Has the NFU president’s farm led by example when it comes to bad practice in the countryside?
By George Monbiot for The Guardian
“It’s simple,” a civil servant at the government’s environment department, Defra, once told me. “When we want to know what our position should be, we ask the NFU [National Farmers’ Union].”
There are not many organisations in Britain – though this country is infested with lobbyists of every persuasion – with a grip on policy as tight as the National Farmers’ Union. Vast conservation bodies (the National Trust, RSPB and Wildlife Trusts have a combined membership of some 6 million) are locked out, while the NFU seems to get everything it wants.
It looks to me like a champion of bad practice. On one issue after another it has demanded that the protections for people, places and wildlife are diluted. And in almost every case it has succeeded.
It insisted that the agricultural wages board, which protected farm labourers against exploitation, should be abolished. The last government gave it what it wanted.
It lobbied for an exemption from the ban on treating flowering crops with neonicotinoid pesticides, that are ripping through our populations of bees and many other animals. Not only did the NFU succeed, last summer, but the government also gagged its own expert advisers, perhaps to prevent us from seeing that they had counselled against the exemption. The government also refused to reveal the basis on which the NFU had lobbied it, claiming, preposterously, that this was “commercially confidential”.
The NFU demanded a badger cull, though a £49m government pilot programme demonstrated that it was not only useless, but counterproductive. It won, and badgers are being killed at the cost of £7,000 an animal.
It insisted that there should be no cap on the amount of money a landowner could receive in farm subsidies – and won.
It campaigned, with the help of successive British governments, against the European Union’s proposed soil framework directive, which sought to minimise soil erosion and compaction, to prevent landslides and to prevent soil from being contaminated with toxic substances. Once more, it won, and for the first time in the European Union’s history, a legislative proposal was abandoned.
In January, just after the Christmas floods had abated, the environment secretary, Liz Truss, announced that she would allow farmers to dredge watercourses crossing their land, without regulation or coordination. This is a perfect formula for catastrophe downstream, as it speeds up the flow of water to the nearest urban pinchpoint.
It was as if she had got together with her officials to devise the most perverse possible response to the flooding. In reality, however, it seems that she was simply responding to the NFU’s lobbying. As its president, since 2014, Meurig Raymond, explained, “The NFU has pressed Defra and the Environment Agency to enable farmers to undertake minor works for many years.”
But this is not the only influence the National Farmers’ Union has sought to exert over the state of our rivers: a state that is frankly shocking. Figures from the Environment Agency suggest that just 0.08% of rivers in England are of high ecological quality, while only 17% are judged “good”. One of the principal reasons is diffuse agricultural pollution: the constant seepage of slurry, fertiliser and pesticides from fields and farm buildings.
It’s hardly surprising, as the Environment Agency has more or less stopped enforcing. When I came across a severe case of pollution in a Devon river last year, and reported it to the agency’s pollution hotline, the only action they took was to produce a list of crap excuses for looking the other way. After I wrote about this scandal, I was contacted by one of the agency’s staff, who told me that, as a result of pressure from the government and the massive cuts imposed by Truss, the staff there have been instructed to ignore all reports of grade three and grade four pollution, which accounts for the great majority of water poisoning in this country.
This puts the government in a difficult position, as all rivers in this country – not just 17% – were supposed to have been in good ecological condition by the end of 2015, under the European water framework directive. The government is now in danger of a massive fine, which ultimately will come out of the pockets of taxpayers.
It has now published a consultation on diffuse water pollution. The NFU has made its position clear, objecting to the government’s proposal to “maximise reductions in diffuse pollution and benefits to the wider environment”. Instead, it says, protecting our rivers should be left to “voluntary measures”.
Well, at least you can’t accuse the organisation of inconsistency. The Guardian reports today that the farm co-owned by President Raymond has twice been the site of breaches of the law which have led to successful criminal prosecutions. The first involved the pollution of a highly protected river.
I came across this story when someone alerted me to the fact that, in 2014, Raymond’s twin brother, Mansel, had been prosecuted and fined for pollution discovered in 2013. A bell chimed somewhere in the dim recesses of my mind: I remembered that Mansel and Meurig have long shared the ownership and management of their farms.
