16 July 1999

Unions No to passport fees

By Isabel Davies

FARMING unions have reacted strongly to the governments plans to pass the cost of cattle passports to farmers, saying that the livestock industry is too fragile to handle any additional costs.

Junior farm minister Jeff Rooker announced that the government intends to end its funding of the British Cattle Movement Service and start charging producers £7 for every cattle passport.

The government believed that, as the "main beneficiaries", the livestock industry should take over BCMS running costs, which it estimates will be £21m next year.

Its calculations are based on an estimated £19m for actually issuing passports with an additional £2m coming from extra charges in the abattoir sector. Charges will apply from Sept 27.

But NFU president, Ben Gill, hit out at the proposals. "The cattle passport system is part of the overall framework of comprehensive food safety measures in this country. The government has a responsibility to meet these costs.

"Britains beef and dairy farmers simply cannot afford any more cuts in their already pathetic return. The industry has no more in its pocket," he said.

This view was backed by Jim Walker, president of the Scottish NFU. "There is anger and disbelief among dairy and beef producers alike, not only at governments decision but at the timing of the announcement."

Confidence was already rock bottom after the MMC report and with the calf processing scheme finishing at the end of July, Mr Walker said.

Meanwhile, the Farmers Union of Wales has slammed the governments other suggestion, that abattoirs should foot the bill for checks on passports by the Meat Hygiene Service.

The £2m costs would inevitably result in lower prices being paid to farmers, the FUW believed.

Robert Forster, chief executive of the National Beef Association, thought it unlikely that the government would back down on the planned charges.

His hope was that British producers would eventually see their reward through higher prices.

"If passports can be used as another persuasive argument for British retailers to concentrate buying on British product on the back of superior protocols, then in this short supply market this would have to be reflected in increased market prices," he said.