Hogg in new attempt to lift beef ban

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Douglas Hogg, the Agriculture Minister, is expected to seek Cabinet approval tomorrow for a bid to lift the European ban on British beef exports a move which could help to prop up John Major's Government until a general election next May.

The first step in lifting the ban on beef exports was taken yesterday by Mr Hogg with the announcement of a massive computerised tracing system for 12 million cattle in England, Wales and Scotland.

The traceability scheme, which will enable farmers to trace cattle from birth to death on a central computer system, is a key requirement of Franz Fischler, the European agriculture commissioner, for agreeing to a partial cull of selected British herds.

Mr Hogg is hoping to go to the next meeting of European agriculture ministers on Monday to appeal for the selective cull to be approved. That could hold out the prospect of the lifting the export ban on beef early in the New Year for cattle from Northern Ireland, where a traceability scheme is already in operation. Farmers with certified BSE-free herds in Scotland could follow later next year.

The Ministry of Agriculture is on the alert for a statement, possibly tomorrow, if Mr Hogg secures the backing of the full Cabinet for the scheme.

Mr Hogg has been fighting hard within Whitehall to overcome resistance to the selective cull, proposed at the Florence summit. The Government then did a U-turn, arguing that the additional cull was not scientifically based. But the Government is now poised to come full-circle by going ahead with the plan which could lead to an extra 100,000 cattle being slaughtered.

Michael Forsyth, the Secretary of State for Scotland, has been holding out for a scheme which would enable Scottish farmers to cash in on the lifting of the ban.

There would be a big bonus for the Government, because the lifting of the ban would help to secure the support of the Ulster Unionists, on whose votes Mr Major will have to depend to avoid being forced to go to the country in an early general election. The Ulster Unionists have been pressing Mr Major hard to allow a partial cull to go ahead. Northern Ireland would be the first to qualify because it already has a sophisticated tracing system in place to combat cross-border fraud.

The scheme announced yesterday for the mainland will require the agreement of the British farming industry, who are being asked to foot the bill for the running costs of pounds 25m a year. Ministers believe they may object to the cost, but will regard it as worth paying to get the ban lifted.

Announcing the plan, Mr Hogg said in a Commons written answer: "I recognise that this project is of great significance to the livestock industry. In order for the computerised system to be effective, it will be essential to have the industry's support."