HC Deb 07 May 1996 vol 277 cc19-28 3.30 pm
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

(by private notice) asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to make a statement on what progress has been made in giving effect to the 30-month cattle disposal scheme.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Tony Baldry)

Slaughtering started in Scotland on Friday and elsewhere in the United Kingdom today. Some 104 livestock markets and some 72 abattoirs have been approved as collection centres. I anticipate substantially increasing activity as the week proceeds and see no reason why the scheme should not be fully operational by the end of this week.

I have made it clear that all operators in the meat business will have to work together to make the 30-month cattle scheme a success. I met representatives of livestock markets and a number of abattoir representatives this morning and I am seeing the renderers tomorrow. They represent the crucial steps in the chain.

Large numbers of animals have to be processed, and I will need to ensure that this is done as speedily as possible so that farmers can have surplus stock removed from their fields and, quite reasonably, be paid compensation as quickly as possible.

We have at all times to have regard to the welfare of the animals involved and the need to restore consumer confidence. The scheme is being put in place as one of a number of measures to restore confidence in British beef. It is a novel scheme without precedent, and we have sought to set it up with all possible speed.

Farmers, livestock markets, abattoirs and renderers have to work together. They do so usually and they have to do so now. Every day I intend to see representatives of all the main interests to deal with any problems that might arise, but I hope that it is not long before the scheme no longer requires daily ministerial involvement.

Farmers will, I am sure, recognise that large numbers of animals have to be culled and that they cannot all be culled immediately. As the House knows, there is finite rendering capacity, so I am examining with all speed whether and what possible further cold store capacity can be brought into play to help accelerate the scheme.

I well appreciate the concern of every hon. Member that the scheme should operate fully and efficiently without delay. I promise to keep hon. Members updated regularly on progress and am determined that the scheme will make a positive contribution to our wider aim of restoring confidence in the British beef as speedily as possible.

Mr. Tyler

I thank the Minister of State for his extensive statement. Does he now accept the assessment of this week's Farmers Weekly that the Government's scheme is still in complete chaos? Does he also accept that the statement made by the Minister last week that this has absolutely nothing to do with the removal of the export ban pins the responsibility here with his Ministry in London? Does he further accept the report of the Environmental Health News that the Meat Hygiene Service does not have enough qualified staff to undertake the cull programme and that the abattoirs have reasonable cause for concern? How many cattle are in the chain awaiting slaughter as of today? How will the blockage be removed by the steps that the Minister has announced? Is it not clear that a great industry in our rural areas is being held at gunpoint by the dither and delay of his Department?

Mr. Baldry

I am driving the scheme and I accept full responsibility for it. The hon. Gentleman has to accept that this is a novel and fairly complex scheme. It also involves our European Community partners who, in large part, are paying for it. We need to ensure that what happens in the slaughterhouses is properly monitored. We also need to ensure that there is no scintilla of risk that any of this beef ends up in the human food chain, and there are more than enough Meat Hygiene Service staff to ensure that that is done. We need to ensure a proper geographical coverage of collection centres—both slaughterhouses and livestock markets. We also need to ensure that the sectoral interests start to work together, as they do normally, to ensure that the scheme is a success.

The hon. Gentleman is quite right: there is a backlog. I am aware that farmers want the backlog cleared off their fields as speedily as possible—not least, quite reasonably, because they want to receive their compensation cheques. There are approximately 120,000 cattle in the backlog and they need to be processed as speedily as possible. I hope that I have made it clear to hon. Members that I will take all possible measures to ensure that that is done. I hope that everyone who is involved will settle down and co-operate to ensure that the scheme is a success.

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Order. The House was somewhat noisy when the hon. Gentleman put his original question. Therefore, I draw the attention of all hon. Members to the specific question, which relates to the 30-month cattle disposal scheme. This is not a private notice question that should be used as an opportunity to raise other issues related to BSE. The question is very specific.

