HC Deb 01 May 1996 vol 276 cc1147-63 3.30 pm
The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Douglas Hogg)

With permission, Madam Speaker, I would like to make a statement about the meeting of the Agriculture Council which finished yesterday evening. I represented the United Kingdom, assisted by my noble Friends the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland and the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and by my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales, the Member for Cardiff, North (Mr. Jones).

The Council discussed the reform of the Community fruit and vegetables regime and the Commission's proposals for this year's farm price fixing. Both are important matters, and I set out the United Kingdom position on the lines that I have explained to the House on many occasions.

The Council also discussed bovine spongiform encephalopathy. I put before it a dossier of information setting out the measures that the UK has taken. I shall place a copy of that dossier in the Library. My first objective at the Council was naturally to achieve action on the export ban. Progress was made on this, and the conclusions of the Council explicitly recognise that the ban is temporary. They also recognise that the measures already put in place and foreseen form part of a process which should allow the export ban to be progressively lifted on a step by step basis. In addition, the Council has recognised that the lifting of the ban in respect of tallow, gelatine and semen should be addressed in the Standing Veterinary Committee shortly. As the House knows, the relevant decisions are taken by qualified majority vote in the Standing Veterinary Committee, not in the Council. The next meeting of the Standing Veterinary Committee takes place next week.

Nevertheless, this welcome progress should not obscure the fact that the ban is disproportionate and unjustified. Accordingly, I made it clear to the Council, and recorded in a formal UK statement, that, on the basis of the scientific evidence available, there should be an early and complete lifting of the ban. Accordingly, we are proceeding with our application to have the ban set aside by the European Court of Justice under article 173 of the treaty. Our application is in an advanced stage of preparation, and will be lodged shortly.

The House will also know that the National Farmers Union has been granted leave to seek judicial review of the export ban, and I understand that the matter is expected to be referred to the European Court of Justice on 3 May.

I turn now to the concept of the selective cull. The Council accepted that the proposals that I have made involving the culling by farm of birth of age cohorts born after September 1990 in which there have been cases of BSE were very much in the right direction. It was also agreed that it would be helpful to investigate whether additional measures targeted on herds where there had been many cases of BSE would be justified.

This is a point which is obviously worth careful consideration, and my officials will be entering into technical discussions on this shortly. It is, however, already clear that, should we proceed with the cull, the scheme that we have put forward will form the major component of any such policy, and that the scale of any measure finally put in place will be very much along the lines that I have already indicated to the House.

I turn to the link between a lifting of the ban and the selective cull. The Government's position remains as it has always been: the two must proceed in parallel.

I am glad to say that the partial recovery in the beef market has continued. Consumption is now at about 80 per cent. of pre-crisis levels for good-quality cuts, and average market prices are 109p a kilogram, compared with 120p a kilogram before the crisis.

The scheme for the slaughter of male calves has been operational from 22 April and the scheme for the disposal of cattle of more than 30 months old, at the end of their working lives, will start operation tomorrow. That follows a decision of the management committee on 26 April, when, on our proposal, specific provision was made for payments to be made on a dead weight as well as live weight basis. That follows strong representation from the farming unions.

I know that many hon. Members and their constituents are concerned about how the scheme—I shall call it the 30-month slaughter scheme—will work in practice. The first point is that the scheme is now launched. The first cattle are likely to be processed tomorrow. More than 60 abattoirs and 80 markets across the United Kingdom will act as collection centres. Farmers will be anxious to have the finalised details. We shall be sending direct to farmers a note setting out all they need to know about the new arrangements.

I would summarise the position thus: in our view, the ban that has been imposed by the European Union is unjustified and should be removed. The conclusions arrived at yesterday have established a process that could achieve that. I very much hope that the Commission and all member states will play a full and active part in resolving this grave and urgent problem.

Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East)

I advise the Minister again that we fully share his commitment to securing an early lifting of the ban on the export of UK beef and beef products, and it is very disappointing that he has so little progress to report to the House. He said that the European Union Standing Veterinary Committee is likely to consider lifting the ban on tallow, gelatine and semen. Although any alleviation of the ban is to be welcomed, he will recognise that the number of jobs involved is small relative to the total number at stake.

Is the Minister aware of the great anxiety across the industry at his failure to put in place the programme for the destruction of the carcases of the cattle over 30 months old? There is huge uncertainty about which cattle will go first, to which livestock market, and to which abattoirs.

Does the Minister feel that his failure to put that programme in place, as he agreed to do, undermined his position at the council meeting? Does he agree that it is absolutely vital to the financial position of farmers and the welfare of animals that he brings that programme into full operation as soon as he possibly can? The measure should be up and running now, and while we continue without it fully in operation, many animals are on farms that are running out of feed, where serious welfare problems could develop.

