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No, of course that should not have been done. That was a mistake by the industry and there was no excuse for it. However, that does not mean that we should not raise eyebrows over what happened to contaminated feed on the continent and what happened to all the cattle in France that ate it. That is another matter.
It is important that everything is spelt out to the farming industry in great detail and as soon as possible. There is no doubt that anyone involved in a crisis—whatever the subject—wants information. People want to know what the score is, what steps they can take and what the alternatives are. MAFF has sent letters to farmers. I suggested to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland that a weekly newsletter should be sent to farmers setting out all the alternatives that are in the pipeline. That has been helpful, but the information needs to be extremely accurate and up to date, as has been demonstrated by the problems that have occurred in my constituency, which I shall relate to the House.
I was glad to hear from my hon. Friend the Minister of State that we have now slaughtered 170,000 cattle—it is sad, but it shows that the scheme is well under way—and that he is keen to set up an identification and recording system. Perhaps in her reply to the debate, my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to give us some idea as to how the herd-by-herd scheme will work, as I am worried that it will be particularly difficult.
Perhaps my hon. Friend will also address the points that have been made in the press about grass-fed herds. Does that mean what it says—that the cattle are really fed only on grass? That is extremely unlikely, particularly in less-favoured areas where a feed supplement has to be given in winter, so it cannot be claimed that the beasts are fattened solely on grass. I hope that we will hear more about slow-maturing cattle such as Galloways and Highlanders, as it is unlikely that they can be fattened in 30 months.
I was glad that my hon. Friend the Minister admitted that the finishers of cattle—those selling prime beef under 30 months old—have been hit harder than anyone. They lost about £50 per head of cattle in the Christmas scare. The spring crisis has now cost them some £250 on a fat steer just under the 30-months limit. That is a serious loss and there is no way in which it can be recouped. I have not the slightest doubt that, since the March deadline, farmers will have accurate records of the beasts that they have sold, so there could be the possibility of retrospective support. It was disappointing that, last week, because of market forces, we had to reduce the premiums as the additional income from those cattle receiving the premiums helped to balance the loss being made on other cattle.
Yesterday, when I questioned the Prime Minister about fair compensation, he was good enough to reply:
I shall ensure that that is the case."—[Official Report, 24 June 1996; Vol. 280, c. 32.]
I hope that the Government's action will bring confidence to the industry that it will be properly compensated for the major disaster that it has suffered.
I am glad that my hon. Friend the Minister mentioned less-favoured areas and the possibility of additional support to the livestock industry through the suckler cow subsidy or later in the year when we review the hill livestock compensatory allowance, which is used as a yardstick.