HC Deb 11 April 1975 vol 889 cc1597-602

11.4 a.m.

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Fred Peart)

With permission. Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement on my inquiries into the allegations made in the BBC "Midweek" programme on 20th March concerning a consignment of sheep exported from England to France on 12th March.

A thorough investigation has been carried out, statements taken from all concerned, and discussions held with the French authorities. The evidence points clearly to a breach of the French rural law, and I have been informed that the French authorities have taken immediate action to prosecute those who had charge of the sheep and to prevent a recurrence.

There was no allegation that the British welfare regulations were broken, nor on present evidence is there reason to believe that the conditions of the export licence were breached. The reporting of this incident has, however, drawn attention to a possible loophole in our export certification arrangements; and steps have already been taken to require exporters to declare in writing the exact final destination of each consignment of animals when applying for a veterinary inspection certificate. Arrangements have also been made to maintain still closer liaison with the French authorities on every consignment of animals sent.

I am grateful that this matter has been brought to my notice at an early stage in the resumption of the trade, and I am ready to act immediately against any infringement of the welfare rules that is reported.

Mr. Pym

The House will be grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his statement. Indeed, it would have been inconceivable not to have made a statement on this subject, although some hon. Members may regret that it has been made on a Friday.

I should like to ask the right hon. Gentleman whether the infringements would have come to light but for the programme to which he referred. Obviously we like to think they would have come to light.

Will the right hon. Gentleman tell us more about the action that the French propose to take to prevent a recurrence, because clearly the need to prevent any recurrence is in the minds of hon. Members on both sides of the House?

Is there any difference between the welfare regulations in both France and Britain? The right hon. Gentleman said that there was no suggestion of British welfare regulations having been broken, but clearly things went wrong in France.

Finally, at the end of his statement the right hon. Gentleman rightly said that he was ready to act immediately against any infringement. I think that in our recent debate the House was concerned that there should be no infringement at all and that there should be a monitoring and an overseeing of the whole trade to ensure that there would be no infringements of the undertakings given in good faith by the Minister in the course of that debate.

Mr. Peart

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his comments.

I have been a Member of this House for 30 years and have always recognised that Friday is just as important as any other day. I should have liked to make the statement earlier, but it was not possible. I inquired whether I should have an inspired Question, but in the end, after conversations with the people involved, I felt it right to make a statement as soon as possible. I thought that I might have made it next week, but unfortunately I have to go to Luxembourg, and I felt therefore that today would be suitable. After all, Friday is an important day.

I turn to the questions which have been asked about our own welfare arrangements. We, with the French, are concerned to fulfil obligations arising out of the Strasbourg Convention.

Regarding the tightening up of arrangements, from 1st April exporters will have to declare in writing the exact final destination of each consignment when applying for a veterinary certificate. We shall make checks, as appropriate, with any country, and detailed checks with the French are already in operation. My chief veterinary officer has been to France. He is in touch with the heads of the veterinary services of all EEC countries, and their co-operation is not in doubt.

Mr. Burden

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for making the statement. However, I remind him that he asked me to put down a Question for Written Answer. I told the right hon. Gentleman that that was not satisfactory, that there would be a bloody row if that was all that happened, and that I insisted upon a statement. I also asked the Minister whether he would be making the statement yesterday. He then told me, knowing of my interest, that he did not think it would be possible before next week. I heard late last night—

Mr. Speaker

Order. Is this a question?

Mr. Burden

Yes, Sir.

Mr. Speaker

It is a very long preamble.

Mr. Burden

I should like to ask the right hon. Gentleman why it was that I had to hear about the statement from outside and it was not until I rang his colleague last night that I was informed that he was making the statement today.

I should further like to ask whether the right hon. Gentleman is not grateful for the work that the independent and impartial BBC team did which disclosed the fact of these breaches. Should not the whole nation be thankful for it?

What is happening about the individual who had the greatest number of licences and who, according to the BBC team, was well aware of the final destination of these sheep and actually inflicted violence upon a member of that team when he asked him particulars? Does the right hon. Gentleman intend to allow that person to have licences for the export of sheep from this country?