Will the Minister also give very careful consideration to the levels of dead weight compensation and live weight compensation for the animals that are to be destroyed, taking into account the needs to give a fair return to farmers and to avoid further disruption to the beef market?

How are the slaughterhouses expected to deal with animals that are ineligible for human consumption? There is unease in many quarters that animals that are to go into our food may be slaughtered in slaughterhouses that are also dealing with animals that are ineligible for human consumption. Is it the Government's intention that the whole carcases of all the animals ineligible for human consumption are to be incinerated?

Two weeks ago, the Minister spoke about the need for an urgent look at exemptions to the 30-month ban. What progress has he made on that? With regard to the additional selective slaughter programme, can he confirm that the agreement that he reached last night was on the basis of a strengthening of the proposed additional slaughter programme? Does that mean killing even more cows?

Is it not now clear that the Council of Agriculture Ministers was not satisfied with our identification arrangements? Had the Government implemented the tagging policy that we advocated six years ago—which is now in place in Northern Ireland—the Minister might have been in a slightly stronger position in the Council this week. If we are to embark on an additional selective slaughter programme, this must be arranged quickly—not least because of concerns that farmers who have BSE cohort animals may be tempted to sell them on.

The eradication of BSE is a desirable objective. The Minister will have read the letter that I sent to him on Monday, calling for an investigation into the flouting of the ruminant feed ban, and into the high percentage of new cases of animals born after the feed ban was introduced in 1988. Such an inquiry could have been completed within two or three months, and it is necessary if we are to eradicate BSE from our cattle.

Surely the determination—[Interruption.] I can assure Conservative Members that we intend to pursue this issue, which is the major issue facing the Government—the Prime Minister himself has said so. Surely the determination to resolve the issue and tackle the question of eradicating BSE completely from our cattle is vital. The quicker we go down that road, the quicker the ban on exports will be lifted.

Does the Minister recognise that this BSE/Creutzfeldt-Jakob crisis throws a new light on the importance of the research establishments that are carrying out work on BSE and CJD? The Minister will advise the House that the Government have increased expenditure on BSE research since it was discovered in 1986—it would be hard not to have done so—but that increase was against the background of massive cuts in food and agricultural research. Has it occurred to him that the Government's policy of short-term contracts in research establishments is not helpful to the long-term research that is required on BSE and CJD?

Finally, I appeal to the Minister and to the Government to withdraw the prior options review plan to sell off the Government establishments that are carrying out research into BSE and CJD. Surely he must recognise that selling these establishments and privatising the staff is not in the interests of our scientists. [Interruption.] He must understand that BSE and CJD will be with us for some years to come, and that long-term research must be done by scientists in Government establishments who do not spend their time looking around for their next job. [Interruption.]

Mr. Hogg

The reception that the House gave to the hon. Gentleman's last points might suggest to him that he was not holding the House on those particular points.

First, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his support. Secondly, as regards movement on gelatine, tallow and semen, clearly if we get it, it is modest; we would like more—we must have more—but it is welcome none the less.

As regards the 30-month rule, the scheme will become operational tomorrow. I always said that it would start during the week beginning 29 April. We will put out to all farmers an information note, and the hon. Gentleman will have seen an extensive advertisement dealing with that in at least three of the farming newspapers last week.

The hon. Gentleman will know that we have persuaded the beef management committee to agree to a live weight of 1 ecu a kilo and a dead weight of 2 ecu a kilo. That was secured last Friday.

The carcases of animals slaughtered under the scheme will go to rendering. They will be kept separate in distinct lines, and may be dealt with on separate days.

The exemptions are important. I spoke to Commissioner Fischler about that last week, and again frequently in the Council. I think that we will be able to make progress with the Commission on that point, and I shall go out to consultation, because it is important.

With regard to the selective cull, we clearly should consider reactions to our consultation process, both within the United Kingdom and from Community and Commission vets. The Commission vets made it plain to the Council and to everybody else that they endorsed the scheme that we brought forward and that they could not identify a scheme which they would commend in preference to our own.

Yes, identification needs to be improved, and we hope to have a much improved scheme in place by 1 June.

With regard to cattle born after the ban, if the hon. Gentleman would care to look at the dossier that I am putting into the Library, he will see a number of documents under the heading "A" which show an encouraging decline in the number of cattle born after the ban. Our concern over that question is one reason why we changed the feed regulations in the way we did.

Finally, of course it is desirable to accelerate the reduction in the rate of BSE. It is that thought which is, at least in part, behind the thinking that underpins the concept of a selective cull.

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Order. The entire House seems to be rising. It is unlikely that everyone will be called and it is extremely unlikely that Members will be called if there are long exchanges, so it is entirely up to the House how many Members are called. I want brisk exchanges, please.

