Hogg in plea for Unionist votes

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The Independent Online
The Government last night bought off the Ulster Unionists - and the threat of Commons defeat - by offering to give priority to getting the beef ban lifted for Northern Ireland.

With the Agriculture Minister, Douglas Hogg, in the firing line of Labour's Commons attack on government handling of the "mad-cow" crisis, it was left to him to plead for the support of David Trimble and his eight Ulster Unionist colleagues in the House.

In open horse-trading for the key votes, Mr Hogg told MPs that he would be making a general application for a lifting of the European export ban, along with a particular plea for Ulster.

With John Major egging him on as Mr Hogg replied to interventions from Ulster MPs, the Agriculture Minister promised that the application would be submitted to the European Commission within "the next two weeks."

But after months of delay, Whitehall sources said last night that there was no chance of any progress being made on beef exports before May at the very earliest.

Asked to explain the delay, official sources said that ministers had been forced to juggle between competing factions; the farmers, the Commission, and the different parts of the United Kingdom.

If Ulster is to get preference, then there will be inevitable protest, particularly from Scottish farmers.

Replying to a Labour censure motion, dressed up as a demand for a pounds 1,000 cut in his salary, Mr Hogg pointed out that the National Farmers' Union had initially opposed the selective cull; the prerequisite for European action on lifting the ban on British exports.

"It was not until late last year," Mr Hogg said, "that the majority opinion within the farming community swung behind the selective cull, concluding, as we have done, that however distasteful it might be, without a selective cull there is no chance of getting the ban lifted."

But he also told MPs that the Government had only recently started the process of tracing the cattle to be culled.

"Very soon, the first cattle will be slaughtered." In repeated interventions to his speech, Mr Hogg was first to give more assurances about the efforts he would make to give specific help to Ulster's farmers.

Going out of his way to reassure Ulster MPs, he said: "Because, by the nature of the identification system that they have, and because of the very low incidence of BSE, and because the Republic of Ireland is now seeing a higher rate of BSE than in the province [of Northern Ireland], the concept will be especially beneficial to Northern Ireland."

He told the Ulster Unionist MP William Ross: "Our application is general, but it works with particular effect in Northern Ireland, for all the kind of reasons that I have mentioned. And it certainly is my intention to support the case on Northern Ireland."

Following an intervention from the Rev Ian Paisley, the minister also argued that, while giving priority to Ulster, the application for a lifting of the ban would be for the UK as a whole.

Opening the debate, the Labour agriculture spokesman, Gavin Strang, said: "The last government gave us poll tax; this government has given us the beef tax" - with a bill, so far, of more than pounds 3bn.

Paul Tyler, the Liberal Democrat spokesman, said last night: "Farmers are suffering, and the taxpayers are footing the bill.

"Mr Hogg should at least apologise, then the Government must knuckle down to the real task of lifting the beef ban."

In the debate, Mr Ross gave no hint of how he or his colleagues planned to vote, adding to the suspense of the set-piece Commons occasion.

Mr Ross said that many ordinary people had been affected by the crisis and had received no compensation.

"I deeply regret that the Government has been unable to find some way of helping that large section of the community who have suffered without any government money going to help them."

He added that he was "encouraged" by Mr Hogg's speech but was waiting to hear the end of last night's debate in the hope that there would be a stronger indication of progress to come soon in getting the ban lifted.