HC Deb 18 July 1996 vol 281 cc1284-5
1. Mr. Dowd

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what discussions he has had with Governments outside the European Union which have separate bans on British beef products to secure their removal. [36405]

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

I will continue to raise the matter with third countries and, indeed, I discussed the matter with the South African Agriculture Minister, Mr. Van Nierkerk, recently. South Africa is of course our largest export market outside the EU for beef and beef products.

Mr. Dowd

Is not it the case that the United States introduced the ban in 1989 and 30 or more non-EU countries have introduced restrictions on British beef products in the intervening period? Can the Minister confirm that if enforcement action had been taken in 1989 and subsequently, the plight of British beef would not be as it is today, the number of bovine spongiform encephalopathy cases would be sharply reduced, the EU ban would be lifted much more easily and the British beef industry would not be suffering as it is?

Mr. Hogg

I am glad to say that BSE is in sharp decline. We have had about 160,000 confirmed cases. The peak was in 1992, when we had about 36,500 confirmed cases. Last year they were down to 15,000. Leaving aside any questions of cull, we would expect in the order of 8,000 confirmed cases this year, falling to 5,000 next year, falling to 2,800 or thereabouts in 1998, again, leaving aside questions of cull. So the trend is sharply downwards.

Mr. David Nicholson

My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware of disappointment on the Conservative Benches at the failure of the European Court of Justice to rule in our advantage on those matters. He will also be aware of the resentment continuing at the obstruction by Brussels to any form of export to countries outside Europe, although the main markets are of course inside Europe.

Against the background of that lack of progress, is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that there is growing resistance on the Conservative Benches to the cost and waste of the destruction of large numbers of animals, as indicated in early-day motion 1180 tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill), which I have countersigned?

Mr. Hogg

I understand the anxiety in the House and elsewhere. However, the measures that the Government have put in place, such as the 30-month rule and the consequential spending, were intended to reinforce public confidence in British beef and ensure that the vital links in the productive chain are kept going. Those purposes were good, and in my judgment people can eat British beef with complete confidence.

Dr. Strang

Is not it the case that the Government still do not have in place all the elements of the selective slaughter scheme and that we shall not, therefore, be in a position to meet all the unsatisfactory conditions that the Prime Minister agreed at the Florence summit? May I remind the right hon. and learned Gentleman that, when the Prime Minister reported to the House on the Florence summit, he said that we would be in a position to take the first major steps in lifting the beef ban in October? Is not the Government's incompetence again jeopardising the beef industry, involving hundreds of thousands of jobs?

Mr. Hogg

At the moment, the legislation has not been signed. There are two relevant orders, neither of which has yet been signed. It may help the House if I give an undertaking that there will be no mandatory killing of animals under the slaughter scheme unless and until the House has had an opportunity to debate the relevant orders. I anticipate that the House will have an opportunity to discuss the generality of the issue before the House rises, so at that stage the orders will probably not have been signed. As hon. Members will know, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will make a business statement shortly.