HC Deb 17 July 1997 vol 298 cc518-20
13. Mr. Rendel

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a statement on the administration and financing of the over-30-months slaughter scheme.[7289]

14. Mr. Chope

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what representations he has received about his decision to reduce compensation payments to beef farmers with effect from 4 August. [7290]

Dr. Jack Cunningham

I have received a number of representations from farming interests about the decision to reduce the compensation payment for cull cows slaughtered under the scheme and to cap compensation payments by introducing a weight limit of 560 kg. The over-30-months scheme is administered by the Intervention Board executive agency and is co-financed by the European Union.

Mr. Rendel

When the Minister was replying to my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), he said that he saw no crisis brewing in the scheme. Does he not realise that many farmers, in my constituency and throughout the country, would regard that as remarkably complacent—perhaps even as complacent as the attitude of the previous Administration? Although the halving of the number of abattoirs and the reduction in compensation to farmers may lead to some reduction in costs for the taxpayer, it will certainly mean an increase in costs to farmers and more distress for the animals involved because of the longer distances that they will need to be transported.

Dr. Cunningham

I made the point earlier, and I make it again to the hon. Gentleman now, that the Intervention Board has introduced competitive tendering precisely so that we can improve value for money for British taxpayers. I also repeat that, as my hon. Friend the Minister of State said, United Kingdom expenditure on all BSE-related measures is forecast to be more than £1.35 billion in 1996–97, and is budgeted at more than £3.5 billion for the entire period 1996 to 2000. We simply cannot go on spending money at that rate. We have to take due account of the horrendous cost of it all to the taxpayer. I invite the hon. Gentleman, and anyone else who supports his argument, to think what we could do in the health service or in our children's schools with that expenditure.

Mr. Chope

Why is the Minister discriminating against the farmers with the fattest old cows? What message does he have for my constituent Mr. Farwell, who has a herd of fine Friesians and is extremely aggrieved by the 560 kg limit? A fine Friesian that has become barren will probably weigh 700 kg, so my constituent will lose a lot of money as a result of the arbitrary change.

Dr. Cunningham

I recognise that farmers, too, have difficulties as a result of the mismanagement of the whole crisis by the party of which the hon. Gentleman is a member. Perhaps I should remind him that the scheme is subject to EU legislation and is not completely within the control of Her Majesty's Government. Decisions have to be approved by the Beef Management Committee in Brussels, precisely because of the mess created by the Conservatives.

Mr. Stevenson

Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the basic principles of the over-30-months scheme was that the reductions announced in the compensation have been part of the plan all along? Was not one of the guiding principles that farmers and producers would have the time to plan ahead? They knew full well that the time was coming when the compensation would be reduced and measures such as those that my right hon. Friend has announced would have to be adopted.

Dr. Cunningham

Yes, I agree with that. I should also point out that there is absolutely no reason, given the time that has elapsed, why any clean cattle should continue to go into the scheme

Mr. Tipping

Will the Minister look closely at any arguments or suggestions from farmers' organisations or other bodies trying to meet the needs of beef and suckler farmers, provided that any further action is met within existing resources?

Dr. Cunningham

Yes. I met the president of the National Farmers Union and a representative group of farmers from all over the United Kingdom a couple of weeks ago. They said that they would put some counter-proposals to me on how the scheme might be administered. I said that I would consider any such proposals that were put to me. As yet, I have not received them.

Mr. Thompson

Will the Minister confirm that it was pressure from the Treasury that led the British Government to make this request to the Beef Management Committee and that that request was to reduce the price not by 0.1 ecu per kilogram but by 0.3 ecu per kilogram? Will the right hon. Gentleman assure us that no further such request will be made?

Dr. Cunningham

The Ministry of Agriculture is not immune to the need to stick within budgeted public expenditure—any more than any other Government Ministry is. A number of proposals were put to the Beef Management Committee in Brussels, and the final decision was made there. That is a consequence of the European Union legislation to deal with the crisis in beef farming caused by the previous Administration.