Mr. Michael Alison (Selby)

Is my hon. Friend aware that the 30-month cattle scheme is very welcome—even if, like a heavy aircraft, it is trundling along the runway before becoming fully airborne? Is my hon. Friend conscious of the fact that considerable costs arise for some farmers in getting their cattle to the collecting points? Will those costs be debited from the compensation payable in respect of each cow or will they be borne by the scheme?

Mr. Baldry

Farmers have always met the costs of transporting livestock to livestock markets and of transporting livestock direct to abattoirs when they have chosen to do that. The only issue that arises is whether farmers should bear the cost of transporting livestock from livestock markets to abattoirs if they choose to go through the live weight option. It seems not unreasonable in this scheme that farmers should do so, not least—as I made clear on Friday in a letter that I sent to all hon. Members—because they are being relieved of the obligation to pay the Meat and Livestock Commission levy. I hope that farmers will see this as a fair scheme, under which they are receiving fair compensation. It is not unreasonable for farmers to meet the transport costs.

Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East)

I remind the Minister that last Thursday the Prime Minister told the Leader of the Opposition that the confusion surrounding the scheme was being examined and investigated and that he hoped that it would be resolved speedily. Is it not becoming clear that last week's confusion is developing into this week's chaos? It is vital that we eliminate BSE at source. We therefore need to investigate why it is that 67 per cent. of new cases—

Madam Speaker

Order. I have made clear the narrow scope of questions relating to the private notice question, so the hon. Gentleman is fully aware of that. He must relate his question to the 30-month cattle disposal scheme only and not to wider issues. If he has a further question to put on that specific scheme, I will, of course, hear it.

Dr. Strang

I certainly have. If that is your ruling on the private notice question—

Madam Speaker

It is not only my ruling: the question itself demands it.

Dr. Strang

I accept that, but can I put it to you, Madam Speaker—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."] It relates to a different point. Because we may kill hundreds of thousands of cattle under the scheme it is all the more vital that we attach priority to devising a live test to avoid the need for killing in the long term. It would be unforgivable if the Ministry was in any way involved in delaying the establishment of such a live test.

Since it has been decided to have a live weight and a dead weight option for the 30-month rule, Ministers have a responsibility to ensure that compensation is not only fair to farmers but fair to all sections of the livestock industry and the taxpayer. I put it to the Minister that the entire industry wants to tackle the problem but that it is the Government who must give the leadership.

Mr. Baldry

I am disappointed in the hon. Gentleman. I had hoped that rather than using words like "chaos", he too would encourage slaughterhouses, renderers, livestock marts and everyone else in the industrial chain to work together.

The hon. Gentleman has close contacts with the industry and I am sure he is aware of some of the sectoral interests at play. It is important that they all appreciate that it is in their long-term interests to work together because it is in their long-term interest to restore confidence in British beef.

I do not think there has ever been a scintilla of a suggestion that we want anything other than to develop a live test as speedily as possible. For that reason we are helping to fund considerable amounts of research on it. If we can develop a live test, no one would be more delighted than us.

The dead weight option was introduced because, as a common pattern of trading, many farmers do not take their cattle to livestock marts but go straight to the abattoirs. It was the earnest request of members of the National Farmers Union, the Country Landowners Association and others that there should be a dead weight option. We have listened to their requests and, despite stiff opposition from some of our European colleagues, who were suspicious of that option, we have succeeded in introducing it. I would very much hope that hon. Members would applaud that because it demonstrates that we are seeking to listen to the concerns of those involved and, wherever possible, to respond to them.

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale)

May I report to my hon. Friend that beef farmers in north Yorkshire are finding it extremely difficult to get abattoirs to take cattle? They recognise, however, that my hon. Friend is aware of the urgency of the situation and they welcome his decision to get all parts of the industry together to provide a daily solution to the problem.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it sits ill on Opposition parties to criticise the 30-month slaughter scheme when they called for it, as did farmers, in the first place? Everyone knew that it would be complicated and that it will work only when everyone in the industry works together for the greater good of our beef industry.

