27 June 1997

Minister spells out his farm priorities

By Tony McDougal

REFORM of the CAP, the lifting of the beef ban and the swift establishment of the Food Standards Agency were the three key themes outlined in the first farm parliamentary debate of the Labour government last week.

Farm minister Jack Cunningham stressed his determination to press ahead with a reduction in price support payments within the cereals, beef and dairy sectors when the UK holds the EU Presidency next January.

Over-compensation to cereal farmers through high arable area aid payments since the MacSharry reforms in 1992 needed to be tackled immediately, he claimed.

Dr Cunningham said he would continue to press ahead with the UKs certified herd scheme and national cattle database.

He also repeated his warning that unless EU-wide measures on specified risk materials were introduced he would make it an offence to import beef from a country where BSE existed, but which did not apply the same rigourous SRM controls.

And he told MPs the government would issue a White Paper in the autumn on the Food Standards Agency with a view to publishing a draft bill later this year.

Tabling an unsuccessful amendment, pressing for greater urgency over the selective cull, former farm minister Douglas Hogg said he expected the European Commission to first lift the beef ban in Northern Ireland, and he said he would not criticise Mr Cunningham if he took up the offer. "He should treat it as but the first step and urgently seek comparable treatment for other parts of the United Kingdom."

Mr Hogg said there was now a case for the NFUs plea for compensation to farmers, whose profitability has been hit by successive sterling revaluations, to be considered. Claims could be as high as £700m.

In a wide-ranging debate, Mr Hogg also warned that the agricultural community did not trust Labour, citing the Partys policies on fox hunting, the halt on badger culling in TB-affected areas, the determination among some MPs to ban animal exports and the desire to introduce a right to roam policy.

Mr Hogg attacked Labours decision to remove the MAFF regional panels and wondered whether the party would simply do away with the ministry of agriculture.

Charles Kennedy, Lib Dem rural affairs spokesman, agreed the government should look at providing compensation for sterling revaluations, particularly as half would be available from the EU.

"I accept that it is early days, but so far Britain has not made a claim on those sums," he said.