26 December 1997

MAFF: Bad report as MP committee raps its progress

By Shelley Wright

MAFF has come in for widespread criticism from the cross-Party Commons agriculture select committee on a range of issues.

The committee warned that it was concerned about the financial difficulties facing UK farmers, especially in less favoured areas. And it insisted it would not wish to see reductions in the real value of hill livestock compensatory allowance payments.

In its 1997 report on MAFF and the Intervention Board, which followed meetings with farm minister Jack Cunningham and junior farm minister Jeff Rooker, as well as senior MAFF and IB officials, the committee raised concerns over BSE expenditure, the speed of tracing cohorts for the selective cull, and the abolition by ministers of the regional panels.

The budget forecast for BSE between 1996-2000 had now risen to £3.5bn, whereas the former governments estimate was a total of £3.17bn. The committee said it was concerned about the substantial increase.

Dr Cunningham had told the MPs that his decision to cut over-30-month scheme payments in Aug, and introduce the 560kg payment ceiling, would save up to £40m. But the OTMS was still forecast to overshoot by £30m for 1997/98.

While the committee acknowledged that the OTMS cuts, along with other cash-saving measures, such as axing rendering subsidy, would save money, they added that those moves, coupled with green £ revaluations, had had a direct and adverse impact on the current and prospecive prosperity of farmers.

The MPs said they were dismayed at the "painfully slow progress" made by the previous and present governments in tracing selective cull cohorts. And they called for more resources and effort to be devoted to finding the animals as soon as possible.

On regional panels, Dr Cunningham told the committee that his alternative, of making each of the three junior farm ministers responsible for a large swathe of England, would allow a wider range of people, including consumers and environmentalists, to express concerns to MAFF.

But the committee was not convinced, and called for an appraisal of the new arrangements.

The MPs also questioned the move by the four ministers and senior MAFF officials from Whitehall to expensively refurbished offices in Smith Square. They were sceptical that the £930,000 move was cost-effective.

On the new name for MAFF, the committee suggested "ministry of agriculture, rural affairs and fisheries".