HC Deb 21 May 1996 vol 278 cc113-23 4.22 pm
The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Douglas Hogg)

With permission, I should like to make a statement on the discussion about BSE at and in the margins of the Agriculture Council on 20 and 21 May, at which I represented the United Kingdom with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, and my noble Friends the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Office and the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland.

The standing veterinary committee voted late last night on a proposal that could have been expected, in due course, to bring about the lifting of the ban on gelatine, tallow and semen. However, a qualified majority was not established. Forty-eight votes—representing eight member states, including the United Kingdom—voted in favour, and 39 votes, representing seven member states, voted against.

This morning, the Commissioner informed the Council that the Commission would put the proposal to the Council. A special meeting of the Council to consider that and other matters will be held on 3 and 4 June. Under the procedures, the proposal will then be implemented, unless there is a simple majority against it in the Council.

As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has explained, it is extremely disappointing that no final decision has been taken on lifting the ban on those three products, for which the scientific case is overwhelming. The Council meeting fixed for 3 and 4 June provides a further opportunity, which should be taken.

I also explained to the Council the comprehensive nature of the measures that the United Kingdom has put in place to protect the public and to eliminate BSE. On the idea of a selective cull, I confirmed that the United Kingdom was in principle prepared to cull all animals in the three age classes 1990–91, 1991–92 and 1992–93, identified by farm of origin, in respect of which a case of BSE had been found. I made it clear, however, that such a proposal would need the consent of the House, and that the opinion of right hon. and hon. Members would be influenced by what was said and done in Brussels and elsewhere in Europe. I have seen no evidence to justify going beyond the proposal that we have advanced.

The Government's first duty is to protect the public. We have put the necessary measures in place, as is confirmed by any unprejudiced and careful reading of the scientific evidence. Member states should now accept their responsibilities, and agree to a rapid ending of the ban.

Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East)

May I reiterate that we fully share the Government's bitter disappointment at the failure of the standing veterinary committee even to agree to the modest proposal for the lifting of the ban on tallow, gelatine and semen?

Does the Minister feel that the confusion surrounding the implementation of the 30-month slaughter programme contributed to his lack of progress? May I remind him that it is seven weeks since he took that programme to the Council of Agriculture Ministers in Luxembourg? Is it not clear that there is still great confusion throughout the industry about its implementation? Indeed, divisions are developing between different sections of the industry.

Is it not time to consider whether some new initiatives are required in relation to the programme if it is to operate effectively?

May I put to the Minister the allegation that some abattoirs are refusing to take cattle aged over 30 months, thus forcing farmers to sell them in markets where the abattoir owners or their agents are able to buy the cattle at knockdown prices and make a profit at the expense of farmer and taxpayer? Is the Minister still certain that he is right in requiring that cattle for our food and cattle aged over 30 months that must be slaughtered and kept out of the food chain be slaughtered in the same slaughterhouses?

As for the additional selective slaughter programme— the programme that still involved 40,000 cattle at the time of last Thursday's debate; the Minister upped the figure to 80,000 on Friday—can the Minister explain clearly what is the proposal's current status? Is he saying that we will not go ahead with the second slaughter programme until we have a clear agreement on a timetable for the lifting of the overall ban on our beef and beef products?

The Prime Minister accused my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition—most unfairly—of not making constructive suggestions. May I ask the Minister what progress has been made on three of our constructive suggestions? First, what progress is being made on the quality assurance scheme for late-maturing cattle, and will the Government extend such schemes to other beef breeds?

Secondly, has the Minister had a chance further to consider our call for an investigation into the 67 per cent. of BSE cases that are now in cattle born after the feed bans were implemented? He has acknowledged that after those bans were put in place in 1989 cattle have consumed a continuous stream of contaminated feed. Surely it would help the introduction of an additional slaughter programme if we were to identify the cattle most at risk. If we were to carry out an inquiry, it might help us to have a more closely targeted selective slaughter programme.