Sir Hector Monro (Dumfries)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that many of us are most grateful to him and his colleagues for the efforts they have made to resolve the problem? But will he also accept that it is now urgent that farms should get the 30-month-old cattle away and compensation paid, and that consideration should be given to the slow-maturing cattle? Will he do rather more than was apparent this morning to explain to the auctioneers and to the farmers what is to happen, when the beasts will be taken to the market, and all the details they so urgently require?

Mr. Hogg

My right hon. Friend is entirely right. At the end of last week, the farming press carried details of the 30-month scheme. I shall be sending a note to farmers and others with the relevant information. It is important now that the scheme opens tomorrow and that there is rapid progress through the collection points, and thereafter through the abattoirs, followed by early payment.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

Does the Minister recognise that we share his objective of seeking to raise the export ban as quickly as possible? May I go further and commiserate with him most sincerely over the very difficult situation in which he has been put by two avoidable factors, the first being, of course—as Sir David Naish of the National Farmers Union made clear—the ultimatums, threats and sabre rattling of the Euro-sceptics in the Conservative party? As the Minister was not in the Chamber to hear it, perhaps I should draw his attention to the remarks of the Secretary of State for Scotland, who repeated precisely those accusations an hour ago, and said that they were making his task that much more difficult.

Is it true—as is apparent from everything that the Commission told me and my colleagues when we were in Brussels in the past 10 days, and from everything that it has told many Conservative Members—that, had the Minister presented his package of proposals weeks ago for informal consultation, by now we would be well on the way to removing entirely the ban on exports?

I shall put a specific question to the Minister, which obviously will require a specific answer. Yesterday, his colleagues in the Scottish Office Agriculture, Environment and Fisheries Department, in part 6 of a briefing paper, said: It has been suggested that we should cull whole herds, but that approach implies that BSE is transmitted from animal to animal, whereas on the available evidence that is not happening or not at any significant"—

Madam Speaker

Order. I have asked the House for brisk questions. It is totally unfair for hon. Members, when they see so many other hon. Members rising, to take up so much time with long quotations. Hon. Members know full well that the Minister is making a statement. They should come into the Chamber with their questions prepared and not have to sort through a great deal of paper to find a relevant section.

Mr. Tyler

I simply ask the Minister whether he endorses the Scottish Office's view that this disease can be transmitted from animal to animal. If he does, it blows the whole of his cull policy out of the water.

Mr. Hogg

The hon. Gentleman's support was a bit double-edged—none the less, I am grateful to him for the favourable aspects of it. Yes, of course speedy movement is important. To get it, we must have political good will among member states. We have had considerable assistance from the Commission, for which I am grateful, but we now must have good will from member states. That is what I say to my colleagues around the Council table.

Mr. Paul Marland (West Gloucestershire)

In the light of the Europeans' blatant disregard of the best scientific advice available, does my right hon. Friend think that they have a hidden agenda, especially since the Irish have been saying that this ban is likely still to be in place by the autumn? Furthermore, is it time for us to start insisting that we will not accept meat into this country that has not passed through slaughterhouses with the same standards as we have in the United Kingdom? We know that there is BSE in Europe, and we also know that specified offal is not removed in slaughterhouses in Ireland, Germany, Spain or—most interestingly for McDonald's—in Holland.

Mr. Hogg

Many hon. Members will share the concern expressed by my hon. Friend at the end of his observations. As for his first question, there is no good scientific basis or other legitimate justification in law or in logic for the ban. We are facing a very deep concern among member states about the perception of consumers in their respective states, which is getting in the way of a rational, considered view of the evidence.

Mr. Andrew Faulds (Warley, East)

What plans does the right hon. Gentleman have to set up a profound examination not only into the dangers of cannibalisation of feed but into the much more disturbing and profound problem of transgenic experimentation?

Mr. Hogg

It is clearly important to have a view about the risk that feed has posed to the health of the national herd. We have a clear view on that, and it was our concern which led to the ban on the incorporation of feedstuffs, in the first instance of ruminant protein, and thereafter of all mammalian protein.

I will tread a little cautiously on the second point, because I am not sure exactly what the hon. Gentleman had in mind. Research on transgenic mice has been important in determining whether BSE is transmissible. I hope that the hon. Gentleman would support that.

Mr. David Nicholson (Taunton)

Over the past six weeks, my right hon. and learned Friend has shown extraordinary patience with our European partners, but he must be aware that that process has sorely tested the patience of many in the farming and beef industries, who are crying out for clear and detailed decisions regarding a resolution of the matter. Bearing in mind the remarks made a moment ago by my hon. Friend the Member for West Gloucestershire (Mr. Marland), will he consult and take decisions with his Cabinet colleagues about how much further we can go from the very selective slaughter policy that he has proposed, because I do not think that Conservative Members would back such progress, and what other measures we need to take to safeguard our national position?

