7 November 1997

Minister wont budge:Its

no extra cash for the hills

By Shelley Wright

DESPITE fierce criticism from Opposition parties during a parliamentary debate on rural life, farm minister Jack Cunningham offered no prospect of any extra cash for hill farmers, or compensation for green £ revaluations.

Opening the debate, newly appointed Shadow farm spokesman Michael Jack said the countryside was under siege because of the governments actions.

"Not only do the government not have a coherent rural policy but they cannot claim to speak for the countryside, as Labour members do from time to time," Mr Jack insisted.

He continued the attack, criticising the governments commitment to a right to roam policy, its cut in over-30-month scheme prices and the introduction of the 560kg payment ceiling, and the failure to apply for EU funds to compensate farmers for green £ revaluations.

But the strongest condemnation was for the way Dr Cunningham had handled the hill farming review. "All the soft words in the world do not take away from the fact that … he has already told hill farmers I am taking away £60m from the hill livestock compensatory allowance. You are back to 1996. I do not care what arguments you put, because I am not going to listen to you. You are not going to come and see me" Mr Jack said.

And he asked why the £200m savings on the sheep annual premium scheme could not be used to help hill farmers.

Hitting back

But the minister hit back, saying that Mr Jack had not put any costings on his shopping list. Removing the OTMS weight ceiling would cost at least £40m a year. And the previous government had not budgeted for repeating this years £60m top-up for suckler cows in the HLCA payments.

On green £ compensation, Dr Cunningham said only half the £980m entitlement would come from the EU, with the other half from the UK. But, with the clawback arrangements from EU budgets that the Tory government had negotiated, UK taxpayers would end up having to fund 71% of that Brussels half.

Where was all that extra money supposed to come from? he wondered. With Labour committed to sticking within the former governments spending plans "there is no way that we can realistically provide anything like that sum of money", he insisted.

He knew hill farmers faced problems, but providing resources on the scale called for by the opposition, was "frankly absurd". But he insisted that he and his fellow ministers had not yet made any final decision on next years HLCAs.

&#8226 Dr Cunningham wrote to Mr Jack on Wednesday, explaining that because the SAP scheme was funded entirely by the EU, underspend could not be re-allocated by the UK Treasury.

Jack Cunningham knows hill farmers face problems but the resources called for by the Opposition were absurd.

Michael Jack catalogued a series of government decisions that had left the countryside under siege.