Concerns are raised over new livestock 'tax'

SCOTTISH farmers fear they face being "taxed" to fund control of any major animal disease outbreak after plans announced yesterday confirmed that such costs will fall on the livestock industry in England.

Although no figures emerged yesterday, when the Animal Health Bill was originally mooted it was reckoned it would cost the industry more than 50 million annually.

In presenting the bill to parliament, agricultural minister Hilary Benn said it was needed to bring about behavioural change in the industry and a cost element would secure needed changes on business practices.

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He did not spell out the financial proposals linked to the bill, stating that these would form part of a wider finance bill, which was still to be brought to parliament.

Although, the proposal, which includes the setting up of an Animal Health Organisation, relates only to England, his Scottish counterpart, rural affairs secretary Richard Lochhead, expressed concern it might spread north of the Border. "UK ministers in London must not impose any new livestock tax on Scotland as they begin to legislate for the transferring the cost of animal disease outbreaks to farmers," he said.

Lochhead supported the principle that the farming industry should share health and welfare costs, but what he could not support was any suggestion that these costs would be generated through a "cattle and sheep tax".

Lochhead has written to Benn asking for clarification following the revelation that the Treasury is involved in taking forward the issue. "I am against any such tax being imposed on Scottish farmers," said Lochhead.

"Agriculture is a devolved issue and if the UK government takes the view that a tax is the only way to raise cash from the sector and that any tax has to be UK-wide, then they had better think again.

"We need to know if the UK government has any plans for a tax and, if so, whether it would apply across the UK. In Scotland, we will work with industry on our own animal health policies and continue our efforts to secure the devolution of existing animal health budgets to do just that."

NFU Scotland also criticised yesterday's announcement with vice-president Nigel Millar pointing out that the proposal would see the UK moving ahead of the existing European timetable on cost and responsibility sharing for animal health and welfare matters.

That was regrettable, he said, and it seemed to be largely driven by Treasury and Defra's cost– cutting agenda.

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"Europe is already some way down the route of debating the whole area around cost and responsibility sharing.

"A consultation on the role of farmers in combating disease and health issues has already been completed, with NFU Scotland engaging in European working groups to discuss this."

Millar said the next logical step would be to look at how such measures would be funded in a consistent way across European member states and that would be the timetable that Scotland and the rest of the UK should be operating to, with the European outcomes providing the basis for cost and responsibility decisions here at home.

He feared the Defra proposal ran the risk of placing livestock producers in the UK at a significant disadvantage. "It has always been alarming to livestock producers in Scotland that such a debate continues to take place without the anomaly surrounding animal health policy and its funding being addressed.

"The policy is devolved while the budget, despite long-running negotiations, remains stubbornly reserved. Scotland should have control of its own animal health budget and that needs to be resolved as a matter of priority."