HC Deb 25 April 1996 vol 276 cc587-94 3.31 pm
Mr. Elliot Morley (Glanford and Scunthorpe)

(by private notice) asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he would make a statement on the proposals that he was submitting to the European Union on bovine spongiform encephalopathy.

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Douglas Hogg)

Right hon. and hon. Members will recall that I made a statement in the House on 16 April, in which I made it plain that the Government's purpose was to achieve, as speedily as we could, a rapid and complete lifting of the ban on the export of British beef and beef products. In that and previous statements, I set out a wide range of measures including a buy-up scheme for all cattle aged over 30 months, further tightening of controls on specified bovine offals, and further tightening of the rules governing animal feed. I discussed the details of those measures with Commissioner Fischler on Tuesday.

As I said on 16 April, we were considering the possibility of a scheme of selective culling to accelerate the decline in the incidence of BSE at an acceptable cost. Since that time, I have developed the idea still further, and I have incorporated a more flexible approach to the targeting of animals identified as being most at risk of developing BSE.

That concept involves giving farmers the choice between slaughtering them and placing them under a restriction order. As was made plain in my previous statement, the scheme would involve only limited numbers of individual animals, amounting to tens rather than hundreds of thousands. It would not involve the slaughter of whole herds.

I have now sent an outline of my ideas to the European Agriculture Commissioner, who is considering them ahead of next week's meeting of the Agriculture Council. I have made it clear to Commissioner Fischler that the Government would consider implementing such a scheme only in the context of plans for the lifting of the EU ban on British beef. I will report to the House on the outcome of these delicate and sensitive negotiations.

I am also discussing my proposals with representatives of the British beef industry, and my officials and I will be having further discussions with them and others in due course.

Mr. Morley

The whole House will welcome a chance to discuss new details of BSE slaughter packages. It is only right for those details to be reported to the House rather than just to the media. We welcome the fact that measures are being put to the Commission to restore consumer confidence, deal with the BSE problem and bring the beef export ban to an end as quickly as possible.

I have some questions about the proposed measures. First, we understand that a system to trace cattle back to their origin has been proposed. While we welcome that—it is a measure that we proposed more than six years ago—there will be difficulties. Could the Minister give some details of how any such tracing operation will work, and of the time scale that would be involved?

Secondly, will the Minister confirm that, according to his proposals, the tracing will be done from herds in which animals were born after September 1990? Given that the feed ban was imposed in July 1988, why is 1990 the chosen year? Does that not point to some problems in the implementation of the feed ban at that time?

By identifying year groups for selective slaughter, which we understand is one of the proposals, does the Minister appreciate that some holdings could lose cattle from three-year cohorts? The cost implications for those holdings in terms of lost milk production may be more than the simple replacement value of the animals. Will that be taken into account in any compensation package? Can the Minister give some idea of the proportion of the total package of new measures that will be met by European Union funding?

Did the Minister put proposals to the Commission for exemptions for some beef animals over the age of 30 months for human consumption when they are from BSE-free sources? Is he confident that the restriction order measures that he announced will not be open to fraud, and that measures will be put in place to prevent it? I understand from the proposals that calves from cows subject to restriction orders will not be used for human consumption. Does that reflect a change of thinking by the Ministry on risk assessment, or the possibility of vertical transmission of BSE?

I reiterate our concern that the Ministry should recognise potential welfare problems for animals under these new measures, and should ensure that full consideration is given to that.

Finally, may I ask about reports that the Commission is still waiting for details of these proposals in writing, and is disappointed by the failure to deliver the Government's promised plan? Are those details the Government's total proposals to the Commission, and is the Minister confident that they will bring about a lifting of the European ban?

It is important that a negotiated settlement is presented and agreed on the basis of sensible measures, rather than relying on empty threats and sabre rattling. We want to see a clear programme of measures to help the beef sector at all levels, and measures to protect and reassure consumers so as to restore stability to the beef market. We support any move that will put us on course for that objective.

Mr. Hogg

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his support. Perhaps I may make the obvious point that we are in the process of delicate and sensitive negotiations. Therefore, I hope that the House will understand if I avoid too much detail.

The ideas that I have forwarded in writing to Commissioner Fischler, to whom I have also spoken on a number of occasions, are set in the context of clear framework plans for the rapid and complete lifting of the ban. I think that that accords with the sense of the House.