Mr. Hogg

My hon. Friend said that the crisis and the reaction to it have sorely tested the patience of the industry. He is quite right. I am also conscious of the fact that it has sorely tested the patience of right hon. and hon. Members. I have explained to my colleagues around the Council table the huge importance, expressed in political terms, of making early progress. I have explained that with reference to such considerations as I know are in the mind of my hon. Friend. I entirely endorse his sense of exasperation and frustration that progress has been so slow.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Has it not crossed the mind of Ministers of this pathetic Government that, during the 23 years since we became a member of the Common Market, the only way to resolve matters has been to go in there and let the other Ministers know that you mean business? For a few fleeting moments last week, somebody in the Tory Government was going to bang a big drum, but then they backed off. It was the only time that the Government looked as if they were going to do something positive.

It is high time that the Government understood that they are involved in a political issue—it is not technical or academic. When they realise that, they will be doing something for the farmers and all the others who have got the sack in Britain. It is high time that there was a cull—a cull of the Cabinet and the Government. Let us have a general election and cull the lot of them.

Mr. Hogg

One should not always be kind to the hon. Gentleman, but there is a grain of truth in what he said—perhaps more than a grain of truth—to the extent that he has emphasised the grave consequences of the ban for the industry, for people across the rural community and in other parts of the economy. That is true.

Because this is so serious, we cannot indulge ourselves in the sort of idle rant that we have just heard from the hon. Gentleman. We must ask ourselves what policies are most likely to lead to an early lifting of the ban. I have advocated, do advocate and have pursued the policies of persuasion and negotiation, because I think that those are most likely to achieve the essential end.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that those of us who represent beef and dairy constituencies are running out of patience? We will not accept an increased cull unless it is justified by scientific advice. Will he understand that decisions have to be reached within hours, not weeks? Will he give me an assurance that the Chelford market and agriculture centre in my constituency will be nominated as one of the collection points? He knows that the European Community is out to destroy our sale and distribution system, and the only way to retain it is to ensure that all the cattle markets share in whatever funds are going.

Mr. Hogg

I understand that most right hon. and hon. Members and the agricultural community are losing patience. I understand my hon. Friend's reservations about the concept of a selective cull, and we have tried to address those reservations in our consultations. I am conscious that we could not pursue a selective cull policy unless it was a policy that the House was ready to acquiesce in. That is the most important reassurance that I can give my hon. Friend.

Mr. Calum Macdonald (Western Isles)

Why are the Government still completely isolated in Europe?

Either the other Governments are complete villains and will not listen to reason and argument, or the Government are entirely inept in the way that they are putting forward their argument. Which is it?

Mr. Hogg

That is not the correct analysis. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there is enormous resistance to lifting the ban—that is true. However, when one listens to the arguments advanced across the Council table or among the vets, one sees that that resistance is not justified in scientific terms, and rarely in any other terms of considered argument. It is articulated in terms of consumer concern. I believe that a real fear is stemming from the market reactions in countries in Europe, and that that has caused them to fix on this matter as a way of restoring market confidence in their own countries. That is not a proper approach, and it is not one that I would commend to the House.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend say very firmly to our European colleagues that there is nothing more destructive of public confidence—about which they are protesting so much—than their constant refusal to accept scientific advice?

Mr. Hogg

My hon. Friend is wholly right, and I have said this to my colleagues in the Council many times—sometimes in even more robust language than that of my hon. Friend.

Mrs. Ray Michie (Argyll and Bute)

In relation to the slaughter scheme, I press the Minister, in particular, on collection centres and designated abattoirs. The farmers in my constituency do not know what is happening. We need to know whether there will be local provision on some of the islands and Kintyre. I am glad that the Secretary of State for Scotland is in the Chamber.

If there is no local provision, and if there is restriction on these centres, will not animals be ferried and trucked for many hundreds of miles to a collection centre and then back again? That will result in a loss of weight and a loss of value in the animal. The farmers in my constituency are deeply frustrated. A logjam is building up, and there are cash flow problems. There is an increasing feeling of hopelessness, because farmers do not know what will happen.

Mr. Hogg

As the hon. Lady can see, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland is sitting on the Front Bench, and he has heard what she has said about information. He is sending information to the Scottish farming community. I know that he has paid careful attention to what the hon. Lady has said. The farming community and the Government are worried about a logjam in the early stages of the 30-month-plus cull. We are seeing whether there are any ways in which we can free up that logjam.

Sir Peter Emery (Honiton)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that most people believe that he is doing all that is possible to fight for the agricultural industry? None the less, we know that the Opposition are political and commercial, to the benefit of the French, German and Dutch farmers.

Irrespective of that, does my right hon. and learned Friend understand that there is great concern in the south-west? Farmers do not know where they are—they do not know what is happening and what they should do. Will he try to ensure that communication between his Department and not the NFU but farmers individually, is considered and greatly improved? Farmers are desperate to know how to act and what to do.

