Beef crisis: Blair warns farmers to stay within the law

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Farmers were given scant hope of significant extra compensation for BSE last night as ministers warned that blockades of ports must stop. Fran Abrams watched the developments.

Protesting beef farmers must stay within the law, the Prime Minister said yesterday. But he failed to signal any new money which might help them over the latest crisis.

"We fully understand the distress and difficulties of farmers and we have been working to assist them," Mr Blair said at the launch at Waterloo station of the festivities for Britain's forthcoming presidency of the European Union.

"The taxpayer will pay pounds 1.4bn this year in support of the British beef industry and of course we do everything we can to support them. It is essential, however, that the rule of law must be upheld," he said.

But Mr Blair's official spokesman was underlining the Government's reluctance to dig ever-deeper into its pockets.

"The Government is keeping in touch with the issues," he said. "But as the Prime Minister made clear... on Wednesday, there is no European pot of gold which we can go to."

He added that of the pounds 4bn spent in the UK in 1996-97 in connection with the Common Agriculture Policy, pounds 1.9bn had gone to the beef sectors, of which pounds 1.4bn went on BSE- related spending.

The warning came as it emerged that Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, will today urge the Government to tap EU funds to help beef farmers at a meeting in Copenhagen of the liberal party leaders from around Europe.

In Cardiff yesterday, the Secretary of State for Wales, Ron Davies, held a 90-minute meeting with farmers' leaders who travelled from Holyhead and Fishguard to air their grievances. Around 200 farmers and their wives crowded the steps of the Welsh Office when he emerged.

It also became clear that an order would be laid in Parliament to formalise the ban shortly, and that it would come into force within two weeks.

The shadow agriculture minister, Michael Jack, said the government should "come clean" over what it planned to do to help the farmers.

"Playing hard and loose with the anxieties of anxious and desperate farmers is irresponsible government," he said.

"The Government must also make clear where the money will come from to fund the package they propose. It must not be a rob-Peter-to-pay-Paul exercise. Any compensation package should be to the benefit of the hardest- pressed and not leave other areas out."

Later, a Labour source accused him of "teetering on the edge of condoning violence by strikers".

It became clear last night that the options open to the Government on how to compensate farmers were limited.

A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food said there were no plans to change the over-30 month scheme despite a statement by a minister that he was unhappy with its operation.

Jeff Rooker, the agriculture minister, said farmers were getting hundreds of pounds for "clapped out old milkers" which used to be worth "a fiver".

The Maff spokeswoman also indicated that a special payment to hill farmers of pounds 60m last year was unlikely to be repeated at the same level.

If farmers are to be given the money they are demanding - some have claimed they need almost pounds 1bn - the only source would be Europe. Maff said pounds 980m was available to Britain under a scheme to compensate for the rise in the value of sterling, pounds 340m of which would come from the exchequer. But Europe's contribution would be deducted from payments by Europe direct to the Treasury.