I checked the land registry, which was last updated in July 2015 – after the prosecution took place – and found that my memory had served me right. The registered owners of the farm where the incident took place are “Meurig David Raymond and Mansel John Raymond”. Meurig’s profile on the NFU website states that “Meurig Raymond farms 3,400 acres in Pembrokeshire in partnership with his twin brother, eldest son and nephew.” The business is listed in directories as Raymond Brothers. They have owned their farms in common since 1967 and in 2004, each accepted an MBE in recognition of the work they had done jointly on the farm.
The stream which was polluted (a tributary of the Western Cleddau river) is part of a special area of conservation, which is the highest level of protection a European site can have. The river system was designated for its rare habitats and fish species. Although they noted there was no extensive damage to the SSSI itself and no evidence of fish kill, assessments of the damage by the prosecutors, Natural Resources Wales, alleged there had been “gross pollution”, which “has caused considerable ecological damage to the tributary of the Western Cleddau.”
Although this was not ruled on by the court, which simply found that pollution had occurred, the prosecution summary alleged that “there is a history [of] poor management despite advice and guidance from Natural Resources Wales.” Neither brother wished to comment on this claim.
At the time, the source of the pollution was contested. Natural Resources Wales, when they visited the farm in 2013, referred to what it saw as ‘long term slurry pollution issues’ and believed it had discovered ‘dilute slurry flowing into the stream.’
Mansel admitted that pollution had occurred but stressed it had been unintentional and contested the source, which he said was ‘the draining of dirty water from the main yard and from the road into the brook’ and blocked pipework. A charge of failure to store slurry properly, which Mansell denied, was withdrawn.
At the hearing, Mansel Raymond’s lawyer said his client had cooperated fully with NRW and was spending £75,000 to address the pollution issue.
In March 2012 when Meurig Raymond was deputy president of the NFU, the organisation lobbied on behalf of farmers who contested the measures against government proposals to tighten up the regulation of slurry storage on farms. Raymond, a farming website reveals, was involved in this effort.
In a witness statement prepared by a conservation officer at Natural Resources Wales for the pollution prosecution, the officer also alleged that a stream had been reprofiled, deepened and widened without the necessary consent – although no prosecution was brought on this issue.
This is the kind of work that has just been deregulated in England by Liz Truss, following lobbying by the NFU and public demands by Meurig Raymond
Neither brother wished to comment about this when approached by the Guardian.
The NFU said: “The NFU has published a Flooding Manifesto which sets out its consistent policy. One element of that manifesto (amongst several others) is the desirability of better and more regular watercourse management, including the grant of licences to landowners to ‘undertake regular minor works such as clearing blockages, de-silting and vegetation maintenance’,”
Given that the official pollution incident report names the alleged offender as “Messrs Raymond Brothers”, why was Mansel Raymond the only defendant in the ensuing prosecution? The witness statements reveal that, while investigating the pollution incident, the officers from NRW asked “to speak to either Mansel or —– Raymond”. The first name of the second person has been redacted.
Natural Resources Wales, which brought the prosecution, tells me that “Messrs Raymond Brothers is not a corporate entity and therefore the decision was taken to prosecute Mr Mansel Raymond as he has the most active role on the farm.”
Somehow, when the prosecution was reported, Meurig’s involvement in the farm was missed by the local and regional press, despite the fact that these papers have published several sycophantic profiles of the brothers. Sometimes I wonder what the point of the local press is, if it consistently shies away from asking questions and making connections of this kind.
This was not the first time an incident on the farm had led to a prosecution. Tragically, in 2004 a worker on the farm had died after falling through a roof, onto a concrete floor eight metres below. The subsequent investigation revealed breaches of Health and Safety legislation and in 2007 the Health and Safety Executive issued a press release making an example of the 2004 incident in which the separate company employing the man, and Mansel Raymond, were prosecuted.
The release states that the employing company was fined £20,000 and: “Raymond Bros was found guilty of breaching Section 2(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974, in relation to risks to safety of their employees, and was fined £10,000 and order to pay costs of £15,000.” But, though the business is referred to as Raymond Bros, only Mansel, once more, was in the dock.
Meurig Raymond denies any connection to either the pollution or breach of health and safety law on the farm. The NFU said it, “does not pass comment on the private farming interest of its members, employees or officeholders, or their families.”
Would any other industry appoint as its representative someone whose jointly-owned business had twice been the site of incidents leading to successful prosecutions over major issues? And is it not time that the NFU sought to dispel the impression that its core mission is to champion bad practice in the countryside?