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Monday, September 20, 1999 Published at 18:07 GMT 19:07 UK


Millions in aid for UK farmers

The package follows weeks of protests from farmers

Struggling cattle and sheep farmers are to benefit from £150m of new Treasury money, as part of a major aid package unveiled by the government.

The £150m will be added to about £350m of EU financial support which had already been negotiated but not announced, bringing the total amount of assistance to £500m.

Farming in crisis
The government has also agreed to drop the beef-on-the-bone ban for UK consumers.

Agriculture minister Nick Brown said the package was aimed at two key areas in the beleaguered industry - hill farmers, among the poorest members of the farming community, and red tape, which farmers say is out of control.

The BBC's Margaret Gilmore reports: "Business confidence is at an all time low"
The bulk of the new cash comes from maintaining last year's £60m increase in a subsidy scheme for hill farmers.

The government will also bear the £22m annual cost of Specified Risk Material (SRM) inspection charges for cattle and sheep carcasses for the next two years at least.

The £7-per-head cattle passport charge, due to be introduced at the end of the month, will also be waived for at least the next three years at a total cost of £45m.

[ image: The government will pick up the tab for cattle passports]
The government will pick up the tab for cattle passports
Mr Brown also said that smaller abattoirs and slaughterhouses would no longer need a full-time vet to inspect carcasses, and levels of inspection by the Meat Hygiene Service would be reviewed.

The measures must be approved by the European Union before they can go ahead, to ensure UK farmers have not been given an unfair advantage over their European counterparts.

However, ministers believe they have a good case, as many of the problems were sparked by the BSE crisis which was a particularly British problem.

Of the EU money, about £300m will be paid in compensation for the strength of the pound against European currencies.

Agriculture Minister Nick Brown explains how the package will work
On Monday Mr Brown also said he had accepted advice from the Chief Medical Officer that beef on the bone is safe for consumers to eat.

The end of the ban will be announced within the next few days, and could come into force by the end of the year.

He said the ban will not end until the executives in Wales and Scotland agree, however.

Welcomed by Wales

Farmers have been protesting for months that a collapse in livestock prices and increases in costs have cut their income by 40% over the last two years.

[ image: Agriculture minister Nick Brown has been under growing pressure]
Agriculture minister Nick Brown has been under growing pressure
Their case was taken up by the Welsh Assembly, which last week voted to go it alone with £750,000 for a calf-processing scheme if no UK-wide scheme was forthcoming.

The Scottish executive had been expected to follow suit.

Industry watchers say it was this which forced Mr Brown's hand, as otherwise English farmers would have been penalised compared to their devolved counterparts.

The NFU's Ben Gill: "These measures address the symptoms, now we need to address the root cause"
The aid package was welcomed by Welsh Assembly First Secretary Alun Michael and Agriculture Secretary Christine Gwyther.

Mr Michael said it was a "major package" which "reflects the way in which we have been able to argue effectively for the needs of Welsh agriculture.

"The package shows that devolution is working in the right way," he said.

Ms Gwyther said it was "very good news", but added: "I would not want to pretend in any way that this package solves all the problems that farmers have."

Lukewarm welcome

Farmers' groups also gave the news a cautious welcome.

Ben Gill, President of the National Farmers' Union, pointed out that the money was to be spread over several years, and much of it had been agreed months ago.

It also had to be offset by the fact that the industry had made losses of £3bn in the last 30 months, he said.

"These measures address the symptoms, now we need to address the root cause," he said, "which is a bureaucracy that is out of control."

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