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Thursday, 30 March, 2000, 17:53 GMT
Blair pledges 200m for farmers

Farmers have been protesting across the UK
Prime Minister Tony Blair has promised government support worth more than 200m to help farmers.

Farming in crisis
During a crisis summit in Downing Street, the prime minister promised a delegation of representatives from the farming and food industries that the aid would be targeted on the dairy and pig sector, hill farmers, lowland beef and sheep producers.

The government plan to tackle the farming's problems involves applying to Europe for money to compensate for the high level of the pound against the euro, in which agricultural subsidies are measured.

How the extra cash will be spent
26m this year to encourage restructuring of the pig industry, with further Treasury cash over the next two years
22m to dairy farmers in "agrimonetary" aid to compensate for the high pound
22m agrimonetary compensation to beef farmers this year
22m agrimonetary compensation to sheep farmers this year
Charges for dairy hygiene inspections in England removed, worth 1m.
60m support for hill farmers in 2000
6.5m to help develop better business practices
Many farmers are facing bankruptcy as the industry is suffering its worst crisis since the 1930s, due to a combination of the high value of sterling, the BSE crisis and the costs of humane animal-rearing methods.

Mr Blair said: "Farming is not just an industry. It is a crucial part of our national way of life, of our countryside, of our people."

Announcing the 200m package, Mr Blair continued: "It is targeted on the dairy and pig sector, hill farmers, lowland beef and sheep producers.

"Some of it is tied to restructuring, so that we have a stronger industry, much better able to adapt to future needs... It will not, I am acutely aware, solve all your problems but it will answer some of the most urgent concerns put to me."

NFU president Ben Gill said he had been pressing for such measures for some time and told Mr Blair: "Your commitment is crucial to that."

The prime minister, accompanied by Agriculture Minister Nick Brown, also announced plans for a European centre for organic fruit and nursery stock, costing 2.3m.

The British farm standard mark will help shoppers
He also promised to minimise any extra burden on farmers to help them comply with new laws limiting the amount of nitrates from fertilisers polluting the water industry.

The government will also provide free consultancy to farmers seeking planning approval to diversify, increase the spread of mobile phone networks in rural areas and establish a 400,000 internet advice service.

The prime minister added: "Not for many decades has government and the farming food industry worked so closely at strategic level to define our common vision, the plan to achieve it, and the measures needed to support farmers in the current crisis."

But he warned that the aid would not end the "painful restructuring of the industry that has seen so much real hardship".

Nick Brown and Ben Gill (left): "Long term strategy"
Speaking after the meeting, Mr Gill said: "This gives us the policy to build on a long term sustainable strategy which we want to have.

"The package the prime minister has announced provides 200m of new money and gives us a breathing space to start with."

But Tory agriculture spokesman Tim Yeo said the extra money had come too late for many farmers.

"The extra cash is valuable although after a collapse of farm incomes and the loss of 20,000 jobs last year alone, in reality it is only a sticking plaster solution for an industry that is at risk of bleeding to death."

Liberal Democrat spokesman David Heath said the aid package did not go far enough.

"Many of the measures do not go far enough to reverse the decline in farm incomes," he said.

"Where the government has moved it is welcome, but in general it is too little too late."

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See also:

30 Mar 00 | Wales
Crisis summit on farming
15 Mar 00 | UK Politics
Dairy farmers rally in London
17 Mar 00 | Scotland
Farmers sour over milk price
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