HC Deb 11 July 1996 vol 281 cc553-4
1. Mr. William Ross

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the effects of BSE on the Northern Ireland economy. [35380]

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Sir Patrick Mayhew)

The BSE crisis has had a devastating effect in Northern Ireland because of the vital role that the beef industry plays in the overall economy of the Province. Slaughterings are now at 61 per cent. of pre-crisis levels and there have been more than 900 full-time and 260 part-time lay-offs or redundancies in the beef and ancillary sectors. In order to ensure that we still have an industry when the unjustified ban is lifted, we have provided very significant aid packages to farmers, the slaughtering industry and the renderers.

Mr. Ross

The Secretary of State has detailed the devastating effect that BSE is having on the economy of Northern Ireland. What further steps does he intend to take to ensure that Northern Ireland very soon becomes a BSE-free area, so that the export of beef to the continent and elsewhere can resume? Will he give particular attention to the problems of transferring flagging from holdings to herds so that the difficulties that farmers experience whenever the cattle are changed disappear? Will he also give particular attention to the dreadful problems that the suckler herd men will face two or three months down the road?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I think that the answer to the first part of the hon. Gentleman's question lies in very scrupulous and particular monitoring of the various restrictions that are in place. I will naturally draw the matter of transferring flagging from holdings to herds to the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of Agriculture. Flagging is a safeguard and not a stigma, and all of us must do our best to see that it is viewed as such. We shall attend to all those who have an interest in the suckler cow premium when the decisions fall to be taken. The premium is of considerable importance to a wide range of interests in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Gill

Does my right hon. and learned Friend share my concern that one of the possible results of the accelerated cull programme is that the United Kingdom would need to import cattle from other countries to replace those that have been culled, and in doing so might inadvertently import cattle with a higher risk of being BSE infected than those they replace? What programme do the Government have to ensure that that does not happen, as I fear that the cure may be more severe than the complaint?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I hope that my hon. Friend will excuse me if I deal with that question solely in relation to Northern Ireland, where I am happy to say that only about 2,000 beasts are likely to be the subject of the additional cull. If there is any substance in what my hon. Friend foresees as a possibility, it is therefore not likely to be material in Northern Ireland. I shall, however, draw the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of Agriculture to the point that my hon. Friend has made.

Mr. Illsley

The Secretary of State will be aware that, in view of the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland, there are difficulties with breeders of young bulls and suckler herds. I understand that 850 million ecu is available from the European Union to spend on beef and the beef industry throughout the Union, of which the United Kingdom's share is about £34 million. Can the Secretary of State give an assurance that Northern Ireland farmers, breeders and the beef industry will be able to decide how their share of that money is spent in view of the particular problems?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

A noteworthy feature of agriculture in Northern Ireland is the very close and well informed relationship between it and the Agriculture Department. That close relationship is of great value to the industry and to the Government, and the hon. Gentleman's suggestion will benefit from it.