Unions call for calf scheme to be kept
By Shelley Wright
FARMING unions are urging the government not to axe the calf processing scheme in this financial year but to extend it, at current payment rates, until the beef market recovers.
Junior farm minister Jeff Rooker has said on numerous occasions recently that the scheme will end during the current financial year. The industry fears that could be as soon as Nov 30. Not only will government save £50m in scheme payments, it will also secure an extra £37m in EU rebate.
But accepting that ministers are under pressure to save money, the National Beef Association has suggested continuing the scheme until Dec 31, 1999, but reducing payments to, say, £30-£40 a calf.
Robert Forster, NBA chief executive, said more calves were being processed through the scheme than the country ever exported before the beef ban was introduced.
"It would be extremely tough to expect the industry to move from a position where black-and-white dairy bull calves have a base price under the scheme of £78 to being totally worthless overnight," he said.
"We believe there should be a stepping down of payments because, on the dairy-beef side, it would be impossible to absorb such a large number of calves immediately.
"Furthermore, the bobby calf industry has essentially been in mothballs for the past two years. That sector could probably crank itself up again, but certainly not overnight.
"Either way, because we cannot export, it would mean Britain would be having to finish more calves than it has done for many years," Mr Forster said.
The NFU and Scottish union are pushing the government to maintain the scheme, at the existing payment rates, until the beef ban is lifted. "We have made it clear to the government that we need the calf scheme until the beef market returns to normal," said Scottish NFU president, George Lyon. But he conceded that reduced payments might offer an acceptable half-way house.
According to the NFU, its members believe the scheme must continue until normal beef trading conditions have been restored.
While the union would be prepared to accept the exclusion of beef-bred calves from the scheme if necessary, it has told government: "We could not accept any cut in the rate of payment." *