HC Deb 09 May 1996 vol 277 cc349-52
2. Sir David Knox

To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food when he will next meet the president of the National Farmers Union to discuss the dairy sector. [27485]

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Douglas Hogg)

I regularly have meetings with representatives of the agriculture industry, including the president of the National Farmers Union, to discuss issues of importance to them.

Sir David Knox

Has my right hon. and learned Friend had any discussions with Agriculture Ministers in the European Union on the possibility of obtaining modifications to the milk quota regime, including cross-border arrangements?

Mr. Hogg

We have raised the issue on a number of occasions. The concept of transferability, as across the frontiers of member states, is attractive to us and we have pressed for it. At present, the concept has not been accepted by the member states, but we shall continue to press for it.

Mr. Alan Howarth

When the Minister next meets the president of the National Farmers Union, will he place on the agenda the prior options review of research? Will he report to his right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, who I understand is leading the review, the strongly held view of the NFU that it will be deeply damaging to prospects for the horticultural sector if Horticultural Research International, which has done everything that has been asked of it to a very high standard, is to be destabilised, whether through privatisation or withdrawal of public funding?

Mr. Hogg

With regard to the prior options review, I am sure that we are right to ask ourselves several essential questions about the way in which we provide for research, and try to identify the areas of research and the capacities that we need to have directly within the ring fence of the public sector, and those that can be dealt with in some other way, whether by way of privatisation or by contractorisation. Those seem to me to be proper questions to be addressed.

Mr. David Nicholson

I hope that, when my right hon. and learned Friend meets the president of the National Farmers Union, he will pass on the thanks of the Government and of Parliament for the enormous work that the president and his colleagues in the NFU have done to inform and help their many members, who have gone through a nightmarish six weeks with the bovine spongiform encephalopathy difficulty. That nightmare has affected many of their livelihoods and their futures. Will my right hon. and learned Friend and his colleagues ensure that the same quality and detailed information about the present culling process is coming from regional and area offices of the Ministry to the NFU and its members?

Mr. Hogg

My hon. Friend is right when he says that the past eight weeks or so have been a period of great anxiety for the farming community. Farmers throughout the United Kingdom have acted with great responsibility and moderation in circumstances that must have been profoundly distressing to them. That also applies to the NFU and others who represent the industry. They have been extremely responsible and have served their members well. For our part, we are anxious to ensure that the farming community has all the information it needs, which is one reason why there was a mail shot to every farmer last weekend.

Mr. Tyler

With regard to the dairy herd, can the Minister confirm, as would seem to be the case from his letter to me following our exchanges last week, that contaminated feed appears to be only the main path for BSE infection? What other paths have been identified? Have those been discussed with the NFU, and does the Minister believe that his present cull programme will effectively eradicate them?

Mr. Hogg

If we stand back and ask why we have had as many BSE—infected calves born after the ban as we have, I am sure that the answer lies in contaminated feeding stuffs. There is no doubt that, notwithstanding the ban that was put in place at the end of the 1980s, there was a continuous flow, either in the feed mills or in the farms, of—if I might use jargon rather than be precise—contaminated feedstuffs. That is why we imposed the prohibition in April to prevent the incorporation of any mammalian protein into any feed rations for any farm animal.

Mr. Riddick

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that, like beef exports, dairy sector exports have also been hard hit as a result of the BSE scare? This is the third time that I have raised this matter in the past week. If the Government believe that the worldwide ban is illegal, is it not now time for the Government to go out and actively promote the sale of British beef and dairy products to countries outside the European Union?

Mr. Hogg

For these purposes, a distinction has to be drawn between dairy and beef products. We have succeeded in obtaining the lifting of a number of bans in respect of dairy products—for example, in Thailand, Malaysia, Egypt, Peru and Brazil—but we have greater difficulties with regard to beef and beef products because a number of long-standing bans are in place against their export. There are also, of course, many recently imposed national bans. It will be some time before we persuade those third countries to relax their national bans. It would be enormously helpful if the European Union would do that, because that would be an important example to third countries. That is one reason why we place such importance on achieving that objective.

Dr. Strang

When the Minister meets the president of the NFU, will he explain to him why the Government are seeking to deny the House of Commons the opportunity to express its views on a proper motion in the agriculture debate next week? That debate will be of great importance to the dairy sector during the BSE crisis—the biggest crisis to hit our agriculture this century. Why is the Minister ignoring the recommendation of the Select Committee on European Legislation that there should be an early debate in the House rather than in European Standing Committee A? What is he afraid of?

Mr. Hogg

The hon. Gentleman knows that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will be making his business statement shortly. He will find, from what my right hon. Friend says, that the House will have a full opportunity next week to discuss all the matters about which right hon. and hon. Members are concerned.

Mr. Barry Field

In preparation for his next meeting with the president of the NFU, will my right hon. and learned Friend ask his officials to contact the Isle of Wight branch to listen to its members' worries about animal welfare during the present crisis? The matter was raised with me at a farmers' meeting on Saturday, and again on Tuesday.

I strongly support the NFU's campaign for compulsory listing of ingredients on the labelling of feed when it is supplied to farmers. It is amazing that, after all that has happened during this crisis, farmers can still buy feed without knowing what is in it.

Mr. Hogg

Animal welfare is indeed very important and the Parliamentary Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton (Mrs. Browning), has been active in addressing it. If members of the Isle of Wight branch of the NFU have further points to make, we shall be pleased to hear from them.

I note with interest what my hon. Friend said about labelling.