Mr. Hogg

My right hon. Friend has a very important point when he suggests that the opposition to our position is not based on science; I agree with that view. He is also right when he emphasises the importance of communicating the schemes and the details to the farming community. We did place material in the farming press last week. We have given much material and information to the NFU—I take my right hon. Friend's strictures—and he may have heard that I shall be sending a note to all farmers very shortly.

Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry)

Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman understand that we welcome the fact that payment on a dead weight basis as well as a live weight basis will now be the norm? Will he confirm that the sum of 109p per kilo is on a live weight basis?

Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman recall that he commended the Northern Ireland system of tracing and identifying cattle? Given that this subject, as he said today, is a matter of consumer concern and consumer perception, would it not be wise to use the traceability methods that exist in Northern Ireland, and in some other parts of the United Kingdom, as a lever to open the European export door? Every beast exported from anywhere in the United Kingdom is one headache fewer for him and for the Treasury.

Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman also consider, in the light of the interest displayed in his statement today, that we are overdue for another full debate on that subject?

Mr. Hogg

A full debate is a matter for the usual channels. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his support for both a live weight and dead weight valuation for compensation.

On identification, the hon. Gentleman is right to say that the Northern Ireland arrangements are better than those in any other part of the United Kingdom; that is wholly correct. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we are considering the concept of an exemption from the 30-months scheme. It is possible that that might also be used as a justification for a partial lifting of the ban in respect of those herds that are so defined. We are working energetically on that. That would, I think, be of enormous value to the Province.

Mr. Nicholas Budgen (Wolverhampton, South-West)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that, if he were to introduce a scheme of compulsory killing of healthy cattle to reassure European consumers, he would need fresh primary legislation in this Parliament? Does he agree that, judging by the views of the House this afternoon, it would be very unlikely that such a Bill would pass the House?

Mr. Hogg

Clearly, any scheme that was brought forward would have to have proper statutory authority.

As my hon. Friend well knows, that could be primary legislation or it could be secondary legislation under existing law. I further agree with my hon. Friend that a scheme could not be brought forward, whether under primary or secondary legislation, unless it was such as commended itself to the House.

Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth)

Will the Minister remind his hon. Friends that the western European countries—indeed, any country—could impose a ban, and that, in the present situation, political skill and adequate initiative might lift that ban earlier than would be the case if we did not have an economic union?

Does the Minister understand that there is deep anxiety on this subject? I listened, and he may have listened, to farmers expressing on television their concern that they have heard nothing from the Ministry of Agriculture in recent weeks. They pointed out that we have not even had replies to questions of the sort that I asked the Minister two or three weeks ago—will animals be killed that have never been fed infected mammalian protein, in farms where there has been no death or case of BSE from animals that have never been fed that protein? A large number of dairy farms in this country are in that position, and the farmers have wrestled with acute anxiety for far too long.

Mr. Hogg

The hon. Gentleman is right to imply that the European ban is not the only problem we face. There are a number of national bans across the world—including those erected by Commonwealth countries—which need to be addressed.

I accept that farmers need yet more information. We have placed a whole lot of stuff in the farming press, we have been in continuous and virtual daily contact with the farming unions, and I shall be sending written material to all farmers.

On the last part of the hon. Gentleman's question, his description of farms in his constituency explains why we are pushing for an exemption scheme to enable established herds of the sort that he described—but more than 30 months old and beef—to be allowed into the human food chain.

Mr. Richard Alexander (Newark)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend recall that, when he and I first came into politics, the European Union was known as the Common Market—a mutual trading organisation? By what right does that organisation now say, on no scientific grounds, not only that our beef cannot be sold in Europe, but that it cannot be sold anywhere else, either?

Mr. Hogg

I share my hon. Friend's view that extending the prohibition—whether wholly or in part—to third countries, goes beyond the competence of the Union.

Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington)

While it is right that the emphasis should be on the state of the beef market, what consideration has the Minister given to the impact of the proposed slaughter policy on the dairy industry? Is it likely to force up the doorstep price of a pint?

Mr. Hogg

I believe not.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that any case that he brings to the European Court of Justice will no doubt please my farmers, but could take as long as two years to reach a conclusion? Will he ensure that any application for interim relief is launched as speedily as possible?

Mr. Hogg

That is obviously an important consideration.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)

I declare an interest in public health. Public confidence has been badly affected by this debacle, and many people do not want to eat beef or feed it to their children. Is it not therefore important that the weaknesses in the current food labelling laws should be urgently addressed? Manufacturers are not required to identify the species origin of the meat used in their products. What plans does the Minister have to tackle that problem and to allay people's fears?

Mr. Hogg

The essential question to ask is whether British beef is safe—to which the answer is yes. I do not honestly think that labelling has the slightest bearing on that issue.

Sir Donald Thompson (Calder Valley)

Have not my right hon. and learned Friend and his predecessors consulted the EU since 1987 on every step of BSE? Have not the veterinary committees and other committees in the Union been appraised of what we were doing, and have they not agreed with what we were doing? Does not the current hysteria point to commercial and political considerations, not scientific ones?

