Farmers sceptical of Hogg's friendship

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Indy Politics
Douglas Hogg, the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, entered the lion's den yesterday and pleaded with farmers to maintain their tradition of voting Conservative.

He was speaking to the annual general meeting of the National Farmers' Union, whose ruling council passed a motion of no confidence in Mr Hogg last October because of his handling of the crisis over bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE).

"Labour is an urban party much influenced by urban, extremist pressure groups and only too willing to impose its urban values on the countryside," he told the meeting in London.

He cited the party's commitment to a general, legal right for the public to roam across moor and mountain - "a policy certain to aggravate crime in the countryside". And he attacked its intention of banning fox and stag hunting as "an attack on basic civil liberties and a disaster for the rural economy".

He also suggested that plans to abolish farmers' families exemption from inheritance tax were at the "top of Gordon Brown's secret list".

"Insofar as it is possible in politics, Conservatives are your nearest and truest friends," he told the union. There was no booing or barracking but there were sceptical questions, and yesterday the NFU said it had no plans to rescind its council's motion.

With the imminent implementation of the last of Britain's promised actions for dealing with the BSE and beef crisis, the "selective cull", we had "performed our part of the bargain" with the rest of the European Union, Mr Hogg said, adding: "It is now for the Europeans to honour theirs" by lifting the ban on British beef exports.

Expenditure on dealing with the crisis was so far pounds 3.3bn, equivalent to 2p on income tax, he said. Domestic beef consumption was back to 94 per cent of its level before last March, when the Government said there probably was a connection between some cases of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease in humans and eating BSE-contaminated beef.

He described how a further pounds 52m of EU money given to help Britain tackle the problem would be spent. Beef promotion by the Meat and Livestock Commission would receive pounds 2.5m. The rest would add pounds 30 ton the "suckler cow premium", the annual subsidy to farmers for each young beef cow.

But farmers expressed their discontent, especially at the lack of compensation for veal producers who had also been caught by the EU ban on British exports.

Sir David Naish, NFU president, described himself as "disappointed" at Mr Hogg's refusal to reconsider the level of money paid for up top 100,000 animals due to be killed in the selective cull. He also expressed amazement that Mr Hogg was not applying for the European funds available to compensate farmers for the recent devaluation of the ecu.