Mr. Baldry

My hon. Friend is right. The scheme was introduced with the support of all Conservative Members after the fervent request of retailers, producers and everyone involved in the food chain. They believed that it would prove to be a substantial measure in helping to restore confidence in United Kingdom beef. Everyone must work together to ensure its success.

My hon. Friend takes a close interest in the issue and he will know only too well that one of the difficulties is that this country has a finite amount of rendering capacity, but renderers must be prepared to work with a number of abattoirs. They cannot just believe that they can work with a favoured abattoir or a couple of favoured abattoirs. That would cause considerable resentment in different parts of the country.

I have sought to ensure that the abattoirs involved in the scheme represent a wide geographical cross-section, ensuring that, if need be, farmers can take their livestock to abattoirs in a convenient location. Co-operation is needed between farmers and livestock marts on the one hand and renderers and abattoirs on the other. No Minister of any Government at any time can wet-nurse every slaughterhouse, renderer and livestock mart in the country. They must co-operate and work together to make the scheme a success.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

On the issue of representations by the Highland Cattle Society, is there any special dispensation because highland cattle take longer than 30 months to mature? When the Minister meets the renderers tomorrow, will he ask them about the temperatures of the heating of food in relation to prions, which may be the root cause of the whole problem?

Mr. Baldry

On the hon. Gentleman's first point, he may well be aware that, last Friday, we issued a consultation paper on exemption schemes for breeds of cattle—such as highland and Dexter cattle—that tend to mature after 30 months. I will ensure that a copy is sent direct to the hon. Gentleman.

On the rest of the process, of course we shall ensure that rendering and every other process complies with the objectives of best science. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman and I would agree that it is imperative that we, and everyone in Europe, apply best science to what we do, because, if we do not work and take our decisions on the basis of best science, we might as well return to the Copernican theory of the universe.

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

I compliment my hon. Friend on the way in which he communicated the details of the scheme today, but does he agree that those animals are being slaughtered—and therefore disposed of—not for any scientific reason, but apparently to restore confidence among the Europeans? Does he therefore agree that any extended scheme that might be introduced to dispose of more animals in the same way could be introduced only on the basis that the ban would be lifted? Such schemes cannot be advanced without a copper-bottomed guarantee to lift the ban that has been wrongly imposed on our products.

Mr. Baldry

My hon. Friend always makes some very good points. In fairness, this scheme was instituted because retailers, the National Farmers Union and everyone in the food chain joined together and made representations to us and expressed the view that implementing the scheme would help restore confidence in the domestic market in British beef and consequently help restore confidence in UK beef elsewhere in the world.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Minister has told the House several times that there is no suggestion of proposing any further selective cull unless it is based on best science and commands the support of the House. As I believe became clear at the last meeting of the Council of Ministers, the European Commission and European Community vets recognise and acknowledge that the scheme that my right hon. and learned Friend proposed is the best that can be devised—in other words, no one yet has been able to suggest a better scheme for a selective cull, although of course we are always prepared to listen to any further suggestions and comments that might be made.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

Will the Minister be flexible in his attitude towards the various abattoirs? There is already controversy in south Cheshire about some of the choices. Is he aware that, far from the information system working efficiently, it took me nearly 24 hours on Thursday and Friday to obtain accurate information about the working of the scheme? Will he please ensure that detailed information is easily available to the people affected?

Mr. Baldry

I have sought to ensure that there is a proper coverage of abattoirs throughout the country; there is certainly adequate slaughterhouse capacity in Cheshire. If too many abattoirs are involved in the scheme, there is a danger that we may start to involve abattoirs that have been mothballed or have not had money invested in them to bring them up to EC standards, and we also increase the difficulties of marrying up abattoirs and renderers.

If, as the scheme develops, it appears that we can take on more slaughtering capacity, I am willing to consider doing so, but I am advised by the vets and many others that the current spread of abattoirs is adequate.

On the hon. Lady requiring information, I very much hope that if the hon. Lady or any other hon. Member has a problem or query in relation to the scheme, they will telephone my private office; that is what private offices are for. Otherwise I very much hope that farmers and producers will telephone the intervention board to receive assistance.

