Hogg besieged by a thousand angry farmers

Beef crisis: The Government says it will hand over pounds 25m more in compensation but protesters dismiss it as too little, too late
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The Independent Online
Angry farmers yesterday laid siege to the Conservative Party conference, demanding the head of Douglas Hogg over his handling of the BSE crisis and warning of a cull of shire Tory MPs at the general election.

The Minister of Agriculture's promise of another pounds 25.5m to aid beef and dairy farmers won him a lukewarm ovation from the party faithful inside the hall, but was dismissed as "too little, too late" by the 1,000 or so farmers blocking the road outside.

Demands for Mr Hogg to come and face the farmers went unheeded. Instead, a delegation accompanied by Sir David Naish, President of the National Farmers' Union, spent an hour-and-a-quarter with John Major discussing the crisis.

The Prime Minister said after the "shirtsleeves meeting" that he sympathised with the farmers' position. "They are concerned about their future, their farms and their animals. What I want to do is to try to understand the problems that exist and deal with them."

Mr Hogg announced pounds 29m in support for the income of beef farmers. This will probably be a headage payment to offset the 25 per cent drop in beef prices since 20 March when the Government admitted a possible link between "mad cow disease" and its human equivalent, Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease.

Beef farmers, who made up most of yesterday's protesters, feel they have been left to swing in the wind while most of the pounds 2.5bn of BSE crisis support has gone to the dairy sector. An earlier modest headage payment expired in June.

Mr Hogg said a further pounds 16.6m will be spent on speeding up the slaughter of older cattle under the Over Thirty Months Scheme. The money will go on hiring cold storage for carcasses awaiting destruction.

Ministers say the move will double the throughput at slaughterhouses from 23,000 a week to 50,000, but farmers questioned whether hiring refrigerated lorries - the likely option - will make much impact on a backlog of 400,000 animals.

In a strong hint of yet more subsidy, Mr Hogg said EU agriculture ministers were looking at measures to help farmers this autumn. "Should the council fall short of what I judge to be necessary for our industry, then I can assure you I shall be prepared to look for additional national support as circumstances may warrant," he said.

Farmers' leaders gave the developments a qualified welcome. Ewen Cameron, President of the Country Landowners' Association, said the priority was to a get a tighter grip on the 30-month cull and to secure European aid for beef producers "who are staring into a black hole".

Farmers had come from most parts of Britain to demonstrate, with many from the South-west. A convoy of 14 tractors was stopped by police at Blandford Forum, 16 miles from Bournemouth, and the protesters were bussed in by the police. Brandishing banners proclaiming, "You bastards have slaughtered our economy", "Flog Hogg", and "Hogg should have his brain tissue analysed", they rattled barriers and chanted, but the protest was not violent.

Letters, page 13

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