§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris)
Before I call the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), I have to announce that Madam Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.
§ Mr. Michael Jopling (Westmorland and Lonsdale)
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. May I draw your attention to the fact that the Liberal Democrats' motion for debate today does something which, although I understand it to be perfectly in order, is done only rarely—it makes a personal attack on a Minister?
It has been well known for a good many weeks that the year's most important meeting of the Council of Ministers is taking place today, and it is essential that my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of Agriculture attends. At the meeting, annual price fixing will be decided upon. Frankly, if my right hon. and learned Friend were not there, thousands of farmers in this country would fail to understand why he was not fighting for them. I can say that with experience, having been Minister of Agriculture for more than four years. [HON. MEMBERS: "This is a point of order."] Mr. Deputy Speaker, although hon. Members are at liberty to table any motion they like, will you deplore a motion that attacks a Minister personally when there is no sensible way in which—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. As the right hon. Member has suggested, the motion is in order. It is not for the Chair to take a view one way or the other on any motion before the House.
§ Mr. Jopling
But, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you are the guardian of the rights of all Members of this House and you must ensure that there is fair play. I suggest to you that what the Liberal Democrats have done today is sneaky, underhand and cowardly.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. I have given a clear ruling—the motion is in order, and this is not a matter on which the Chair should ever comment.
§ Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)
Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Will you acknowledge that, over the years, both Tory and Labour Oppositions—and Liberals, as in this case—have traditionally tabled such a motion to draw attention to problems within the Government? It is quite usual practice. Will you also confirm that, in every newspaper at the weekend, the Tory spin doctors were suggesting that the Minister of Agriculture was to be culled out of the Government? This motion gives Tory Back Benchers an opportunity to defend him, and to support him in the Lobby.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. I confirm that similar motions have been used before, and I am pleased to say that I was unable to read all the newspapers at the weekend.
§ Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)
I beg to move,That this House believes that, in view of the Government's mishandling of the BSE and beef crisis, the salary of the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food should be reduced by £1,000.The motion is simply and solely concerned with ministerial responsibility—that of all Ministers at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food—for the 13-week nightmare between 20 March and the Florence summit. Clearly, we must wait for another day and another debate to examine the reasons and the responsibilities for the spread of bovine spongiform encephalopathy up to 20 March in the UK.
On Friday evening, the Member of the European Parliament for East Devon and Dorset, Mr. Bryan Cassidy—summing up the caustic response locally to the Florence agreement—said that farmers were beingungracious—farmers have to accept that they are partly responsible".That was his reaction. I doubt whether farmers in his area, or in the constituencies of Conservative Members, would agree with him that they should now take the blame for the BSE beef crisis. If the "blame somebody else" syndrome is permeating the Conservative party, its concentration on defeating the real enemy—the disease itself—will again falter. If that is to be the Government's attitude, I foresee that Ministers and farmers will have their horns locked together for many months to come. But it need not have been so.
When the ministerial statements were made in the House at the outset, those who represent rural areas and the rural economy offered to work with the Government to seek practical solutions. Given the sudden and shocking nature of the ministerial U-turn on 20 March, our response, and that of the farming unions and others in the industry, was surely positive, immediate and entirely co-operative.
As early as 25 March, we Liberal Democrats wrote to the Prime Minister, setting out a framework for the eradication programme. After consulting the president of the National Farmers Union and other food industry leaders, we followed that with constructive suggestions. For example, we proposed the concept of a beef assurance scheme to exempt late-maturing cattle. We are still waiting for that, but we hope that it will come soon. We also suggested a credit guarantee scheme for those throughout the industry who have been hit so hard following the ministerial announcements. Incidentally, I understand that Ministers from the Department of Trade and Industry have announced the withdrawal of useful loan guarantees from agricultural businesses from August. I hope very much that that decision will be reversed.
Even before our outline submission, the Minister had floated the possibility of a massive cattle cull during the weekend television interviews that many of us saw. However, his evident disdain for any offer of help or co-operation in those early days was just as damaging to the eventual outcome. An excellent summary of the situation, to which I refer hon. Members, appears in today's The Daily Telegraph in an article by Boris Johnson, who said:Hogg terrified the fanning world with airy talk of a 4.5 million bovicide. He seemed arrogant in turning down help from his ministerial colleagues in handling the disaster—before being pushed to one side in favour of Roger Freeman and Malcolm Rifkind. 176 Worse still, Hogg's forays to Brussels and Luxembourg during the early days of the crisis were crowned with a conspicuous lack of success".That was the essential prelude to the Florence summit.
On Friday evening, the south-west region advisory board of the NFUregistered its continued opposition to the principle of the cull and set out a series of pre-conditions which must be met for the NFU's acquiescence to it".There followed a series of practical, reasonable statements with which most Ministers and hon. Members would agree.
If Conservative Members have received representations similar to those that I received at the weekend by telephone, by letter and in my advice surgery, they can be in no doubt whatever that the innocent victims of the beef crisis are no nearer to a solution to their problems simply because the Prime Minister raised the white flag at Florence.
§ Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way so early in his speech. Is he saying that the Government should not have agreed to any increase in the cull whatever, even if that meant the dispute dragging on indefinitely?
§ Mr. Tyler
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be patient, because I had the advantage of talking to member state Ministers and the Commissioner last week, and I shall explain precisely what could have happened. Farmers may conclude, including those in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, that anything would be better than the continuation of the silly war games that were causing such difficulty and distracting attention from the real crisis at home. I would not blame them for that.
However, the 650,000 people whose livelihoods have been put at risk by the Government's mishandling of the crisis are surely justified in being sceptical about the piece of paper that the Prime Minister flourished aloft after the Florence summit.
In briefing hon. Members today, the National Farmers Union has reiterated its position, which I believe is broadly supported by the National Farmers Union for Scotland, the farmers unions in Wales and other parts of the industry. I apologise for quoting at length, but it is important. It states:From the first time that the Government announced it was considering a selective slaughter scheme, in addition to the over 30 month cattle disposal scheme, the NFU has expressed deep concern on behalf of the farming community. The scientific basis for a selective cull is unconvincing as such a scheme would be ineffective in hastening the eradication of BSE in the British herd—though it is anticipated that there would be some reduction in the number of cases of BSE coming forward over the next year or two.The Florence Agreement confirms that the Government are now committed to an accelerated cull of those cattle considered to be at most risk from incubating BSE. When originally proposed the scheme was aimed at a nominal 40,000 cattle; the Government then doubled this to 80,000, and by taking in those cows born in 1989/90 into the Florence Agreement (albeit on a voluntary basis), the scheme could embrace up to a nominal 150,000 cattle. These animals are not the 'clapped out milkers' that have been referred to in some quarters, but many cases are high quality dairy cows in their prime milk producing years. The impact on some farmers of the cull is likely to be devastating with some individuals facing the loss of as much as 60 per cent. of their whole herds.
§ Mr. Tyler
No. The NFU continues:Clearly, given the lack of scientific justification for the cull, this is a very high price indeed which Britain's farmers are being asked to pay as part of a package intended to result in the ban on British exports of beef being lifted, and to restore public confidence.
§ Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)
That is an important quotation. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it appears that there has been no scientific assessment of the logic of the cull for—and its impact on—the dairy sector, which is important in my county of Gwynedd and especially important in Dyfed? Its effect could be devastating in those areas.
§ Mr. Nicholas Budgen (Wolverhampton, South-West)
The House regrets this enormously expensive and cruel selective cull, but is there any evidence that the European Commission would have accepted a lesser number of cattle?
§ Mr. Tyler
Yes, there is evidence. I am coming directly to that point. I read the hon. Gentleman's article in The Daily Telegraph this morning and I have some respect for his views. I shall quote them in a moment, so I hope that he stays long enough to hear the endorsement that I shall give him. Unfortunately, he missed an important point to which I shall return.
§ Mr. Nicholls
Am I right that if an hon. Member quotes from a document, it must be deposited in the Library? If that document is deposited, its conclusion, which the hon. Gentleman has not quoted—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would know by now that that applies only to ministerial statements.
§ Mr. Tyler
I am sorry that the NFU's points may seem less important because of that extraordinary intervention.
The NFU makes it clear that the critical issue is the series of political and bureaucratic hurdles over which each stage of the relaxation of the export ban will have to pass. That is the point that the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Budgen) made in his article. The problem was simply brushed aside by the 178 Prime Minister yesterday in responding to Conservative Members and to my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown), but it is critical.
We must distinguish between the European Union's Scientific Veterinary Committee and the Standing Veterinary Committee. They are different animals. The former is a group of professional experts appointed to give strictly scientific veterinary advice to the Commission, while the latter is a group of national Government representatives, which operates on the agenda of their Ministers.
In our meeting with Commissioner Fischler last Wednesday, just after he had presented his position paper to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, he confirmed that the Standing Veterinary Committee would play a key role in every stage of the process. In short, every step of the post-Florence process will still be subject to the political pressures that the Prime Minister identified in his statement to the House on 21 May as the reasons for his declaration of war. Nothing that he said yesterday can remove the fact that our beef exports are still at the mercy of what he described asa wilful disregard of Britain's interests, and, in some cases, a breach of faith … for reasons that have nothing whatsoever to do with the science involved."—[Official Report, 21 May 1996; Vol. 278, c. 99.]That remains the position.
§ Mr. Budgen
This is a sad speech for a Liberal Euro-enthusiast to make. Presumably, it means that his party is going to change its attitude because of the fundamental unreliability of Europe on so many important issues.
§ Mr. Tyler
I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has misunderstood. I come directly to his article in The Daily Telegraph, where he rightly identifies that point as the weakest link in the ministerial spin that has been put on the outcome of the Florence summit and the piece of paper that the Prime Minister waved at us at the weekend. He does not seem to realise the significance of the two types of committee and the fact that both are involved, together with the super-SEAC committee that is responsible for the eradication of BSE. His article stated:if the technical evidence is on our side, let's cut up rough again.The hon. Gentleman fails to appreciate that, at the opening of the Florence summit, the Prime Minister specifically ruled out that possibility. He has passed the buck and he has passed that opportunity.
§ Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)
It is clear that the matter is to be considered on the basis of scientific evidence. If the Standing Veterinary Committee takes its orders from Chancellor Kohl and, against the veterinary evidence, decides to continues to ban the export of prime British beef, we shall be back where we were before. Is that what the Europeans, Chancellor Kohl and the hon. Gentleman's friends on other side of the channel want? Do they want to go back to war against Britain? No, they do not; they want to get rid of the beef ban, because it is hurting them more than it is hurting us.
§ Mr. Tyler
We all want to get the rid of the export ban and of BSE. My point is that the timetable that the Prime Minister said was his objective in introducing 179 non-co-operative tactics is non-existent. There is no timetable yet, as Conservative Members know. The failures of MAFF policy and practice in the first 12 weeks of the crisis, at home and abroad, left the British team in an impossibly weak position in Florence.
The Prime Minister boldly promised the House on 21 May that his obstructive non-co-operation campaign would continueuntil we have agreement on lifting the ban on beef derivatives".We do not have that in place. He said that there must bea clear framework in place leading to lifting of the wider ban."— [Official Report, 21 May 1996; Vol. 278, c. 100.]We do not have that at all. Both the explicit objectives given as the reasons for declaring war have failed. The Prime Minister cannot claim to have achieved either and, indeed, did not attempt to claim that yesterday. What he claimed was that the British Government would meet all the necessary deadlines in the autumn. He has failed to meet any of the declared deadlines so far. Conservative Members may remember the prevarication on introducing the cull, which was put off on several occasions. Long delays took place. Surely that promise was foolhardy in itself.
What of the claim by the Prime Minister yesterday that the whole cull backlog would be cleared by the autumn, making progress through the myriad of EU committees possible? The present cull scheme is due to end on 31 October, but the NFU foresees little chance of catching up with the existing backlog until well after that date. Then, of course, the older cattle will have to take their turn behind the queue that is forming from the new post-Florence so-called selective cull. On present throughput, the end of the year may be a more realistic estimate, if all goes well. I shall come back to that in a moment. The cull could go well into next year.
I note that other hon. Members spotted other flaws in the Prime Minister's statement yesterday. For example, the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson)—I know that he cannot be here, but I mentioned to him that I would express my approval of the point that he made—is reported in the Western Morning News this morning as warning:the ban on exports outside Europe should be lifted by the end of July, otherwise 'all those fine words from Florence' would seem worthless.I suspect that other Conservative Members will take that view, but it is highly unlikely that it will be lifted by the end of July.
Commissioner Fischler told us last week when we met him:the Commission could not sanction the dumping on other countries of food which was not approved for eating in Europe.That was an explicit statement by the Commissioner. As Conservative Members are fully aware, part of the process to which the Prime Minister signed up is that the Commission should have the last word on the subject. The Prime Minister failed to reassure anyone yesterday on that point. His statement was a string of phrases such as, "We aim to be in a position", "I expect a Commission 180 proposal" and "I believe that we should have met the conditions". In short, he displayed again a totally unwarranted triumph of hope over experience.
§ Mr. Tyler
No. I must make some progress. I have given way on several occasions.
Hon. Members will not be surprised to hear that one of the Prime Minister's Ministers last night described those pledges asa massive hostage to fortune.In the meantime, those who have pored over Hansard this morning, as I have, will have noted that the Prime Minister had nothing to say of any consequence about the case that is before the European Court of Justice. What will happen to the cull programme if the United Kingdom Government are successful in that case? Will it stop? However much Ministers dodge and weave, they must give a direct answer this evening to that question.
The compensation package now under discussion in Luxembourg is of critical importance. Everyone must agree that the specialist beef producers are still losing huge sums and must be properly compensated for the effects that the Government's actions have had on them. Ministers must give an explicit assurance tonight that they accept the principle so robustly stated this afternoon by the Country Landowners Association:compensations must put farmers back where they were, in economic terms, no more no less.The sober conclusion of those directly affected by Florence is that the continuation of the absurd war games could have led to even worse results. But we are surely far from out of the wood yet.
§ Mr. Lord
All that the hon. Gentleman is doing is treating the House to a canter round a course that we all know. This country is back to eating beef now, so we all know that beef is safe. This is all about playing politics, and when we are playing politics, it is difficult for any Minister of Agriculture to approach the matter in a sensible, agricultural and scientific way.
The hon. Gentleman has been speaking for some 20 minutes. If he has come to the House to criticise my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, he is duty bound to tell the House what he would do were he in my right hon. and learned Friend's place.
§ Mr. Tyler
The hon. Gentleman is clearly out of touch with what is happening in the rural areas of Britain. I am coming directly to the answer to his point. The clear evidence which we are putting before the House, and which the industry has put before Members of Parliament for the past 13 weeks, is that the Government's mismanagement of the crisis at home and abroad has made a bad situation worse. Members of Parliament are entitled to hold the Government accountable for what has happened. That is our job as Members of Parliament, and it is the job of Conservative Members as Members of Parliament, too.
181 It is clear from the contacts that many of us from all parties have had that if the Government had come forward with a realistic proposal at an earlier stage, we could have avoided much of this most difficult situation that has arisen. I know that from my meetings with Ministry officials, officials from other member states and Commission officials way back in April.
Eight weeks ago, and five weeks after the Minister's statement here in the House of Commons, the Commission had still not received any hard proposals whatever from the United Kingdom Government. Commission officials were not antagonistic to Britain, as we now know. They were simply frustrated by the total lack of information and of an opportunity to discuss solutions. They were as frustrated as we were that suggestions made by others outside government were brushed aside. That situation continued for weeks. There were no hard proposals from London.
Mr. Fischler and his team, quite apart from the Government's allies in Bonn and Paris—Conservative Governments now, so no excuses—could rely only on reports of increasing chaos as the 30-month cattle cull was so badly mismanaged in Britain. Indeed, the full MAFF plan—all 171 pages of it—entitled "Programme to eradicate BSE in the United Kingdom" was published and submitted to the Commission and other EU member states only on 31 May. That was 10 weeks after the crisis erupted and 10 days after the Prime Minister declared a policy of non-co-operation. Was it surprising that it was not well received?
When I was in Strasbourg last week, the Commission presented its position paper to the European Parliament. I had private meetings that day with the Italian Foreign Minister, who was then preparing the agenda for the Florence summit, and with Commissioner Fischler. We were left in no doubt that the United Kingdom Ministers' policy of non-co-operation had delayed the solution of the export ban, and that a more positive step-by-step proposal at an earlier stage could have removed the issue from the political arena and kept it at a scientific and medical level.
§ Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough)
On the subject of science, will the hon. Gentleman tell us his views on one theory that BSE has nothing to do with mammalian feedstuffs, but may be caused by organophosphates and warble fly treatment? Has he reached a conclusion on that?
§ Mr. Tyler
All the evidence from the scientists in Britain and elsewhere suggests that there is no direct causal link between organophosphates and BSE, but the impact of OPs on the central nervous system may well affect the immune characteristics of an animal and make it more susceptible to BSE. That appears to be the general view of many who have examined the issue. I shall return to the scientific and medical basis on which we are operating. The hon. and learned Gentleman is right. There are still some unanswered questions.
We were told in no uncertain terms by the Commission last week that we would have had a much better chance of securing support from the other Governments, as would the Commission, if there had been an early statement of our position. We would have been able to get a much 182 more realistic cull if the Minister and his colleagues had presented their proposals in the first few weeks instead of resorting to the bully-boy blackmail that came later. That view was confirmed to my hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Cromarty and Skye (Mr. Kennedy) and me by German and Dutch Ministers in Bonn and The Hague last Thursday.
Indeed, the Minister himself may have shared that view earlier. The House will recall that the Minister insisted throughout April and May that a modest selective cull would be sufficient to meet the anxieties of other EU Governments. He said that the number was in the lower tens of thousands. Even as late as 20 May, he said that 42,000 would be enough. Even after the failure of his frontal assault on the Standing Veterinary Committee on that date, he still argued that some 80,000 would be sufficient. Either the Minister misread the diplomatic signals from his EU colleagues or he attempted to mislead the House. Either way, he cannot be allowed to escape censure on that point.
It seems, therefore, that thousands of healthy cattle are to be slaughtered unnecessarily. The late, failed tactics of the Government have caused that situation. On 21 May, the Prime Minister was faced with the choice between sacking his Minister of Agriculture to appease his Back Benchers and causing a diversion abroad—he chose the latter. As a result, 60,000 extra cows will be wantonly sacrificed just to save the Hogg's bacon.
Is slaughter on that scale practical? At the Select Committee hearing last Tuesday—to which I have already referred—the Minister implied that it was not practical and he poured huge buckets of cold water on the very suggestion. Yesterday, a spokesman for the Prime Minister said that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food had revised its opinion and said that it was technically feasible to extend the cull to 1989 and 1990 after all—up to 150,000 extra cattle could be added. Was the Minister right last week, or is he right this week? Was his statement a realistic appraisal? Has it now been overtaken by post-Florence soft soap?
The industry has every reason to be cautious—we must remember the continuing chaos within the current limited cattle cull programme. While Scotland is now making some progress—clearly, some of its quota should be redirected to areas of scarcity in England and in Wales— most areas are still subject to erratic and inexplicable variations and shortfalls. Farmers are desperate as the local backlog shows no sign of dispersing and costs mount.
Such was the embarrassment of the Federation of Fresh Meat Wholesalers about the chaos that it issued the following direction to its members on 23 May:Rumours and gossip verging on the scurrilous are widespread. If for short term reasons these are wound up to produce political pressure on Ministers, we are concerned that the option remains for them to take emergency powers, requisition a small number of plants and take total control of the cull themselves.Some hon. Members may have been under the misapprehension that the Government were already in control. However, that is not the evidence of those closest to the scheme. No wonder the Prime Minister decided that very week that MAFF could no longer be trusted with the cull.
If there is a silver lining to Florence, it is that the Ministers concerned must now concentrate on the crisis at home. The demotion of Agriculture Ministers and the 183 promotion of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to be BSE supremo may have sorted out the worst of the shambles on the 30-month scheme—not before time, and I hope that it continues.
This morning, I had representations from abattoirs and auctioneers from as far afield as Helston in the south-west and Carlisle in the north-west. They are still expressing dismay at the continuing mismatch between regional demand and provision of allocation slaughter and processing capacity.
§ Mr. Matthew Taylor (Truro)
The situation surrounding the 30-month scheme is dire in the south-west—I have no reason to believe that that is not the case elsewhere. Farmers in Devon and Cornwall are unable to get cattle slaughtered, and the numbers are piling up because of a lack of capacity—even though there is capacity in areas that do not need it. That must be sorted out.
Will my hon. Friend comment on the fact that the allocation of numbers appears to cater to big business interests—the big abattoirs and the big renderers—and bears little relation to the needs on the ground or to the long-term future of the industry? There appears to be an attempt to close many of the independent abattoirs.
§ Mr. Tyler
I agree with my hon. Friend. I believe that there may be a hidden agenda. Now that Ministers' attention has been drawn to that by hon. Members, I hope that they will give it urgent attention.
There is a direct mismatch between the area-by-area needs of the industry and the provision of slaughter and processing capacity. There is another mismatch—to which hon. Members who spoke in the previous debate will wish to return. Auctioneers are finding that the proportion of cull cows and clean cattle that will go through livestock markets is not what was promised at the outset. I hope that the Minister will give us a guarantee that future allocations will offset the previous discrepancies. There has been little equity and little efficiency so far.
What are we achieving? Naturally, there is continuing concern within and outside rural areas about the basic scientific hypothesis and the health considerations on which the Minister and his colleagues took their original decisions. I note that there has been no substantial dissent from an article that appeared in the British Medical Journal on 30 March 1996, headed "BSE and CJD—The link is unproved, but no better 7 explanation is presently forthcoming." The article stated:the link to cattle products is itself only a presumption; how ironic, for example, if 11 million British cattle should be slaughtered in a pre-emptive strike to eliminate the risk of zoonotic CJD, only to find belatedly that the true villains were pigs or chickens which were also fed contaminated nutritional supplements but were brought to market at such a young age that the disease had not had time to become manifest.No one has disputed that view. What does the Minister say? After the record of ministerial and official scientific advice on the issue in recent years, are we to believe what the Minister says anyway?
Last week, I asked a Health Minister a specific question and I got a specific answer. He told me that 10 out of the 20 younger victims of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease—the human version of BSE—had been undergoing growth hormone treatment. That is 50 per cent. Unlike so many 184 of the statistics that link CJD to farming methods, that is highly significant and should be at the centre of ministerial attention. However, by then Ministers and the media were well on their mad cow trip. It is always easier to blame someone else.
The right hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling) suggested that the wording of our motion personalised our attack on the Ministry. All hon. Members know that that is the proper parliamentary way to proceed. On a previous occasion, the Minister was kind enough to apologise for not being able to be present. I understand his absence today and I do not read anything into it.
However, I had much higher hopes of the Minister's stewardship of his Department. I made a speech on 10 April and suggested that the Minister should not be made a scapegoat. I thought that there would be a reasonable chance that he would be able to do better than his predecessors and his colleagues, and that he would not make an even worse mess than they had already created. It seemed that the collective incompetence of the Government was being unfairly offloaded on to the Minister. The snide comments of some of his colleagues—in the Texan phrase, that he was "all hat and no cows"—seemed to be premature. I admit that I was over-optimistic.
