HC Deb 27 March 1996 vol 274 cc1012-5
2. Mr. Anthony Coombs

To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland if he will make an estimate of productivity growth in Scottish industry since 1979. [21320]

Mr. Michael Forsyth

Between 1979 and 1993 there was a productivity growth in Scotland of 30 per cent.

Mr. Coombs

Will my hon. Friend confirm that productivity growth in Scotland has not only exceeded that of the G7 countries over the past decade, but has substantially exceeded that of the United Kingdom as a whole? Is that not an indication of the huge economic transformation and growth in competitiveness that have taken place in Scotland over the past 15 years? Does it not give the lie to the claims of the Labour party that this period has seen an erosion in the Scottish manufacturing base, which is total nonsense?

Mr. Forsyth

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the spectacular success of the Scottish economy in recent years. The last three years have seen an increase in productivity in Scotland that has exceeded that of the rest of the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom as a whole has been the job generator in Europe and unemployment has fallen as a result. Scotland has led the way, due to the enterprise of the Scottish people and the success of the Government's policies.

Mr. George Robertson

On the subject of productivity in Scottish industries and the dilemma and crisis facing the farming and processing industries in Scotland, does the Secretary of State agree that this crisis needs all of us to work together to restore confidence in Scottish beef and to allay the legitimate health concerns on which the public will have to make up their own minds? Does he accept that the dithering, muddling and indecision on the part of the Government have played a decisive part in contributing to the crisis?

Does he agree that radical and decisive action is now necessary for the future and that it must include some consideration of the National Farmers Union proposal for selective slaughter, a severe tightening of slaughtering laws and operation, and more publicity for the fact that quality-assured herds, both north and south of the border, are in a special case and class of their own? Will the Government consider a tracing scheme for cattle, such as that which already applies successfully in Northern Ireland? [Interruption.] Is it not time that much more energy went into accessing European funds to help this critically important and deeply endangered industry? [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker

Order. There seems to be some confusion. The hon. Gentleman at the Dispatch Box is perfectly in order. He is talking about Scottish industry and I would have thought that the beef industry in Scotland was a most important industry in that country.

Mr. Robertson

Perhaps above the noise of the gaggle of irresponsible Conservative Members, I could repeat the final part of my question. Before you rightly reminded hon. Members of the relevance and importance of the issue, Madam Speaker, I asked whether it was not time for much more energy to be put into accessing European funds by all of us, including the Government, to help that vital and deeply endangered industry.

Mr. Forsyth

I welcome the hon. Gentleman's assertion that what is needed is for people to approach the problem on a non-partisan basis, and I am therefore disappointed that he should accuse the Government of having dithered. I have been fully involved in all the discussions and the Government have acted on the basis of scientific advice, which has made it perfectly clear that British beef and Scottish beef are safe and that the risk from consuming beef is very small.

The hon. Gentleman asked me a number of specific questions. The Scottish National Farmers Union has not advocated a policy of slaughter, as he suggested. It has advocated that cast cows should not be allowed to enter the food chain. The Spongi form Encephalopathy Advisory Committee recommendations were that those carcasses should be treated in a particular way and deboned. The farmers union proposal is that the cast cows should not enter the food chain at all, but that their carcasses should be disposed of at the end of their useful life. That proposal is worthy of consideration along with the others.

The hon. Gentleman's point about ensuring proper procedures in slaughterhouses was part of the SEAC recommendations, and we are proceeding on that basis. The hon. Gentleman has asked to see me tomorrow, with his colleagues, to discuss the way forward. I am sure that I speak for everyone in farming in Scotland if I say that they long for the House to address the problem in a careful and deliberative manner and to avoid the temptation to score party political points on an issue which affects the livelihoods of thousands of people. Careless talk will cost livelihoods and destroy public confidence.

Sir Hector Monro

I welcome what my right hon. Friend has said—and the comments of some Opposition Members—about the seriousness of the situation in Scotland. Is my right hon. Friend aware that auction marts, abattoirs and processing plants are at a full stop now? Given the advice that he has had from the Scottish National Farmers Union and the Government's discussions, will he be able to put some measures in place by next week so that confidence can be restored to the most important industry in Scotland?

Mr. Forsyth

I agree with my right hon. Friend that the position is very serious. Jobs are already being lost and people are being laid off. As my right hon. Friend is aware, the market is at a standstill. It is important to restore public confidence and those matters are being addressed. Discussions are going on between my officials, officials from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and people from the European Commission.

I share my right hon. Friend's desire to see effective action taken quickly and I am grateful to him and to other hon. Members who have kept my office informed of the concerns that have arisen in Scotland. I am also grateful for the constructive role that the farmers union and others are playing at a difficult time.

Mr. Salmond

Will the Secretary of State confirm that thousands of Scottish farms are in quality-assured schemes which have traceability? They have long banned any bonemeal or blood products, and that is why they are safe. In Scotland, we have breeds of Aberdeen Angus, Galloway and Highland cattle that are BSE-free. How has the Secretary of State allowed that quality of production, which is probably the safest in Europe, to be swept into the maelstrom surrounding the safety of British beef products? What proposals has the Secretary of State made to eradicate BSE from the Scottish dairy herd? What proposals does he have to exempt quality-assured beef production in Scotland from boycotts and bans? Can he argue that the confusion we have seen from Government Ministers has had any other effect than to cost the livelihoods of thousands of people in Scotland?

Mr. Forsyth

The hon. Gentleman would do well to discuss his proposals with the Scottish National Farmers Union before advocating them. If he did so, he would find that his proposals do not command the union's support. The view of the SNFU is that both it and the NFU in England have a job to do—to restore confidence in British beef. All Scottish beef is safe to eat according to the experts, and the hon. Gentleman should not use this House or any other forum to say that there is beef that is not safe and beef that is. The expert advice is clear; what the hon. Gentleman has just said is an example of careless talk costing jobs in Scotland.

Mr. Bill Walker

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the United Kingdom has the toughest regime in existence for inspection, slaughter, disposal and sale, and that we should draw the public's and the media's attention to the work done since 1989 to produce that safe regime? Perhaps we should get them to think about the double standards on the continent and the misinformation coming from some sources.

Mr. Forsyth

My hon. Friend makes a fair point. We have been guided by science, and the scientific advice on the safety of British and Scottish beef is clear. The fact is, however, that market confidence has been severely damaged and we need to take specific measures to restore that confidence. Measures will need to be taken rapidly, and that is what is being considered at the moment. Recriminations and reaching conclusions with the benefit of hindsight are not for now: for now, we must try to ensure that British beef and those whose jobs depend on it are safeguarded by a restoration of confidence in the marketplace.

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