Mr. Hogg

My hon. Friend has an extremely distinguished record in the field, having been a distinguished Minister in my Department, and what he has said has considerable force. There has been an endless dialogue between officials from the United Kingdom and those in the European Union. My hon. Friend is right to assert that most of the opposition we have been encountering has no justification, either in science or in logic.

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley)

Is not the truth that, in spite of all the Minister's huffing and puffing and his dossier, in six weeks he has achieved nothing in terms of lifting any of the bans, including those imposed unilaterally by Commonwealth countries that have nothing to do with the European Union, while many of my constituents are continuing to lose their jobs? How long can the Minister continue in his job if he gets nowhere and still retain any degree of respect in the House?

Mr. Hogg

As to respect in the House, that is for the House to decide. At Luxembourg, we put in place a process that is capable of leading to the lifting of the ban. The essential question we must face is whether member states will play a full and active part in response to Commission proposals that will enable that to occur. I express the earnest and profound hope that they will.

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that an uncharitable assessment of the position is that all he can do in the present position is to ask, plead, beg and to cajole, but compel nothing? Does he agree that, if he and his right hon. Friends are reduced to such a position under the present rules, the time has come to learn the real lesson of this miserable business and to ask: on what terms should we remain in the Community for the next 25 years?

Mr. Hogg

This is a very grave matter. Therefore, it is incumbent on all who have policy responsibilities to ask ourselves what kinds of policies are most likely to result in a lifting of the ban. I have been pursuing a policy of persuasion and negotiation, and I believe that that is the right approach.

Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones (Ynys Môn)

Does the Minister accept that the understandable frustration felt by farmers could now turn very easily into anger and despair at the delay in lifting the ban and lack of information about the slaughter policy? Will he do two things immediately? First, will he confirm that under no circumstances will the Government agree to the ban remaining in place until autumn this year? Secondly, will he confirm when the farmers will receive letters informing them about the collection points and the licensed abattoirs?

Mr. Hogg

On the matter of information, the hon. Gentleman will know that, last week, three farming publications carried extensive information about the issue. In a few days, the Ministry will write to all farmers enclosing a very detailed information pack.

Mr. John Townend (Bridlington)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend accept that there is great disappointment in my constituency at his inability to announce the lifting of the ban? Our fishing industry has been savaged by the European fishing policy, and now the European Union has started on our dairy and beef industries. My right hon. and learned Friend has admitted that the ban is illegal, unjustified and unwarranted. Therefore, will he apply a time limit and tell our friends overseas that, if the ban is not lifted within three to four weeks, we shall take retaliatory action?

Mr. Hogg

This is indeed a very serious matter, but we are all under an obligation to ask ourselves and one another what policies are most likely to bring about a speedy removal of the ban. The policies that I have outlined are those which I believe are most calculated to achieve that objective.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

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.

Mr. Hogg

Of course scientific research is important. I have discussed it on a number of occasions with Professor Pattison, the chairman of the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee, to ascertain whether he considered there to be a shortage of resources that could be addressed in those areas for which I have responsibility. I hope that I am not misquoting Professor Pattison, but I think that he was content with the present level of research. If he were not, he would express further concerns, and I would certainly do my best to address them. In the current year, we have increased MAFF spending on research by £1 million.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware of the concern that, if there are too few collection points for cull cows, many calves and other animals will go to those collection points, and other markets will lose business and may well be threatened? Will my right hon. and learned Friend look carefully at that issue, and consider licensing other collection points?

Mr. Hogg

On the general point, of course it is important there should be a sufficient number of collection points. When we see the system in operation, we shall certainly reflect on whether the number is adequate. I hope that my hon. Friend will forgive me—as will my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton)—if I do not accede to specific applications on the Floor of the House, as that is not an orderly way to conduct business.

Mr. Andrew Welsh (Angus, East)

As the Irish Agriculture Minister believes that the blanket ban will still be in place in the autumn and the science involved takes time, will the Minister take note of the early-day motion calling for a zonal or regional approach to breaching the blanket ban? It was supported by 86 hon. Members from all parties and by several European Ministers. Surely a step-by-step approach should start with a breach of that blanket ban. Gelatine is one thing, but it does not compare with beef. The Minister's present policy is a waste of beef, and a waste of time.

Mr. Hogg

The slaughter of all the cattle involved in the 30-month-plus scheme, for example, is a dreadful waste of beef and money. I have the highest regard for the judgment of Mr. Ivan Yates, the Irish Agriculture Minister. I know him well, and I like working with him. He will be the next president of the Agricultural Council, and I hope to persuade him that it is not in his interests that the ban should be in place for that length of time.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)

On fruit and vegetables, which we discussed earlier, did the Minister offer his congratulations to his colleagues in the European Union on the fact that the food destruction programme, which last year reached 2.5 million tonnes and was designed purely to keep prices artificially high, appears to have broken all previous records? Will he tell the House straight—as I am sure he will—the cost to the taxpayer of the 30,000 cull that he is proposing, or the larger one that the Labour party supports? May we have some figures as to how much the taxpayer will pay?

