Centre of attack
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ONE of the pleasures of writing this regular series of articles is the correspondence which it generates. This does not mean that CM's editor is deluged with letters from readers praising the wisdom displayed by your humble scribe. On the contrary. The letter from the directorgeneral of the Road Haulage Association (Dear Sir, page 24, this issue) crticising my previous article, is more typical. But the opposing points of view expressed in letters from aggrieved readers are always interesting, because they are felt so deeply as to have inspired busy people to spend time putting pen to paper.
So I am accustomed to letters complaining about the foolishness of something have written. But I have just received the first letter ever complaining about something I have omitted to say.
Last month (CM, February 16) I ventured to predict what measures affecting road haulage would not be in next week's Budget. This attracted a letter from a Lancashire haulier objecting that I had said nothing about the various tax concessions for farmers' vehicles. These, according to my correspondent, are not only unjustified in themselves, but are also widely abused. As a result, he complained, many legitimate hauliers are losing traffic and being put out of business.
This letter is interesting, and not only for what it has to say. Because one topic on this page which can almost be guaranteed to attract correspondence is any mention in less than flattering terms of farming in any of its manifestations. Even simple envy of the vast sums of taxpayers' money poured into agriculture, compared with the hundreds of millions over and above allocated track costs which are extracted from hauliers, will set off the word processors in Agriculture House. So it was interesting to see that at least one haulier feels strongly enough to spend time writing in the opposite sense.
But my failure to mention farmers was not an attempt to stop the word processors from chattering in Knightsbridge. Remember, the article dealt with what would not be in the Budget.
Had he stopped to think, my correspondent might have seen the significance of the omission — because I think that next Tuesday the Chancellor will take at least some steps towards removing the farmers' concessions. And I would not be astonished if they were abolished at a stroke.
No "mole" in the Treasury has leaked confidential information to embolden me to make this prediction. It is based on the sight of several straws in the wind, all pointing in the same direction. Let us examine some of these.
First comes the repeated murmurs that the Chancellor intends to continue the process started in his last Budget of getting rid of anomalies in the taxation system. Many candidates have been mentioned including, as readers will have noticed, the imposition of Vat on magazines and newspapers.
No doubt much of this speculation is designed to make the measures eventually taken seam less fierce than was expected. But there is no doubt about the sincerity of the Chancellor's war on anomalies. Last year's removal of tax relief on life assurance policies was a politically bold measure, upsetting not only a lot of voters but a large slice of the financial world.
Nevertheless, until recently farmers could have been fairly confident that their lobbies in Westminster and Whitehall would shield them from even the most single-minded Chancellor. The Department of Transport is often depicted by the anti-lorry brigade as being the hauliers' protector. But every published study shows that the Ministry of Agriculture is much more devoted to protecting its clients than any other Whitehall department.
But things have changed. Last month the National Farmers Union annual general meeting voted in favour of a censure motion which accused the Minister of Agriculture of "gross dereliction of duty". And the Minister received a noisy reception from the delegates. It would have hurt even the thickest skinned politician to be so treated by those to whom he dishes out £2 billion annually.
It is tempting to wonder what sort of reception he would have received if, like Nicholas Ridley and road hauliers, he actually surcharged the farmers.
Farming seems now to be in line for the same treatment as other sectors of British industry. Billions have been spent during the miners' strike to ensure that uneconomic pits will close. The same treatment is now on its way — though no doubt more slowly — for uneconomic farms.
So the Chancellor will look at the fuel and vehicle excise duty concessions enjoyed by farmers in a harsher light then when they were last examined. They may have been justified when they were introduced. Today, according to one estimate from within the agricultural industry itself, there are 10,000 millionaire farmers. I have met a few millionaire hauliers, but none made his million from haulage; indeed, some made it from farming.
Another straw pointing in the right direction is the attempt being made by the DTp to put the structure of lorry taxation on to a logical basis. The consultation exercise of 1983-4 laid down guidelines, and the last Budget moved some way towards applying these. But there is still some way to go; removing farmers' concessions would fit logically into this pattern.
Farmer-bashing is not necessarily good news for hauliers. It will surprise me if Mr Lawson does not increase the open-ended "environmental surcharge" on the heaviest lorries. This attracted the most bitter RHA and Freight Transport Association protests last year, and even its continuation at its present level would lead to renewed complaint. But the Chancellor might feel that he could go a bit further on this if he could offer the haulage industry a sop at the farmers' expense.
The farmers are not lying down under the new regime. On the contrary, the NFU is spending hundreds of thousands on a publicity campaign. This includes a farming information centre to deal with direct queries from the general public.
I am sceptical about the benefits to be obtained from a generalised public relations campaign, whether on behalf of farmers, hauliers or any other threatened species. There is a lot to be said for concentrating attention on those with the power to influence decisions, but otherwise quietly getting on with the jobs.
But a haulage information centre might be a good idea. Those who feel a grievance strongly enough to take the trouble to telephone would probably be surprised to get an authoritative and courteous explanation of the facts.