Thirdly, with regard to the proposal made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) a few minutes ago, will the Minister seriously consider the proposition that many people in countries such as Germany may not fully understand the measures that have been put in place in this country and that we should seek to address that by directly communicating to them— through people who speak their language in the media or in a clear booklet—what we are doing in the United Kingdom? We argue that proposition on the basis that there has been a return of confidence—not complete, but substantial—in the market in British beef, and that may partly be because the people understand that the Government are taking measures following the announcement on 20 March.

The Government are right to emphasise the importance of lifting the ban on our export of beef and beef products, because only then can we start to rebuild our markets. But that must not deflect the Minister from the priorities at home, including ensuring that all the measures to keep the BSE agent out of our food are effectively enforced and addressing the huge problems surrounding the slaughter programme, which are causing such suffering among farmers and others in the industry.

Mr. Hogg

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his support. In following the policy of slaughtering cattle over the age of 30 months, to date about 38,500 beasts have been slaughtered. The standing veterinary committee did not focus to any great extent on that slaughter policy. My judgment is that the objections that have been advanced in the standing veterinary committee and elsewhere are primarily political in character, although scientific language is used as a cover for a political stance.

Further to the question of the slaughter policy, we are now operating very close to current capacity. We can increase capacity, as we discussed last week, by bringing on cold storage and additional incineration. The choke point is essentially the rendering capacity. The hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang) mentioned specific allegations about behaviour bordering on misconduct, if not misconduct. If there are such cases, I hope that they will be brought to my attention.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister explained the position on additional slaughter, but perhaps I should repeat it. We are focusing on three class years, 1990–91, 1991–92 and 1992–93. If—in any of those class years-there has been a case or there is a case of BSE, we will go back to the farm of origin and find and slaughter the cohort. It is the future cases that I have introduced into the discussion in Europe.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh, East asked about the context in which the selective slaughter policy has been introduced. I have already made it plain to the Council in Brussels and to the Commission too that the proposals for a selective cull have to be considered in the context of programmes for relaxing the ban. Indeed, I said today at the Council that to secure a selective cull policy I would have to have the consent of the House of Commons. In truth, the House's opinion will be directly influenced by what is said and done in Europe, and I made that very clear to the Council today.

We completed consultation on the quality assurance scheme at the end of last week. We have now raised it with the Commission and the Commissioner himself specifically mentioned it to the Council this morning.

The hon. Gentleman will remember that last Thursday we discussed cattle born after the ban. The relevant figures are to be found in the dossiers that we have lodged with the Library. He will bear it in mind that, from the beginning of April, we placed a total prohibition on the incorporation of any mammalian protein in farm rations— food going to any farm animals.

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Order. I have to safeguard the business of the House. Hon. Members who might be fortunate enough to be called on this statement should ask their questions briskly, and only one each. I am sure that the Minister will oblige by giving a speedy answer. Who rose on the previous statement and was not called?

Sir Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that hundreds of farmers in my constituency will be delighted at the statement made by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in standing up to those of our European partners who do not have the slightest intention of lifting the ban on the export of beef, whatever offers we may make to try to win their support?

Those farmers are asking exactly how much European beef we are importing and why on earth we do not require as high a standard of quality in that beef as the Europeans require of British beef. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that that would be not retaliation but justifiable action in defence of British beef producers?

Mr. Hogg

I am grateful for my hon. and learned Friend's support. He made an important point about extending to Europe the specified bovine material controls that we now operate in countries where there are cases of BSE. We are raising that matter with the Commission. He asked about the importation into the United Kingdom of beef from European Union countries. The position is that cattle over the age of 30 months are affected by the general restriction now in place.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

In view of the Prime Minister's reference to the National Farmers Union and the tribute that he paid, rightly, to its responsible attitude, is the Minister aware that in its briefing today it has said that the 30-month scheme is in jeopardy and that "chaos reigns"? Is he aware that while he has been abroad a number of abattoirs, as a result of the chopping and changing of the intervention board, have threatened to get out of the scheme? Is he confident that, far from being in a state of growing deterioration, the scheme will be on stream by the next meeting of the Agriculture Council and that he will be able to report that, in his own words, the "necessary measures" are in place?

