Reading Christopher Booker's Notebook this morning I was struck by a point about the new Animal Health Bill that has been at the back of my mind, and that I have not seen publicised anywhere.

I am sure it has not yet intruded into the consciousness of many farmers. I hadn't heard any public disquiet from the NFU.

Christopher Booker writes:

"In August the European Commission suspended its compensation payments to the British Government, after an investigation by the EU's Food and Veterinary Office.

"This found significant "irregularities" in our Government's handling of the crisis, not least in paying farmers up to four times the market value of their stock to buy their acquiescence in allowing destruction of healthy animals under the legally-dubious "contiguous cull" scheme. The Commission not only set up an audit of these payments but launched an investigation by Olaf, its anti-fraud unit."

The provision in the Animal Health Bill to allow the Minister to withhold 25% of the compensation for stock requisitioned for slaughter has received comment in farming circles: but I suspect that the understanding of the impact of this has been measured against the background of the generous compulsory purchase payments made in the recent/current outbreak. These have been, as Christopher Booker says, "up to four times the market value" of the stock, because the Minister did not have the legal power to kill healthy stock.

After the Bill becomes law the picture will be very different. The Minister will not have to bribe farmers to acquiesce to an illegal slaughter of contiguous stock and surely will not entertain paymant higher than the "market value... The farmers on Brecon would not be offered #180 [or whatever it was] per ewe - but more likely £25 or less. What is the market value of a cull mountain ewe?

The Minister will be able to withold 25% of it - but will anyone be able to tell that he has done so? The real sting is not in the power to withhold 25% of the compulsory purchase payment but in the right given to the Minister to slaughter whatever stock he pleases: and this will have a devastating economic impact. When our stock has been snatched away at 25% less than the bare market price without any allowance for consequential losses, we will be confronted with the EU State Aid Rules, which have been allowed by our government to prevent any payment under the Business Recovery Schemes to anyone engaged in "agriculture" - preventing any such assistance being given to any food based farm diversifications [- and even diversifications like the sale of nursery bedding plants]!

It seems to me that this is yet another reason for fearing the Bill -