Clearly, the Prime Minister agrees with me. Why else did he appoint the Foreign Secretary to take over the Minister's negotiating role abroad and appoint the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to take over the direction of the BSE eradication programme at home? The Prime Minister must believe that the Minister was not up to the job. I hope that the Prime Minister will, for once, act logically and join hon. Members in demanding that Ministers take full responsibility for their Departments.
Yesterday, I was reminded by a former civil servant that it was over an agricultural issue that a Minister—the hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Mrs. Currie)—last resigned, because she felt that she had let down her Department and that her Department had let down the nation. Indeed, a former Minister of Agriculture resigned over the Crichel Down affair and established that precedent.
The long-suffering beef and dairy industry—those connected with the industry have had their livelihoods put at risk over the past 13 nightmare weeks—should at least have the satisfaction of knowing that someone is accountable to the House for the disaster.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Before I call the Minister to move the amendment, I must announce that Madam Speaker has decreed that speeches between 7 and 9 pm shall be restricted to 10 minutes.
§ The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Tony Baldry)
I beg to move, to leave out from "House" to the end of the Question and to add instead thereof:'congratulates the Government on securing a clear framework for the lifting of the European ban on British beef; welcomes the package of support the Government has provided to the beef industry over the last three months; and urges the Liberal Democrat Party to work with the Government to restore confidence in British beef instead of carping and criticising from the sidelines.'.I believe that the debate is a disgrace. The Liberal Democrats—particularly the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler)—have dragged proceedings in the 185 House to a new low. We have just heard a self-serving, self-seeking, sanctimonious and tawdry little speech. Let us be clear about what is happening today: the Liberal Democrats have used their Supply day to debate the conduct of my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, knowing full well that he could not be here to defend his reputation.
My right hon. and learned Friend is not here because he is in Luxembourg attending the most important Agriculture Council meeting of the year. He is negotiating the common agricultural policy price fixing and working to get the best deal for British farmers, including specialist beef producers. If the hon. Member for North Cornwall had been out and about talking to as many farmers as me, he would be aware that specialist beef producers want not sanctimonious speeches in this place but action. That is what they will get in Luxembourg.
What are the grounds for the hon. Gentleman's attacks on my right hon. and learned Friend? Are they that he is a dishonourable man? Most of us know that my right hon. and learned Friend is one of the most honourable and decent Members of the House. Throughout the crisis, he has remained above personal attacks and mudslinging. He has worked flat out for three months to try to resolve the crisis and to secure a future for our beef industry.
Perhaps the hon. Member for North Cornwall believes that my right hon. and learned Friend concealed vital information from the public or from the House. No: my right hon. and learned Friend and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health came to the House with new scientific advice about bovine spongiform encephalopathy within hours of receiving it from the spongiform encephalopathy advisory committee. In the latter part of his speech, the hon. Gentleman seemed to suggest that the Liberal party knows more about BSE than SEAC. Of course, the Liberals—who are craven servants of federalism—say that we should have gone to Brussels first. I do not believe that the House would or should have tolerated such a move. Ministers are accountable to the House first and last.
What else is my right hon. and learned Friend supposed to have got wrong? It is alleged that he misled the public about our plans for a selective cull. The media may have misled the public, but my right hon. and learned Friend certainly did not. I have a transcript of the interview that he gave to the "On the Record" programme four days after he reported to the House. I shall read what he said when he was asked which animals the Government were considering culling, and I shall ensure that a copy of the transcript is placed in the Library so that hon. Members can check the veracity of my quotation. My right hon. and learned Friend said:I certainly am focusing on the question of the older cow … that is jargon… for the beast above 30 months. That is the class of beef we should look at first".That is all that he said about a cull in that interview. That is precisely what we did, and the 30-month scheme is now operating successfully. How did the press report my right hon. and learned Friend's remarks the following day?
§ Mr. Baldry
I must make some progress. The Liberal Democrats have been dishing up dirt for the past 40 minutes; they must now hear the facts.
186 The Times carried the headline,Ministers set to back killing of 4 million cattle",and the headline in the Daily Express wasMillions of cows facing slaughter".Other newspapers carried similar headlines. The hon. Member for North Cornwall quoted Boris Johnson from today's edition of The Daily Telegraph and suggested that my right hon. and learned Friend had called for the culling of 4 million bovines. Any hon. Member who takes the time to read the interview will see that that is complete fiction: my right hon. and learned Friend said nothing of the sort. We must ask ourselves, who governs this country: the House or the misrepresenting media?
The Liberal Democrats do not have to think about those issues. They have not been in government for more than 70 years and they do not know the first thing about real responsibility. That is why they engage in gutter politics. When they discuss policy, they become the laughing stock of the nation. In fact, I am amazed that the Liberals were in government as recently as 70 years ago. The debate shows that they are an old, clapped-out party.
§ Mr. Baldry
I shall give way in a moment. The Liberal Democrats dished out a lot of dirt for a long time and I must put some facts on the record.
The hon. Member for North Cornwall knows that our policy of non-co-operation has delivered the goods. We now have a clear framework for the lifting of the European ban. Unfortunately, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown), has spent the past month telling anyone who would listen that non-co-operation would achieve nothing. How wrong he was. The Liberals are the craven servants of European federalism: they refuse to stand up and fight for Britain's national interests.
The behaviour of the Labour party—whose Members are conspicuous by their absence—over the past three months has shown that it is not fit for government.
§ Mr. Baldry
My hon. Friend sums up the issue. The Liberal Democrats' problem is with themselves and how they treat politics in this country. We have seen how they behave. The hon. Member for North Cornwall suggested that there was over-capacity in the over 30-month scheme in some parts of the country. However, he did not specify which parts of the country are over quota. I suspect that the Liberal Democrats will travel around the country suggesting that there is excess capacity elsewhere—it will mysteriously move around to suit them. I suspect that they will make that point in every part of the country.
§ Mr. Baldry
I must say something about the Labour party and then I shall gladly give way to the hon. Gentleman.
187 We all remember the hysterical outburst of the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman) at the beginning of the beef crisis which did so much to undermine consumer confidence. We do not see her around so often these days—perhaps the men in grey suits from the Leader of the Opposition's office have carted her off to some sanatorium. The shadow agriculture Minister, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang), said—I shall quote from his press release—thata temporary cessation in the movement of British cattle, beef and beef products may be wise at this time".That is an export ban by another name. It is hardly surprising that our European partners have proved so difficult to budge over the ban when the official Opposition support it.
§ Mr. Campbell-Savours
The Minister would do well to recall that there is a Public Gallery and that people are watching the debate.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. The hon. Gentleman would do well to remember that there is no such thing as a Public Gallery as far hon. Members are concerned.
§ Mr. Campbell-Savours
The matter is on the record. The debate is about BSE and not about knocking the Liberal Democrats—and I say that as a Labour Member of Parliament.
I refer the Minister to a letter that I received on 23 September 1994. It is signed by Earl Howe and it states:The State Veterinary Service also monitors compliance with the statutory controls inter alia by visiting rendering company plants to check both the separation of SBO from other material and the adherence of renderers to the code of practice for the disposal of SBO. We"—the Government—are generally satisfied with the effectiveness of these provisions and are unaware of any evidence to suggest that potentially contaminated SBO material is illegally entering the human or animal food chain".Will the Minister confirm that when the letter was written Agriculture Ministers knew what was going on but hid the truth about contamination from the Select Committee in documents submitted to it and from Parliament? They refused to answer parliamentary questions clearly and we were denied the truth. If we had known the truth then, we would not be in this mess today.
§ Mr. Baldry
Anyone watching the debate will see that only five Labour Back Benchers are present. The absence of a Labour amendment shows that the Labour parliamentary party has little interest in the debate or in the country's agricultural and farming interests. If the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) took the time and trouble to read the Order Paper, he would see that the motion is about my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of Agriculture. The way in which the Liberal Democrats have chosen to phrase the motion is a proper cause for debate.
I am not sure whether the hon. Member for Workington remembers the last Labour Government, but whenever he speaks he seems to suggest that Ministers deliberately concealed information. That is untrue. Throughout, Ministers have been open, frank and honest with the 188 House. I rebut any scintilla of a suggestion that Ministers have withheld information from the House or from the country. It is despicable that the hon. Member should make such suggestions.
§ Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East)
The Minister knows that my statement—and I stand by it—was made immediately after the announcement on 20 March. Let us remember the scale of the hysteria: Ministers were going to report after the weekend on whether the risk to children was greater. Given the collapse in demand for cattle and beef in this country, it was inevitable that there would be a massive movement across the channel. If the situation had been the other way around, I like to think that the British Government would have taken action. What happened? The Minister said that a ban was illegal, but it was not illegal. A "temporary cessation" is different from the overall ban imposed by the European Union on our exports, including third-country exports, which I have called unjustified in press release after press release and in the House. I hope that the Minister will accept that.
§ Mr. Budgen
The hon. Member for Workington mentioned the correct way to deal with specified bovine offal. Will my hon. Friend confirm that there was no suspicion in 1994 that transmission might occur between cows and humans? If all the small abattoir owners had been chased ruthlessly and dictatorially by the Government, there would have been an enormous public outcry against the heavy hand of the Government. It is only now, with the benefit of hindsight, that we can see that some improvements can be made in the way in which abattoirs operate.
§ Mr. Baldry
My hon. Friend will know that both Opposition parties believe that they are gifted with the benefit of hindsight. They consider it to be one of their major attributes.
§ Mr. Baldry
I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman because he was very kind when I visited my aunt recently.
§ Mr. Bruce
She lives in a fine constituency. Does not the Minister acknowledge that farmers and their representatives have demanded for several years that the Government set up a selective cull scheme to eliminate BSE from the system but that the Government refused to do so? As many as four, six and eight weeks after the ban was imposed, the Government made no detailed proposals for a selective slaughter policy that the Commission could evaluate, in spite of consistent pleas from Commission officials that they do so. That is why we lack confidence in the Minister's boss.
§ Mr. Baldry
The hon. Gentleman knows that the incidence of BSE peaked in animals born in 1988–89 before the introduction of the ban on mammalian foodstuffs. Since then, as the charts in the blue book show, it has dropped remarkably. What does the hon. Member think has been happening to BSE-infected cattle? Of course they have been culled and slaughtered. 189 The slaughtering has been going on for some time and it reached a peak of 40,000 at the height of the incidence of BSE.
The Labour party has behaved like startled rabbits. It does not know which way to run. First, the shadow Foreign Secretary attacked the Government for overreacting to the beef ban, and called on us to abandon non-co-operation. Two weeks later, he was back on our television screens attacking the Government for not going far enough. In the meantime, the Labour leader was in Germany reassuring Chancellor Kohl that, under a Labour Government, Britain would be a pushover. I am glad that the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) manages the Labour party and not the England football team. In the House, he claimed to support our policy of non-co-operation because he did not have the guts to criticise it. In Germany, he criticised British foreign policy because he did not have the guts to defend it. He has spent half his time claiming that we have been too hard in our relations with Europe and the other half claiming that we have been too soft. No wonder a senior spokesman for the German Chancellor stated that he would prefer to deal with the Leader of the Opposition, because he would have been more accommodating to German interests. Throughout recent weeks, the Liberal and Labour parties have failed to say what they would have done in the circumstances. The hon. Member for North Cornwall was provided with several opportunities to do so this afternoon, but failed.
The fact is—and the Labour and Liberal parties cannot bring themselves to admit it—that non-co-operation has worked. When my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made his announcement to the House on 21 May, he said that two specific goals had to be achieved before we would suspend our policy of non-co-operation: first, that the ban on beef derivatives had to be lifted and, secondly, that a clear framework leading to the lifting of the wider ban had to be agreed.
The first objective was achieved on 10 June when the ban on beef derivatives was lifted. The second—a clear framework—was achieved at the European Council in Florence last week. Both objectives were achieved in precisely one month. I have no doubt that, without our policy of non-co-operation, we would not be where we are today.
We now have a framework that sets out clear steps for lifting the ban in stages. The Florence conclusions make it clear that decisions on each stage will be takenonly and exclusively on the basis of public health and objective scientific criteria and of the judgment of the Commission".That is what we have been asking for all along.
The framework document agreed at Florence provides a number of preconditions that have to be met before steps within the framework can be considered. The preconditions comprise the implementation of a selective slaughter programme to be approved by the Commission under the standing veterinary procedure—that approval has already been given unanimously to the UK plan, amended to include voluntary slaughter of the 1989–90 generation; the introduction of an effective animal identification and movement recording system with official registration; legislation for the removal of meat and bonemeal from the feed mills and farms and 190 subsequent cleaning of the premises and equipment; the confirmation of implementation of the over 30-month scheme; and, finally, improved methods for removing specified bovine material from carcases.
The framework also provides for the Commission, with the member states, to inspect and to confirm that effective action has been taken on all those steps.
§ Mr. Marlow
My hon. Friend has mentioned the requirement for the United Kingdom to be more careful about the removal of SBOs from carcases. He will be aware that recently much publicity was given to the fact that a large proportion of British bonemeal went to France and other continental countries and that has been fed to cattle in France. As I understand it, the SBOs are not being removed in France and other continental countries. Does that concern my hon. Friend? Is he concerned about the massive under-reporting that must have taken place, as the Prime Minister accepted today, in other continental countries, and what action will the Government take to secure the safety and security of beef in the United Kingdom should it come from continental sources?
§ Mr. Baldry
The controls to tackle BSE and to ensure proper regulation and hygiene in our abattoirs are self-evidently tougher and tighter than in practically any other member state in the EU.
§ Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)
On 4 June, the Parliamentary Secretary wrote to Lord Marlesford about the ruminant feed ban. This is relevant to my question. She said:The main step to protect animal health was the introduction of the 'ruminant feed ban' in 1988. This prohibited the feeding of cattle with ruminant protein, the source of BSE infection. This ban has greatly reduced the number of BSE cases that have occurred. However,"—this is the point of my question—it has unfortunately not been totally effective, probably due to cross-contamination of ruminant feed with meat and bone meal from other animal feeds, both in feed mills and on farms.Is it now considered that the ban is totally effective? Is that still a problem? That point concerns the industry very much.
§ Mr. Baldry
It is because there has been concern about the total effectiveness of the feed ban that we are, as I shall explain to the House, introducing a feed recall scheme. As from 1 August, it will be a criminal offence and illegal for farms, merchants and feed mills to have meat and bonemeal on their premises.
Action is already in hand in relation to all the preconditions that we need to meet to get the export ban lifted. The cattle passport system will be introduced next week. As from 1 July, it will be compulsory for all cattle, born here or imported, to have a passport. We shall develop the system further to require compulsory double tagging in the autumn and the introduction of fully computerised recording of all cattle movements shortly thereafter.
The recall scheme for meat and bonemeal has already begun; more than 5,000 farms, feed merchants and mills have contacted the Department and 8,000 tonnes of material have been registered for collection. The collection started yesterday and will run until 24 July. 191 As from 1 August, it will be illegal for farms, merchants and feed mills to have meat and bonemeal on the premises.
Since the scheme started, we have made significant inroads into the backlog of cattle over 30 months old waiting to be slaughtered.
§ Mr. William Cash (Stafford)
In the light of what my hon. Friend has just said, will he assure the House that everything possible will be done to meet the problems faced by large dairy and beef farmers in my constituency as a result of the substantial backlog of animals still on farms but which, under the original proposals, must be shifted off the land? There is every need to move as quickly as possible on that. Will he also consider the question that I have raised with the Director General of Fair Trading regarding the stranglehold that many allege renderers have on the system, because that too is clogging up the arrangements that we want to improve?
§ Mr. Baldry
I am glad to say that so far about 170,000 cattle have been slaughtered under the over-30-month scheme. Nearly 30,000 cattle a week are now being processed, but at the outset the NFU and the Country Landowners Association agreed with Ministers that priority should be given to clean beef because concern was being expressed that clean beef farmers did not have the option of milk cheques and that their animals were getting fatter and heavier and needed to be processed. We have acted in accordance with that agreement.
As cold storage capacity increases, we shall increase the cull. Britain has a finite rendering capacity. We cannot invent and create more rendering capacity overnight, but we are ensuring that the scheme is operating properly and that there is no malpractice.
§ Mr. Baldry
I shall give way to my hon. Friends in a moment.
All possible steps to increase the rate of slaughter are being taken, despite the limit on available rendering capacity. We are acquiring cold storage space to which bone-in meat from processed animals will be moved to free up rendering capacity and to allow it to deal principally with offal. More than 3,000 carcases of over-30-month scheme beef have been diverted into storage so far. Four cold stores—Paddock Wood, Avonmouth, Gaerwyn and Aberdeen—are being used and more will be available shortly. As a result, we expect to clear the backlog of about 200,000 animals by mid-October.
§ Mr. Garnier
My hon. Friend may think it rather strange that a Member of Parliament should ask a Minister for the steps that his Department is taking to be given wider publicity, but will he ensure that those steps are made widely known throughout the country so that those who have to face their consequences in order to eradicate BSE are made aware of what is going on? There is an information gap and it should be bridged. I invite my hon. Friend to ensure that it is.
§ Mr. Baldry
My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. Ministers write regularly to farmers, we issue 192 information and we meet representatives of the industry throughout Britain. Last week, I met farmers from Cheshire, Shropshire, Staffordshire and the north-west; today, I met farmers from Gloucestershire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire, and I shall shortly be in Oxford meeting farmers from the south-east. Over the next week or so the Parliamentary Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton (Mrs. Browning), will meet farmers in Wellingborough, Bristol, Yorkshire and Devon. During the next couple of weeks my hon. Friend the Minister for Rural Affairs will meet farmers in Essex, Cambridge, Norfolk, Loughborough, Grantham and Preston.
We are therefore seeking to get the maximum information to farmers, through personal contact, by listening to their views and by written communication.
§ Mr. Nicholls
Before my hon. Friend leaves this part of his speech, will he say something about the estimates of the increased number of animals that will have to be culled as a result of the Florence agreement? He will recall that the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr Tyler) quoted highly selectively from a letter from the NFU, which referred to a scheme that could embrace up to 150,000 cattle. If he could give some estimate of the extra numbers that might be involved, that would go a long way towards reassuring people about the general validity of the agreement that has been reached.
§ Mr. Baldry
The first point that it is important to make is that the scheme for the 1989 cohort year is voluntary. Farmers may voluntarily offer their records and their cattle under the accelerated slaughter scheme. The incentive for them to do so, as my right hon. and learned Friend and I made clear to the House last week, is that the rates of compensation under the accelerated selective cull will be significantly higher than under the over-30-month scheme. Cattle in the 1989–90 cohort will now be quite old, and so likely to come under that scheme.
We know which holdings had cases of BSE in 1991, 1992 and 1993—they are recorded on computer. As soon as we have authority from the House to start the scheme, veterinary officers will be able to visit all those holdings to check their records on the calving cohort of cattle with BSE. We shall then, as speedily as possible, contact the farmers who now have those cattle, if they are still alive, in order that they may be dealt with.
Much disservice has been done by the way in which the Opposition and some of the media have sought to bandy figures on the selective cull, many of which have been speculative and many of which have been mischief-making. In my discussions with the NFU and the CLA this week, they recognised with regret that some in Europe are determined to see Britain do more to "eradicate" BSE, and that that is an essential prerequisite of raising the export ban. They are determined to work constructively with the Government—as we are determined to work constructively with the farming community—to ensure that the selective cull is a success, and that the least possible disruption is caused to farmers.
§ Mr. Budgen
May I assist my hon. Friend in the process of informing farmers? If the backlog will not be 193 cleared until October, presumably the new cattle involved in the selective cull cannot be selected for slaughter until November at the earliest.
§ Mr. Baldry
I hope that we shall be able to produce a consultation paper on the scheme next week. We shall then have to consider the orders that we would need to present to the House. There will need to be a certain amount of record checking and talking to farmers. Some farmers may have no cattle for the scheme, or just one or two, while others may have considerably more. We shall need to discuss the most effective way of bringing their cattle into the scheme. I would expect slaughtering under this scheme to start in September, but, in addition to the abattoirs and renderers being used for the over-30-month scheme, we have 12 registered BSE incinerators, which are currently being used to deal with casualty stock— largely with the backlog of casualty stock involved in the over-30-month scheme. Our capacity is becoming free, and I anticipate spare capacity in those incinerators in the earlier part of the scheme to deal with the selective cull until we embark on moves to eliminate the entire backlog.
§ Mr. Baldry
I am conscious of Madam Speaker's ruling that after 6 pm speeches are limited to 10 minutes, and I feel that I should make some progress.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
For the avoidance of doubt, let me inform the Minister that the 10-minute rule takes effect at 7 pm.
§ Mr. Baldry
Let me make some progress; then, given the liberal attitude of the Chair, I shall give way.
The accelerated slaughter scheme is obviously at an early stage. This week ministerial colleagues and I have met representatives of the farming industry from throughout the United Kingdom to discuss the details. Officials will meet them again this week with a view to putting together a package in the next few days— particularly on compensation, which I suspect is of real concern to farmers—so that we can go out to formal consultation as speedily as possible. I have also been meeting and talking to farmers up and down the country about the scheme, and fully appreciate that many of them are worried about its possible impact on their herds. I am determined that we will introduce it in a way that maximises the impact in cutting BSE cases, and minimises the problems for farmers.
194 I estimate that the selective cull will affect about 5 per cent. of the national dairy herd. Many dairy farmers will have just one or two cattle involved, if any, but some, sadly, will have many more. I am determined that the compensation for all farmers will be fair, and that no effort will be spared in ensuring the minimum disruption to farm holdings.
We have already tightened up on the removal of specified bovine offal, and provided the Meat Hygiene Service with an extra £39 million to recruit 300 extra staff, many of whom are already in post and undergoing training. The next step in the process is the staged removal of the export ban. The Commission document identifies five such stages.
§ Mr. Matthew Taylor
The Minister was kind enough to meet me earlier today to discuss some of the problems involved in the 30-month scheme in Cornwall. Those problems continue. Owing to the geography of the county, farmers find it difficult to go far to sell their cattle, and they can go in only one direction. I understand that last week as few as 200 to 300 cattle from the county may have gone for slaughter, because some were being brought in from outside and it was not possible to get them out. Will the Minister consider that problem?
§ Mr. Baldry
Thirty thousand cattle are being slaughtered every week under the scheme. They are being drawn from all over the country, and there are abattoirs all over the country. Indeed, one of the abattoirs involved in the scheme is in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, and has a sizeable allocation. If there is a particular problem with the cattle being sent to that abattoir, I shall of course look into it, but clearly the maximum throughput is being achieved day by day and week by week, and the backlog is being eroded steadily. As I have said, we expect it to be eliminated by the end of September or early October. Clearly, however, we cannot slaughter every cow—including beef cattle—today and tomorrow. It will take some weeks, but the maximum slaughter is going ahead.
§ Mr. Tyler
I appreciate the difficulty of forecasting developments, and I accept that the Minister expects the backlog to be eroded by the end of September. Will he confirm, however, that last week his right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture acknowledged to the Select Committee that the total extra selective cull could involve some 150,000 cattle? Given the figure of 30,000 a week, that is quite a long process to add to the existing cull. When does the Minister expect the full cull to be completed?
§ Mr. Baldry
The hon. Gentleman has missed an essential point. Because we are introducing cold storage and other facilities, we are increasing the slaughter rate considerably. By the time the backlog on the over-30-month scheme has been eliminated, we shall have more than sufficient capacity to deal with that scheme in addition to the selective cull. I hope that we shall be able to deal with the selective cull, from the time we start slaughtering under the accelerated and selective cull until the time we finish, in between six and nine months.