The hon. Gentleman raised a number of issues. Traceability is clearly important, and he will recall what I said about that in my previous statement—that we hope to have an operating passport system up and running by the beginning of June or thereabouts.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about beasts that were born before September 1990. He will bear it in mind that the mandatory requirement for birth documents came into effect only at about that time. In addition, the incubation period for BSE is between four and five years. Consequently, if we focus on the older animal, the seven or eight-year-old beast, we are not being as effective as we might otherwise be, in the sense that those older beasts will either have developed the condition or will not develop it at all.

Compensation is an important matter, which I discussed yesterday with industry representatives. We will discuss that.

On exemptions, that too is an important point. It goes to the question of the 30-month rule. I have discussed that with Commissioner Fischler and I hope that Ministry officials will shortly go with proposals on how we might agree a carefully defined scheme. The evidence available suggests that vertical transmission does not occur. Welfare is an important question, and my right hon. and hon. Friends are conscious of it.

In substance, I agree with the broad approach adopted by the hon. Gentleman. I am in the business of negotiating and of persuading.

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

May I say to my right hon. and learned Friend that, this morning, I received a letter from a veterinary surgeon who travels extensively in Europe? He tells me that it is commonly recognised on the continent, especially in Ireland, Holland, Belgium, France and Germany, that the incidence of BSE there is at least as high as in this country—and probably, in some cases, considerably higher.

What confidence can my right hon. and learned Friend really have that he will be able to bring reason to bear and to negotiate on the basis of scientific principles, when it is painfully obvious that the people with whom he must negotiate are turning their back against the deficiencies in their own country and arguing from entirely different premises? What possible grounds does he have for optimism? Is not the alternative to turn around and say that, if we were to impose a ban on the importation of European beef products, we would not be indulging in an exercise in law breaking—we would, in all probability, be protecting the health of this country's citizens?

Mr. Hogg

It is the objective of the British Government and, I believe, of the European Commission to restore the single market in beef and beef products. That essential proposition is subscribed to by member states. I hope that I will be able to persuade those states to honour the implied and, indeed, expressed commitments that are part of the single market concept, so I am relying on persuasion and negotiation, pointing to what we have done and to what we propose to do, as set out in my statement on 16 April.

I am certain that there is a much higher level of BSE on the mainland of Europe than has been disclosed in the figures, but I do not subscribe to the proposition that the incidence is as high as it is in this country. I fear that our problem has been greater, but my hon. Friend is right to say that there is a substantial number of undeclared cases on the mainland of Europe.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

The Minister knows that we entirely sympathise with his objective of having the ban lifted as soon as possible, but it would help if he explained the basis for the proposition that he has told the House about today. Is it necessary to have culling of the number of cows that he proposes for entirely scientific reasons—which is not the view, as I understand it, of the National Farmers Union—or is it necessary to restore consumer confidence and because that is the political requirement of other member states and of the Commission? That would be inconsistent with the line that the Government have always adopted so far. He needs to tell us, because otherwise the danger is that we will be in a series of negotiations where the number may just be upped and upped and upped for no justifiable reason.

There is one matter that the Minister has not yet told the House about, and I should be grateful if he or the Government dealt with it: if there is to be any culling, what environmental and public health activities and actions will the Government propose to ensure that there is no public health risk from any culling of any animals anywhere in the country?

Mr. Hogg

It is perfectly true that a culling policy is not essential in terms of achieving human health, because the controls that we have in place already achieve that. It is also true that a culling policy is not essential in terms of promoting animal health, because of the way in which BSE develops, its relationship with feed and the action that we have taken on the feed regulations. None the less, I would make two points.

First, restoring consumer confidence is an important policy objective for us all, and for the European countries. Secondly, if one stands back and asks oneself whether one is content that, in a country such as Britain, which has such high standards of agricultural quality, we should, after 10 years or so of BSE, still have a substantial number of cases in our national herd, the answer must be no.

Therefore, if, in a targeted and proportionate way, acceptable to the industry and the House, we can significantly accelerate the decline in the incidence of BSE, I commend it to the House and the industry on its merits.

Sir Hector Monro (Dumfries)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend accept the warm thanks of the farming community and the National Farmers Union for all the work that he has put into resolving the crisis? Will he accept that, as of today, the most pressing problem facing farmers, where fodder is now very short, is the disposal of beasts over 30 months old to the auction marts or slaughterhouses under his prime beef scheme? Can my right hon. and learned Friend give me any sort of assurance that the intervention board will have its scheme up and running by next week?

