Free market zealot Matt Ridley may well dismiss the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) as a powerful “economic quirk” which has retarded Britain’s rural economy and kept farming “artificially buoyant”.
But that has not stopped the landed aristocrat from claiming his share.
DeSmog UK can reveal that Lord Ridley and his family have claimed more than £1.6 million in taxpayers’ money from the Single Payments Scheme administered by the Rural Payments Agency under the CAP.
The scheme has been dubbed “socialism for the wealthy” which takes money from hard working families paying tax to Britiain's landed aristocracy by the Institute of Economic Affairs - the same think tank that praised Ridey for his “enterprise”.
The Ridleys, through their farming company and two trusts, claimed £217,083 during 2014 alone – significantly more than the £142,500 paid in salary to David Cameron as prime minister.
The Rural Payments Agency, which administers CAP payments, boasted that £1.46 billion has already been paid out to fewer than 100,000 farmers in the last year. This equates to every family paying £80 per year to subsidise each farmer with an average of £14,600.
Lord Ridley does not have to produce any food from his farms for the money; instead it is paid by virtue of his owning the land on the expansive and extensive grounds of the Blagdon Estate in Northumberland, which his family acquired through marriage in 1700.
The family farm is also the site of two large open cast mines. The coal is owned by the government but the mining company pays the Ridleys a competitive rate to access the 8.4million tonnes of coal. The CAP payments do require basic environmental standards to be met.
Shotton Mine on Blagdon Estate. Photo: Brendan Montague
Lord Ridley is a peer of the realm and has voted on government legislation including the Infrastructure Bill. He is a columnist for The Times, the author of The Rational Optimist and a member of the male-only academic advisory council of Lord Lawson’s Global Warming Policy Foundation.
The huge subsidies he enjoys from the European Union – and ultimately hard-working taxpayers – will not endear him to his Eurosceptic and free market friends.
Ridley won the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) Free Enterprise Award last year. “The prestigious award is given to the person judged to have made the greatest contribution to the market economy in the past year.”
The IEA, however, has a very low opinion of the CAP and those who claim it. The radical, free market think tank compared the payments to a “food tax”, saying they increase the cost of living for British families by 17 percent.
“The Food Tax would be too obviously recognisable as an instrument of redistributing money from sales assistants and cleaners to wealthy landowners. The Food Tax is no fiction, of course. Ultimately, the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) has precisely that effect.”
Dr Stephen Davies, education director at the IEA, explained the CAP gives taxpayers money to richest farmers, hikeds food prices for the poor, increases land values and house prices and retards enterprise. “This is socialism for the wealthy,” he said.
“There is so much wrong with CAP I hardly know where to start. Ninety percent of that payment is going to the top 10 percent of farmers. This is a transfer of wealth from taxpayers across Europe to wealthy landowners like the Queen, who are hardly in need of a subsidy.
“It's like benefits. If you have a legal entitlement to something you should claim it. You cannot blame people for claiming once they have an entitlement. There is a lot of focus on transfer payments to the less well off. But what we forget there is enormous transfer payments, not just VAT, to the best off.”
The TaxPayers’ Alliance – once funded by the IEA – has been equally scathing. The free market pressure group claimed in 2009 that the CAP cost British customers £10.3 billion a year – or £398 per household.
Jonathan Isaby, chief executive of the TaxPayers' Alliance, told DeSmog UK this week: “The Common Agricultural Policy hits ordinary families hard, forcing up the cost of food thanks to European political horse-trading … We need a true free market of agricultural goods so that people might find it a little easier to fill their pantry.”
Ridley has argued himself that the CAP has prevented farmers from feeling the ‘hidden hand’ of the free market that would otherwise have guided them towards new ways of making money from their land.
“[T]his agricultural transition has been delayed in Britain and much of Europe by a variety of economic quirks. Among them, the most powerful is the EU's Common Agricultural Policy, which keeps the industry artificially buoyant with subsidies,” he wrote in 2001 in The Wall Street Journal.
Figures obtained by Request Initiative on behalf of DeSmog UK show that Blagdon Farm Limited has been paid a total of £1,559,237.59 through the Single Payments Scheme of the CAP since 2005, with £199.911 awarded in 2014.
The Viscount Ridley's 1965 Trust was paid a further £7,801 while the M W Ridley’s 1995 Trust was awarded £64,604 during the same period. All three payments are understood to relate to the Ridleys' farm on the Blagdon Estate. The total claimed comes to £1,631,642.75.
There is one final way Lord Ridley has proven to be a huge cost to the taxpayer. He was chairman of Northern Rock when it pursued “reckless lending” and went bust in 2007. The government was forced into a £3 billion takeover, which resulted in the state taking on £27 billion in bank debts.
Photo: The Journal via Creative Commons