§ Mr. Lord
May I ask my hon. Friend not to overlook Suffolk? I am not sure whether he included it in the list 195 that he gave. Although Suffolk is primarily seen as an arable county, we have cattle as well. I received two letters just today—one from a dairy farmer with a big herd who has not yet managed to get rid of a single animal and wonders when he will be able to, and the other from a man who produces prime beef and wonders whether he will be compensated for the drop in the value of his animals.
§ Mr. Baldry
My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) made an extremely good point, saying that he hoped that the Government would do all that they could to publicise the steps that they were taking. I sometimes wish that the farming industry would take some steps to advise its members of some of the agreements that it has reached with Government. One of the agreements that the NFU and the CLA reached with Government was that priority for the over-30-month scheme should be given to clean beef. They agreed a ratio of at least three clean beef cattle to every cull cow. That inevitably meant that, in the earlier parts of the scheme, priority would be given to clean beef in the slaughterhouses. Of course, those such as my hon. Friend's constituents who primarily have cull cows that they want to be slaughtered must take their turn, which is extremely frustrating. In a moment I shall go into the details of intervention, and the help needed by producers of beef cattle aged over 30 months.
§ Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow)
Further to the answer that my hon. Friend just gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk (Mr. Lord), will he give careful consideration to the marketers of clean heifers, who are now finding it very hard to get them into abattoirs because of the difficulty of proving their age? Abattoirs prefer to take steers, whose cattle identification documents give proof of age.
§ Mr. Baldry
There is clearly a problem. We have given clear advice to abattoirs about how they should approach the issue of heifers coming into the scheme, and, as I have made clear to the industry, we are keen for as few heifers as possible to be rejected after slaughter. Rejection would mean that the farmer concerned would receive no compensation, which strikes me as very hard. If any hon. Member has details of an abattoir where there have been particular problems with heifers, I should like to know about it. We have given abattoirs detailed guidance, and I thought that we had resolved the issue.
The next step is the removal of the export ban, and the Commission document identifies five stages to achieve that. They relate to embryos, on which we expect the Scientific Veterinary Committee to make recommendations by October; animals born after a specific date and their meat; animals and meat from certified herds without a history of BSE or exposure to meat and bonemeal; meat from other animals under 30 months of age; and in the longer term, meat from all older animals.
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made it clear yesterday that we would expect to be in a position to tell the Commission by October that we have met the necessary conditions for decisions to lift the ban on two of the five stages—certified herds, and animals born after a specified date and their meat. Removal of the ban on those two categories will reopen to our industry an export 196 market worth initially about £100 million a year, and its value will increase rapidly thereafter as the certified herd scheme gains momentum. By October, we also expect a Commission proposal on a third stage—embryos—subject to the scientists giving them a clean bill of health. We should have met the conditions necessary for a decision to lift the ban on the fourth stage—meat from all animals under 30 months—by November.
Securing agreement on those steps will restore the position of beef exports to that before 27 March, except in the areas where we have prohibited sale in the UK. In other words, we would be in a position of being able to sell for export to the European Union young animals and all the beef that could then be sold in the UK. That would open the way for exports worth some £530 million per year.
To achieve that, we must first present a working paper to the Commission, setting out the specific criteria and indicators for each stage. The Commission will submit that paper to its Scientific Veterinary Committee for advice and to the newly created multi-disciplinary scientific committee and, where appropriate, to other relevant scientific committees. At the same time, the paper will be discussed by the Standing Veterinary Committee. In the light of those discussions, the Commission will take a decision in accordance with the established procedure, by presenting a draft decision to the Standing Veterinary Committee. The Commission will subsequently fix the date when exports can effectively resume, following a successful outcome of a Community inspection. That approach follows the model of the decision already adopted for resuming exports of gelatin and tallow, for which we are already drawing up the arrangements to allow trade to restart.
The timetable is ambitious and will clearly require Government and the industry to work hard together to achieve the early lifting of the ban, but the timetable is in our hands. When we have met the conditions, the normal procedures for such decisions, involving the Standing Veterinary Committee in particular, will apply—but we have the firm commitment from all Heads of Government in Florence that those decisions will be taken only on the basis of scientific and objective criteria.
I fully recognise the fact that despite the measures that have been taken, the beef market here and elsewhere in the EU remains depressed. Beef producers have lost and are losing substantial sums of money on cattle marketed under those conditions. We must give continual attention to what we can do to assist fanners with under 30-month-old beef who are selling into the retail market, but at prices markedly lower than this time last year. In recognition of that, the European Commission has proposed that £527 million should be made available for support measures in the beef sector. Part of that sum would fund increases of the suckler cow premium and beef special premium, on the basis of claims made in 1995. The proposed increases are £21.41 per head for suckler cows and £17.98 per head for male cattle. It is proposed also that the remainder of the sum available should be used to fund national aid measures to support the beef sector.
At the European Council in Florence, Heads of Government agreed that the sum of money available for the package should be increased to £689 million. My right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of Agriculture is currently discussing the final shape of the package in 197 Luxembourg, and I hope that agreement can be reached quickly. If top-up payments under the premium schemes are agreed this week, we should be able to make payment to eligible producers from mid-July onwards.
§ Mr. Baldry
We must consider that issue. If we had a retrospective scheme, could we fairly apply it because of the difficulties of proof of sale? I certainly want to help clean beef producers, who have clearly suffered losses. Those producers who have sold since 20 March have tended to sell because they were compelled to do so— either for lack of grass or lack of cash.
The principal market support mechanism in the beef sector is intervention—the only mechanism that we have to support the market in beef from animals under 30 months of age. We have worked hard to make intervention more accessible to and more effective for UK operators. We have persuaded the Commission to widen the coverage for steers from two carcase classes to six and, for the first time, young bulls have been included. As a result, current UK intervention coverage, expressed as a percentage of total annual saleable production, has increased to about 47 per cent. As a consequence of these changes, since the end of March bids for some 17,829 tonnes of UK beef have been accepted. In the most recent tenders, quantities bid for by operators in other member states have been significantly cut by the Commission and the beef management committee but UK bids have been allowed to stand, in recognition of the fact that UK market prices are the lowest in the EU.
§ Sir Roger Moate (Faversham)
I am glad that my hon. Friend has mentioned the support measures for clean beef. It is critical that the industry does not continue to incur its present heavy losses. As the moneys that my hon. Friend mentioned are specifically allocated to each nation, they are precisely capped. How much of the £680 million will be available to the United Kingdom to support beef prices?
§ Mr. Baldry
Under the first part of the scheme, the UK's share of the £527 million is £13.96 million. There is additional money for further national aid. It will be sensible to wait to see what emerges from the Council meeting in terms of the total package to assist UK clean beef producers and any further assistance that we can give them. We must ensure that the intervention system works as effectively as possible.
The system is still not ideally suited to UK operators— not least because it fails to take sufficient account of the costs that slaughterers face in disposing of the so-called fifth quarter. Fifth quarter returns depended crucially on their being a market for meat, bonemeal and red offals. Those markets have effectively been removed, in part by the prohibition on the use of mammalian protein in animal feed in the UK, and in part by the imposition of the EU export ban, which has greatly reduced the demand for offal. As such, slaughterers face additional costs in disposing of unsaleable produce. Those costs are not taken into account in the so-called processor's margin allowed for in the calculation of maximum acceptable bids under 198 the rules for intervention tenders. We have pressed the Commission hard on that aspect and will continue to press it hard to devise a proposal to increase the margin to reflect more nearly the actual costs faced by the industry. We are determined to do all that we can to help the under-30-month clean beef producer.
§ Mr. Barry Field (Isle of Wight)
When can farmers expect feed that described its ingredients? That matter is of great concern to my farmers.
§ Mr. Baldry
Discussions about feed descriptions are continuing with the industry. Every farmer in the country should know full well that there is no justification or excuse—there has not been for some time—for having feed containing mammalian meat and bonemeal on his farm. An effective recall system is now in operation, and from 1 August it will be a criminal offence to possess such feed.
We have a lot to do in a short time to meet the conditions necessary to enable European Union and world markets to be fully open again, but much has been achieved in the past few days. We shall go on doing everything possible to protect public health, restore consumer confidence and secure the interests of the British beef industry. Our overriding aim remains, as it has been from the start, the eradication of BSE from Britain.
§ Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East)
BSE has been a problem in the United Kingdom for more than a decade. The first cases of this terrible disease are believed by Government scientists to have emerged by 1985 and the disease was officially identified in 1986.
We are still not sure that CJD can be caused by eating beef or beef products containing the BSE agent, but the possibility has always been recognised. In 1989, the Government's Southwood committee advised that the risk of transmission of BSE to humans appeared remote, but could not be ruled out entirely. On 20 March this year, the Secretary of State for Health reported to the House that the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee had advised the Government that BSE was "the most likely explanation" for an apparently new form of CJD.
I submit to the House that at least four lessons can be learnt from our BSE experience. First, once a possible public health problem is identified, there must be the political will to tackle it. For many years, the Government clearly did not have the political will to protect the public from the possible risk from BSE. That can be the only explanation for their dreadful record of under-regulation and under-enforcement.
The second lesson is that there must be scientific research to tell us what is happening, to identify the nature of the threat and to design ways of combating it. In the debate which I opened for the Opposition the week before last, we dealt with the question of the Government's proposals, even at this stage, to privatise the research being carried out on BSE. Under the prior options review, as hon. Members will be aware, the Institute of Animal Health, which includes the neuropathogenesis unit, is a candidate for privatisation.
As I also pointed out in the debate, on the very day the Secretary of State announced the issue and the crisis started, the Institute of Animal Health announced a loss 199 of 60 jobs. In 1982, the institute employed 842 people: it now employs 489 people, more than 40 per cent. of whom are on temporary appointments.
Of course, Ministers were repeatedly saying that expenditure on BSE research had been increased. Of course it has been increased— it has been increased substantially—but it would be hard to avoid that when BSE was only identified in 1986. The crucial point is that the increase in research on BSE, CJD and other related issues has taken place against the background of huge cuts in Government-funded agriculture and food research. If the Government survive until May next year, I have calculated that they will have almost halved the number of scientists funded by the Government in food and agriculture research. They have already cut the numbers by more than 40 per cent.
The third lesson is that there must be regulation to protect the public. The House is aware of the Government's record of delay in regulating to protect human and animal health from BSE. There was a 20-month delay after identifying BSE before farmers had to destroy all suspect BSE cases. There was a delay of two and a half years before the Government said in June 1989 that they planned to ban the most infective offal from human food. Another seven-month delay followed before that was fully implemented throughout the UK and farmers were not fully compensated for slaughtering BSE cattle until February 1990. The Government have admitted that under-compensation for the previous 18 months deterred farmers from declaring suspect cases.
The fourth lesson is that regulations to protect our health must be properly enforced. The House will remember the Government's appalling record on enforcing BSE control regulations. In September 1995, 48 per cent. of slaughterhouses visited were found to be in breach of BSE controls designed to keep infective offal from human food.
§ Mr. Budgen
Does the hon. Gentleman recall that, during that time, there were frequent recollections by hon. Members on both sides of the House that the regulations should not be stringently enforced against those abattoirs that were having to come to terms with new European regulations? If they had been stringently enforced, there would have been a frightful row from all the abattoir owners.
§ Dr. Strang
I am not sure whether we are on the same wavelength. Is the hon. Gentleman really suggesting that hon. Members were advocating that the slaughterhouses should not implement the regulations or that there should be some laxity in relation to implementing the measures to keep specified bovine material out of human food, given the possible link with CJD? I hardly believe that hon. Members on either side of the House seriously advocated that.
This March, 4 per cent. of slaughterhouses and 17 per cent. of rendering plants visited were still in breach of the controls. In February and March this year, eight feedmills were found to be in breach of the mammalian protein ban to keep BSE out of cattle feed.
Over the years, I have warned the House about the implications of the cuts made in the number of public servants responsible for keeping our food safe. I welcome the fact that the Government have increased the number 200 of meat inspectors—the Minister referred to that. The inspectors are important. However, as well as the inspectors, I submit that the state veterinary service is in the front line. I have to remind the House that the number of vets employed by the state veterinary service has fallen by about one third since 1979. I hope that the Government will say something positive about how they intend to rebuild that service.
Someone said to me, "Save the state veterinary service." That may be an exaggeration, but it strikes me that Ministers keep referring to additional resources for meat inspectors, which we welcome, but there is never any statement about additional resources for the state veterinary service. I hope that there will be some response on that.
This is not a matter of being wise after the event. The Minister used the word "hindsight". Much as Ministers would like to say so, that is not the case. By May 1989, the Labour party had realised that it was vital to ban cattle offal from human food, to compensate farmers fully for slaughtered BSE cattle and to ban the export of meat and bonemeal for cattle feed. Of course, by then we all accepted the need to prevent ruminant protein from getting into cattle feed. All these things are on the record. We called on the Government to halt the export of meat and bonemeal to other countries. I refer to that because of the publicity that has surrounded the issue in the past couple of weeks.
In 1990—again this is on the parliamentary record— we called for a tagging system for all calves to be introduced in Great Britain. We knew that traceability would be key to tackling the problem. Indeed, we would have liked to see the system that operates in Northern Ireland implemented throughout the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland is in a special situation because it has an excellent traceability system, but it has been hammered as a result of the BSE crisis. What a transformation there would have been if we had had that traceability system throughout the entire United Kingdom, not just in Northern Ireland.
Full confidence in beef will be restored only when all measures necessary to keep the BSE agent out of our food are properly in place and enforced. The Labour party has set out proposals to restore confidence in the safety of beef, to keep the BSE agent out of our food, to improve the epidemiology of BSE, to increase consumer awareness and to improve the role of Government.
§ Mr. Nicholas Baker (North Dorset)
I disagree with some of the lessons that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. He has, however, left out one important lesson that has been learnt, with which I think he would agree because he has observed it himself—the need not to rouse hysteria by violent and wild political pronouncements. He has avoided doing that in a way that the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman) has not. The county council banned beef in school meals, based on no scientific evidence, although it undid the ban six weeks later. The council was Liberal Democrat controlled, of course. The ban created hysteria in Dorset, and it did incredible damage to the beef industry. Will the hon. Gentleman now say that he denounces all such pronouncements, and that that is an important lesson to have learnt?
§ Dr. Strang
No; I do not think that the hon. Gentleman expects me to do so. Certainly he cannot seriously suggest 201 that my hon. Friend the Member for Peckham was not reflecting the very great concern at that time. I noted that, a month or so ago, even the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Forestry in the Republic of Ireland referred in the press to how the Government were handling the crisis, the announcement on 20 March and the delay before a second announcement was made.
I agree with the hon. Member for North Dorset (Mr. Baker) to this extent: it is incumbent on us to avoid unnecessary elevation of the risk and to avoid encouraging people to lose perspective. We will accomplish that by telling the truth and not by pretending that there is not an issue, because there is a very real issue.
We have always made it clear that the Government were absolutely right to come to the House of Commons to report the new information from scientists on this apparently new form of CJD. It is too early to say how many more new cases there will be of this new form of CJD, but—I say it again—even if the cases increase, we still will not know by any means whether that was caused by eating contaminated beef or beef products in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
My view is that we must tell it to the people straight. They will understand. The measures in place to keep the organs—brain, spinal cord and specified bovine material—out of the food chain is the real protection, which is in addition, as everyone knows, to slaughtering animals that show symptoms. That is the important protection, as hon. Members have already said in the House, which is why hon. Members express doubts—to put it mildly—about the two slaughter programmes.
I should like to mention some of the proposals that we have made. Opposition Members have been very constructive on this issue, and we have repeatedly made constructive suggestions, some of which the Government have taken up.
First, in the long term, we believe that there should be an independent food standards agency, the purpose of which would be to ensure the safety of our food. It would be a consumer agency, and everything it recommended and all its decisions would be entirely public. It would be answerable to the Secretary of State for Health and to the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. It would be proactive and it would draw potential risks to the attention of the Government, the public and all interested parties.
We say that in future—it will take time—there is a role for such an agency to ensure that we re-establish our reputation for the highest quality and safest food in Europe. Sadly, BSE has tarnished that reputation, and the tarnish affects not just beef, as hon. Members are aware.
The second point, too, is wholly constructive. Indeed, the more I read the documentation from Florence, the more I am absolutely convinced of the lightness of such an approach. We should have an investigation—which, as I have already said, will take only about two or three months—into why so much contaminated feed reached cattle after the ban was imposed in 1988. Two thirds of new BSE cases occur in animals that were born after the imposition of the feed ban in 1988. If we are about tackling the problem at source, we should address that fact.
If we are about a further slaughter programme, which the Minister has acknowledged we are, I submit that it may be—I put it no higher—that a proper inquiry, 202 particularly in Northern Ireland, with its ability to trace, is necessary to discover which mills were offending, which farms received the feed and, therefore, which animals were most at risk. For the life of me, I cannot understand why Ministers have turned their backs on that possibility and persisted with an approach that emphasises numbers. There could now be up to 150,000 cattle in the second slaughter programme.
§ Mr. Budgen
The hon. Gentleman has mentioned a large number of proposals, which he says that the Labour party wanted to be put in place before anyone knew that there was any risk of transmission to humans. It is all very well being wise after the event, but perhaps he will tell us how much all that would have cost.
§ Dr. Strang
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, which occurred to me as I read the coverage in some of the broadsheet newspapers over the weekend. The risk of a link between BSE and CJD existed from the moment we identified BSE.
§ Dr. Strang
I am grateful to the Chairman of the Select Committee for agreeing.
The Southwood committee report said that there was a possibility of such a risk, although it was remote. So the risk was always there. If we had implemented the measures—even if the Government had implemented their own measures effectively, particularly the feed ban—we would not be in our current position, spending billions of pounds tackling the crisis.
Remember that the general position—the Government's position, the Opposition's position and the European position—is that the main, if not the sole, cause of BSE in our cattle is contaminated ruminant protein. Obviously we will need to see the result of the maternal transmission experiment. There may be some maternal transmission, but if there is, it is expected to be very minor. I hope that that experiment will be allowed to be concluded with a proper, published analysis.
Support for quality assurance schemes is one of our eight points. We are moving on now to the question of certified herds, which is a very important matter, as the Minister appreciates. There is great frustration in the industry that certification is still not in place 10 weeks after it was promised. Will the criteria for exemption from the 30-month scheme be the same as those for certification to export, once the European Union agrees relaxation of the ban? I hope that the Minister will answer that question when she replies.
I should now like to deal with the motion and the amendment on the Order Paper. Many criticisms can be made of the Government's handling of the current BSE crisis, and Opposition Members have made them clearly in the House. After the statement on the new evidence of a possible BSE-CJD link, on 20 March, the Agriculture Minister told the House: 203I do not believe that this information should damage consumer confidence and thus the beef market."—[Official Report, 20 March 1996; Vol. 274, c. 387.]There was no strategy whatsoever, and rural areas will be paying for that appalling misjudgment for a long time. As bits of policy finally emerged, they were dogged by chaos. Nowhere was that chaos more apparent than in the 30-month slaughter scheme.
Whatever criticisms we may have of the handling of the BSE crisis by the current Agriculture Minister, I do not want to encourage the hope held by some Conservative Members that sacking the Minister will in some way eliminate the Government's culpability for their terrible failure for so many years to tackle BSE effectively. Indeed, if we are to get into the business of sacking Cabinet members, we should consider sacking former Agriculture Ministers, who presided over dreadful delays and under-enforcement since BSE was identified in 1986. That would of course mean saying goodbye to the Secretary of State for the Environment, the Secretary of State for Education and Employment and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, who are all former Agriculture Ministers. BSE and CJD are crucial matters of public health. Past and present Secretaries of State for Health were involved in the neglect of the duties of Government. Perhaps we should say farewell to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Secretary of State for National Heritage and the present Secretary of State for Health.
The Government amendment will not cut much ice with the beef and dairy industries or with our rural communities. Hon. Members who have contact with those industries or who represent rural constituencies are aware of the scale of the damage and the scale of the losses. It is true that large amounts are now going into providing some support and compensation, but they are not compensating fully for the losses. They are not compensating for the fall in the price of beef animals or for all the lost jobs in transport and other specialist aspects of the industry. It is a disaster and the House knows that. Thousands of jobs have been lost and livelihoods are at stake; that is what confronts us. I do not see any acknowledgement of that in the Government amendment.
There are very real issues to be addressed; the Minister set out the position. In their amendment, the Government boast that they have brought back from the Florence summit a "clear framework". They have done nothing of the sort: they have no timetable and no guarantee from their European counterparts of any future agreement on any of the proposed steps in the lifting of the ban.
I take exception to the Minister's criticism of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition. The fact is that my right hon. Friend set out the position yesterday and the Prime Minister was unable to answer his criticisms. The reality is clear. We have agreed to implement a number of measures, including the commencement—I emphasise that it is the commencement and not the completion—of the second slaughter programme, the selective slaughter programme. Once we have all the measures in place, consideration will be given, following a submission from the Government, to lifting one step of the ban.
As has been pointed out repeatedly, that consideration will be on the basis of a Commission decision and a decision of the Standing Veterinary Committee, which has caused problems in the past. We must also recognise that there is an unfortunate discrepancy—the Minister knows 204 more of the inside story than I do—between the attitude of the Standing Veterinary Committee and the attitude of the Scientific Veterinary Committee. We have made some criticisms of the way in which the matter was handled by the Standing Veterinary Committee; that is why there is no guarantee even of the first step. The Prime Minister put forward an ambitious series of proposed steps, to which the Minister referred today. However, there is no guarantee and that is why my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition was right in his judgment.
As the national interest had been invoked, the Labour party promised not to undermine the Prime Minister's non-co-operation strategy, but at no stage did we give a blank cheque. We must judge the strategy by its results and it can only be judged a failure.
§ Sir Hector Monro (Dumfries)
I share the view of my right hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling) that it was entirely inappropriate for the Liberal Democrats to table a motion of censure against the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food because he is not able to be here to defend himself. It is wrong to attack an hon. Member behind his back. [HON. MEMBERS: "Rubbish."] It is typical of Liberal Democrat Members to say "Rubbish"; they never listen to argument. They know perfectly well why my right hon. and learned Friend is in Luxembourg. He is attending the Agriculture Council and could not be here to speak. He has, however, been defended admirably by my hon. Friend the Minister.
I have been lucky enough to have two Adjournment debates on the matter in the Scottish Grand Committee. I have tabled questions and I have asked the Prime Minister and other Ministers questions after statements. I warmly support the Government in what they have done over the past three months; I include in that comment, of course, my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of Agriculture and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland. I am pleased that we have had the support and help, through restraint, of the National Farmers Unions of all the countries involved.
Yet I, along with all my hon. Friends, have expressed concern about the whole industry—the food chain—as well as about the farmers themselves. We should not concentrate on the past, as the hon. Members for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang) and for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) have done—we should think about the present and the future. The only point on which I agree with the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East is the need for scientists to try to find a live test for BSE. That will require immense scientific effort, but it will be well worth the money if we can find a solution.
We must try, as I said yesterday to the Prime Minister, to get the beef argument off the front pages of the newspapers and to restore confidence among consumers. We have set the process in train; we have the framework in place following the success of the Prime Minister's trip to Florence. We would not have had that success if my right hon. Friend had not taken a firm stance. He stood up and made our European friends concentrate their minds on what was before them. They had the whole of April and May in which to come to a solution and they did not even begin to answer the questions until the Prime Minister put it to them bluntly that they had to concentrate their minds and come to a decision. We now have action and a framework for bringing beef back into the export market.