I have written to all farmers setting out the initial details of the scheme, and I am closely monitoring calls to the intervention board. If the same queries are made time and again, I shall send further information to farmers in order to deal with those persistent queries. If hon. Members have a problem or a difficult constituency case, I hope that they will contact my office immediately,

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent)

Is my hon. Friend aware that in Maidstone we have probably the most modern, and certainly one of the most accessible, livestock markets in the country? It is outraged that it has been left out of the scheme so far. Can my hon. Friend offer any hope that, as the scheme develops, Maidstone will become a collecting point?

Mr. Baldry

The criteria for including livestock marts was that last year they dealt with either 2,000 cull cows or 2,000 clean beef cows—on average, that is 40 cows per week. If a market does not deal with at least 40 cows per week, one must question whether it is a serious player. I have said that I will re-examine the coverage of both abattoirs and livestock marts. However, I would need to be persuaded to increase the number of livestock marts, given the existing extensive coverage of collection centres.

Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones (Ynys Môn)

The Minister will be aware that there is concern, particularly in areas of large geographical spread such as north and mid-Wales, that his strict criteria for collection points might not always be met. It might be in the interests of the industry if the Minister were to look at specific problems in certain areas.

Abattoirs in north-west and west Wales have difficulty obtaining any support from the rendering industry. The Minister has said that he will talk to the industry immediately in the hope of reaching an agreement. If it does not agree and if no rendering facilities are available, does the Minister accept that it is purely academic to appoint abattoirs in the first place?

Mr. Baldry

Ten abattoirs in Wales are approved under the scheme and they are spread from the north to the south of the Principality. There is a fair coverage of abattoirs in Wales. It is essential that the renderers co-operate with the abattoirs in order to carry out the maximum amount of rendering. Clearly, the process is dependent upon the rendering. If the renderers do not co-operate, they may be assured that I shall be on their backs until they do. Their co-operation is essential. It is their industry as much as anyone else's, and they must have an interest in restoring long-term confidence in United Kingdom beef.

I hope that the renderers will start to co-operate fully with slaughterhouses up and down the country in order to maximise the scheme's throughput as speedily as possible. That is already occurring in Scotland and Northern Ireland. I hope that the renderers and other sectoral interests south of the border and in Wales will see that and follow their example.

Mr. David Harris (St. Ives)

I thank my hon. Friend for responding quickly to the representations made by hon. Members last week in the House and outside it about increasing the number of collection centres at markets. I am grateful that Helston has been included, but I am sorry that Penzance has not been selected so far.

By limiting the number of abattoirs to 44, Her Majesty's Government are concentrating still further the business in the hands of a few large abattoirs around the country. Will my hon. Friend re-examine the situation, as the scheme should not be used to bring about a drastic reorganisation of the slaughtering industry?

Mr. Baldry

I have received representations from those, such as vets, who argue that we should restrict abattoirs to a very small number—perhaps 20 or so—which could then be tied to individual renderers. About 200 abattoirs across the country—many of which had been in mothballs for some time—applied to join the scheme. I am seeking to ensure the maximum throughput under the scheme, having regard to the rendering capacity we have. I believe that we have achieved that, but if it transpires that we can take on further slaughter capacity, of course we shall seek to do so. I am keen that we should clear the backlog and get the maximum amount of beef processed through the scheme, not least because I want to ensure that farmers receive their compensation cheques as speedily as possible.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

The Minister mentioned animal welfare, which concerns me. Will he take us through the process from farm to furnace that the poor dumb creatures will have to undergo? Will he cut out the euphemisms so that we know exactly what it means? As it is pretty obvious from the past that the owners and controllers of slaughterhouses do not abide by the rules, and as the animals are not bound to the food chain, what checks will he make to ensure the highest possible standard of animal welfare? Will his vets be present and will he allow animal welfare organisations to monitor the process?