Mr. Hogg

It is our intention that the scheme should be up and running in the week beginning 29 April. I am conscious that, in the early stages, it may not run as smoothly as one would wish—there is a risk of that. However, I can tell the House that I and my right hon. and hon. Friends will be sensitive to points that have been made by the industry and by right hon. and hon. Members, and we will do our best to ensure that the schemes—there are more than one—operate as smoothly as possible. We will be as responsive as we can to complaints that the schemes are not running as smoothly as possible.

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley)

Does not the Minister realise that his vacillation, his to-ing and fro-ing and his blowing hot and cold over the past six weeks are causing a great deal of disquiet among farmers in Scotland, in Ayrshire in particular, and to people down the line involved in the meat processing, rendering and distribution industries and in the slaughterhouses? What sort of message does he have for the hundreds of people who have been laid off in those industries over the past few weeks? What sort of compensation will they receive? When will they get their jobs back? He has made some sort of concessions to farmers, but what about all the others whose jobs depend on the meat industry?

Mr. Hogg

I do not think that I have been guilty of any vacillation or of blowing hot and cold. I have tried to pursue a steady course, and I think that I have succeeded. I have the utmost sympathy for people who have lost their jobs or suffered lay-offs in the way that the hon. Gentleman has described, but, as I made plain in my statement to the House on 16 April, our objective in the targeting of financial assistance is to maintain the vital links of the beef industry in good and viable condition. I have never pretended, and I do not pretend, that we are trying to compensate everybody for loss. That is not practical, and it is not the justification for the compensation payments that I brought forward on 16 April.

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet)

May I raise with my right hon. and learned Friend the concerns expressed at the meeting of the all-party animal welfare group when it raised this issue earlier this week? First, it was concerned that the scientifically unjustified slaughter plans may turn into an open-ended response to economic blackmail through the Council of Ministers.

Secondly, there was concern about the need to see compensation paid for casualty animals slaughtered on the farm to avoid the inhumane and unnecessary transport to slaughter to obtain payment for unfit animals. Thirdly, there was concern about the need to amend the European directive to base compensation formulas on hot carcase weight rather than live weight, again to avoid cruelty to the beasts.

Clearly we will see the slaughter of many thousands, if not millions, of animals under unprecedented circumstances. Will my right hon. and learned Friend say that he will put animal welfare and animal husbandry at the top of his list of priorities?

Mr. Hogg

My hon. Friend is quite right to place such emphasis on animal welfare. I hope that he will be reassured by the language I have used—that the ideas that we have in mind involve the slaughter of tens of thousands rather than hundreds of thousands of beasts. That is what I said on 16 April.

I am conscious that the Government's ability to move ahead with such a policy, if that is what is decided, depends ultimately on the consent of the House and the industry. That is a major reassurance on the concern of my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) about the size of any particular policy. The relationship between dead weight and live weight is indeed important. The draft conclusions on compensation made provision for both. I raised the question with Commissioner Fischler on Tuesday, and he responded sympathetically to the point that I made.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)

May I put it to the Minister that, while we appreciate the earnestness with which he is trying to resolve the matter, there is inherent prejudice among our European colleagues against accepting his recommendations? In the event of his present proposals not being accepted, will he take account of early-day motion 773, and try to ensure that beef in herds in regions of the United Kingdom that have farm-assured schemes and traceability records that can confirm BSE-free status, can move, and move immediately, without having to cope with the prejudice in Europe?

Mr. Hogg

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister had an extremely useful meeting, at which I was present, with representatives of all the NFUs in the United Kingdom, most particularly from Northern Ireland, although other parts of the UK were represented. I entirely recognise that the system of traceability and record keeping in Northern Ireland is an example to the rest of the Kingdom. I accept that.

I have a very great preference for trying to bring about a collective rather than a partial solution. The point raised about exemptions is particularly relevant. If we can drive through the concept of exemptions in respect of the 30-month rule, it might be part of a process of relaxing the ban, and would, I think, be of particular benefit to Northern Ireland due to the nature of the herds and the very high degree of traceability provided for in the Province.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough)

May I, like my right hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro), thank my right hon. and learned Friend for his efforts on behalf of British farmers, but remind him that one of the problems facing farmers is the damage to cash flow? Will he please ensure that any compensation packages are paid quickly, so that cash flow, and thus businesses, are not endangered further?