205 In Scotland, we have had, fortunately, a lower level of BSE. If it had not been for the outbreak in March, we would have eliminated BSE in two or three years. We now have hundreds rather than thousands of cases. If we work hard at the problem, we can eliminate BSE in Scotland relatively soon. As my hon. Friend the Minister said, we must therefore see a rapid implementation of the policy laid down by the Government, so that our exports to Europe will be acceptable to our European partners.
§ Mr. Jones
I will not follow the hon. Member for Lancaster (Dame E. Kellett-Bowman) down the road of abuse. I thank the right hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) for giving way to me.
The right hon. Gentleman has mentioned our export market. What assessment has he made of the market position of British beef in Europe, given that the Europeans are apparently not able to sell their own meat at the moment? Does he think that our exporters will have any difficulty in selling British beef when we get to the end of the process that the Prime Minister has so successfully, as he says, negotiated?
§ Sir Hector Monro
I apologise to the hon. Gentleman. I was overtaken by my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster (Dame E. Kellett-Bowman). If the beef issue is to be resolved, there will have to be many changes. I expect that there will be a change in attitude to beef in the coming months when the crisis has settled down and Britain is once again allowed to export to the continent. The Germans will then realise that the scare is over and the market there will pick up, as it will in France, Italy and elsewhere. Hopefully, by the end of the year there will be a change in the attitude towards beef in Europe. It is no use being defensive about British beef; we have to sell it to our customers in Britain and on the continent.
§ Mr. Prentice
Was it right for Britain to export contaminated feed to the continent after it had been banned here?
§ Sir Hector Monro
No, of course that should not have been done. That was a mistake by the industry and there was no excuse for it. However, that does not mean that we should not raise eyebrows over what happened to contaminated feed on the continent and what happened to all the cattle in France that ate it. That is another matter.
206 It is important that everything is spelt out to the farming industry in great detail and as soon as possible. There is no doubt that anyone involved in a crisis—whatever the subject—wants information. People want to know what the score is, what steps they can take and what the alternatives are. MAFF has sent letters to farmers. I suggested to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland that a weekly newsletter should be sent to farmers setting out all the alternatives that are in the pipeline. That has been helpful, but the information needs to be extremely accurate and up to date, as has been demonstrated by the problems that have occurred in my constituency, which I shall relate to the House.
I was glad to hear from my hon. Friend the Minister of State that we have now slaughtered 170,000 cattle—it is sad, but it shows that the scheme is well under way—and that he is keen to set up an identification and recording system. Perhaps in her reply to the debate, my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to give us some idea as to how the herd-by-herd scheme will work, as I am worried that it will be particularly difficult.
Perhaps my hon. Friend will also address the points that have been made in the press about grass-fed herds. Does that mean what it says—that the cattle are really fed only on grass? That is extremely unlikely, particularly in less-favoured areas where a feed supplement has to be given in winter, so it cannot be claimed that the beasts are fattened solely on grass. I hope that we will hear more about slow-maturing cattle such as Galloways and Highlanders, as it is unlikely that they can be fattened in 30 months.
I was glad that my hon. Friend the Minister admitted that the finishers of cattle—those selling prime beef under 30 months old—have been hit harder than anyone. They lost about £50 per head of cattle in the Christmas scare. The spring crisis has now cost them some £250 on a fat steer just under the 30-months limit. That is a serious loss and there is no way in which it can be recouped. I have not the slightest doubt that, since the March deadline, farmers will have accurate records of the beasts that they have sold, so there could be the possibility of retrospective support. It was disappointing that, last week, because of market forces, we had to reduce the premiums as the additional income from those cattle receiving the premiums helped to balance the loss being made on other cattle.
Yesterday, when I questioned the Prime Minister about fair compensation, he was good enough to reply:I shall ensure that that is the case."—[Official Report, 24 June 1996; Vol. 280, c. 32.]I hope that the Government's action will bring confidence to the industry that it will be properly compensated for the major disaster that it has suffered.
I am glad that my hon. Friend the Minister mentioned less-favoured areas and the possibility of additional support to the livestock industry through the suckler cow subsidy or later in the year when we review the hill livestock compensatory allowance, which is used as a yardstick.
§ Sir Hector Monro
The hon. Gentleman thinks that we know nothing at all. Although it was reduced three years ago, it has not gone down any further and I see no reason 207 why it should not be increased in view of present circumstances. We should try to ensure that support is in place in time for the suckler calf sales in September and October, as they are the absolute livelihood of many hill farmers in Scotland.
I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will make certain that farmers are given clear instructions week by week as to how they can make the best use of the disposal system. I have certainly run into some snags in my constituency. Some slaughterhouses are not being used and others have no quota for casualty animals. No slaughterhouses in south-west Scotland take casualty cattle. One must look at the humane aspect of how far to transport injured cattle, as I explained to my noble Friend Lord Lindsay who is responsible for such matters.
My hon. Friend should also clarify the continuing discussions and arguments in respect of the dentition test. We have set out the rules specifying four teeth for the 30-month disposal system or two teeth for normal sales and there have been problems relating to heifers.
My constituency borders England, and my farmers send cattle to Longtown and Carlisle. Last week, when we changed the premium support level for heifers and steer, there were difficulties when the auction mart and the slaughterhouse told farmers, "Sorry chaps, even if there are four teeth, unless you have a cattle birth record document, you will lose part of the subsidy." That has been proved wrong by the weekly newsletter, the NFU press release and a ministerial statement. We must get over those hiccups as soon as possible.
It is important that we look forward, be clear and concise in our policy and explain it explicitly, particularly to dairy farmers who will have major problems with their herds in August, September and October as we approach the selective cull, which will have the greatest effect on the dairy herd. We must accelerate the process as soon as possible in close discussion with the National Farmers Union. We shall then begin to see a change in attitude that will return confidence not only to farmers, but—equally importantly—to the food chain. That would help the farmers, the slaughterhouses—some of them are doing reasonably well, but others are not in the scheme—the processors and the exporters who have been so important in Scotland where prime Scotch beef has been of such economic value.
Everyone has a part to play, but we must be tough on those who are out of step and those who try to beat the system. We hear about too many people trying to get round the system which has been set up for the good of everybody.
As I said earlier, it is no use looking back with hindsight. We have to look forward. The Government have done a good job in difficult circumstances and I hope that, as a result of that success, our export markets will be open before the end of the year and farming will return to a profitable future for consumers, the environment and the industry.
§ Madam Deputy Speaker
Order. Before I call the next hon. Member, I remind the House that from 7 pm until 9 pm there will be a limit of 10 minutes on speeches.
§ Mr. David Hinchliffe (Wakefield)
I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang) for making the point that we are discussing essentially a health issue. I am concerned that, with his honourable exception, speeches have not addressed the serious concerns about health aspects of the BSE crisis. Before I raise two specific points, I shall cite one example of how, consistently over the years, the Government have responded to warnings from scientists who do not toe the Government line by shooting the messengers and abusing people who have criticised and argued with policy.
By 1988, we knew that humans were one of six species vulnerable to infection. By 1990, we knew that there was an increasing incidence of BSE. Some hon. Members will recall Professor Richard Lacey, whom I have known for many years in my locality of West Yorkshire, warning in 1990 on the basis of what was known then that there should be selective slaughter of infected herds and the implementation of quarantine measures. The response of Government Members was to table an early-day motion on 15 May 1990, which said:That this House condemns the relentless attack on British farmers and food-producers by professors who display symptoms akin to BSE; and calls on the Department of Health to investigate the mental state of Professor Lacey who, having helped to destroy the egg industry, is now turning his attention to beef.I shall not name the hon. Members who supported that early-day motion. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why not?"] I shall not because, as a matter of courtesy, I would notify them first of my intention to do so. However, two of them were present earlier. Indeed, bearing in mind the fact that the debate has been initiated by the Liberal Democrats, I should say that one of the hon. Members who supported the motion was a Liberal Democrat, who is still in the House, but not present. To his great credit, my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) tabled an amendment to the motion.
Perhaps we should listen to such professors and consider why such an attitude has affected the way in which we have dealt with this serious problem. Lacey was right on eggs, according to a Health Minister. He was proved right on listeria. Had we listened to the warnings about BSE in 1990, the farming industry would not be facing this crisis, billions of pounds of taxpayers' money would not have to be diverted into dealing with it, and, most important of all, public health would have been safeguarded. We should have listened to one or two people on the sidelines who were marginalised. They were saying that a serious problem was coming up.
The Prime Minister's statement yesterday primarily concerned the export issue—not health. BSE is a health issue. I shall raise two aspects of the health side of the story, which has not been addressed except by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East. I hope that I shall get some responses from the Minister. The first issue concerns gelatine.
There have been long-standing restrictions on the use of gelatine in pharmaceutical and medical products. That was changed by SEAC on 24 March, and it now tells us that gelatine is safe for use in such products. Why did that change take place? A document produced by the animal health veterinary group in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food only this month contains data showing that chemicals used and temperatures needed to extract 209 and purify gelatine are inadequate to destroy the infective agent of BSE that is likely to be present in bones. I understand that SEAC's policy change arises from advice given by an expert in the Medicines Control Agency. I have asked the Department of Health questions about what new information caused the change and what qualifications are held by the person who proposed it. I have had no answers. Perhaps the Minister will give me some tonight.
§ Mr. Hinchliffe
With the greatest respect, I say that I have only a few minutes left and cannot give way.
I also want to question current practices concerning the remains of potentially infected cattle. I have a letter that was sent by Prosper de Mulder Ltd., which is believed to be the company that produced the problem feed that resulted in the crisis. Incidentally, we found out the other week that it contributes to the Conservative party—what a surprise. It said to MAFF in October 1994:we … have been aware for several years of the unsatisfactory application of the existing legislative requirements for the segregation and handling of SBO by the slaughter and knacker industries as well as at rendering plants.In a debate on BSE and CJD on 10 June, I raised my concerns about certain practices concerning blood products in Yorkshire. The Parliamentary Secretary responded to that debate, and the Minister may be aware of the concerns. Following that, I received representations from people in Canterbury about what was going on at the Canterbury Mills site where, I understand, one of the nine rendering plants is located. I have mentioned out of courtesy to the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) that I was concerned about the issue. Although the plant is one of those licensed to dispose of cull cows, the remains of cattle in a liquid effluent are being pumped on to the nearby field.
A report by Dr. Alan Colchester, a leading neurologist who treats patients suffering from CJD in that area, was given to Canterbury district council planning committee on 21 May. There is, of course, a cluster of cases in that area. I am not suggesting a link because it cannot be proved, but questions need to be asked. Dr. Colchester said:There is no doubt that the liquid effluent which results from the processing of animal remains could potentially be a potent route of transmission of prions to farm animals, wild animals, domestic pets and man.He spoke of a lack of knowledge of how such waste should be handled and inadequate regulation. Such concerns are serious, and I suspect that they are not only confined to Kent. Other developments to which I want to refer suggest possible problems elsewhere.
In April, the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison), answered a written question that I tabled about the volume of abattoir waste entering the United Kingdom sewerage system. He said:The specified bovine offals, which include all the tissues known to harbour BSE infectivity, are removed from cattle at slaughter and destroyed. As a result, it is unlikely that any BSE contaminated material could enter the sewerage system."—[Official Report, 3 April 1996; Vol. 275, c. 238.]210 Practices at Canterbury and, I suggest, possibly elsewhere, raise serious doubts about whether the Government's policy is being applied, and whether that answer is correct.
I discovered last weekend—other hon. Members probably did the same—that Anglian Water, for example, is insisting on fine filter systems at its BSE cull abattoirs to stop prions being released into the sewerage system. If the Under-Secretary's answer is correct, why is it having to do that? I would welcome some assurances from the Parliamentary Secretary on what I regard as a serious point.
I know that water that is used for drinking by my constituents, myself, my family and my children is extracted from many rivers that, on occasions, take sewage. I do not want to be alarmist or to scaremonger. All I want are common-sense answers to serious questions. If people had listened to those who raised such questions some years ago, we would not have the horrendous mess that we have today. For goodness sake, we must realise that there are millions of people in the country who, like me, are the parents of schoolchildren. They are anxious about what this problem could mean for their generation, their children and grandchildren and generations to come. The problem will not go away.
To understand why we have the problem, we must look at the way in which it has been handled, not just during the past 13 weeks—as the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) said in opening the debate—but during the past 13 years. We must look at some of the decisions that have been made and some of the points that were raised by scientists. We must find out why, for example, SEAC discarded evidence from the likes of Stephen Dealler. We must also consider the treatment of Dr. Harash Narang and others who criticised the Government's policy. Those people have been abused and marginalised. Now, sadly, the chickens are coming home to roost. If we had listened to those people, we would not be in the mess we are in today.
§ 7.9 pm
§ Sir Jerry Wiggin (Weston-super-Mare)
It has not been stated as often as it should be that this matter was brought to public attention not by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of Agriculture, but by the Daily Mirror. That newspaper published in its 20 March edition four pages dealing with a leaked document— leaked, I understand, from the Department of Health—on BSE. I believe, although I have no internal knowledge of the matter, that Ministers were then forced into a corner and had to make an announcement before they had taken the necessary preparation and time to deal with the minutiae and appropriate questions attached to it.
The article was based on a leaked, or stolen, document, and it was an irresponsible way of announcing something that, as the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang) said, was always a possibility. It was always possible that BSE would pass across the species to human beings, and it was for that very reason that the enormously expensive and complex butchering operations to remove specified offal took place following a Government order in 1989. We do not always keep these matters in proportion—10 people a day are killed on our roads.
I was astonished that the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) adopted the tone he did. Does he really believe that—at a time when the world is looking closely 211 at how we are dealing with our industry—it is in Britain's national interest to start casting doubt? He mentioned Professor Lacey and his recommendations. Professor Lacey gave evidence to the Agriculture Select Committee in 1990, but did not impress the Committee with his knowledge of the subject or his background information. Nor did we believe that any of his recommendations was likely to be practical. As the history of the disease has progressed, he has been proved entirely wrong, and SEAC has been proved entirely right.
The hon. Member for Wakefield also mentioned Harash Narang. One of the leading professors in the country told the Select Committee the other day that he would not employ Dr. Narang. If the hon. Gentleman inspects Dr. Narang's written evidence when it is published, I cannot believe for one second that he will give credibility to that gentleman, either.
The Liberal Democrats have an extraordinarily high opinion of themselves in relation to their actions in this matter. The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) said that the Liberals had set out to be of help, but I find it difficult to stomach that statement. On the first three days after the crisis broke, the Liberals were stampeding around the country making public statements that were critical of the Government and which added to public concern.
It was not until farmers in the constituencies of Yeovil and North Cornwall, among others, started pointing out that huge damage would be done to the British beef industry that they changed their approach, following a complete 180 deg turn. Since then, the Liberals have been of remarkably little help. They have deliberately stirred up the agricultural community, and have been spreading despair and concern.
I believe that the actions of several politicians—I do not exempt the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman)—forced our European partners in a moment of panic to introduce the ban, although "forced" may not be the right word. That was the crucial moment when public confidence went up the spout, because the public were concerned that the European countries no longer believed us, having done so through the early 1990s. Europe had taken the veterinary and scientific advice and played the game by the book, but it suddenly tore up the rule book and the scientific evidence, and banned our beef. The ban has, in fact, affected many European countries to a far greater extent than our own.
To minimise this problem would be a mistake—it is a substantial disaster, not just for Britain but for the whole of Europe. When we could make no impression on the Europeans, what other option did we have but to say, "If you have broken the rules, we will break the rules"? To suggest that that did not concentrate their minds is not facing facts—it concentrated their minds remarkably.
Critics say that there is no timetable for the ban to be lifted, but I do not agree. Although there is no calendar date for the lifting of the ban, there is very much a timetable for our actions. As we respond to the requests, Europe will see it relevant to lift various elements of the ban, until we can put the matter behind us.
The hon. Member for Wakefield questioned the decision on gelatine, but there is no evidence that BSE material is found in bones. He therefore starts his argument by referring to a material that is in itself safe, and his questioning shows that he, too, has departed from the scientific approach.
212 I confess that the farmers have been critical of the execution of the execution—if I can use that phrase—and have stated that it has caused great concern. There is a backlog of cattle—some of which have been eating their heads off at the farmers' expense—and there were other problems. However, we were engaged in an exercise of enormous proportions which was totally unrehearsed and unprepared. Never before has a problem of this size and nature arisen, but it is now beginning to go relatively smoothly.
§ Sir Jerry Wiggin
I am sorry, but I have very little time. I am fated always to speak when there is a 10-minute rule. I hope the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if I do not give way.
This morning, I received—as did some of my hon. Friends—a letter from the NFU that states:The NFU welcomes the fact that the Prime Minister has now indicated that he anticipates that the ban on the export of British beef products (including exports to non-EU countries, but apart from meat from over 30 month cattle) could be raised by November of this year.
§ Sir Jerry Wiggin
It depends on the extent to which we carry out our obligations. I am confident that MAFF and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster will carry out those obligations within the timetable that they have in mind.
The NFU letter continued:We also welcome his assurance that the European Commission—this is the key point—has the power to override the Standing Veterinary Committee if that body appears to be taking factors other than purely scientific or technical ones into account. Should such a position arise the NFU considers that the Government should immediately halt the selective cull scheme. The whole beef crisis has been far too bedeviled with politics rather than based on good scientific advice and cool rational judgment.Those are not my words, but those of the NFU.
The letter continues:The NFU pledges to do all it can to cooperate with the relevant authorities to ensure that the export ban is lifted on the timetable referred to by the Prime Minister, if not earlier. It is essential that for their part the authorities 'pull out all the stops' so that this can be achieved.I believe that they will do that.
I had hoped to have time to remind the House that the Agriculture Select Committee produced three reports— agreed by all Committee members—on BSE, on the disposal of livestock, and on the identification and registration of livestock. With the wisdom of hindsight, I must record my disappointment that we perhaps did not receive a greater response from the Government.
I hope that, when the Select Committee reports in future, the Government will cast their mind back and consider that perhaps we had it partly right, especially in respect of identification and registration. In defence of the Government, we reported that, because the number of BSE cases was declining, we did not think that it would 213 be worth the cost of introducing a programme. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister was a member of the Committee at that time.
§ Sir Jerry Wiggin
We recommended that there should be a database of the movements of cattle in the United Kingdom, as they have in Holland—
§ Mr. Andrew Welsh (Angus, East)
I will be brief, because of the time constraints.
This motion, though targeted at the Minister of Agriculture, is basically a motion of no confidence in the Government, and as such, we back it fully. The Government's handling of the beef crisis has undoubtedly exacerbated the problems and undermined confidence in the industry. Farmers are justifiably angry.
I cannot over-emphasise the importance of the beef industry to the Scottish economy. Agriculture represents around 3 per cent. of Scotland's gross domestic product; the United Kingdom figure is less than half that. The beef industry represents 30 per cent. of Scottish agriculture, compared with only 10 per cent. of England's; 20 per cent. of that figure is top-class beef exports, which were valued in 1995 at £118 million.
Agriculture provides 2.1 per cent. of total civilian employment in Scotland. The crisis impacts not only on farmers but on auction marts, abattoirs, renderers, transporters, manufacturers, retailers and bakeries. It is estimated that, for every 100 jobs directly lost in agriculture, there will be 288 jobs lost in the Scottish economy as a whole.
Over the past five years, while the value of total meat exports has trebled, the volume of beef exports has almost quadrupled. Practically all Scottish beef exports are destined for Europe, with 93 per cent. going to France, Italy, Belgium and Holland alone; 87 per cent. of United Kingdom beef exports are bound for the European Union. That is what the Prime Minister was messing about with in his so-called beef war.
The Government's mishandling of European negotiations has put other products in danger. In 1995, Scotland exported £97 million-worth of Scottish lamb, almost exclusively to the European Union. It is feared that the Government's petty posturing with our European partners could seriously threaten the European market, not only for beef but for other meat products.
Accompanying the greater importance of the beef industry in Scotland and Northern Ireland is the ironic fact that the incidence of BSE is significantly lower in both countries. The disease is concentrated in dairy herds, although even in those, the incidence in England is almost twice that in the Scottish dairy herds. More significantly, Scotland has two beef cattle for every dairy beast, while in England the ratio is reversed by almost 3:1.
214 About 70 per cent. of Scottish beef originates from suckler cow herds that are kept to produce beef-only animals. Some 3,700 farms are members of the Scottish Quality Beef and Lamb Association's quality assurance scheme, while 4,000 others meet the quality targets and are waiting to join the scheme. The association receives 30 applications a week to join its scheme.
The specialist herds are certified BSE-free, and should never have been lumped in with the affected dairy herds, as the Government insisted. The Scottish National party has consistently argued for a rolling lifting of the ban on beef exports, with quality products from Scotland and Northern Ireland leading the way out of the crisis. We took that campaign to Brussels without the help of the Scottish Office or of central Government. It has been one of the clearest examples yet of the desperate need for a strong, independent Scottish voice in Europe that argues strongly for Scottish interests.
Our Members of the European Parliament met Commissioner Fischler in April, as did representatives from Northern Ireland. We were told that the Commission was receptive to proposals for a regional or zonal lifting of the ban. Several European Union Farm Ministers echoed that, recognising the distinctiveness of quality beef. Jacques Santer, in an interview with "On the Record" in May, agreed that a step-by-step, regional or zonal approach to lifting the ban was the way forward.
The early-day motion tabled by the hon. Member for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs), which called for an immediate lifting of the ban from those parts of the United Kingdom with established quality assurance and traceability schemes, has had 92 signatories. Yet we faced the ridiculous situation that the proposal had to come from the British Government—and no such proposal came.
A practical case could have been made for putting Scottish beef back into its vital export markets. Instead, the Government preferred to wage a beef cold war in Europe, which could have negative implications for years to come. The Scottish National party has been disturbed by the Government's immature behaviour, and we are worried about its long-term impact on Scotland.
After the complete failure of the Government's tactics, the Prime Minister has simply tabled a series of measures to obtain the agreement that he was promised from the start. Yet the beef industry has been forced to endure months of damage. Consumer confidence has been hammered, and relations between the United Kingdom and the European Union are at an all-time low.
From the outset, the Commission had promised its support for lifting the ban if there was a programme to eradicate BSE. It is astounding that, after the disgraceful way in which the Prime Minister has handled the crisis, he is trying to claim victory in respect of the package agreed in Florence, when it has been on offer since day one. He has fought a phoney war and obtained a phoney victory. We need to repair the damage done by the Government—a task in which they have not yet engaged.
The Government have conceded that incidence of BSE is lower in Scotland, and that that would make it much easier to implement a successful eradication policy, and more quickly than could be done in England. In yesterday's statement, the Prime Minister set that as the first stage in a five-stage process to lifting the ban. His statement was full of vague and optimistic words and objectives, but had little substance. He "hopes", 215 "believes" and "aims" to achieve objectives, but the industry needs firm commitments and assurances, not simple aspirations.
The Government hope to be in a position to lift the ban on certified herds by October, but that depends on clearing the backlog of animals awaiting slaughter in the 30-month-plus scheme, and a start to the accelerated slaughter of cattle at risk. We are entitled to ask exactly when the backlog will have to be cleared and how the Government propose to do that effectively.
