Interview: James Paice MP, Conservative shadow junior environment minister

The general election could still be six months away -- the latest it can be held is 3 June -- but the campaign has already begun. Opening shots have focused on spending black holes and public sector cuts -- subjects likely to dominate the debate.

And with horticulture in the grips of a funding crisis, particularly for research and development, it will be a crucial few months.

Conservative shadow junior environment minister James Paice is no stranger to the campaign trail, having served in government and opposition since 1987. With both parties starting to set out their stalls, HW asked for his view from the benches.

"The first thing to say quite clearly is that we welcome Hilary Benn's very belated conversion to the recognition that British food production is important. This follows 12 years of a Labour government that has dismissed British food production as unimportant on the basis that we can import it all."

Despite these criticisms, he welcomes the introduction of the fruit and vegetable task force, which includes leading industry figures, and says a Conservative government would not abolish it. "It may well come up with some very useful stuff. We will study what it produces. The idea of asking the industry for advice is admirable."

But he stops short of pledging cash for a push on consumption of UK fruit and vegetables. "A new Conservative government is not going to be putting a lot of money into anything because there is not going to be any money to put there. We are not talking about extra spending on anything unless someone can identify what we are going to cut to pay for the new thing."

Paice endorses the transfer of horticultural research and development to the Technology Strategy Board (TSB), but acknowledges that there are financing issues yet to be resolved.

"In principal, the TSB should be a good mechanism. The financing of it has got to be sorted out much more clearly and it's got to prove itself. At the moment, we are trying to map out where money comes from and where it is being spent in the research sector."

But he is critical of the abolition of HortLINK before any resolution of the status of levy board money needed for match funding R&D projects.

"We have got this unbelievable mess that Defra has made to do with state aid by abolishing the link programmes and shifting [research and development] into the TSB, only to find, of course, that levy board money is considered state aid and it hasn't got EU approval [to use it to match fund]."

He echoes previous Conservative Party concerns about the funding of research facilities: "One of our concerns is about Wellesbourne, and HRI Kirton before that, because the whole agreement was that if Kirton was closed, the money, which was nearly all in applied and demonstration work, would be transferred to Wellesbourne.

"Now it appears Warwick wants to close Wellesbourne and absorb it all into its own department. That raises very great concerns with us that the money will cease to be spent on demonstration and applied work but will be much more likely to go into the general research coffers. If we've lost one of the few remaining applied research and demonstration units then the horticultural sector will be a lot worse off."

He pledges that the party would put pressure on them to reverse a decision, provided it is not too late. Meanwhile, Tory shadow chancellor George Osborne has pledged to cut Whitehall by a third and some Defra quangos could find themselves either divested to the private sector, brought back in under ministerial control or abolished altogether.

All are being examined, says Paice, adding that it is too early for conclusions. But he confirms that the Forestry Commission, Natural England and the Environment Agency are being looked at. "The Agricultural Wages Board will be abolished, which I know the horticulture sector wants us to do."

On climate change, he recognises the importance of adaptation, endorsing the need to increase the number of trees in cities. But he stops short of making any pledges.

Paice rejects the idea of a minister for horticulture: "I know there has always been debate about whether horticulture is part of agriculture or a separate entity and I think it has to be recognised that it is part and parcel of land use. Frankly, I think it all has to be seen as one. The last thing we need to be doing is becoming more interventionist with horticulture when we are trying to become less so with the rest of the industry."

Finally, he pledges to cut back on regulation, an area he has some experience of after working in the Department of Employment.

"We will appoint a joint committee or task force to start to go through all the relevant regulations to see what we can abolish and what is gold-plated. Regulations are about achieving better food standards, better food safety, less environmental pollution, better animal welfare — all those things, usually sensible objectives, that have been lost in the morass of guidance that growers have to then face."



1987 Conservative MP for Cambridgeshire South East
1989 Appointed parliamentary private secretary to Baroness Trumpington at Ministry of Agriculture
1993 Introduced legislation to allow cash betting on Sundays so that racing could take place
1994 Under secretary of state at Department of Employment
1995 Head of Government training programmes and further education expansion at Department of Education & Employment
1997 Opposition spokesman on agriculture
2001 Shadow minister for police
2004 Shadow secretary of state for agriculture and rural affairs
2007 Shadow junior environment minister

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