Mr. Hogg

In the end, it all depends on the numbers that are brought within the selective cull scheme and the extent to which we can get Europe to contribute to the costs. Therefore, although I could provide figures, they would be speculative, and not of the solid variety that I know my hon. Friend likes.

Mr. Roy Beggs (East Antrim)

The Minister has done his best, but I am afraid that it is not good enough. The simple reason is that it is not in the interests of any other member of the European Union to concede that the blanket ban should be lifted. In order to provide assurance, he should have implemented throughout the United Kingdom the provision that exists in Northern Ireland for identifying our cattle herds.

As he says that there must be progressive lifting of the ban, will he seize the opportunity—where there is a measure of consent in the European Union—to adopt a regional approach? That is the only way to overcome the prejudice that exists, no matter how often we seek to confirm from scientific evidence that all British beef is safe. It is more important to get British beef moving, and I appeal to the Minister to help us—especially in Northern Ireland and Scotland, where we can meet the conditions that are being sought.

Mr. Hogg

I am grateful for the remarks with which the hon. Gentleman began his question. It is perfectly true that Northern Ireland has a traceability and identification scheme from which the rest of the United Kingdom has a great deal to learn. We will have a good scheme in place by 1 June, although it will not be in every respect identical to the one in Northern Ireland.

It is certainly true that the Northern Ireland herds have very low levels of confirmed BSE. However, I have a preference for proceeding collectively, so that the policy that we pursue applies throughout the United Kingdom. The exemption policy that we are pursuing will be of particular benefit to Northern Ireland producers because of the character of the herds in the Province.

Mr. Mark Robinson (Somerton and Frome)

I welcome my right hon. and learned Friend's assurance that the cull scheme will start tomorrow. May I urge him to ensure that abattoirs are given the details of the scheme? As of this morning, a major abattoir in my constituency could get no details whatever from MAFF.

Mr. Hogg

My understanding is that all abattoirs have the details; I am sorry that my hon. Friend knows of a case which apparently does not. If he will be good enough to talk to me or a colleague afterwards, we can perhaps make sure that the details are faxed this afternoon.

Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton)

I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on his brave attempts at the Agriculture Council; but I must tell him plainly that every man and woman in this country can now see that we in this House are not the masters of our own destiny; and that the European Union has nothing to do with fairness or scientific fact and everything to do with politics—as the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) said—and protecting markets. Every cattle market in this country has been adversely affected by the BSE crisis. Why are there to be only 80 collection points? Every cattle market should be a collecting point, and I want the Congleton cattle market among them.

Mr. Hogg

It seems to me that the Winterton family is, collectively, a powerful advocate of certain causes. I shall certainly take my hon. Friend's point into account—although without commitment, because I must look at each application on its merits.

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's congratulations. I was right to suspect, however, that they would not be undiluted. I repeat what I have told many hon. Friends today: we have been pursuing the policies that we judge the most likely and the most effective to lift the ban.

Sir Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

Has my right hon. and learned Friend told his European colleagues that most people in this country think that, if we can be treated like this by our European friends, our membership of the Union is not working well? Has he told them, furthermore, that, as it is unlawful for them to ban our exports, we might consider unlawfully banning their imports? One way we can boost our beef industry is to redirect our exports to our domestic market. If that means banning imports of German, French or any other European beef, so be it.

Mr. Hogg

I have certainly told fellow Ministers in the Agriculture Council and others that a failure to solve this problem would seriously damage relations between the UK and the European Union, and between the UK and member states. I have tried to spell out to my colleagues the serious political consequences in this country of a failure to move on this matter. They know that—I have told them so many times.

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Hastings and Rye)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that, if we were not a member of the European Union but still faced a worldwide ban on our beef exports imposed by individual countries, we would have to negotiate at the World Trade Organisation just as we are negotiating now with the EU? Would that not be infinitely more complicated?

Mr. Hogg

My hon. Friend makes a serious and important point. Of course, we have focused a great deal of effort and attention on the EU ban—the House knows why—but a large number of national bans have been imposed by countries outside the EU. They too need to be dealt with. I believe that removing the EU ban would be an important element in getting at least some of the national bans removed.

Mr. Graham Riddick (Colne Valley)

Bearing in mind the fact that the EU's ban on the worldwide sales of British beef is unacceptable and perverse, is it not time that the Government, rather than awaiting further good will from our European partners, took active steps to promote the sale of British beef in countries outside the EU, and also took steps to ensure that the bans in some of those countries are lifted? It is action that British farmers and meat traders require.