Will the Minister assure us that a regional or zonal approach will be adopted, given that the number of BSE-affected cattle in Scotland is relatively small, and hence the number to be slaughtered fewer? The backlog will be cleared first in areas, such as Scotland, where quality beef herds predominate. That is what we and the farmers want from the Government.
Can the Minister assure us that the Scottish economy and beef industry will not be dragged down further by the Government's failure to implement measures to meet the deadline for clearing the backlog of dairy herds awaiting slaughter in England? Scottish agriculture requires and deserves no less.
I specifically ask the Minister to consider that Scottish and Northern Ireland quality beef herds can lead the rest of the United Kingdom beef industry out of the crisis. We have been arguing for that for a long time, with no help from the Scottish Office. The solution is clear if the Government care to adopt it. Their negotiating stance in Europe has been counter-productive.
There has been no victory, but there has been a start that must be built upon. We need action to deliver the steps that need to be taken. The quality beef herds of Scotland can be the vanguard in rolling back the blanket ban and starting the recovery that the industry badly needs.
§ Mr. Paul Marland (West Gloucestershire)
What I find incredible about this debate is that our opponents seek to turn hindsight into a virtue. They regard it as an intellectual asset, when we know that it is the cheapest commodity on earth. Having listened to the speech of the hon. Member for Angus, East (Mr. Welsh), I wonder whether he has been in the Chamber during the debate.
We are discussing the biggest operation that has ever been undertaken in the United Kingdom food industry. As others have said, it involves farmers, feed manufacturers, markets and those who work in them, hauliers, slaughterers, vets, renderers, restaurants, exporters, food processors, eight Government Departments, billions of pounds and tens of thousands of people. It takes time to mobilise and communicate with all those enterprises and interests.
We are dealing with a new disease which takes a long time to develop. No one is sure how it is going to develop. Of course there has been frustration between the farmers and the Government and between the Government and our European partners. One of the frustrating things for the Government was that they could not get any clear statements, ideas or suggestions out of our European partners when the disaster first occurred. The EU would not give us any positive guidance on what it wanted to see us do. It introduced the ban, and was unhelpful in telling us what we should do to get it lifted.
216 What should have been the Government's main priority—sorting out the farmers and communicating with the interested parties in Britain, or sorting out the ban? It seems to me that there is no question but that the first thing we had to do was find the right way forward with our European partners, and persuade them to co-operate. Europe had to be our main priority. Despite what Opposition Members have said this evening, our partners refused to co-operate, and would not discuss the matter with us. I had discussions, as others did, with Ministers at an early stage, and that was their frustration.
We had to introduce a system of non-co-operation to persuade the Europeans to come to the negotiating table. That has shown the nation that the Conservative Government are not frightened to stand alone when the need arises. It is not for us to work towards a federal Europe. [Interruption.] The wriggling on the Opposition Benches suggests that Opposition Members are happy to be swamped by European legislation, and would not stand up for the interests of the people of this country.
Of course we have faced delay and frustration over this matter. We all know from dealing with problems brought to us by our constituents how long things can take to sort out, and how frustrating it is when we cannot sort them out immediately. So what have the Government done at home to ease the way and improve communications between interested parties? It is excellent that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has been appointed to spearhead the eight Government Departments in their efforts. It is first-class that advance payments are being made to farmers holding cows over 30 months which are due to be slaughtered. It is right that the Government should consult interested parties on the next move.
I was riveted by the suggestion by the Opposition that the Northern Ireland scheme is the right way forward. It is no wonder the Labour party is not being consulted on the matter. In Northern Ireland, every cow that is moved has to have a licence. There are more than 12 million such movements in the United Kingdom every year. Such an operation would be a bureaucratic nightmare for those trying to oversee it. However, I am not surprised that, even now, Labour Members express their support for such a scheme. We know that Labour Members like bureaucrats. They like a bureaucratic nightmare which no one can find a way through.
We now have a framework agreement and a way forward. When we have completed the selective cull, the European Union will fulfil its part of the agreement. Progress now depends on our industry. The speed at which the cull moves forward depends on the British farmers and others involved ensuring that it works. It is in their interests to make sure that the cull happens as speedily as possible. That is why we cannot give a hard and fast timetable.
The selective cull is based on the thinnest scientific evidence. I agree with other hon. Members who have said that it is a most disagreeable thing to have to do, but what alternatives are there? This is a Liberal-inspired debate, and we have not heard a single suggestion from Liberal Members of what we should do. [HON. MEMBERS: "Where are they?"] To be fair, the former president of the Liberal Democrats is in his place.
The Government are consulting the industry on the selective cull, how much compensation should be paid for different beasts, compensation for loss of earnings, how 217 beasts can be identified, and how farmers should be notified which cows are to be culled and when. To speed matters up, the Government have commissioned extra cold storage. I congratulate them on that. They have not only commissioned regular cold stores, but have taken over large buildings formerly used as grain stores and installed chilling equipment in them so that the slaughter can be accelerated. Extra incinerators will be used so that no rendering needs to take place.
I know that six applications have been made by private sector companies to build incinerators at the point of slaughter. That will enormously speed up the removal of the backlog. Of course it is sad that there are stories of exploitation by some renderers and slaughterers of those who find themselves in a disagreeable situation, but I suppose that that is just the way of the world. That is how things work out. However, farmers can see that things are moving and that the Government have made a substantial effort.
As the European Union is constituted, it is supposed to be a partnership. I cannot help wondering why our European partners did not co-operate more in lifting the ban and eradicating the difficulties in Britain. I wondered whether they had another agenda; whether they were trying to cover something up. So I went to my local market in Gloucester and asked the market managers whether in their experience something was going on in France that we did not know about. They told me there was. They said that a lot of covering up of BSE went on in France.
I tried to interest the media in what I was told, but they were not interested in what was going on in France. They just wanted to denigrate the Government. However, thanks to a front-page story in Monday's edition of The Daily Telegraph, the truth may soon emerge. I am sure that many hon. Members on both sides of the House will have seen the headline: "EU farmers are not reporting BSE cases." The article started:Beef from many EU countries is now more likely to be contaminated with BSE than British beef. European vets have concluded from evidence that thousands of cases in Europe have not been reported.The Federation of Veterinarians in Europe will call on the Agricultural Commissioner this week to impose a British style ban on specified beef offals throughout the EU.This follows evidence from Swiss experts of gross under reporting of BSE by many EU countries.
§ Mr. Marland
No, I Will not give way.
The article said:Professor Marc Vandervalde, Head of the Institute of Animal Neurology at the University of Berne, believes that France should be reporting around 200 cases of BSE rather than the 22 it has so far declared given the amount of contaminated food imported from the UK.
§ Mr. Marland
All right, but perhaps not everyone has. I am anxious to put the quotation on record, because I want my friends in Gloucester market to hear about it.
§ Mr. Marland
Yes, but I do not have so many friends in Cirencester market.
218 The article continued:Furthermore, Professor Vandervalde is openly incredulous of Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg who also imported thousands of tons of contaminated food from Britain in the 1980s but who have not declared one single case of BSE.Finally, Portugal has imported over 12,000 cattle from Britain, and has reported only 7 cases of BSE.This same evidence, compiled by the Euro Vets, also questioned the safety of the French rendering process as there is a real danger that the French could, and probably are, recycling their unreported BSE back into other animal feed.I have mentioned this disturbing evidence to emphasise that there should be fairness across Europe. I have asked whether there has been a cover-up. I believe that there has been a cover-up—the Europeans have an alternative agenda.
§ Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)
It is unfortunate that the Chairman of the Agriculture Select Committee, the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (Sir J. Wiggin), has just left the House, because I wanted to raise a few issues with him. If the Government had implemented the 1990 recommendations of the Agriculture Select Committee, we would have avoided the most recent BSE scare.
I believe that the Committee—which I left recently— was remiss in failing to carry out a further inquiry into BSE. Over the past two and a half years, I have repeatedly asked for an inquiry into BSE. I know that it might be controversial for me to say this, but I believe that the Committee, to some extent, was fearful of the consequences of re-examining BSE. The Committee was wary of what might happen if it was seen to be stirring up the issue, even though the majority of its members felt that the issue was of public concern. I regret the Committee's decision not to take further evidence.
I now wish to refer to the position paper produced by the European Commission, which states:Any plan to gradually restore the single market in beef and beef products will require the following of the United Kingdom:implementation of a selective slaughter programme to be approved by the Commission".We can do that quite rapidly. The paper continues:legislation for the removal of meat-and-bone meal from feed mills and farms and subsequent cleansing of the premises and equipment concerned".We can deal with that quite rapidly. It continues:effective implementation of the over-30-months rule including the destruction of the animals".We can probably deal with that quite rapidly. The paper continues:improved methods for removing specified bovine material from carcases".We can deal with that quite rapidly as well. It continues:These measures are considered essential by experts of the Standing Veterinary Committee. In addition these actions must be backed up by Community inspections to verify correct and effective implementation.In other words, what we do will be checked. However, I have trouble with one of the requirements placed on the United Kingdom—in fact, yesterday I asked the Prime Minister a question in that regard. The paper states:introduction of an effective animal identification and movement recording system with official registration".219 That is the critical condition, and it will cause problems for the United Kingdom. The hon. Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton) was a member of the Select Committee when those matters were discussed. The Committee recommended that such a system be set up in 1990, and the Government failed to implement the recommendation.
I have the departmental minute—which was returned to the Committee—which deals with the Committee's recommendation in relation to the identification scheme.
The key words are:the size of the financial commitment".I argue that the Government did not implement the identification scheme because of the financial commitment that they believed it entailed.
On 13 April 1993, during the proceedings on the Agriculture Bill, I moved an amendment to set up the identification scheme. A long debate ensued, and it centred on the scheme that operates in Holland—the Royal Dutch Cattle Syndicate, or the NRS scheme, now known as the NIS scheme. The scheme that operates in Holland mirrors the requirements that have been set down in the European Commission's position paper. On that occasion, the Government again refused to move.
Last year, the Select Committee produced a report entitled "Identification and Registration of Farm Livestock". We had an opportunity to implement the scheme that was originally called for in 1990. Members of the Committee went to Holland to look at the operation of the scheme—I did not go on that trip—and came back singing its praises. The Committee made its recommendations and, once again, the Government refused to implement them. In relation to a national database, the Government replied:The Government has already given considerable thought to the balance between the benefits available from a national database, the extent to which one is needed to solve specific problems, and the costs of setting up and maintaining a system of such complexity. So far, the Government has not concluded that it would be cost effective to establish such a database.Once again, the Government ducked the issue. We are under pressure from farmers—we know that they want the ban lifted and we know that every day counts. At the heart of the Commission's position paper is the recommendation that we set up the identification scheme. I forecast that there will be a delay in the lifting of the ban because of that area in the document. A refusal to implement the Commission's recommendations will lead to further delay.
The Government's position on the issue has been outrageous. If they had implemented the recommendation at any time—even as late as last year—we would now have in place that critical element which the Commission will demand of us before it raises the ban. We have failed and farmers will pay the price.
Since 1992, I have argued that this would end up in a multi-billion dollar bill. I have been convinced of it. When I was on the Front Bench in the agriculture team, I was always raising the issue. We have been well aware of the fact that one day we would have to pick up the bill for it. The money that will have to be spent will be Labour money. The money that will be spent next year, the year after and the year after that will be money that a Labour Government will have to raise in taxation. Labour money will be wasted because the Conservative Government failed properly to regulate in the feed mills, in the abattoirs and in the rendering mills.
220 The Select Committee report of 1990 recommended that there should be such regulation. The 1990 report is all about regulation, and the Chairman of the Committee knows it. When we read the Government's reply to that report, we see that their argument is that they cannot afford to introduce the regulations or, alternatively, that the regulations will be onerous on the industry. As a result of the Conservative Government's negligence, next year a Labour Government will have to pick up the multi-billion dollar bill. We regret that.
§ Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow)
I preface my remarks by declaring an interest in the meat and livestock industry and by referring to the comments of the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler). Obviously, he is trying to censure my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of Agriculture. I remind him that in the sort of Europe that is contemplated by the hon. Gentleman and his party, it will become increasingly difficult to censure Ministers because, in many instances, they are already unaccountable to the House for many of their actions because the decisions are made in Brussels. It is not only unfair but impossible to censure Ministers for those decisions.
When my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of Agriculture came to the House on 20 March, they were correct to make a clean breast of it and inform hon. Members about the situation at that time. However, as this debate seems to be an occasion for exercising the wisdom of hindsight, it was perhaps remiss of them not to point out on that occasion that the measures that the Government had taken since 1988 in implementing the ruminant feed ban had been, and continue to be, effective in eliminating the incidence of BSE. I regret that they did not point that out at the time. I regret also that the Government were subsequently forced from that position and that they abandoned the science to which they had correctly stuck hitherto.
I think that it is generally agreed that the link between BSE and CJD is not proved. I remind the House that it is incredibly difficult to prove the negative. As I have said in the Chamber more than once, no scientist will give a categorical undertaking or assurance that there is no link. I believe that beef is safe and that British beef is as good as any, and better than most.
I come now to the question of the cull and must express concern on three counts. I am concerned about the cost. Given farmers' understandable opposition to culling their cattle, generous compensation must be provided to persuade them to do so. That compensation will be in addition to the enormous amount that is already being spent on the 30-month cattle scheme.
I am concerned about the needless slaughter of so many animals. Even as we speak, the Quality Meat and Livestock Alliance is taking the Government to court over the legality of that aspect of the scheme. I share farmers' concerns about the effect of the cull upon the country's herds. While the measures will accelerate the rate of decline of the incidence of BSE in our herds—about 221 15 animals will be slaughtered before one is found with symptoms of BSE—they will not bring forward the date of eradication of the disease.
§ Mr. Gill
I shall not give way. As my hon. Friend knows, our speeches are limited to 10 minutes.
There is no guarantee that, if we carry out the selective cull, the export ban will be lifted. Furthermore, there is no certainty that there will still be an export trade. I noted the remarks of my hon. Friend the Minister, who anticipated that there would be £100 million-worth of exports immediately and that the volume of exports would accelerate rapidly. I remind the House of the comments of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister yesterday, when he referred to the natural prejudices across Europe. I submit that those prejudices will make it very difficult for us in attempting to recover our export markets on the continent. I remind my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary that exports to third countries depend on substantial export refunds. Without them, those exports would not take place.
In the light of those factors, it is essential that the Government conduct a cost-benefit analysis to see whether the cost of implementing the selective cull and continuing the 30-month cull is outweighed by the benefits. If it were certain that the export ban would be lifted, that our export trade would recover immediately and that the date of eradication of BSE would be brought forward, that expenditure might be justified. However, in the circumstances, I think that we should determine the true benefits and compare them with the cost involved.
I believe that there is an alternative use for the money. I submit that we should assist those who have suffered most from the BSE crisis—the specialist beef producers. Those producers of prime beef under 30 months are the innocent parties. They have had to accept much lower prices in the markets and they are now at an enormous disadvantage compared with those who are taking part in the culling scheme. I continue to advocate a deficiency payments scheme as a more accurate, targeted and worthwhile way of helping that sector of the industry. It would also benefit the consumer. Under the old deficiency payments scheme, the British consumer benefited from cheaper beef, farmers' incomes were maintained and the cost was borne only by those who paid tax.
I suggest to my hon. Friend the Minister that it would be wonderful if the Government could puff out their chest and say that, in spite of all the difficulties that BSE has caused, they are now approaching the issue from a cost-benefit point of view. The Government should reject the idea of needlessly culling cattle at great expense and put their money where it would benefit the consumer and the farmer directly.
I have real fears—they were expressed to me at the weekend when I was in Scotland, a country that enjoys a reputation for producing prime beef—that if prime beef producers are not compensated in some way, when they go to market in autumn to buy store cattle, they will not be able to afford to pay the price that the producers of calves require to make a living in the hills. I am sure that my hon. Friend understands that point. It is self-evident 222 that, if the finisher of cattle finds that his returns are reduced substantially, he will be a poor bidder in the store markets this autumn. The hill farmer who produces store cattle will suffer as a result.
I repeat my plea to Ministers to look seriously at a deficiency payments scheme to replace the European scheme. The Minister has promised additional assistance for farmers with suckler cows and male beef cattle. Heifers are excluded, and the British beef industry regards that as another weakness of the European system compared with the old British system. When my hon. Friend winds up, perhaps she can tell the House whether she believes that the £14 million that is being made available to the British industry is a satisfactory share of the fund of £527 million from which it comes.
§ Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Cromarty and Skye)
I wish to respond to some of the idiotic comments that have been made, especially by the right hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Jopling), the former Chief Whip and Minister of Agriculture, who raised a point of order at the beginning of the debate. His remarks were reinforced, to my surprise, by the right hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) and by the Minister of State's facile comments about the context of the debate.
The right hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale expressed constitutional outrage at the Liberal Democrats' temerity in initiating the debate, but, as he should know, we were subject to the usual channels. He also criticised the motion, but I notice that we have not seen him in his place since, such is his outrage and desire to defend the Minister of Agriculture.
§ Mr. Kennedy
I think that the hon. Gentleman can count. He is waving two fingers at me, but that is the signal that he usually makes to the Government.
It is appropriate for the Liberal Democrats to use an Opposition day debate to call the Minister of Agriculture to account. We are not here to attack faceless, anonymous civil servants or junior Ministers. The political responsibility for the Ministry of Agriculture rests with the Cabinet-level Minister. We have heard an outpouring of emotion from some Conservative Back Benchers about the attacks on poor old Douglas, but if we read the national press, we find that half the Cabinet has called for him to be moved in an early reshuffle. It is transparent and unpersuasive, to say the least, for Conservatives to cry crocodile tears over the Minister of Agriculture.
Anything that has been said, including by my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) in his measured speech earlier, which was critical of the Minister of Agriculture is, as we all know, as nothing compared with what his colleagues have said off the record, on the Terrace, in the Dining Rooms and in the bars in the past few weeks. We have heard criticism after criticism of the inept way in which the Ministry of Agriculture has approached its entire policy. It is appropriate that we should have drawn attention to that in our motion.
The hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) put up a plausible defence of the Minister of Agriculture when he said that nobody is accountable because everything is 223 decided in Brussels. That is a good argument for the Liberal Democrats' policy of opening up the Council of Ministers, so that the public could watch the meetings and judge Ministers' actions and contributions. We want to see far greater accountability to the House by Ministers who take decisions in Brussels behind closed doors, often through qualified majority voting. If the hon. Member for Ludlow is concerned about a lack of accountability, I hope that he will study in detail the excellent and constructive proposals that we put forward for the intergovernmental conference, and with which he might find himself in happy, if unexpected, agreement.
We are correct to focus on the inept way in which the matter has been handled. I was at a meeting in the Agriculture Directorate in Brussels a month ago and the officials told of us their despair.
§ Mr. Kennedy
My hon. Friend was also at the meeting. The Minister of Agriculture was asked for some proposals for a framework to deal with the problem so that the Commission could respond. Apparently, in one of the Minister's more notable utterances, he said that he had some proposals, but he was not at liberty to tell the European Commission what they were. That is hardly the way to make friends and influence people in Brussels. Christopher Tugendhat, a former Conservative Commissioner, commented, as the beef crisis mounted, that a similar problem had arisen, when he was a Commissioner, in the French agricultural sector. The French Agriculture Minister went straight to Brussels, told the Commission what the problem was, drew up a set of guidelines to deal with it and went back to his national Parliament with a framework for action. We have not had that resolute, decisive approach from the Government and especially not from the Ministry of Agriculture.
The outcome is ironic. The Prime Minister said yesterday:The targets that we have set are ambitious.He was correct about that. He continued:It is now up to us in this country—the farming and ancillary industries and the Government—to ensure that we meet them. The point is that this timetable is essentially in our hands."—[Official Report, 24 June 1996; Vol. 280, c. 22.]Wrong. The timetable is essentially in Brussels' hands, because we have to provide verification to Brussels of every step that we take.
§ Mr. Kennedy
Time is too short to give way.
It is ironic that the Prime Minister was driven by the Euro-sceptics to a policy of intransigence and that the outcome has been to hand still more power and authority over the management of our beef industry to Brussels. The lack of leadership from the Prime Minister, who has been buffeted and driven by the Conservative Euro-sceptics, has concentrated more power in Brussels than before.
Another result of the whole sorry episode is that we must consider the future status of the Ministry of Agriculture. We have argued before—and the issue of BSE has underlined our approach—that the Ministry's important work in representing producer interests should 224 be separated from the need to reassure consumers about food safety and hygiene standards. It was depressing that public opinion was, at times, more likely to believe the chief executive of McDonald's than the Secretary of State for Health or the Minister of Agriculture. The need for a free-standing food safety commission is all the more pressing in the light of what we have learned from the BSE experience.
My final point concerns the situation in Scotland and I echo the first comments made by the hon. Member for Angus, East (Mr. Welsh). I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to tell us in her winding-up speech how much progress has been made by the working group on the Scottish quality beef initiative. The working group has been co-chaired by Highlands and Islands Enterprise and Scottish Enterprise and it is hoped that it will report in the next few weeks. Any further information from the Parliamentary Secretary about the attempts to re-establish the Scottish sector of the market would be useful and timely.
We cannot have confidence in the way in which the Government, both politically and in terms of administrative competence, have handled the issue. That has been obvious from the case made by my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall and subsequent speeches, not least the speech by the hon. Member for Ludlow. The more the hon. Gentleman analysed the deal, the less favourable it looked. The Government stand rightly accused, in the person of the Minister of Agriculture.
§ 8.6 pm
§ Mr. Nicholas Budgen (Wolverhampton, South-West)
I begin by declaring an interest because I own a small beef herd. I make no apology for speaking in the debate because my constituents, who are urban dwellers, have an interest in the large cost of the deal with Europe, which they will have to fund, and they also wish to know that the beef they eat is safe and healthy.
The attack launched by the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) started with the dubious proposition that his party would have got a better deal. The deal is not especially attractive and I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) that the size of the cull is enormous and that the disruption, cruelty and sheer waste of killing productive animals early in their life is horrible to contemplate. I agree also that the timetable is neither specific nor satisfactory, but no one can possibly argue that they know that any better deal would have been available: that is the crucial point.
Our beef, for better or for worse, has been excluded from most of the markets in the civilised world. It has been banned, for instance, from America since 1989, but we have not had the opportunity to exercise a non-co-operation policy against America. It looked at one point as though we would not be able to export our beef at all, even after a big cull and after meeting the unsatisfactory timetable.
The policy of non-co-operation has distinguished the Government's behaviour in the past few weeks. As I suppose Mr. Gerry Adams would say, force does work. It may be a rough old world, but by saying that we shall not co-operate we have half opened the door for our beef. If the European Union becomes awkward again about the details our culling programme or the details of the timetabling, we too can cut up rough and reintroduce the non-co-operation policy.
225 It is possible for me to say that because I am not a Euro-enthusiast. I do not believe in a federal Europe, but the Liberal Democrats are the most Euro-enthusiastic, so it seems rather difficult for them, since they almost certainly would not have used the policy of non-co-operation, to argue that they would have got a better deal. It is only by being awkward that we have got the deal, expensive and unsatisfactory though it may be. But for our awkwardness and bloody-mindedness, the door would not have been even half opened.