Mr. Hogg

As I have already said on a number of occasions, to date we have slaughtered about 38,500 head of cattle over the age of 30 months; the estimate for 21 May is that we will have slaughtered about an additional 4,188. I have seen reports in which supermarkets have said that they do not wish to take clean cattle for consumption from abattoirs that have been used for the cull. I discussed that point with the retailers last week.

I do not believe that that judgment is based on good science. However, if any abattoirs withdraw from the culling scheme, I believe that we will be able to fill the gap and to continue slaughtering at the capacity that is afforded by the renderers, as topped up by incineration and the cold storage facilities that we are bringing on stream.

Sir Jerry Wiggin (Weston-super-Mare)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that, until eight weeks ago, the standing veterinary committee based its decisions on scientific facts and veterinary practice? Is not it an absolute disgrace and an indictment of their professional capacity that some of those vets have changed their minds on the orders of their political masters? Will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that, if the principle of science and veterinary practice is not stuck to, when this whole sorry mess is over there will be an opening for the manipulation of food and other materials for reasons of disease, simply covering over bad trade practices, which the committee was designed to stop?

Mr. Hogg

There is much force in what my hon. Friend says. In some cases, the language of science has been used to advance political objectives or to conceal political positions. I agree that, when forming policy, it is extremely important, as a general principle, to follow the science; otherwise, there is no clear benchmark.

Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington)

Will the Minister confirm that he has heard reports that supermarket chains' meat buyers are considering not buying supplies from abattoirs that are participating in the culling of animals under this scheme? If those reports are true, will he have urgent talks with the heads of the supermarket chains to point out that there is no scientific basis for that fear and that their best contribution to enhancing consumer confidence in British beef's safety would be to recognise that the disease is not contagious in those circumstances?

Mr. Hogg

I touched on this point in answering the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler). Last week—on Thursday night, I think—I discussed this very issue with supermarket representatives. There is no good reason why supermarkets should not take beef for consumption from abattoirs that are also being used for culling, provided there is a clear distinction in time and that appropriate measures are in place. It is worth reminding the House that the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee originally contemplated that, provided it was sold in a deboned state, beef from cattle over 30 months of age would be sold for human consumption.

Mr. Bill Walker (North Tayside)

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that a problem with the slaughter policy is that cattle have been earmarked for abattoirs but have not been able to go until perhaps the following week? The cost to farmers is running into hundreds of pounds. Is it not about time that we appointed someone— an individual of substance and quality—to oversee the policy? Should we not have a system whereby the discrepancy between the live weight and the dead weight is removed, so that abattoirs and marts operate on equal terms?

Mr. Hogg

My hon. Friend might be reassured to know that, under the 30-month scheme, the cumulative total of cattle slaughtered in Scotland between 3 May and 21 May amounts to 9,997 beasts. The House will, of course, know that we do not possess powers of direction. We must rely on persuasion, negotiation and encouragement.

Mr. Walker

And advice.

Mr. Hogg

And advice. That is what is being done. If there are ways of reinforcing that process, we will gladly consider them.

Mrs. Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley)

What consideration has the Minister given to the Consumer Association's suggestion today—following a poll showing that 71 per cent. of people believe that the Government withheld important information about BSE's risks—that an independent food authority should be set up?

Mr. Hogg

I do not agree with the criticism and I do not agree with the proposal.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware of some farmers' concern that dealers are doing sweetheart deals with abattoirs and are seeking to pick up cheap cattle from farmers who cannot get their cattle into the abattoir? Is he aware of the concern that some cattle will be able to get into the scheme under existing rates, but that other farmers, because of the difficulty of getting cattle to the abattoir in time, might lose out on the existing deal? Will he ensure that farmers who, through no fault of their own, are delayed in getting their cattle slaughtered receive exactly the same compensation as farmers who get in earlier?