Mr. Hogg

My hon. and learned Friend makes a very serious point. We will try to ensure the speedy payment of any of the money that is due under the provisions that I set out in my statement on 16 April and in other statements. Other support payments are of course available to producers, and I shall do my best to ensure that they are also made very promptly, especially to producers of dairy cows and beef.

Mr. Alan W. Williams (Carmarthen)

The Minister has said this afternoon and in earlier statements that he is thinking in terms of tens of thousands of cattle, and a figure of 40,000 has been quoted in the media. Will our European partners be impressed by a figure that amounts only to one third of 1 per cent. of the total cattle herd? Would that eradicate BSE?

Is it not now clear that we urgently and desperately need a test for BSE in live cattle, so that we can be certain that the animals slaughtered are the ones that carry BSE? Will the Minister commission urgent work from his Department to develop such a test? I am sure that it could be done in a matter of weeks—certainly months.

Mr. Hogg

Again, I make the point that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, at his very useful fleeting with the NFU, had the opportunity to talk with Welsh representatives, which was helpful and we were grateful to them for coming. Live tests have been discussed before in the House. I have a feeling that I may have had the pleasure of discussing them with the hon. Gentleman. We would very much like to have a live test and are supporting research into one. We want a live test, but so far as we can judge, a valid one is not yet available or likely to be available in the immediate future. I wish that it was otherwise.

On the scale of the cull, slaughtering cattle over the age of 30 months that have completed their working lives—the old milkers—would involve the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of beasts in the course of the year. We are now focusing on the selective cull idea. We have tried to produce a plan that is intellectually sustainable and that targets the group of animals most at risk. I believe that the House wants that and that it accords with common sense. I therefore hope to persuade our colleagues in Europe to accept it.

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale)

May I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for resisting the temptation to go for a massive cull of British cattle, especially of whole herds of dairy cattle? Can he confirm that what he has told us will have a negligible impact on milk supplies in the United Kingdom? None the less, given the uncertainty that has been generated in the dairy and beef industries, will he do his level best to implement his proposals speedily? Do not our European partners and the Commission have a duty and responsibility to make sure that all the uncertainty is quickly ended?

Mr. Hogg

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The ideas that I have presented to the House will have a very small effect on milk production. My hon. Friend is right about the great importance that we and the House attach to rapid progress.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)

The Minister emphasised selective culling. Can he say whether a proportion of the animals slaughtered will be scientifically investigated to find whether a key link can be established that would help the search for a live test? If we are to go through this procedure, there should be such a recommendation. Scientific and research institutes should be alerted to that possibility. I hope that we will able, at the end of all this, to see some way forward.

Mr. Hogg

Representatives of the Scottish NFU were at the recent meeting with the Prime Minister. I know that the Prime Minister was extremely pleased to have their views, which were most helpful. On the live test, I do not see a relationship between developing a live test and the pathology that might be available at the completion of a selective cull. None the less, the hon. Lady has raised the concept and I am willing to put it to those who are considering how best to bring about a live test to find whether there is anything that we can learn from a selective cull if we adopt it. I do not see a relationship, but I may be wrong about that.

Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend join me in applauding the tolerance and patience of the meat and livestock industry on both sides of the farm gate? Does he accept that patience and, more particularly cash, are running out? There is an urgent necessity for the ban on British beef to be lifted. Will he assure us that if it is not lifted by the European Community next week, he will assert the authority of the House and instruct his Department to start reissuing export licences for British beef to non-EC countries?

Mr. Hogg

This has been one of the greatest calamities to face British agriculture for decades. Against that background, the farmers of the United Kingdom have shown extraordinary patience and tolerance. It must be an intensely worrying and distressing time for them, and I am deeply impressed by the way in which their representatives in the National Farmers Union and other bodies, as well as individuals, have conducted themselves.

My hon. Friend is right about the importance of getting cash, and I understand about the cash running out. That explains the package that I announced on 16 April, and the importance that I attach to making early payments in respect of other support that may be due. We attach great importance to the lifting of the ban, and the concepts that I have outlined for a selective cull must be seen in that framework.

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Thank you. We shall now move on to the business question.