HC Deb 13 June 1996 vol 279 cc414-6
8. Mr. Gordon Prentice

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what is the incidence of BSE in the Northern Ireland herd for the most recent year for which figures are available. [30930]

Sir Patrick Mayhew

In 1995, there were 170 cases of BSE in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Prentice

Mercifully, Northern Ireland is largely free of BSE, but what steps have been taken in the framework document to ensure that herds in Northern Ireland can be certified BSE-free? While I am on my feet, may I ask the Minister to comment on the revelations in the science magazine Nature, published today, that Britain's exports of contaminated feed doubled after that contaminated feed had been banned in this country? Was that not criminally irresponsible?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I do not believe in commenting on texts that I have not read. It is in the interests of Northern Ireland producers that we have an electronic system of tracing beasts back to the farm of their birth. We can identify the life history of every animal, including whether it has ever been associated with a herd infected with BSE. That is a great advantage, which I trust will serve the interests of Northern Ireland producers quickly in terms of having the ban lifted.

Mr. Beggs

Does the Secretary of State appreciate our dependence on beef exports in Northern Ireland, and that we cannot survive this blanket ban much longer, especially not until other regions of the UK catch up with our traceability records? What does the European Union expect from us in Northern Ireland? What is its criterion? What assurances does it need? Will he seek to enable Northern Ireland to meet those assurances as soon as possible?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, and know how greatly he is concerned about these matters. Seventy per cent. of all Northern Ireland-produced beef is exported, not just over the water, but outside the UK. It is a matter of enormous importance to Northern Ireland. It has been accepted reluctantly that Northern Ireland must take its place with the whole of the UK in getting the ban lifted, but there are considerable advantages, which I have just alluded to, that Northern Ireland can pray in aid. The European Union has never given clear criteria to the lifting of the ban, but it is clear that it expects more extensive culling to take place. The Government believe—indeed, they know—that there is no scientific justification for the ban and they have presented their eradication plan to the Commission. I am confident that Northern Ireland will be well placed to meet any criteria that may eventually be defined. They should be defined straight away. All farmers throughout the UK receive the same compensation for 30-month and above stock that is compulsorily slaughtered.

Mr. Illsley

Is the Secretary of State aware that there is some optimism among Ulster Farmers Union members that the framework document for BSE's eradication will be accepted by the European Union? That will be of advantage to Northern Ireland farmers, because 90 per cent. of their herds are grass fed, there is a low incidence of BSE, and the tracing system is in place. If the framework document is accepted, and if herds in Northern Ireland meet the conditions in that document, will the Secretary of State support the lifting of the ban in Northern Ireland before other regions of the United Kingdom?

Sir Patrick Mayhew

If the framework document for eradication is met, it will be applicable to the whole of the United Kingdom—although not every region may benefit at the same time. As I have said, it seems as though Northern Ireland will be able to benefit much sooner. I look forward to that occurring, as Northern Ireland is very well placed.