I should like, finally, to ask the right hon. Gentleman whether it is not a fact that this trade can be shown to be unnecessary from figures issued by his Department which disclosed that in January of this year 3,467 tons of carcase mutton and lamb went from this country to the value of £2.9 million, 3,308 tons of that representing 200,000 animals—to EEC countries. Does not this show that this live trade is not necessary and can be replaced by carcase trade?

Mr. Speaker

Order. I know the hon. Gentleman's strong feelings, but I must say that I greatly deprecate the epithet he used.

Mr. Peart

I thought that I was being courteous to the hon. Gentleman, because I know the sincerity with which he holds his point of view. I thought that I would have a word with him. After all, he is not the only Member of the House who takes an interest in this subject. The Opposition have quite rightly been pressing me on this. I am sorry if the hon. Gentleman thinks that I have been discourteous. I had intended no discourtesy.

I have made a full statement, having had a very full inquiry made. I pay tribute to those who made the television film. I had that film specially shown to me. It revealed a certain state of affairs. I acted, having seen the film. I will not argue with the hon. Gentleman about the individual concerned. He has not broken any law or any arrangements that we have made. I am not responsible for his behaviour towards a questioner from the BBC.

On the question of trade with the Continent, this was a decision of the House.

Mr. Burden

A narrow decision.

Mr. Peart

I am not arguing about that. It was a decision of the House. Each consignment has been inspected by our veterinary officers. Before the television programme 271 animals were rejected as unfit for export. Since the television programme six animals have been rejected in two consignments. I have the whole history of what has happened and assure the House that we are enforcing the regulations with great stringency. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will appreciate what my staff are doing.

Mr. Mark Hughes

Does my right hon Friend accept that there are many of us in the House who were deeply disturbed by the programme and who are very pleased by the statement he has made? We are grateful for the expedition with which his Department has undertaken the inquiry. Has he had full cooperation from the French authorities, and does he believe that further co-operation is likely? Were the breaches to which he referred breaches of the Strasbourg Convention as such or of internal French laws?

Mr. Peart

The breaches were basically breaches of French law. Prosecutions have taken place. We have received every co-operation from the French authorities and from those concerned in other European countries. There is the closest co-operation between my veterinary officers and their veterinary officers.

Mr. Crouch

The right hon. Gentleman may not be aware that I am prompted to put a question to him about this matter as a result of approaches made to me by the Canterbury branch of the National Farmers' Union which expressed its great concern about what was happening to the livestock of its members. May I ask the Minister whether he does not agree with the suggestion made to me by the Canterbury branch of the NFU that it would be advisable to make the final destination clear on the licence by consigning the consignment to a named slaughterhouse? I believe that it is possible for the veterinary surgeon at the port of disembarkation to check back or have a check back made to the slaughterhouse in question to see that the consignment has arrived. Does the right hon. Gentleman think that that is a possibility?

Mr. Peart

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I recognise that the farming community is as anxious as any other section of the community to ensure that animals are properly treated. That is commonsense from the business point of view, but there is also the humane point of view. I will take note of what the hon. Gentleman said. I will look into the question whether the final slaughterhouse destination should be on the certificate.

Mr. Winterton

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the House will be grateful to him for the prompt way in which he acted? Will he assure the House that, should any other unfortunate incident of this nature—which received so much publicity on the television programme—come to light, his Department will act with the same speed and that if other loopholes come to light he will ensure that they are blocked?

Mr. Peart

Yes. All hon. Members will realise that, no matter what laws or regulations we have, there are always some people who will contravene them. If any infringements come to our notice we shall act promptly. I am glad that in this case the French authorities are bringing a prosecution.

Mr. Buck

Will the right hon. Gentleman deal with the question which was put to him by my right hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire (Mr. Pym)—whether this matter would have come to light had it not been for the television programme? We are very grateful for the expeditious way in which the right hon. Gentleman dealt with the matter.

Can we have an assurance that, unless there is someone who is determined to contravene the regulations, it is most unlikely that there will be any further contravention in view of the steps the right hon. Gentleman has taken?

Mr. Peart

Yes. I pay tribute to those in the BBC who brought this matter to light. I do not complain about their action. I saw the film. It is a question of the destination being marked on the certificate. That is why I am tightening the other regulations. I am grateful to all those who brought the matter to my notice. I repeat that we acted promptly.

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