UKslip-up denies sheep

26 April 2002

UKslip-up denies sheep

quota to new entrants

By Philip Clarke

Europe editor

NEW entrants to sheep farming are being denied access to quota from the national reserve because of a failure by UK civil servants to challenge figures for the new national ceiling agreed in Brussels last year.

Recent checks by the Rural Payments Agency into the amount of quota held by UK farmers has revealed this is more than the 19.5m units available. DEFRA has, therefore, decided to suspend the 450,000 unit national reserve for 2003.

The actual excess is 319,000 units, but after deducting this from the national reserve, DEFRA has concluded its best not to operate the scheme at all, as so few new entrants would be able to benefit.

"This will come as a body blow for those coming in to sheep farming after foot-and-mouth," said NFU livestock adviser Kevin Pearce. "They were depending on getting the k21/head (£13) ewe premium which, for many sheep farmers, represents the entire profit."

A statement from DEFRA implies the cut is being imposed by Brussels as part of the new sheepmeat regime. "Under the regulations, aimed at making the sheep quota system more simple and transparent, the UK is required to reduce its annual quota by just under 320,000 units to around 19.5m units," it says.

But this has been dismissed as government spin in Brussels. "While it is true that the effect of the reforms is that UK quota is being reduced, to suggest the EU has imposed it is ingenuous. It points the finger at us, when it was the UK that failed to count its quota properly," said one official who was involved in overseeing the reforms.

The official explained that the commission had presented the suggested national ceilings, taken from a 1996 report into the workings of the quota regime, last May and invited member states to correct them if they felt they were not high enough. "Only two member states questioned their allocations. The UK was not one of them."

It also emerged that the UK insisted on changing the wording of the regulations to make distribution of the national reserve an optional measure rather than compulsory.

DEFRA insists this was to give it the flexibility to operate a quota buyback scheme and was not because it was aware of the surplus quota problem. "We checked the 19.5m figure at the time and thought it seemed fine," said a senior civil servant. "It is only since all our agencies have been looking at it in more detail that we have discovered the error."

Faced with the cuts worth k6.7m (£4.1m) to the UK sheep sector, the NFU is insisting DEFRA goes back to Brussels to demand more quota. "I cannot see that having any hope of success," said the civil servant. &#42

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