21 February 1997

Labours tactics thwarted as

UK herd scheme goes to EC

LABOURS plans to bring down the government through a motion of censure on farm minister, Douglas Hoggs, handling of the BSE crisis ended in defeat after the government won a majority of 13 in the House of Commons on Monday.

The motion to reduce Mr Hoggs £68,000 a year salary by £1000 was rejected by 320-307 votes.

Labour needed the support of all the Northern Ireland MPs, but the nine Ulster Unionists, who wanted the provinces certified herd scheme to lead a lifting of the EU beef ban, abstained.

Mr Hogg could only assure them that Northern Ireland would be in a very good position due to its traceability and cattle identification scheme. And cases of BSE, he said, were now lower in Northern Ireland than in the Republic.

Mr Hogg said UK-wide certified herd scheme would be submitted to the European Commission "probably within the next two weeks."

Cabinet minister Roger Freeman, said £9.4m, allocated by Brussels earlier this month, would go to help the provinces suckler herds. Herd owners will receive a £25/cow top-up to the suckler cow premium, while flagged animals – those which have been in or in contact with BSE herds – will receive a further £135-£145.

Gavin Strang, Labours shadow farm spokesman, also refused to offer any big concessions to the Ulster MPs, saying: "We dont mind Northern Ireland being the first ship in the convoy, provided the rest of the UK is in the convoy."

He attacked the £3.5bn BSE bill, claiming the government had presented UK taxpayers with a beef tax and too much money had gone to a small group of abattoirs running the OTMS scheme.

He added that Labour had fought to set up a UK-wide cattle traceability scheme in 1989/90, which had been rejected by the Conservatives.

Paul Tyler, Liberal Democrat rural affairs spokesman, said the governments 5% figure of dairy animals likely to be affected by the selective cull was a grave underestimation.

Citing a Newbury, Berks, dairy farmer with a closed 120-cow herd, Mr Tyler said MAFF vets had estimated that 46 animals would have to be slaughtered even though he had had only two cases of BSE.

Mr Tyler said the governments failure to dispose of stock slaughtered and rendered under the OTMS scheme was costing £265,000 a week in cold storage costs. This represented a major public health time-bomb, he claimed.

Roger Freeman, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, rejected allegations from Helen Jackson (Lab, Sheffield Hillsborough), who claimed she had evidence of plans to place rendered carcasses in landfill sites. Incineration is still the governments preferred option.

Past debates had seen Conservative backbenchers deeply sceptical of the governments Florence Agreement, but they rallied around a typically combative Mr Hogg. Outgoing MPs including former farm minister Michael Jopling (Con, Westmorland and Lonsdale) accused Labour of parliamentary mischief-making.