absurd generosity of the Government's tax policy towards the obscenely rich.

* Even in this golden age of parental paranoia, the actions of one concerned parent in West Sussex deserve a special mention. The infant school attended by the five-year-old daughter of Mrs Susan Barraclough has recently introduced the idea that children can massage each others' heads and shoulders to help them concentrate and relax. The technique, apparently, is used in around 100 schools.

The trouble is that children can be very tactile, Mrs Barraclough has said. "I'm concerned that they may use these skills inappropriately and get themselves into difficulty." She was offered the usual alternative - her daughter could massage a table - but preferred to withdraw her from school.

Massages, table-work for the anxious and, at the school gates, mummies fretting about whether children were using skills inappropriately: how confusing it must be to be five years old in 2006.

terblacker@aol.com

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