HC Deb 18 July 1996 vol 281 cc1286-9
3. Mr. Pickthall

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a statement on progress in the lifting of the European Union ban on exports of United Kingdom beef and beef products. [36407]

Mr. Douglas Hogg

We have made excellent progress: some elements of the ban have already been lifted and we have agreed to a framework for its complete removal.

Mr. Pickthall

I thank the Minister for his calm reply. Given the fact that new scientific evidence seems to cast doubt even on the lifting of the gelatine ban, given the crisis in carcase storage, given the uncertainties of the slaughter programme—which are compounded by the scandalous way that the work has been allocated to slaughterhouses—and given the disagreements of many people in the industry about levels of compensation, how can the Minister be confident that his Government can deliver a lifting of the ban on exports of British beef inside a time scale that will avoid a total catastrophe for the British beef industry?

Mr. Hogg

It is important for hon. Members to bear it in mind that we have agreed to a framework: it requires certain things of us and it imposes certain obligations on others. Moreover, and perhaps most important, the judgments should be made on scientific and objective criteria. We know what steps we have to take, and the two outstanding steps are the legislation with respect to the selective cull and the issue of traceability. The passport systems are now up and running. I hope that in the autumn we can go to the European Commission and say that we have satisfied the necessary preconditions, and we then expect the Commission to come forward with some proposal for the relaxation of the ban.

Sir Irvine Patnick

Will my right hon. and learned Friend join me in urging McDonald's to return to using British beef as soon as possible? I do not have an interest in this regard, but I think that it is about time that it started flying the flag.

Mr. Hogg

I agree with my hon. Friend. He has made a sound point, and I hope that McDonald's responds to his invitation.

Mr. Tyler

Does the Minister recall the statement that the Prime Minister made to the House in which he set out the framework that had been agreed at the Florence summit and in which he referred to four stages that he anticipated would be completed by November? The Prime Minister then said that he expected that the export position for British beef would be restored to that which existed before 27 March—he said "would", not "could" or "should". Will the Minister now reinforce that promise to the House and to the beef industry?

Mr. Hogg

The framework agreement is quite plain: it provides for a progressive lifting of the ban, in circumstances that are to he judged by the scientific and objective criteria that are spelt out. We are meeting our obligations and I expect the others to meet their obligations.

Mr. Nicholls

Valuable though the lifting of the ban is, it need not be seen as a substitute for considering the introduction of a price deficiency mechanism. Until such time as we cart come up with some sort of mechanism that compensates or ensures that clean beef can be sold at its real market price, the domestic beef market is bound to remain depressed. Will my right hon. and learned Friend at least say that that has not been ruled out of his considerations?

Mr. Hogg

I can understand why my hon. Friend has advanced this argument. It is true that producers are selling beef for consumption at a substantially lower price than they did this time last year, which is extremely worrying. The reason for that decline is the lack of consumer confidence in the United Kingdom domestic market and elsewhere—of course, we cannot export. However, our domestic market has collapsed less dramatically than that of Italy, Germany and France. We cannot directly restore consumer confidence, but we can describe the steps that we have taken that should ensure that consumers eat beef with confidence. We secured a package of measures at Luxembourg in early June that will provide some support. However, I cannot promise my hon. Friend that we will come forward with a deficiency payments scheme.

Mr. Hardy

Does the Minister accept that beef producers—particularly smaller producers—face increasing anguish? Does he accept also that, even if the incidence of the disease declines—as we hope and as he promised—his cohort proposals for the dairy industry could produce many more BSE cases than the Minister expects or wants?

Mr. Hogg

The hon. Gentleman is right when he talks about anguish. I have never tried to pretend other than that this is a crisis for British agriculture, and for beef producers in particular. I understand his points about the selective cull: it is a distressing business for those whose cattle may be part of the scheme. I assure the House that we will not pursue compulsory slaughtering under a selective cull scheme unless the House has an opportunity to discuss the relevant order.