The Labour party says, with the benefit of hindsight, that many more expensive and bureaucratic measures should have been exercised, particularly in the abattoirs and feed mills. For the benefit of my urban constituents, let me use my own personal knowledge. When I used to go to Lichfield and Uttoxeter markets, I was constantly told how expensive, boring and unnecessary was the intervention of the various inspectors as a result of the European regulations, how disgraceful it was that small abattoirs were being forced to close and so on. Most constituency Members of Parliament were asking for their constituents to be relieved from such a gross and expensive intrusion.
It is all very well the Labour party saying that it rather likes inspectors in abattoirs, state-employed vets and lots of public expenditure, but that would not have been necessary in the past. The position has changed, as a result of which more expenditure must be incurred to get our beef into Europe. As one who has not always been very gushing about the Government's performance, I cannot see how the Ministry of Agriculture can legitimately be criticised on this occasion. I hope that, whenever necessary, we shall exercise our rights within the Community to use the veto. That is what General de Gaulle did, it is what Mrs. Thatcher did and it has been very effective on this occasion.
The critics of the policy come from the Labour and the Liberal Democrat parties, which are rapidly emerging as the advocates of a federal Europe. Those who believe in a federal Europe would not have been in favour of a policy of non-co-operation. Thank heavens that the Government took a firm stand. Let us support them in that. Of course this is not the perfect deal—no one could ever expect a deal to be perfect in every respect—but it is a fine show of resolution. Let us hope that it is repeated, and let us throw our weight behind it tonight.
§ Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)
As one of the remaining four Labour Members of Parliament who voted with the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath) to go into the Community, I could not disagree more with the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Budgen). This is an absolutely crazy way to treat our European partners. It is counterproductive and will be extremely costly for our country in years to come.
I want to concentrate simply on the science of the issue and to ask a number of questions.
My first is to repeat that put by my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Hinchliffe) concerning the clustering of CJD in Kent. I understand that an animal waste rendering company defended its methods of treating 226 the carcases of cattle killed in the BSE cull, including its use of waste effluent as fertiliser on nearby land. A director of Canterbury Mills, one of nine rendering plants appointed by the Government, said that he was working to Ministry guidelines. The company was reacting to a warning from a neurologist that the discharge of infected material could be linked to Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.
Alan Colchester, a consultant at Guy's hospital in London, made an investigation after learning that there had been three suspected cases of CJD in the Ashford area where the plant is based. He said:'The area should be fenced off. It will take years to see if any part of the land is affected, so no sort of human trespassing should be allowed.Dr. Colchester is working with the East Kent health authority to investigate possible links between the local CJD cases. The company has twice been convicted of effluent discharge offences during the past three years.
I simply want to ask what the Government are doing about Dr. Colchester's findings. He is a serious man and, if he is right, all sorts of consequences flow.
Secondly, on 1 May 1996, in a question to the Minister of Agriculture, I asked:Could we return to the desperately important question raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang) about the United Kingdom's scientific infrastructure? What is happening with the central veterinary laboratory, the central science laboratory and the neuropathogens laboratory in Edinburgh and the cuts in work that may be vital in identifying the root cause of the problem? The last time that he was at the Dispatch Box, the Minister said very courteously that he would look at the experiments conducted in Ames, Iowa, involving proteins 130 and 131, and the question of prions in sub-heated food.The Minister's answer is a matter of record. He said:we have increased MAFF spending on research by £1 million."— [Official Report, 1 May 1996; Vol. 276, c. 1158–9.]Is it still the opinion of Professor Pattison that enough money and resources are being devoted to research? I asked whether experiments conducted in Ames, Iowa, had been followed up because in a barn in Ames, Iowa, there is a herd of cows that could force epidemiologists to rethink the origin of BSE. The barn is a secure isolation unit and, since 1990, it has housed a series of experiments whereby tissue from the brains of sheep with scrapie, a related disease, has been injected into cattle. The results are consistent. Cows infected with the scrapie agent become sick, but the disease is not recognisable as BSE.
In 1988, two years after BSE was first identified, epidemiologists in Britain working for MAFF announced that the source was probably scrapie. They linked the emergence of BSE with changes in the solvents and temperature used at the rendering plants recovering protein from animal carcases to produce cattle feed. Therefore, I ask whether the Ames, Iowa work has been followed up.
Thirdly, a simple test has been developed in the United States which might soon allow British farmers to identify cattle infected with mad cow disease. By looking in spinal fluid for "indicator" proteins—130 and 131—American researchers have been able to diagnose the closely related human disease, CJD, with more than 98 per cent. accuracy. They say that the technique would work equally well with infected cows. Is that the Department's view?
My fourth question arises from discussions with Professor Peter Wilson, the former head of Bush research campus, who believes from his many contacts that it is highly likely that the source of the trouble could be prions that were not heated to the extent that they used to be.
227 To cut a long and complicated story short, the renderers, in order to preserve proteins in the food that is produced, are now doing their business at lower temperatures than they used to. It is possible that, when that was done at higher temperatures, many of the potentially disease-carrying organisms were eliminated. If temperature is reduced with the aim of improving the quality of the protein, side-risks may be run. I do not know what the answer is, but what is the latest thinking of the Minister's advisers?
Fifthly, let me again raise a matter that I raised in an intervention on the Minister's speech. I refer to a letter, signed by the Minister—or, rather, by Elizabeth Ratcliffe; I make no complaint about that—to Lord Marlesford, whom many of us knew for years as Mark Schreiber, a distinguished political editor of The Economist. According to the letter,There seems to have been a misunderstanding. The main step to protect animal health was the introduction of the 'ruminant feed ban' in 1988. This prohibited the feeding of cattle with ruminant protein, the source of the BSE infection. This ban has greatly reduced the number of BSE cases that have occurred.Incidentally, I gave a copy of the letter to officials so that the Minister could refer to it.
The letter continues:However, it has unfortunately not been totally effective, probably due to cross-contamination of ruminant feed with meat and bone meal from other animal feeds, both in feed mills and on farms.That letter was written on 4 June. We are now nearing the end of the month. Has it become effective—totally effective—or is there still a problem? The letter goes on to say:'The Government has, therefore, recently prohibited the use of meat and bone meal in any feed for farmed livestock, including poultry, fish, and horses. This removes the possibility of cattle getting access to any feed containing MBM which may potentially be contaminated. There is not a concern about pigs or poultry and other non-ruminant farm animals contracting BSE from feed, since in experiments feeding them with BSE infected brain has not produced disease in either pigs or poultry.That brings us back to Ames, Iowa. It would be a serious matter if there were cross-contamination. I hope that the Minister will refer to the matter.
Sixthly, let me refer to an article by Andy Coghlan in this week's edition of New Scientist. It mentions work in Holland that has established that scrapie—the sheep equivalent of BSE and CJD—can now be diagnosed before the animals become ill. The Dutch researchers who developed the test hope that it can be used to diagnose CJD in humans before symptoms appear. I do not know whether that is a Department of Health or a MAFF responsibility, and I do not expect the Minister to answer off the top of her head, but I would like to hear some comment on the matter.
Finally, let me return to a point that was made at a conference today that some of us attended upstairs, involving the Royal Society of Chemistry. The point was made by Lord Selborne. He said that there was a desperate need for risk analysis—analysis of the extent of the risk compared to the many other risks that we run. I am delighted to hear that the Select Committee in the House of Lords will devote itself to the problem.
§ Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport)
Nearly all those damaged by the BSE tragedy either have a breadth of business that enables them to mitigate their loss, or will be eligible for compensation. I want to speak briefly about a small sector of the meat processing industry that has neither of those advantages. It has nowhere else to turn, and it is not currently eligible for compensation. I refer to the cow head deboning companies, of which there are about 12 in this country. Their business has been eliminated by the Specified Bovine Material Order, which came into effect on 29 March this year. My constituency contains one such company, Pinnacle Meats. It employs some 25 people. If I refer to that company, it is because it is typical of the dozen or so companies that make up the industry.
Pinnacle processed about 300,000 cow heads a year, and provided an essential, steady and reliable service for abattoirs. The process of deboning involved the removal of the cheek meat, most of which went into beefburgers, sausages, meat spreads and so on, but which was quite a delicacy. Pinnacle exported 10 tonnes of cheek meat a month to France, a business worth about £15,000 a month.
The industry has always been controlled in terms of health and hygiene, as part of the food sector, but in recent years BSE problems have caused MAFF and the European regulators to impose a strict and specific series of controls. When the trade was permitted, before March, cow heads were collected from abattoirs under strictly controlled temperature conditions; at every stage, temperature and cleanliness were vetted and recorded. The quality of meat was graded on arrival at the deboners' premises, and there were controls to ensure that the paths of the raw material and the product did not cross. Everything was recorded by a process control report, which was checked, regularly and irregularly, by MAFF officials. Record keeping by the companies had to be meticulous, and available for inspection at all times. There was a daily audit of stocks.
The premises and companies had needed an EC cutting plant licence since 1992, and a cattle head deboning licence from MAFF since August 1995. I am told that this is the only part of the meat trade that required a special licence of that nature.
Such were the controls on the business that companies in the trade needed to buy special equipment. Pinnacle Meats moved to new premises in 1992 in order to build a purpose-related plant, at a total cost of about £300,000. The floor had to be epoxy resined; also needed were special wall cladding, metal detectors, code-printing weighing scales, vacuum-packer conveyor systems and a scissor lift to enable the product to be loaded directly into a specially designed bay.
The whole of that business has now been destroyed by the order to which I referred earlier. It is now deemed that the whole of the heads of cattle constitutes specified bovine material. It is not the head meat itself that is thought to be dangerous; imports are still allowed. What is feared is the risk of contagion at abattoirs. No one suggests that anyone in the cow head deboning industry has been at fault in any way.
The worth of the industry has been assessed at about £11 million. I refer to a compilation by Price Waterhouse of the total value of the industry that has been wiped out. There has also been an informal valuation of the cost of 229 meeting the European regulations at about £2.17 million. It may be asked why the head deboners do not turn to other business. The answer is that they cannot. They were small, specially designed meat processors, working with special equipment and able to stay in business only because the margins on that modest business were higher than in the rest of the meat industry. Head deboners worked on a margin of about 10 per cent., whereas the margins of the rest of the meat processing industry are tiny—typically 0.5 per cent. to 1 per cent. The plants can tolerate that because their turnover is huge.
It would be impossible for the head deboners to turn their hand to less specialised fields, because their equipment is unsuitable. For instance, Pinnacle has a blast freezer with a capacity of 30 tonnes a week, which is minuscule by the conventional meat processors' standards. The deboners are out of business, and it is impractical for them to switch to another part of the meat industry. Their only hope is compensation.
Typically, the companies are family owned, and in most cases the proprietors have borrowed against their houses to buy the equipment that is needed to meet the European regulations. Therefore, now that they have been driven out of business, they face ruin and bankruptcy. It is grossly unfair that such hard-working people, who have done nothing wrong, should face such problems.
There are possibilities of compensation. A legal claim is possible under article 1, protocol 1, of the European convention on human rights. I am informed that Lord Lestor, who is a QC, has advised that the companies have a good case for compensation but that it would take years to be heard. Objective 5a of the European Union structural funds, which is used to speed up the adjustment of agricultural structures, may be invoked. The UK, with impeccable timing, decided in 1994 that it would contract out of that objective with effect from 31 March this year. There is no reason why the UK cannot make a further request to opt back into it.
The question is asked whether compensation would set a precedent. The Library, with its usual skill, has produced the answer that the only precedent of companies being driven out of business by a Government order were those producing oral snuff and repeater rifles, although they were only a small part of the overall business. I do not know of a case in which an industry has invested to meet tight Government criteria, only to be wiped out overnight by a Government order. It must be possible to devise a compensation scheme that does not set a precedent for others.
It is not fair for head-boning companies to be driven out of business and their proprietors into bankruptcy. It is the Government's duty to find a way of compensating them. An increasing number of parliamentary colleagues share my view. The question will not go away until a method of paying compensation is found. The problem will not go away, and nor will I.
§ Mr. Cynog Dafis (Ceredigion and Pembroke, North)
The hon. Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) mentioned just one category of the industry that has suffered the terrible side effects of the BSE crisis. I can think of a number of examples in my own constituency. A producer 230 of quail and quail eggs found that his feed supply was cut off overnight as a result of the controls on contaminated feed. His flock of birds died and he now faces ruin.
Welsh farmers are deeply unhappy. They are sceptical of the Florence deal and of the cumulative negotiations of recent weeks. What estimate has been made of the impact on the dairy industry in south-west Wales—it used to be called Dyfed—which is an enormously important milk area? What estimate has been made of the impact of the slaughter of a large number of milking cows in the accelerated scheme? Those animals will be at the peak of their production at the time they are slaughtered. What estimate has been made of the future for milk production? What percentage of the dairy herd is likely to be lost? What effect will there be on the milk processing industry and associated activities?
I hope that I am right in assuming that the Secretary of State for Wales has commissioned a study of those issues and will give urgent consideration to reconstructing dairy herds and rebuilding the processing industries. Will compensation amount to the replacement value of herds, not just the market value? Will there be a payment for commercial loss? That is the only basis on which farmers can reconstruct their herds. South-west Wales has already seen the closure of the Whitland creamery as a result of the disgraceful decision by Dairy Crest to make that facility available for sale. That closure is costing about £1 million a year in transport to carry raw milk out of the area. It would be intolerable to lose more processing capacity as a consequence of the accelerated slaughter scheme, on the basis of an eradication programme for which there is no scientific evidence.
The second aggrieved group are producers of beef under 30 months old. The Government's recent decision to reduce the supplement for cattle more than 30 months old to 15p a kilogram has been justified by the disparity between the total payment producers are receiving and the market price for beef animals younger than 30 months. The Farmers Union of Wales and other organisations argue, with every justification, that the remedy is to raise receipts from animals under 30 months by producing a deficiency payment scheme. Current losses are severe and, unless something is done, many producers will be driven into bankruptcy. We cannot afford a loss of holdings and a permanent reduction in the number of farmers. I shall not go into all the arguments why such a loss cannot be suffered at this time, but I do not accept the fashionable view that a further reduction in the agricultural population is inevitable and even necessary.
The third aggrieved category is a small sector in the Welsh livestock industry, whom we hope will qualify for the quality beef assurance scheme. How many producers will qualify for that scheme in Wales? The number affected is relatively small, but the injustice of their predicament should be addressed. That question raises the wider issue of the tragedy of the 30-month rule, which will provide an incentive for intensive patterns of beef production at the expense of extensive production when the industry ought to be moving in the opposite direction. The BSE crisis has demonstrated the perils of intensification and the relentless drive to increase productivity per animal and per worker at any cost— growth for growth's sake. The Countryside Commission was reported in the Financial Times as saying that the BSE crisis could force many smaller beef farmers out of business or that financial pressures could force them to produce more intensively. The commission stated: 231The farming landscape will become more homogeneous as fields are ploughed up instead of grazed.The commission added:We are very concerned that marginal land currently grazed by cattle may be abandoned.One consequence would be significant environmental loss.
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds stated in the same article that the crisis could put back its campaign to encourage mixed farming if farmers abandon the livestock sector. It is suggested that the Government intend to find the £1 billion or more required to pay compensation by cutting environmental programmes. I am sure that the Government will grasp the opportunity to deny that benighted approach. We should be encouraging what the French call biological farming, which takes the form of low-input, extensive and sustainable patterns of agriculture.
For environmental reasons, and bearing in mind the problem of feeding an expanding global population, with little prospect of doing so at this time of increased food production, the conversion of grain into meat through intensive systems should be discouraged. The production of meat from grass should increasingly be seen as the norm and something for which to aim. One tragedy of BSE is that it is likely to bring about the opposite effect.
I have appreciated the intervention of the Welsh Office and Welsh Office Ministers in ensuring that certain abattoirs have been brought into designation for the 30-month scheme. That is an important intervention. Some abattoirs in my constituency were facing ruin but are now active and have the prospect of survival to fulfil an important function in the future.
Bearing that in mind, as has been said already, there is a crying need for additional rendering capacity; that is despite the fact that we hear about cold storage becoming available and about incineration without the need for rendering. I urge the Secretary of State for Wales to provide the assistance which may be necessary to enable existing plants, which are not currently in operation, to meet the environmental standards that will enable them to be brought on stream. I can scarcely think of a better use for economic development funding than to enable that to happen. There would be beneficial effects which would spread throughout agriculture and the local economy.
The priority now must be getting the system working and for farmers to be convinced that it is working and to get all the information that is necessary.
§ Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough and Horncastle)
It appears that three charges have been brought today by the Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), against my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the Government and Euro-sceptic Members. It does not seem to me that those charges have been proven at all, certainly not beyond reasonable doubt.
What is the charge against my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister? Is it that he made the wrong decisions in the 1980s? That charge does not stand up 232 because he was not the Minister responsible. Is it that he has been dishonest? The truth is that he is palpably honest. He is one of the most honest Ministers that we have ever seen at the Dispatch Box. He is honest to a fault. He has constantly made it his business to come first to the House of Commons. Should he have gone first to the Commission or to television studios? He came to the Dispatch Box. Is it that he does not have the intellectual capacity to do the job? Nobody suggests that. Is it because he has apparently said the wrong things on television? My hon. Friend the Minister of State dealt with that point very well. Most of his pronouncements have been proved to be entirely true and have been vindicated by events.
The worst that can be said of my right hon. and learned Friend is that, apparently, some unnamed officials in Brussels have said that he was not prepared to bring a framework to the discussions. I have been listening to numerous statements over the past month or so and I have constantly heard Ministers bringing forward numerous proposals for various ways of dealing with the problem.
The charges against my right hon. and learned Friend are nonsense. They have not held up in the debate. This is, clearly, a politically inspired attack. That is okay, but it has diverted the attention of the House from what we should be discussing, which is how to eradicate this disease.
The second charge against the Government is not proven in any way. The disease is a mystery. It is an enigma in the riddle of the most complex of tissues, whether in animals or in man. Nobody yet knows what caused BSE and what is the link between BSE and CJD. There is the vague charge that the deregulatory nature of the Conservative Government has, in some way, caused the problem, but that has never been proven in any way.
The third charge that has been brought against my colleagues is that, somehow, those of us who are opposed to a federal Europe have caused this problem because we encouraged the Prime Minister in some unaccounted way to launch his policy of non-co-operation with Europe. It is all our fault and we would have got a much better deal weeks before had it not been for the policy of non-co-operation. The only evidence to support that theory is what the Commission says. Do we really expect the Commission to say, "Oh yes, your policy of non-co-operation has really worked"? Of course it would not say that. Does anybody think that we would have got the deal this weekend if there had not been a policy of non-co-operation? The Commission was offering nothing. I do not blame the Germans. There is a crisis of confidence in beef eating in Germany. There would have been no question of the German Government allowing anything to go through but for the robust policy carried through by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister.
The various charges do not add up. The Liberal Democrats have done the House a service today by allowing us to deal with all the charges one by one and show that they are not the kernel of the problem. In fact, the kernel of the problem consists of some serious questions to which my farmers—I represent one of the most agricultural areas in the country—would like some answers. The Liberal Democrat spokesman could have asked those questions when he opened the debate. He did not tell us how he would have got an agreement or how many cows he would have offered up for slaughter. He does not know. This was not a perfect agreement, but it was the best that we could get. The hon. Member for 233 North Cornwall knows that and that is why he spent most of his speech making rather nasty personal attacks on my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister. He wanted to disguise, as do some other hon. Members, the fact that his party does not have a better solution.
What are the serious issues about which we could be talking, leaving aside politics for a moment? First, I am worried about the nature of the vets' committee. At the end of the day, the vets report to their national Governments. Apparently, we have received reassurances that, if the vets are not acting in a scientific manner, the Commission can step in. Of course, the vets will never admit that they are acting in an unscientific manner. They never have done and they never will. We want to have further and better particulars on the problem of the vets.
Secondly, there is the worldwide ban about which I feel strongly. It is outrageous and is an unparalleled and grotesque infringement of national sovereignty. We are being told that we cannot export beef to South Africa, with which we enjoy friendly relations. It is almost a developed nation, with a long history of careful management of its food and animal sector. I believe that we should continue the battle and insist that progress is made. The Commission says that it cannot allow beef to be exported to third-world countries when it is not considered safe in Europe. We are eating British beef and we are the best judges. Consumers worldwide are the best judges of the safety of beef, not the Commission and not the Governments. We must do much more about that ban.
§ Mr. Nirj Joseph Deva (Brentford and Isleworth)
Is my hon. Friend aware that there are various countries that would like to import British beef? However, on the basis of a treaty agreement on what is known as the deflection of trade—if one exports to a third country and it comes back into the Community—the Community has banned the export of British beef. If we can prove that the beef is consumed in the third country, I see no reason why it should not be exported.
§ Mr. Leigh
My hon. Friend has made a good point.
The third point with which I want to deal is the backlog. The Minister assured us in the Agriculture Select Committee last week that the backlog could be dealt with by the back end of October. What worries me is that, if we are dealing with the backlog in the present slaughtering programme of 30-month-old cows by the back end of October, how can we get to grips with the new culling policy, which has been insisted on by the European Commission and our partners, and resolve the problem by November? Those are serious questions relating to the vets' committee, the backlog and the worldwide ban. It is a pity that we did not hear more from the Liberal Democrats about those problems. We need to start getting to grips with them, because they are the problems about which our farmers are concerned.
We are schizophrenic on the European issue in the Chamber. We complain about member states and we rely on the Commission, but we also complain about the activities of the Commission because we see those activities as an infringement of our national sovereignty.
The political message of this whole sorry saga is not that a particular Minister or the Government are at fault. That charge has not been sustained, and it is a gross 234 oversimplification of the issues. The political message of this sorry saga is that hon. Members must sort out— probably on a cross-party basis—our constitutional relationship with Europe. Do we want to surrender powers over food hygiene to the Commission, which is a non-elected international organisation, or do we want them dealt with here?
I am convinced that the only way in which we will ultimately deal with these problems is by giving the decision to the people. If this saga proves one thing, it is that the people must decide. There is no point in my suggesting a form of words now, but eventually—in a couple of years' time, in 1999—some of our fellow members will be moving to a single currency, and that will provide a good opportunity for a Speaker's Conference to phrase a series of questions to be put to the British people.
Do the British people want to move towards a federal Europe, in which all these decisions on food hygiene and BSE are ultimately taken by the Commission and by the Council of Ministers, voting by qualified majority voting? Do they want to support the Government's current attitude, which is that we will remain committed to the treaties but that we try to exercise a type of blocking mechanism? Do they want to renegotiate the treaties to ensure that this Parliament and our courts are sovereign— or do they want to get out of the European Union altogether?
Ultimately, the House—all three political parties—must present a decisive policy. We can move together on the basis of a sound relationship with Europe, whether it is on a basis of free trade or of moving towards ever closer political, economic and monetary union. That is perhaps the political message of this saga, but one thing is absolutely certain: the honest truth is that no hon. Member, in any political party, could have got a better deal in the circumstances than that achieved by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on Saturday, unless we were prepared to act illegally. There is not yet a consensus in the Chamber to act illegally.
§ Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian)
It is a pleasure to hear a Euro-sceptic on the defensive at last. The hon. Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh) has given the game away—he is more interested in the illusion of sovereignty for this "fortress little England" that he dreams of than he is in the interests of the British economy. Does the hon. Gentleman seriously think that consumers in Germany, France and Italy would be more likely to want to buy and eat beef from Scotland or from other parts of the United Kingdom if Britain was outside the European Union? What a load of nonsense.