Mr. Hogg

I understand my hon. Friend's points. On cattle that are not able to get into the abattoirs, my hon. Friend the Minister of State has made clear our position about the top-up payment being carried forward. My hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow) will recall that on Thursday my hon. Friend the Minister of State outlined our thinking on an advance payment ultimately to be made under the slaughter scheme. That will provide considerable reassurance to the farmers of whom my hon. Friend speaks.

We are increasing slaughterhouse throughput under the 30-month scheme. We are operating very near to capacity, but it can be increased as we bring cold storage facilities into play and perhaps identify further disposal methods— incineration, for example.

Mr. Alan W. Williams (Carmarthen)

A rather bizarre auction is taking places: the 40,000 figure was raised to 80,000 and then rejected by the European Community, some of the members of which want perhaps 10 times that figure. That is not based on good science. What is the Ministry's best estimate of BSE's incidence in the present cattle herd? Is it under 1 per cent. perhaps 5 per cent. or up to 10 per cent?

Mr. Hogg

I do not think that it is sensible to answer the question in the form that it has been asked, but I can give the hon. Gentleman some idea of how many confirmed cases we expect. He will find our best estimate of likely figures in the dossier that we have placed in the Library, but I do not have the figures in front of me so I shall use broad figures. If we were to do nothing else by way, for example, of a selective cull, in the current year we expect about 8,500 cases, next year about 5,000 and in 1998 about 2,800. At the height of the epidemic in 1993 there were about 36,000 confirmed cases, which fell to about 15,000 last year.

Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that, at times like these, we need to know who our friends are? Will he therefore say which countries said that they would support us but reneged on that commitment in the vote? Bearing in mind the earlier welcome and bullish approach of the Prime Minister at the Dispatch Box, will my right hon. and learned Friend support immediate action to protect the UK consumer on health grounds by banning imported beef and beef products from cattle that have not been raised, transported or slaughtered to the same high standards and welfare as are practised in this country?

Mr. Hogg

I think that I would turn my hon. Friend's point on its head by saying that no beef product in the world is created and produced in a better environment, or is subject to better and more sophisticated controls, than British beef. One can honestly say that British beef is produced under the most rigorous controls anywhere in the world.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)

The Minister has given assurances that the slaughter policy is near capacity: it is a mere trickle in Wales, which is a considerable worry to many thousands of farmers.

Mr. Alex Carlile (Montgomery)

It is a disaster.

Mr. Llwyd

Yes, a disaster.

May I impress on the Minister the need for far more cold storage? Will he impress on the intervention board the need for that to be provided urgently?

Mr. Hogg

The hon. Gentleman is right in the sense that the throughput in Wales has been less than we would wish: about 1,000 beasts have been slaughtered under the 30-month scheme. Clearly, it needs to be accelerated and I agree that cold storage is a partial solution to the problem.

Mr. Neil Hamilton (Tatton)

Is not the grotesquely irrational response from European politicians rather depressing? Was any quantitative analysis made, comparing the risks of different forms of human activity, to put the matter in perspective when it was discussed in the Council? For example, is it not a far greater risk to get into one's car to drive to the supermarket to buy beef than, even on the most pessimistic assumptions of alarmists, it is to eat it? There is therefore an even greater case for banning all forms of motorised transport throughout Europe than there is for banning British beef.

Mr. Hogg

It has always been one of the problems that it is extraordinarily difficult to express risk in terms that are readily understood. That is why, when pressed on that point, Professor Pattison has said that, to use ordinary language, British beef is safe. That is the way in which he prefers to express risk and I endorse that approach. My hon. Friend is right about the depressing character of some of the conversations that we have had on this subject in recent months. In truth, usually the language is not that of considered judgment based on fact, argument or science, but rather an expression of concern about damage to domestic markets, which is then expressed in language of science. I do not think that that is the proper way around.

