03 July 1998
Tories press Cunningham on farming crisis

By Brian Brady, Press Association

AGRICULTURE minister Dr Jack Cunningham yesterday (Thursday) faced Tory demands to “stop blaming BSE” for the crisis in farming.

Opposition agriculture spokesman James Paice told the Commons the long-running problems over “mad cow disease” and the resulting worldwide ban on British beef could not be held responsible for all the problems faced by farmers.

He pressed Dr Cunningham at question time: “It is time you stopped blaming BSE for the crisis in agriculture.

“BSE does not account for the collapse of milk prices, the collapse of sheep prices or grain prices – nothing whatsoever to do with BSE.”

Mr Paice warned the Governments estimate that some 50% of farmers had borrowings was up to 40% short of the figure provided by bankers. He claimed the total number of borrowings was rising by 8% in general and 16% in Scotland.

“Is it any wonder that farmers up and down Britain think that this Government doesnt know and doesnt care?”

Condemning Mr Paices “synthetic anger”, Dr Cunningham insisted the BSE crisis was a fundamental problem for British agriculture.

He said: “It really is the case that beef farmers think the ban on their product resulting from the failures of the previous Government is one of the biggest problems they face. They repeatedly say that.”

He added Mr Paices figures on borrowing were “very different” from the information collected from the banks.

In an earlier exchange, Dr Cunningham clashed with Tory John Bercow (Buckingham) after confirming farm incomes had fallen by 37% in real terms in 1997.

Mr Bercow said: “I hope you do not underestimate the damage which is inflicted by current policies.”

Highlighting the case of the owner of a grass-drying business in his constituency, he said: “The strength of the Pound has slashed the prices of his products by 40% over the last year.

“It has cut a quarter of a million pounds off his turnover for the same work undertaken and it has caused him to make a loss for the first time in his 42-year career in the industry.

“Do you understand why this man considers you are the worst occupant of your high office in living memory?”

Dr Cunningham said he understood the strength of Sterling caused problems for farming and for manufacturing industry.

But, pointing out that Mr Bercow had worked as a special adviser to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury under the previous Tory Government, he added: “Two-thirds of the increase in Sterling happened under the previous Conservative administration. On not one occasion was one penny of agri-monetary compensation paid.”