I should preface my remarks by declaring an interest, as a farmer. I also apologise for the fact that I was not in the Chamber at the beginning of the debate, because I have just returned from a visit with colleagues on the Anglo-Irish parliamentary body to the Republic of Ireland. I spent this morning at a slaughterhouse in Ireland, where our Committee was examining the effect of the BSE crisis on both parts of the island of Ireland, as well as in Great Britain.
It is worth mentioning that the export market of the Republic of Ireland has suffered grievously—despite the fact that it has had only 127 cases of BSE and every 235 animal in herds in which BSE has been identified has been slaughtered, at considerable expense, in addition to other measures. Obviously the Irish beef export trade has not suffered as much as ours, however, as ours has been banned. All beef-producing countries have suffered because of the collapse of confidence in beef. It is in their interests, as much as in ours, that we get our act together and solve this problem, to restore consumer confidence in export markets.
I hope that the Minister will acknowledge the support that British interests have had from some Governments in the European Union, particularly the Government of the Republic of Ireland, in helping us to resolve the situation. We have made it very difficult for them.
It is nonsense for the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Budgen) and other hon. Members to claim that the settlement reached last week was a result of the British Tory Government's policy of serial vetoing of dozens of measures—which included drug controls, police co-operation and overseas aid. How on earth can we expect to make friends among our partner Governments or among partner populations by conducting ourselves in that manner? It is ludicrous.
Speaking as a farmer, and having spoken to many farmers in Scotland in recent weeks, I must say that the farming community is dismayed by the Government's counter-productive conduct. There is no doubt that this idiotic conduct of vetoing everything and seeking to make enemies among our partners has set back our interests. We need to make friends and to rebuild our markets rather than going out of our way to make enemies, as has happened.
Serial vetoing is infantile. The Government have been behaving rather like a spoiled child throwing a tantrum. It is not only ridiculous but counter-productive. We need friends among the other European Governments and among the consumers in our export markets.
I share the misgivings expressed by hon. Members on both sides of the House about the nature of the package which has been negotiated, because I do not think that it is based on science. I am not sure about merely plucking a number out of the air and saying that a given number of cattle will be slaughtered. It might be necessary from a marketing point of view to take surplus cattle off the market, but whether it reduces the risk of BSE or CJD is far from proven.
I strongly support the comments made earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) about the need for clearer science and better resources for science so that we can get a better understanding of what we are dealing with. Where did this condition come from? What is the extent of the real risk to humans, and how will we eradicate it? Those are the fundamental questions that are probably being grappled with now, but it is a great pity that those areas of science have hitherto been so under-resourced.
I conclude this brief speech by reminding the House that the objective of this whole sorry affair must be not to try to aggravate the German Government, the German population and other partners but to make friends. If we want to export again, as is essential certainly for the Scottish beef farming industry, we must persuade people on mainland Europe that our beef is high quality and safe.
Conservative Members prattle on about sovereignty. The hon. Member for Gainsborough spoke about South Africa. My understanding is that South Africa—like 236 Singapore, Australia, the United States and so many other countries outside the European Union—itself decided to ban imports of British beef. The European Union wants to help to ensure that we have a safe product that can be marketed safely without tainting the image of European produce in other countries. What type of sovereignty was the hon. Gentleman talking about? Those countries are entitled to ban imports if they feel that they are unsafe. We must persuade them that there is no need to do so. He was turning the concept of sovereignty on its head.
It is in the interests of our farmers and of the nation to restore confidence in this product. I am afraid that the conduct of the British Government has set back that objective—certainly by months, but I fear by years. We must start now to put the situation right.
§ Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)
In one narrow sense, I agree with the hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson). He talked about the need for us to make friends in Europe. The lesson of this whole unhappy affair is that, when push came to shove, after 25 years in Europe we did not have sufficient friends. We can have a debate, perhaps on another occasion, about how that came about; I have my own views.
In the most extreme crisis we have faced in our membership of the European Community, we had to resort to tactics that were nearly illegal because we did not have any friends. However we got into that position, that is where we are. Can one imagine that the hon. Member for East Lothian, faced with a situation in which no progress was being made, would say, "We must not upset anybody; we must wait for our friends to rally round"? Even the hon. Gentleman, although he may have been speaking in a hurry, should realise that, when push came to shove, we did not have those friends.
The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) concentrated on two points. First, there was the attack-whatever language we use, it was a personal attack—on the conduct and character of the Minister of Agriculture. There is nothing wrong with political dispute about means and ends on the Floor of the House; that is perfectly understandable. With BSE as with everything else, there will obviously be different views and different conclusions.
The hon. Gentleman and I accept the relevance of friends; we draw a different conclusion about what follows. We can usually conduct our debates without saying that a particular Minister is personally at fault and to blame. However, that is the territory on which the Liberal Democrats chose to conduct the debate— [Interruption.] They cannot now get huffy about that.
I cannot see that my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of Agriculture has done anything wrong. He has conducted himself with dignity, with calmness and with rationality. The only real allegation that seems to be made against him is that people in Brussels do not like him. I find it more encouraging to be told that Brussels does not like one of my Ministers, when my country is being treated disgracefully, than to listen to the Chancellor of Germany saying that he looks forward to the time when, as he sees it, the Leader of the Opposition may become Prime Minister of this country. He seems to believe—he is probably right—that the Leader of the Opposition would be more accommodating.
237 I do not like the idea of a Leader of the Opposition acting as a bookie's runner for the Chancellor of Germany. I prefer it if one of my Ministers, battling for this country, does not get the approval of Brussels. If that is the basis on which my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister is accused, it is not a bad position from which to start. His behaviour has been absolutely unimpeachable, and I would have liked to think that, whatever political controversy there may be between us, the motion could have been framed differently.
I was saddened by the speech of the hon. Member for North Cornwall. I hope that it does not embarrass him too much for me to say that I have always had a high regard for his talent. Outside the House, I have enjoyed many interesting conversations with him, and I can think of odd occasions when he has virtually outflanked me on the right. There we are; life is a curious thing.
I have a high regard for the hon. Gentleman. His speeches are normally a great deal better than those of his colleagues; to some extent, that is a reflection on the political company he keeps. Even if the political company were better, I believe that his speeches are usually worth listening to, well measured and well structured. I pay tribute to his work on organo-phosphorous compounds and in moving that debate forward.
Having said all that, I do not think that the hon. Gentleman's speech this evening was his finest hour. I am sorry to have to say that I thought that it was a shoddy, shabby speech which was unworthy of him. What he was saying was, "I am against this deal; this deal is entirely wrong." When I asked him whether he was saying that he did not approve of the cull, he said that he would deal with that point later on. He did not.
When the hon. Gentleman was asked what, if he did not like the Government's policy, his policy was, he came up with the sort of reply that brings politics into disrepute. He said, "It is my job to criticise. It is not my job to come up with any solutions."
§ Mr. Nicholls
The hon. Gentleman says that he did not say that. It might be an idea for him to look at the Hansard record tomorrow. He gave no alternative to the Government's policy. Instead, he simply said that the deal was wrong.
What, by implication, was the hon. Gentleman saying about the deal? Was he saying that he and his federalist friends could have got a better deal? Is that really credible? Is that the unilateral argument? If the hon. Gentleman's party ever held sway in the Government of this country, would it go into the chancelleries of Europe saying, "I want to give away my veto, because I find it embarrassing"? Would it say, "The veto conflicts with my federalist ambitions, and I want you to know in advance that, whatever you do to me, I shall ultimately put up with it, because I will never rely on a veto for this country"? That is the hon. Gentleman's position.
To use a phrase used many times in the House in a slightly different context, to suggest that one can go naked into the negotiating chamber and then come out with a better deal than was got in the circumstances is completely fanciful.
238 What does it amount to? Are we supposed to accept that the only reason why we did not get the right, just deal was that we were rude to the Europeans? Is that what we should be saying about our partners in Europe? Is it the federalist position that, if we were nice to them and sucked up to them, they might have given us a better deal, but because the Government were horrid to them, we did not get the deal?
The Government decided on a policy of non-co-operation—which goes against the grain of the way in which Conservatives feel they should conduct themselves—not as a jingoistic prelude to a football match with Germany, but because we had absolutely no choice. There was nowhere else to turn. We could either go on for ever and a day getting precisely nowhere, or we could tell our European partners that it was not sufficient. That is why we conducted ourselves in that way. Of course it is not a great deal, but it is the best that could have been achieved in the circumstances, and it is much better than many people thought possible.
When the hon. Member for North Cornwall tried to bolster his case by quoting a letter from the NFU, it really was not his finest hour. He used the letter from the NFU to raise the spectre of anything up to 150,000 cattle being slaughtered. When I asked him to continue with the letter and read out its conclusion, he did not want to do so. That is hardly surprising, as he was trying to represent the letter from the NFU as a condemnation of the Government's policy. My interpretation of the letter and its conclusion was precisely the opposite.
The conclusion of that letter needs to be put on record for exactly that reason. It states:The NFU welcomes the fact that the Prime Minister has now indicated that he anticipates that the ban on the export of British beef products could be raised by November of this year. We also welcome his assurance that the European Commission has the power to override the Standing Veterinary Committee if that body appears to be taking factors other than the purely scientific and technical ones into account.Should such a position arise, the NFU considers that the Government should immediately halt the selective cull scheme. The whole beef crisis has been far too bedevilled with politics rather than based on good scientific advice and cool rational judgment.The NFU pledges to do all it can to co-operate with the relevant authorities to ensure that the export ban is lifted on the timetable referred to by the Prime Minister if not earlier. It is essential that, for their part, the authorities pull out all the stops so that this can be achieved.[Interruption.] The hon. Member for North Cornwall barks from a sedentary position, "Would they withdraw co-operation again?" His party would not do that. The Liberal Democrats have made it abundantly clear that there is absolutely nothing that our European partners could do to the hon. Gentleman and those of his colleagues who bothered to turn up to their own debate to make them exercise a policy of non-co-operation.
§ Mr. Nicholls
The hon. Gentleman barks out, "Would they?" Of course the Government would. It is implicit, and it is not a question of saying, "Take our word for it." When we had no alternative, we made it clear that we would introduce a policy of non-co-operation.
The whole logic and sense of the agreement that the Prime Minister brought back is that the timetable of complying with the criteria is in our hands, but that if, 239 having complied with the criteria, the hon. Gentleman's friends in Europe still refuse to lift the ban, we shall revert to a policy of non-co-operation. The position is as plain as it could possibly be.
It is not ideal, but on that record, who could not believe that the Conservative Government were prepared to exercise a policy of non-co-operation to stand up for their country's interests? Who could not believe that we would not do it again, and who could believe that the grinning hon. Member for North Cornwall would ever summon up enough courage and strength to stand alone in Europe and not co-operate if that was what it took?
The hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) spoke about our lack of friends. At times I find it difficult to be friendly towards an institution which has wrought such devastation on my constituents in Teignbridge. When I consider what the beef crisis has done to the well-being, peace of mind, livelihood and sanity of many of my friends and constituents, I am appalled. It is difficult to be friendly in those circumstances.
Perhaps we should ask ourselves how we ever got into this position in the first place. The hon. Member for East Lothian asked how we could think for a moment that, just because we behaved in a certain way, the markets would suddenly open up to us again. It is a fair question, which deserves an answer.
Nobody who looks at the evidence can think for one moment that this business has been caused by any great fear based on science. To be fair to the Germans, brutal as they are, they do not even pretend that that is what it is about. Within 24 hours of a ban being imposed, German Foreign Office spokesmen said that the ban would not be lifted until the Prime Minister made some concessions at the intergovernmental conference. They made it perfectly clear then that their approach was based not only on safety but on getting other political mileage.
I was recently in Belgium, where I talked to a number of Dutch people. They made the point in a perfectly casual way that they could not be blamed for not wanting the ban on derivatives lifted, since they had a nice little market in Dutch semen. They said that, if they co-operated in the lifting of the ban on derivatives, they would lose a market opportunity. That is the sort of language being used by our partners.
The problem is that, when we found ourselves in extremis, and, after 25 years, it might have been thought that real partnership might have come to our assistance, it was not there. Why? The reason is plain enough: we do not have a relationship with our European partners with which we feel comfortable and with which they feel comfortable. For the most part, they have ambitions that we simply do not share.
There is nothing wrong with our European partners wanting to link up in a federalist destiny, but it is not for us. Increasingly, they consider, and in the broader term rightly, that we have apparently gone into their club and tried to change its rules. We did that because the Prime Minister of the day—a Conservative Prime Minister—was not straight about what going into Europe meant. As a result, we find that we have a different vision of Europe, and Europe resents that.
There will come a point not when we withdraw from Europe—we cannot; it is there and a major trading bloc for us—but when we have to negotiate with Europe to 240 find a relationship with which we are both comfortable. If we ever do that, it will mean that, should a crisis such as this ever occur again, we will be in a partnership and not find that rancour and bitterness mean that those who should be our partners have decided instead that they will take it out on us. That is the true lesson we must learn from this whole wretched, unhappy business.
§ Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)
I am very happy to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls), who has spoken even more eloquently than usual. I am also happy to have heard the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Budgen). He speaks quite well, but today he spoke exceptionally well.
I do not have an interest to declare. I am a farmer but do not have any beef. I have had beef cattle and I understand how desperate many of our beef farmers are, especially those who are producing prime beef, have been fattening beef, or have bought expensive beef and are not getting a high price for it on the market. Life is very difficult for them.
I have criticised my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Government and my party and those on the Front Bench because I have been concerned that we would be sucked, drawn into and consumed by something that we now look upon as a country called Europe. I have also been concerned that if my party were not successful, we would not be drawn into a country called Europe, but dragged kicking and screaming into it by both Opposition parties.
We have reached a watershed. The Conservative party is now at ease within itself. It is at ease with the public at large, and has a policy on Europe, which my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has set out on many occasions. He believes in a Europe of nation states. I, along with my hon. Friends, believe in a Europe of nation states. The nation state comes first with me and Europe second, but I see no reason why we should leave the European Union if we can achieve a Europe of nation states.
I spoke to a very senior member of the Government soon after the crisis broke and asked what we could do about this desperate situation. I was told, "Actually, they have us by the short and curlies." We were in a difficult position, and that is the problem. All the power rests in Brussels—all the power rests on the other side of the channel. That is the reality. Opposition Members who criticise the Government and say that they would have done better must realise that the whole basis of their case has been disingenuous. They know where the power lies, but they have the cheek and the gall to criticise the Government.
The Government should be congratulated on the way that they have handled what has been the most difficult issue to face the country since the Falklands dispute. It required verve, nerve, imagination and courage, and the Government have shown them all. I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of Agriculture, with whom I have had regular conversations during the crisis. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary—who has been receptive to all points put to her—and my hon. Friend the Minister of State. They have had a difficult task—they have been in the eye of a storm—but have remained calm and resolute in difficult logistical circumstances and have tried to deal with the frustration of farmers. The Government have kept their cool and have come forward with the right policies.
241 Apparently, we should have "made friends" with the Europeans, as if Europe is about making friends. We are friends and partners with Europe, but Europe is not about "making friends"—it is about power politics, and it always has been. Anyone who thinks that Europe is about "making friends" and getting our own way by doing so is absurdly naive. The idea that someone who holds that view should get hold of the reins of government of this great country and go and try to "make friends" with Europe is absurd. Does one think that the French got an extra, redundant, unnecessary and extravagant Parliament in Strasbourg by "making friends" with Europe, or by standing firm? Does anyone think that the Italians, Spaniards and Greeks illicitly, illegally and improperly gained an extra tranche of milk quota by "making friends" with the rest of the Community, or by holding it to ransom? How naive, pathetic, stupid, wet and ridiculous can one get.
§ Mr. Marlow
My hon. Friend will make me forget my next point.
I have friends in the Labour party, and I have respect for it. Or rather, I had respect for the Labour party when it stood for something. There are still some people in the Labour party who stand for something. I have no respect for new Labour, which stands for nothing. Even worse than new Labour are the old Liberals or new Liberals, or whatever the mish-mash on the Opposition Bench call themselves. They criticise the Government and say that they could have done a better deal. How on earth could they have done that? All the power resides over there and yet the Liberals want to give Europe more power, so that we end up with no power over our country, our farmers and our future. How dare they put their argument in that way? How dare they try to deceive the British people?
We all know that it is an absurd deal, and that our beef is the best in Europe and in the world. We all know that it is wrong to kill perfectly healthy cows and take them out of the food chain when people around the world are starving. Why can we not use that meat in food aid? If someone has a one in three chance of dying from starvation, why can they not have that beef? We all know that the cull of cows is absurd and that it has gone too far, but there is nothing that we can do about it. The Government have been confronted with limits by our European partners and friends—or are they the people in Europe who are trying to steal a commercial advantage over us? That includes people such as Chancellor Kohl, who is in a flat panic about German consumers. Given the limits with which they were confronted—although it is an absurd deal—the Government have wrought a miracle, and have done far better than anybody else could have.
I have one final point—whither Europe? Europe will be with us, and we will be with it, only if we are at ease with it. Europe is changing; the country is changing. The Conservative party has changed and the understanding of the realities of Europe has changed. Europe may go for a single currency; there will be people in the single currency and people outside it. That means that there will be greater divisions in Europe than there are at the moment.
Britain has an opt-out from the social chapter and the single currency. Britain is going to have changes in the fisheries policy. Britain is going to become more 242 different. Other countries are going to join Europe and they are going to be more different. We are going to have a Europe of variable geometry. That is the way of our salvation in Europe; that is the way that the Government are going. Going that way will set the British people free within Europe and give us more power and control over our affairs and more of the self-government that has been taken from us over the past few years. We shall get that only with a Conservative Government. The trash opposite would be on their knees; they would lie on their backs, kicking their feet in the air and asking for more.
§ Mr. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon)
It appears finally that the Euro-sceptics have taken over the heart of the Conservative party. I am moved that the Conservative party feels that it is unfair, unjust and disloyal that Opposition politicians should dare to criticise the Government. We take that as advance notice that shortly, when they are in Opposition, they will not venture to criticise the Government, but will show the total loyalty and support that they expect from us. The hon. Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow) fails to recognise that if we had the Europe of variable geometry that he wants, we would have to negotiate to get the ban lifted, not with one Commission but with 14 Governments. If he thinks that his Ministers have the time and energy to do that and to run the country, he is deluded.
We have been criticised for the terms of the motion— for daring to suggest that the Minister of Agriculture should be held accountable to the House for the administration of agriculture policy. I must point out that that is supposed to be how our unwritten constitution works: Ministers take responsibility for policy delivery by their Departments. When their Departments fail to deliver, Ministers should be called to account to the House. A perfectly normal way to do that is by tabling a motion in the terms that we have used to demonstrate that a Minister and his Department have failed to deliver what was expected of them.
I must explain why we believe that the deal that the Government secured in Florence was the worst that they could have obtained. That was entirely due to their failure to act early enough and it was aggravated by their policy of non-co-operation. Last Thursday, before he went to Florence, the Prime Minister told the Leader of the Opposition:No animal that would not have been slaughtered is now to be slaughtered.My right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) said:There is muddle, confusion and chaos … The Prime Minister"—talking of the slaughter of more animals—says none, but the National Farmers Union says 66,000.The Prime Minister replied:He is wrong on almost every aspect."—[Official Report, 20 June 1996; Vol. 279, c. 996–97.]Yet on Monday, three days later, on his return from Florence, we were told that between 120,000 and 160,000 additional animals will have to be slaughtered. That was an abject surrender.
In addition, the Prime Minister claimed yesterday that he had a timetable for the removal of the beef ban; he has no such thing. He has his interpretation of what he hopes 243 can be delivered. He has no assurance from anyone in the European Union or the European Commission that says at what stage any of progressive liftings of the ban will be achieved. It will be determined by the institutions of the European Commission.
§ Mr. Nicholls
Some five hours after the debate began, will the hon. Gentleman say whether he has worked out the answer to this question: what deal does he think that he would have brought back?
§ Mr. Bruce
No, it would not have been this one. We would have been in the Commission at the outset negotiating specific proposals. We have assurances from the Commission that a slaughter policy of considerably fewer than 100,000 would have secured agreement if we had tabled it at the beginning rather than wait for 13 weeks and pursue four weeks of non-co-operation. The Government failed to act, blamed the European Commission for their failure to act and then secured the worst possible deal, the highest number of slaughtered cattle that could have been achieved by incompetence and the surrender of the administration of that policy to the European Union and the Commission. That is what the Government have succeeded in doing. That is no triumph; it is a disaster. If it is a triumph, it is the triumph of Jim Hacker, not of a Prime Minister who knows how to defend the interests of his country.
Farmers and people in the beef industry are now asking when they can reasonably expect to be able to sell British beef into foreign markets. The National Farmers Union welcomes the Prime Minister's belief that it will be October or November, but I have spoken to no one in the beef industry who believes that that is likely to be achieved. From listening to the last two speeches, I wonder whether we have a deliberate hostage to fortune so that the Prime Minister can let the dogs loose again in another three months in order to create an anti-European rant in advance of the general election. If that is the way in which British policy is to be determined, it is disastrously contrary to the interests of the British producers and the British farmers.
The constituency that I represent has a wider cross-section of beef producers than probably any other constituency. I have not only specialist beef farmers but three slaughterhouses, numerous meat processors, the transport industry, the rendering industry, the haulage industry and the refrigeration industry. Thousands of people in my constituency work in the beef industry.
§ Mr. Bruce
If the hon. Gentleman really believes what he just said, I can only introduce him to the members of the Conservative party who have resigned in the past 12 weeks and joined the Liberal Democrats because they see how incompetently the Government have handled their industry and the extent to which they have sought to make irrelevant political capital rather than to get to grips with a policy that will succeed in re-establishing confidence in the industry.
§ Mr. Bruce
I have no intention of giving way.
The industry wishes to have answered a number of specific questions. I hope that, on this occasion, the Parliamentary Secretary will be prepared to answer them. She did not do so when I asked her questions at the end of the last debate on the industry, possibly because she was not able to do so.
The Prime Minister, the Government and, indeed, Ministers responsible for agriculture have said that they believe that the first lifting of the ban on meat products could apply to specialist herds. The hon. Member for Angus, East (Mr. Welsh) also raised this matter. The Government have not explained in ways that the industry can comprehend what is meant by specialist herds, how they will qualify, how many herds are likely to be affected or what volume that will mean. How will they be endorsed? How will the system be enforced? How will the guarantee be given in a way that will satisfy the European Union that we are offering a quality product that it can accept into its markets?
For example—this is a specific question—there is concern that farmers will be unable to prove that a 12, 18 or 24-month-old steer has been fed entirely on non-adulterated feedstuffs. They may well be able to give absolute assurances from their own knowledge, but proof will be difficult. The industry will appreciate it if the Minister can give some further guidance on how the Government intend to approach that difficulty. Lifting the ban on specialist herds could be an important first step, although when the Prime Minister says that he thinks that he can achieve that in October and the lifting of the ban on all beef under 30 months in November, one wonders why the distinction has such validity. It may be because he expects the time scale to be longer in reality.