Mr. Wilkinson

Notwithstanding my right hon. and learned Friend's hopeful prognosis about the incidence of BSE, is it not a fact that the reaffirmation by the European Court of Justice of the extraterritorial jurisdiction of the European Union with regard to British beef exports to third countries is an affront to our interest? Is it not a clear case of European subsidiarity in action: namely, that we are subsidiary to the European Union, particularly in matters of law?

Mr. Hogg

I share my hon. Friend's disappointment that our application for interim relief was not successful. We shall proceed with the legal action. We had hoped to secure relief in terms of exports to third countries that could not re-export to Europe and we thought that our arguments were good in law. Therefore, I am disappointed that the European Court did not take the same view.

Dr. Strang

Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman's earlier reply to me mean that there will be a general debate next week on the selective slaughter scheme but that the Government will not allow us to debate the legislation necessary to implement such a scheme? Does the Minister intend to embark on the selective slaughtering scheme during the summer without any mandatory killing? Is that not a recipe for a dog's breakfast of a selective slaughter scheme? Is it not clear that the same chaos and incompetence that his right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster admitted on the radio this morning continues to dog the 30-month slaughter scheme and will surround the new selective slaughter scheme?

Mr. Hogg

My right hon. Friend the Lord President will make a business statement, so I do not want to go into too much detail before then. The sensible way forward might be to discuss the selective cull and compensation and related matters next week. The House should know about the draft orders because they will be published. However, they will not be signed at that stage. That will give the House an opportunity to discuss the matter in general terms and in an informed manner.

During the recess, it is clearly helpful to have the ability to trace animals that ultimately might be slaughtered under the selective slaughter scheme. It might be necessary to have the power to place restriction orders upon them and, therefore, it might be necessary to sign those orders during the recess. However, I give a critical undertaking that no cattle will be compulsorily slaughtered under the selective slaughter scheme until the House has an opportunity to discuss the relevant order: the compensation order. The House will have the opportunity to discuss that order as a precondition of the compulsory slaughter of cattle under the scheme.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton

Can I remind my right hon. and learned Friend of the question posed by my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson)? Is it not an affront to the sovereignty and the integrity of Parliament that the European Commission should deny this country—with a national Government in the European Union—the right to export our beef to a third country that wishes to buy it? Is that not in breach of the general agreement on tariffs and trade international treaty? Will my right hon. and learned Friend comment about that and confirm whether he agrees with me that the European Court is a court of vested interests and injustice?

Mr. Hogg

We all have our own ways of expressing our thoughts. I said earlier that I was disappointed by the European Court's decision on our application for interim relief. I have no reason to express my views in any different way. My hon. Friend can express himself as he pleases. I, by temperament, express myself in somewhat more moderate terms. But both of us are disappointed.

Mr. Dafis

Does the Minister recognise that for the selective accelerated cull to work, compensation must be at replacement value of culled cows? Is not that important not just for the farmers but for the rebuilding of the herds and, therefore, for the structure of farms and for the whole rural economy?

Will the Minister confirm or deny reports that the Treasury opposes the payment of replacement value compensation? If that is true, will he tell the Treasury that if it continues with such resistance, and if it works, whatever residual support there is for the Conservative party among farmers will soon evaporate entirely?

Mr. Hogg

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has had the opportunity to look at our consultation paper, paragraph 12 of which is most relevant to the question that he has just asked. It deals with the valuation of the relevant beast and sets out the arguments for market value and replacement value. I understand the force of the arguments that the hon. Gentleman has deployed. It is important to keep it in mind that the replacement value contains a degree of betterment. The question that all of us have to decide is the extent to which it is right to cast that additional cost on the taxpayer. That is a matter that has to be resolved. But I have already made the point that a mandatory slaughter policy will not be carried out until the House has had the opportunity to debate the order which, for procedural reasons, happens to be the compensation order.