Mr. Baldry

The Meat Hygiene Service and the Government veterinary service are present throughout the slaughtering process. It goes without saying that we always want to ensure the best possible animal welfare throughout the transactions. We have to bear that in mind when we are considering how fast the 30-month scheme can work. There is no dissembling on that and, as I have made clear today to the livestock marts and the abattoirs, if at any stage there is any suggestion that livestock markets or abattoirs are failing to comply with all the regulations, they will be suspended from the scheme.

The scheme should work properly and effectively in respect of animal welfare, consumer confidence and ensuring that the rules are complied with in terms of public finance. I do not want to open a Sunday newspaper in a couple of months' time to find allegations of animal abuse or financial abuse. The scintilla of a suggestion that anyone is abusing the scheme will lead to suspension.

Mr. John Whittingdale (Colchester, South and Maldon)

Will my hon. Friend give further consideration to the plight of those who were previously involved in head-boning, whose business has been wiped out overnight? Can the scheme provide any help to that part of the industry?

Mr. Baldry

My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. It is not and never has been possible to give compensation to everyone who has suffered financially, either directly or indirectly, as a consequence of the announcement by the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee. The money that we have paid and are paying to abattoirs, renderers and others has been by way of market support. There is no longer a market to support in head-boning and for that reason that industry has not received and will not receive a penny in compensation. That has been made clear. I hope that others involved in the process, who sometimes feel that they may not be receiving as much money as they would like, will have regard to the fact that many elsewhere in the industry have suffered more dramatically.

Mr. Alan W. Williams (Carmarthen)

Will the Minister clarify what happens to the cattle after slaughter and explain how the carcases are disposed of? He talks about rendering and incineration, but what does he mean by rendering? We all thought that, once the cattle had been slaughtered, they would then be incinerated.

Mr. Baldry

If any hon. Members do not understand the rendering process and genuinely seek a further understanding of it, of course I shall arrange for them to be given a further detailed briefing and perhaps the opportunity to visit a slaughterhouse. It is important there is a full understanding. Once the animals are rendered, they have to be disposed of and, given the scale of the exercise, we are examining means of ensuring that the carcases are disposed of in an environmentally proper and efficient way. That may well require a number of solutions that we are examining in conjunction with the Environment Agency, the Department of the Environment and others. Hon. Members can rest assured that any disposal will be to the best and highest environmental standards.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)

Can the Minister estimate the cost to public funds of the scheme, which is based on 120,000 cattle, and of the attached abolition of the Meat and Livestock Commission levy? Once those 120,000 slaughters have been completed, will that mean the possible elimination of BSE?

Mr. Baldry

My hon. Friend can do the calculation himself. I circulated to my hon. Friend and to every other right hon. and hon. Member on Friday the details of the exact compensation being paid. We have not set a fixed time limit for the scheme, which will operate as long as necessary to continue to restore confidence in UK beef. The scheme will certainly have to operate for some considerable time. Market adjustments will be made as the scheme is introduced—not least because many farmers who may have run their clean beef on to more than 30 months will now rear and sell their beef in less than 30 months. Clearly there will now be a premium price for beef of below 30 months.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

The Minister mentioned compensation to farmers. Will the Government compensate slaughterhouses for additional lairage costs, the expense of tending animals overnight and extra slaughtering costs?

Mr. Baldry

I am not sure which details the hon. Gentleman has read. Abattoirs will receive funds for acting as a collection centre and a payment for each animal that they slaughter, which we will negotiate. Slaughterhouses will receive a perfectly fair payment for the work they do, and the throughput of cull cows will be little different from that previous to the scheme's operation. The only change will be that, instead of slaughtered animals going into the human food chain, they will be disposed of otherwise.

I see no reason for slaughterhouses involved in the scheme to be concerned about the payments made to them. I have received no specific representations from any slaughterhouse that the payments are unfair. Abattoirs recognise that the funds that they are receiving from the public purse are perfectly fair.

Sir Donald Thompson (Calder Valley)

Does my hon. Friend expect that the 30-month rule will be inviolate? Surely the period will be ratched up to 31, 32 and 33 months, as scientific knowledge moves on.