Another measure that the Government have recently introduced is causing concern in terms of administration. I refer to their decision—the reasons for which are well understood—to offer an advance payment of £300 to farmers for cattle that are awaiting slaughter under the cull scheme. It has been put to me that those who are handling the slaughter of all cull cattle will face considerable administrative difficulties in determining which cattle have been the subject of the advance notice. That process may considerably complicate the administration of the cull. I would be grateful if the Parliamentary Secretary would say how it will be administered in a way that will not lead to delay, confusion and losses.
The hon. Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) again referred to companies that had been involved in the processing of head meat, a significant number of which have been affected. As the hon. Gentleman said, in good faith, these companies made significant investments in what was a perfectly respectable industry. The Government decided—on health grounds and without notice—to close the industry down overnight. The companies have not been offered compensation. I concur with the remarks of the hon. Gentleman in this regard.
The proprietor of one of the companies lives in my constituency. The companies are mainly family businesses that employ 20 or 30 people and are dependent on the capital raised, usually, on the security of the principal's house. They are facing bankruptcy. It is disgraceful that 245 the Government do not accept any responsibility for the consequences of their decision to close those companies overnight. I understand that the companies propose to take legal action against the Government, but it would be gracious of the Government if they accepted that they should make a contribution.
A number of other people involved in beef production feel aggrieved because they are receiving little—or, in many cases, no—direct compensation and they are having to take the loss entirely. Again, this issue has been raised in the House before, but there has been no response from the Government. For example, those who are involved in the making of meat products, such as pies, have found that demand for their products has fallen by at least 50 per cent. and has not recovered. They have received no compensation. At the very least, the companies need substantial marketing assistance to enable them to reassure their customers that the meat that goes into their products comes from entirely approved sources, on exactly the same terms as cuts of meat. That might help them to re-establish the market.
In my constituency, people are involved in the transportation of live animals and of carcases and meat products. Many in the transport industry have been extremely hard hit by the downturn in the industry, and they have received no corresponding support.
The Scottish point of view is not entirely understood, but it is important that the Scottish dimension is fully understood, particularly by Agriculture Ministers. Scotland has traditionally been much more successful than England in the export market—a higher proportion of the Scottish product was exported. Although the home market has substantially recovered, the loss of Scottish exports means that the total market is considerably smaller than the recovered market south of the border.
As a consequence, specialist export companies—they have been almost entirely export led in the past—have had 90 to 95 per cent. of their business removed. They were the crème de la crème, the flagship, of our quality export promoters. Yesterday, I travelled on a plane with a senior executive of one of those companies in my constituency. He was on his way to Buckingham palace to negotiate his annual contract to supply the Queen with beef products. I am pleased that all foreign visitors who are entertained at Buckingham palace will be entertained with good Aberdeenshire beef bought from that supplier. As he said, "Good as it is to have the royal warrant, to have lost 95 per cent. of my business does not make for great compensation". He has failed to secure what he regards as a realistic offer for compensation for the meat that was in his stores when the ban was imposed.
The right hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) referred to the need to provide additional assistance to farmers in the form of various support mechanisms, such as the suckler cow and the beef special premiums—both of which are being reviewed by the European Commission—and the hill livestock compensation allowances. There is considerable anxiety in the industry about what will happen at the autumn calf sales. What Ministers say and their ability to deliver on those statements is extremely important.
If we rely on the assurances of the Prime Minister, the Minister of Agriculture or any other Minister that the ban will be lifted by October or November, it will have a 246 significant effect on the autumn sales. If those assurances are based on no more than the Government's best hopes and endeavours, would farmers be wise to invest on that basis? Would they receive adequate compensation if they did so and the ban was not lifted until many months later? Farmers' confidence in the Government will be clearly reflected in the prices paid at the calf sales. The National Farmers Union for Scotland asked that that point be raised in the debate. It also asked what criteria must be met in order to facilitate the removal of the export ban on a herd-by-herd basis.
The Government have at least secured a framework that marks the end of the beginning of the crisis, but it is a long way from being the beginning of the end. The fact remains that we must proceed with our twin agreed slaughter policies and put them in place as a first step towards persuading the European Union that we are coming to grips with eradicating BSE and therefore it should consider lifting the ban.
I am genuinely puzzled as to how Ministers believe that the ban will be lifted by October or November. The Minister said in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall that he believed that the accelerated rate of slaughter under the cull policy would eliminate the backlog by perhaps October or November. However, if we must add another 120,000 or 160,000 targeted slaughter cattle to that total, he said that we would not achieve stability on the slaughter policy for another six to nine months. That is the date upon which the European Commission is likely to fasten and begin to lift the ban. Ministers should not give assurances that the ban will be lifted in October or November if they know that the Commission is not likely to be persuaded until several months after that.
I think that the hon. Members who spoke at the end of the debate have lost sight of the fact that we are not just 13 weeks into the crisis. The crisis did not begin with the announcements in the House and the introduction of the ban: it began in 1988 when BSE was identified as a significant problem. It is not a question of the wisdom of hindsight—many people called on the Government to implement targeted slaughter and compensation policies at that time, or shortly afterwards, in an attempt to eradicate the disease. I received letters from farmers seeking such measures. I passed them on to Ministers, but the Government refused to act because of the cost. Their failure to do so has landed us in a much deeper crisis at a much greater cost. It is crucial that we recognise the inadequacy of the Government's handling of the situation to date.
I repeat what I said earlier—there is no doubt in my mind and those of my colleagues that a better deal, with a smaller number of cows slaughtered, could have been secured weeks ago and could have been operating now. We would have already been several weeks nearer to the day when the ban will be lifted. That is why we have no confidence in the conduct of the Ministry of Agriculture.
That is the least of our concerns. What matters now is how we get from here to the day when British beef will be back in the export markets. We have to be satisfied that the Government have a policy, the details of which are understood by the industry, and that the machinery is in place to ensure that that policy is delivered. We can then get the European authorities to lift the ban. Our lack of confidence that the Government are capable, given their past record, of doing that means that the motion is 247 justified and well directed. Somebody else should take a lead on the policy to ensure that the ban is lifted sooner rather than later, because the present incumbents have conspicuously failed to do so.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mrs. Angela Browning)
It is evident from the contributions this evening that the House is greatly concerned about the future of the beef industry and the trades associated with it. Clearly and rightly, all hon. Members who have contributed expect and demand that the Government—to use the NFU's words—"pull out all the stops" to improve and ultimately resolve the situation. If that had been the tone of the motion before the House, we could have taken the Liberal Democrats' contribution more seriously.
I regret that the Liberal Democrats' motion was based not on their concern for the farmers, the beef industry or the trades associated with it, but on a disgraceful attack on the Minister of Agriculture on a day when they know that he cannot be present. I do not question their challenge to Ministers on Government policy, but they are becoming well known for personal smears and underhand tactics that debase the politics and democracy of this country. [Interruption.] The Liberal Democrats can chatter all they like. They have had their say this evening and they chose the ground on which to bring this important subject before the House. It is contemptible, especially for people who purport to represent the agriculture industry, to bring such an important subject to the House under the guise of challenging someone who cannot be here to represent himself. As if that were not enough, at Prime Minister's Question Time today, the leader of the Liberal Democrats complained to the Prime Minister about the tone of British politics. That is typical.
The leader of the Liberal Democrats has attacked the policy of non-co-operation—and his troops have spoken on the same theme this evening—on the grounds that it not would deliver a framework and that Britain's standing in Europe would be irreparably damaged. He is wrong on both counts. We now have a clear framework for lifting the ban, which we would not have if we had not acted as we did.
Britain's reputation was being damaged by the bad faith and blocking tactics used by other member states. The Prime Minister went to international conferences at which Heads of Government publicly gave him support only to find, when the vote came, that the Ministers and vets of those countries reneged on their promises. There is a limit to how many times that can be acceptable to any Government. It may be acceptable to a Government that the Liberal Democrats envisage in their grandiose scheme for a federal Europe, but it was not in the interests of this country. The Government and the Prime Minister were not prepared to sell this country down the river.
The framework agreed in Florence has met the Ashdown test. In a letter to the Prime Minister on 22 May, the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) said:The test for your gamble"—non-co-operation—does not lie in lifting the derivatives ban … But in whether the outcome is an agreement on lifting the overall European beef ban by the end of June.248 That has been achieved. The Government secured an agreement at the Florence Council on 21 June. The idea that simply mentioning the names of Ministers met during a quick tour of Europe, albeit for short briefings, would have produced a much more substantial agreement, is arrogant even by Liberal Democrat standards.
§ Mr. Tyler
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way in her customary polite fashion. If the Minister of Agriculture and the hon. Lady's colleague have done such a wonderful job, why did the Prime Minister decide to appoint the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to take charge of the 30-month cull and the Foreign Secretary to take over the leadership of the negotiations in Europe?
§ Mrs. Browning
Because we in the Conservative party work as a team, something which the Liberal Democrats purport to do, but cannot recognise when they see it in practice.
Three months ago, the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) called for all dairy cattle that could have had access to BSE-infected foodstuffs—cattle born before 1991—to be taken out of the food chain. In his press release issued on 26 March, he proposed a selective cull that could be spread over a full year. Given his commitment only a few weeks ago, I trust that he will support a selective cull just three months later.
We look forward to the hon. Gentleman and his party supporting that policy, because at the moment my hon. Friend the Minister of State and other colleagues of ours in the Department are working closely with the agriculture industry—
§ Mrs. Browning
No, it is not a south-west matter. Many areas have a lot of animals that will come under the scheme.
We, and my hon. Friend the Minister of State in particular, are working closely with and formally consulting the industry, the NFU and the farming interests to determine how that policy can be taken forward. Given the written commitment of the hon. Member for North Cornwall to the policy, we look to him to play his part, and for his support, in getting right the details of the policy that will help in the lifting of the ban by the autumn, certainly its first stages.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang) made a constructive contribution. Throughout the debates on the subject, his contributions have been informed and certainly a lot more rational than those of the hon. Member for North Cornwall and his colleagues. However, on occasions, he is let down by his colleagues. The hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman) has not helped his cause. Tonight he asked the House to keep a sense of perspective by looking at the science and not creating scares over BSE and CJD. He is right to do so. I fully support his words and I hope that they will have been heard by his own colleagues and by other hon. Members.
The hon. Gentleman has also been let down by the leader of the Labour party, who I regret has not had the benefit of listening to him perhaps as much as Conservative Members have. The right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) shows the two faces of the Labour 249 party on this issue. Here in Great Britain, the official Labour party's policy is, as the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) said, thatthe Government has adopted a policy of non-co-operation in Europe as its chosen means of ending the ban. Labour will give them our support in the national interest.That was in May. We support and welcome that. However, it was disappointing to find that when the right hon. Member for Sedgefield was in Germany on 18 June, a week ago, he said:You should also know that no one has been more critical of our Government's handling of the BSE crisis than the Labour Party.The right hon. Gentleman's words are not compatible with what the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East said at the Dispatch Box. There have been times when he has been critical, but in the main we have welcomed the support of the Opposition Front-Bench agriculture spokesman. I hope that the leader of the Labour party will refer to the hon. Gentleman's words.
§ Mr. Marlow
My hon. Friend probably remembers, as I do, a famous "Spitting Image" puppet of the then leader of the Liberal party stuck in the top pocket of the then leader of the Social Democratic party. Does the relationship between the leader of the Labour party and Chancellor Kohl remind her of that?
§ Mrs. Browning
I am probably too young to remember that.
We have heard constructive, concerned and well-informed contributions, particularly from my right hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) and my hon. Friends the Members for Weston-super-Mare (Sir J. Wiggin) and for West Gloucestershire (Mr. Marland). My hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) concentrated on the European element of what we have had to negotiate. We also heard interesting speeches from my hon. Friends the Members for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Budgen) and for Gosport (Mr. Viggers). My hon. Friend the Member for Gosport has been to see me; I know that he is very concerned about the position of head boners, particularly those in his constituency. As he is aware, I am examining that again. I do not wish to give him any indication that the decision can be reversed, but, as I promised, I have looked at it and will continue to look at it. I shall return to him as soon as I have done that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh) and my hon. Friend and neighbour the Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) made important and persuasive speeches.
§ Mrs. Browning
Indeed, I am.
My hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow) made a theatrical contribution. The body language was really worth watching. None the less, he 250 spoke with passion, conviction and sincerity. If every speech that we heard tonight had been made with passion, conviction and sincerity, we might have had a better standard of debate than was evident in some Opposition contributions.
Various schemes and aspects have been mentioned. I shall try to deal with as many as possible in the remaining time. Over the past few weeks, several hon. Members have asked about the cost of the various schemes so far to the United Kingdom taxpayer. At last Thursday's Agriculture questions, the cost over the next three years was quoted as being £1.5 billion. We have looked at the consequences of all the schemes, and I can now tell the House that the cost over three years will be £2.5 billion. I hope that hon. Members will accept that updated figure.
§ Mrs. Browning
It is not Labour money. How typical that a Labour Member should shout that. There is no such thing as Labour money or Conservative money. [Interruption.]
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. The House must settle down, and I must say to the Minister that it is not always helpful to respond to sedentary interventions.
§ Mrs. Browning
Thank you for your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I shall ignore such interventions from now on.
§ Mrs. Browning
If we had not been prepared to put public money behind supporting this important industry, I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman would be leaping to his feet demanding that we do so. There is no pleasing some people. You are right, Mr. Deputy Speaker: from now on, I shall ignore interventions.
Several hon. Members mentioned the mature beef scheme. I would have liked to be able to announce the implementation and full details of the scheme by now. The House will know that we have formally consulted on it, and representatives of the industry have been to see me twice during that consultation, but there is a delay, and I welcome the opportunity to explain it to the House.
The Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee has asked some specific questions about the detail of the scheme. I am sure that the House will understand that it is important that the scheme has SEAC's full support. When the committee meets on 2 July, it wants an opportunity to discuss two or three elements of the scheme in detail. It is not my place to lean on the committee. I want it to have full information and to reach its conclusion independently. Awaiting SEAC's recommendations is delaying the scheme, but I assure the House that once we have the green light, we shall be ready to go—and implementation will follow shortly thereafter. That responds to the concerns of the hon. Member for Angus, East (Mr. Welsh), because farmers in Scotland and in the regions are anxious to see the scheme up and 251 running. Once I have the full details of the scheme, subject to SEAC's approval, I shall bring them before the House as quickly as possible.
§ Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)
Given Northern Ireland's traceability regime and that its beef herds are relatively free of BSE, and as Northern Ireland is 80 per cent. dependent on beef for its exports, why are beef exports from there being delayed?
§ Mrs. Browning
The hon. Gentleman leads me to traceability. The House will be aware of the passport scheme that will be put in place, but I know of the computer database that tracks the movement of every relevant animal in Northern Ireland. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has said, in respect of the outcome of the Florence agreement, that it is hoped to move on exports in the autumn. I share the belief expressed by many hon. Members tonight that, initially, the market will reopen outside the EU rather than within it. When those important export markets are opened, traceability will be crucial. The public will be looking for guarantees over and above those that were given before. Northern Ireland will be well placed to take advantage. Although the passport scheme will provide much more traceability, ultimately we must move rapidly to a UK-wide scheme for tracking and tracing movement.
§ Mrs. Browning
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Finally, tracking will be a prerequisite for many markets that want to re-establish trade in beef with the United Kingdom.
§ Mrs. Browning
I will not give way again.
The feed recall scheme is under way, and from 1 August it will be an offence for mammalian feed to be kept on farms, in stores or in mills. The hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) raised several points, particularly on research in the United States. I have the latest information, but it is detailed. It might be more helpful to invite the hon. Gentleman to the Department, so that we may discuss each of his points in depth. We have answers to them, but more work needs to be done before the results of that research can be considered conclusive.
The selective cull policy is designed to reduce the incidence of BSE more rapidly than relying on the reduction of contaminated feed. We estimate that without any slaughter policy, there would be just over 8,000 cases of BSE this year, 5,000 next year and 2,800 the year after. That is in any case an encouraging and rapid downward trend. The purpose of the selective cull is to reduce the incidence of BSE even more rapidly and to provide reassurance in the home and export markets.
Some hon. Members questioned the scientific basis for a selective cull. There is no perfect science for estimating numbers, but from our computer modelling, we can see that the selective cull will enable us to reduce the number of BSE-infected cattle much more rapidly. I believe that the industry recognises that that will be helpful.
252 I believe that we need to get the detail right with the industry and, as my hon. Friends have reiterated, the policy will need the co-operation and support of the House. We shall be talking to those involved in the industry over the next two to three weeks and we shall make sure that we listen to what they have to say about compensation for those animals that come forward, and we shall—
§ Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)
rose in his place and claimed to move, That the Question be now put.
§ Question, That the Question be now put, put and agreed to.
§ Question put accordingly, That the original words stand part of the Question:—
§ The House divided: Ayes 60, Noes 144.253
|Division No. 156]||[10.00 pm|
|Ainger, Nick||Jones, Barry (Alyn and D'side)|
|Alton, David||Jones, Nigel (Cheltenham)|
|Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy||Kennedy, Charles (Ross, C&S)|
|Barnes, Harry||Lewis, Terry|
|Bermingham, Gerald||Loyden, Eddie|
|Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)||Lynne, Ms Liz|
|Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)||McFall, John|
|Campbell-Savours, D N||Maclennan, Robert|
|Carlile, Alexander (Montgomery)||Maddock, Diana|
|Chidgey, David||Mahon, Alice|
|Clarke, Eric (Midlothian)||Maxton, John|
|Clwyd, Mrs Ann||Michie, Mrs Ray (Argyll & Bute)|
|Connarty, Michael||Morgan, Rhodri|
|Corbyn, Jeremy||Nicholson, Emma (Devon West)|
|Cunningham, Roseanna||O'Hara, Edward|
|Dafis, Cynog||Pearson, Ian|
|Dalyell, Tam||Rendel, David|
|Davies, Chris (L'Boro & S'worth)||Salmond, Alex|
|Dixon, Don||Simpson, Alan|
|Ewing, Mrs Margaret||Skinner, Dennis|
|Fatchett, Derek||Steel, Rt Hon Sir David|
|Flynn, Paul||Taylor, Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)|
|Foulkes, George||Taylor, Matthew (Truro)|
|Godman, Dr Norman A||Tyler, Paul|
|Hall, Mike||Wallace, James|
|Hanson, David||Welsh, Andrew|
|Harvey, Nick||Williams, Alan W (Carmarthen)|
|Hinchliffe, David||Wilson, Brian|
|Home Robertson, John|
|Hughes, Simon (Southwark)||Tellers for the Ayes:|
|Jamieson, David||Mr. Archy Kirkwood and|
|Johnston, Sir Russell||Mr. Don Foster.|
|Aitken, Rt Hon Jonathan||Bright, Sir Graham|
|Amess, David||Brooke, Rt Hon Peter|
|Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)||Browning, Mrs Angela|
|Arnold, Sir Thomas (Hazel Grv)||Budgen, Nicholas|
|Atkins, Rt Hon Robert||Burns, Simon|
|Atkinson, Peter (Hexham)||Burt, Alistair|
|Baker, Rt Hon Kenneth (Mole V)||Carlisle, Sir Kenneth (Lincoln)|
|Baker, Nicholas (North Dorset)||Carrington, Matthew|
|Baldry, Tony||Carttiss, Michael|
|Bates, Michael||Chapman, Sir Sydney|
|Batiste, Spencer||Clarke, Rt Hon Kenneth (Ru'clif)|
|Beggs, Roy||Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey|
|Beresford, Sir Paul||Coe, Sebastian|
|Biffen, Rt Hon John||Conway, Derek|
|Booth, Hartley||Cormack, Sir Patrick|
|Bowis, John||Currie, Mrs Edwina (S D'by'ire)|
|Brandreth, Gyles||Day, Stephen|
|Devlin, Tim||Maitland, Lady Olga|
|Dorrell, Rt Hon Stephen||Malone, Gerald|
|Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James||Marland, Paul|
|Dover, Den||Marlow, Tony|
|Duncan, Alan||Marshall, Sir Michael (Arundel)|
|Duncan Smith, Iain||Martin, David (Portsmouth S)|
|Elletson, Harold||Merchant, Piers|
|Emery, Rt Hon Sir Peter||Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling)|
|Evans, Jonathan (Brecon)||Molyneaux, Rt Hon Sir James|
|Evans, Nigel (Ribble Valley)||Monro, Rt Hon Sir Hector|
|Evans, Roger (Monmouth)||Nelson, Anthony|
|Fabricant, Michael||Neubert, Sir Michael|
|Fishburn, Dudley||Nicholls, Patrick|
|Forman, Nigel||Norris, Steve|
|Forth, Eric||Oppenheim, Phillip|
|Fox, Dr Liam (Woodspring)||Porter, David (Waveney)|
|Fox, Rt Hon Sir Marcus (Shipley)||Powell, William (Corby)|
|Freeman, Rt Hon Roger||Shaw, David (Dover)|
|French, Douglas||Shepherd, Sir Colin (Hereford)|
|Gallie, Phil||Shersby, Sir Michael|
|Gill, Christopher||Skeet, Sir Trevor|
|Gillan, Cheryl||Smyth, The Reverend Martin|
|Goodlad, Rt Hon Alastair||Soames, Nicholas|
|Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles||Spencer, Sir Derek|
|Greenway, Harry (Ealing N)||Spink, Dr Robert|
|Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth, N)||Sproat, Iain|
|Hague, Rt Hon William||Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John|
|Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)||Stephen, Michael|
|Hampson, Dr Keith||Stern, Michael|
|Hanley, Rt Hon Jeremy||Stewart, Allan|
|Hargreaves, Andrew||Streeter, Gary|
|Hawkins, Nick||Sweeney, Walter|
|Hawksley, Warren||Taylor, Sir Teddy (Southend, E)|
|Heald, Oliver||Thomason, Roy|
|Hendry, Charles||Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)|
|Hicks, Sir Robert||Townend, John (Bridlington)|
|Horam, John||Tredinnick, David|
|Howard, Rt Hon Michael||Trend, Michael|
|Hughes, Robert G (Harrow W)||Trotter, Neville|
|Hunt, Rt Hon David (Wirral W)||Twinn, Dr Ian|
|Jack, Michael||Viggers, Peter|
|Jessel, Toby||Walker, Bill (N Tayside)|
|Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)||Waller, Gary|
|Kellett-Bowman, Dame Elaine||Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)|
|Kirkhope, Timothy||Waterson, Nigel|
|Knight, Mrs Angela (Erewash)||Wells, Bowen|
|Knight, Rt Hon Greg (Derby N)||Whitney, Ray|
|Knight, Dame Jill (Bir'm E'st'n)||Whittingdale, John|
|Kynoch, George (Kincardine)||Widdecombe, Ann|
|Lawrence, Sir Ivan||Wiggin, Sir Jerry|
|Legg, Barry||Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)|
|Leigh, Edward||Winterton, Nicholas (Macc'f'ld)|
|Lidington, David||Wood, Timothy|
|Lloyd, Rt Hon Sir Peter (Fareham)|
|MacGregor, Rt Hon John||Tellers for the Noes:|
|MacKay, Andrew||Mr. Richard Ottaway and Mr. Roger Knapman.|
§ Question accordingly negatived.
§ Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 30 (Questions on amendments), and agreed to.254
§ MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.
§ That this House congratulates the Government on securing a clear framework for the lifting of the European ban on British beef; welcomes the package of support the Government has provided to the beef industry over the last three months; and urges the Liberal Democrat Party to work with the Government to restore confidence in British beef instead of carping and criticising from the sidelines.