Mr. Hogg

We have focused on a number of priorities, of which the most important is, I think, to try to bring urgent assistance to the UK farming community, and that we have done in great measure. We have placed great importance on getting the EU ban lifted. There are national bans too that need to be addressed, and we shall address them.

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale)

My right hon. and learned Friend has done as well as anyone could have done, given the stubborn intransigence of the rest of the EU at the Council meeting. Does he agree that, given all the calls today for direct action, perhaps it is right not to go down the road of a tit-for-tat trade war? It is certainly right, however, to use what powers my right hon. and learned Friend has to ensure that our farmers and agriculture industry have a future.

We need more collection points. We need also a scheme for heifers under 30 months of age. In addition, we need unilaterally to say that we shall have exemptions for cattle over 30 months of age. It would be a grotesque obscenity to see perfectly healthy animals, many bred on grass, being destroyed.

Mr. Hogg

My hon. Friend knows a great deal about this subject, bearing in mind his constituency. I, too, attach considerable importance to what we have been loosely referring to as the exemption policy in respect of 30-month-plus cattle. I would prefer to agree that approach with the EU.

Mr. Bill Walker (North Tayside)

My right hon. and learned Friend will not be surprised that many people are saying that the EU is not working, and that it desperately needs reforming. To turn to matters that are under the control of my right hon. and learned Friend in the culling programme, will he confirm that live weight and dead weight will not give a financial advantage to any one sector? If he were to find that there was a financial advantage and the cost to the taxpayer was being increased, would adjustments be made?

Mr. Hogg

The live weight/dead weight ratio is contained in the conclusions of early April. We secured an agreement at the management committee last Friday that we should have a dead weight option as well on the basis of previous conclusions. In doing that, I was responding to strenuous representations from farming unions.

Mr. William Cash (Stafford)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend, who continually refers to persuasion and negotiation, appreciate that there is deep anxiety in my constituency and in all the other agricultural constituencies of the land? Will he bear in mind the fact that, when he refers to urgent assistance, there are some legal remedies that he could employ, or recommend to the Cabinet, including the suspension of payments, which would deal with the Community's cash flow? It would not be a tit-for-tat arrangement, but it would bring to bear on the minds of those representing other member states the realisation that they need our money too.

Mr. Hogg

Of course I am aware, as is my hon. Friend, of the deep anxieties that are felt in rural constituencies, as elsewhere. I have represented a rural constituency since 1979. Indeed, it is one of the most rural of English constituencies. I am anxious to pursue those policies that I deem most likely to bring about a rapid lifting of the ban. I think that I have been doing that. I shall consider any suggestion that is proper, lawful and likely to be effective, but we must consider the consequence of any particular policy.

Mr. David Harris (St. Ives)

While my right hon. and learned Friend is undoubtedly right to pursue a policy of persuasion and negotiation, does he not agree that the lesson of Luxembourg is that, unfortunately, it looks as if such a policy will take a significant time to achieve the right result, and that, as the negotiations continue, we shall be pushed ever further in the direction of following a slaughtering policy for which there can be no scientific justification? Therefore, will he actively pursue other means that are open to him, especially the legal challenge—bringing, I hope, a case in the European Court for interim measures? That would be a test case, perhaps in more senses than one.

Mr. Hogg

I shall of course pay considerable attention to what my hon. Friend says about the legal challenge. That is an important point. On selective culling, I return to two points that I have made on a number of occasions. First, we could properly pursue only a policy that was proportionate in terms of slaughter, and that was targeted. Secondly, any policy must be one to which the agricultural community and the House will give their broad assent.

Mr. Anthony Coombs (Wyre Forest)

On collection points, assuming that a selective cull is necessary, is my right hon. and learned Friend aware of the great concern of farmers in my constituency—indeed in the whole of Worcestershire—that neither Kidderminster cattle market nor any cattle market in Worcestershire has been designated as a collection point? Is he not aware that the already great difficulties caused for farmers as a result of the crisis may be exacerbated by the long-term decline of Kidderminster market if it is not designated as a collection point at this time?

Mr. Hogg

Obviously I am concerned that we should have adequate coverage by way of collection centres. During this afternoon's exchange, four centres have been suggested, and I have a feeling that many others would have been, had you, Madam Speaker, called other hon. Members, so I will not give any commitment in respect of particular markets; but, of course, I take account of what my hon. Friend has so eloquently said.

Mr. Elliot Morley (Glanford and Scunthorpe)

The Minister has conceded that there are potential welfare problems and that there is a need to ensure the speedy implementation of the measures, which will of course have to he enforced. Given all those factors, is this the right time to make cuts in the state veterinary service's budget? Will he think again about that?

Mr. Hogg

We have made adequate provision to deal with the sort of concerns that are troubling the hon. Gentleman.