Mr. Baldry

The 30-month rule was chosen because SEAC thought that the time limit was important, which was why the National Farmers Union, the Food and Drink Federation, the British Retail Consortium and others unanimously recommended to the Government that the 30-month cull scheme would make a substantial contribution to restoring consumer confidence in UK beef here and overseas—and we have implemented one.

Mrs. Ray Michie (Argyll and Bute)

The National Farmers Union of Scotland sent me a list of live weight collection centres serving remote locations in Scotland, but it does not include the island of Islay or Campbeltown in my constituency. Will the Minister give serious consideration to including those remote places?

Mr. Baldry

As I made clear to the livestock marts this morning, I do not pretend to have perfect wisdom or to offer perfect coverage. If any right hon. or hon. Member feels that there are particular geographical reasons for including another livestock mart, of course I will consider them. Marts must be able to find adequate and proper slaughtering capacity. I am loth to increase substantially the number of livestock marts because the greater the number involved, the bigger is the danger that the scheme will become complicated in respect of the number of abattoirs. It seems to me, as a general rule, that if a livestock mart was not processing 40 cull cows a week before the scheme's general introduction, it was not a serious player.

Sir Michael Spicer (South Worcestershire)

Why will the European Union's financial contribution to the scheme be set against the general rebate that we receive from the European Union when the two issues are completely separate?

Mr. Baldry

My hon. Friend knows that the rules on European finance apply to this scheme and to every other scheme under which the United Kingdom is a beneficiary of the European Community budget. This scheme is no different from any other under which we receive money from the European Union.

Mr. Nick Ainger (Pembroke)

Does the Minister accept that his statement leaves in limbo those farmers who produce slower maturing cattle? Can the Minister clearly say today that, in principle, those slower maturing breeds will get an extension beyond 30 months and that the consultation is merely about practicalities, not about principle? We do not know how long the consultation period will be, and perhaps the Minister can tell us. Otherwise, those farmers will not know whether to put their beasts into the scheme now or to wait for the final announcement.

Mr. Baldry

Again, I shall ensure that the hon. Gentleman gets a copy of the consultation paper. If his constituents who are concerned read the criteria in the consultation paper, they will get a clear indication. The consultation period is as short as we can humanly make it. It is 14 days, and I hope that the industry will respond during that time and that decisions can be made speedily afterwards. It is important to have a consultation period, not least because we have to persuade our Community partners and others that the exemptions should be allowed and should stick.

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

Does not the Minister realise that the farmers, certainly those to whom I have spoken in my constituency over the weekend, are criticising not the scheme but the failure of the Government to have in place anything to implement that scheme when it was supposed to start? That is typical of the lack of a coherent strategy from or any assessment of the implications by the Government, as we saw when the Secretary of State for Health made the original announcement and as we see in the negotiations in Brussels.

Has the Minister made any assessment of the implications of the scheme that he has announced on the displacement of cattle that might otherwise have been slaughtered in the slaughterhouses? Has he made any general assessment of whether the scheme will ensure that some of the people who have lost their jobs in the past six weeks will return to employment and receive an income, which they have not had for six weeks?

Mr. Baldry

It is self-evident to all of us—every hon. Member who has a farming constituency is in touch with farmers—that farmers are concerned to know when their cattle can be taken and culled, not least—and quite reasonably—because they want their compensation cheques. The farmers, like everyone, have to recognise that there is a backlog of around 150,000 cattle and that not all of those can be culled tomorrow or this coming week. There will have to be some forbearance as renderers, slaughterhouses and livestock marts work together with the farmers to bring forward livestock on an orderly basis.

As the scheme moves forward, clearly the number of cull cows will be the same as always. They will be slaughtered and, instead of entering the human food chain, they will be disposed of otherwise. The amount of clean beef will not be significantly reduced, so the volume of work carried out by the slaughterhouses will not be different from that carried out previously. The work will just be done in different ways. I see no reason why, in some slaughterhouses, there will not be more jobs as a consequence. I suspect that we will also see renderers taking on extra employees. In Scotland, there is only one renderer and I am sure it will take on extra staff to cope with the extra demand from the industry.