Mr. Brian Jenkins (South-East Staffordshire)

The right hon. and learned Gentleman must realise that the problem is as bad in Germany—in fact, worse. Confidence in beef in Germany dropped dramatically after the Germans banned British beef, because it raised the possibility of beef not being safe. If the proposals to ban foreign beef were taken up, we would once again undermine the very beef market that we are trying to maintain in this country. It is a matter of consumer confidence. Supermarkets do not buy beef from abattoirs that participate in the culling scheme not because of science, facts or figures, but because they fear that they cannot sell the beef. Lifting the European ban does not matter if we cannot convince people.

Mr. Hogg

It is true that the consumption of beef in Germany has been gravely damaged. I have frequently said to German Ministers that it would help confidence in Germany enormously if the ban were lifted. It would be an expression of confidence in beef generally. To put the argument differently, the fact that every time the Agriculture Council meets there is a row about the safety of beef is bound to have a deleterious effect on confidence in Germany and, indeed, in other countries of the Union where there has been a substantial reduction in consumption. I make those points to Agriculture Ministers.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough and Horncastle)

I warmly congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on his conduct in negotiations and on what he has said today. He has struck a bell that is in tune with what the British people want. Are our European partners aware that the House of Commons will not accept ever-increasing senseless culls, which are unjustified by science, and that the British taxpayer will not accept the bankrolling of an institution that acts irrationally? Will he reassure me on a local point, which I put to him in the agriculture debate last week, about the availability of abattoir facilities to local beef farmers?

Mr. Hogg

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and neighbour—indeed, my constituency Member. He is entirely right to say that the consent of the House of Commons is absolutely essential if a selective cull policy is to be adopted. I have made that very clear to the Council today and on a number of previous occasions. I understand my hon. Friend's concern about the lack of local abattoir facilities. I saw a number of farmers from our area on Friday and was able to say that very shortly an abattoir would be operating in Lincolnshire.

Sir Peter Emery (Honiton)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend realise that nobody could have done more—day and often night—as a Minister for the farming industry than he has? Opposition Members' criticism is purely party political and not a matter of fact.

The beef breeder, who will obviously still lose money in getting his animal to be culled at top weight, is terribly worried that he cannot get his animals through the abattoirs. He is having to feed the animals and might still be three, four or five weeks away from getting them to the abattoir, which is costing more and more. Is it not possible for the animals to go to market and be weighed and tagged so that the farmer does not have to continue feeding them with feedstuffs? The animals can be put out to grass and their weight allowed to fall—they are to be culled and incinerated anyway. Farmers would not therefore lose more money by pursuing a policy that cannot be in their interests or necessarily in the interests of the policy that my right hon. and learned Friend is trying to promote.

Mr. Hogg

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his kind personal remarks: such remarks from one of the most senior Members of the House are particularly welcome. He is making an important and interesting suggestion on which I had not previously reflected. I shall consider what he has said. I suspect that the logistical problems would be too great; none the less, I shall consider his specific suggestion. I also draw to his attention the concept of advance payments and our policy of operating slaughterhouses at their maximum, which I hope will go some way to meeting his constituency point.

Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry)

Does the Minister agree that although his policy of culling a particular cohort when reactor or BSE cases are found in that cohort will do quite a lot to help the farm of origin, it has meant that the problem has spread to every farm where the cohort has been by trade and sale? Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that the suckler herdsman who buys one of those cattle will have a problem several months down the road when suckler calves from such a contact herd go to market? Will he carefully consider how we are going to deal with that policy, since the suckler herdsman depends not on milk sales but on his calves and the subsidies that he receives every year?

Mr. Hogg

I am sure that if we pursue the cohort tracing policy that the hon. Gentleman has described we will encounter some difficulties. Broadly speaking, however, the concept is right. It is very difficult to think of any other concept that is underpinned by science and gives a proportionate result. I am glad that the Commission's advisers have supported that approach; it is our approach. I recognise that there may be some difficulties, but in trying to stand back, I commend the approach to right hon. and hon. Members.

Mr. Michael Lord (Central Suffolk)

I urge my right hon. and learned Friend to stick to the golden rule of slaughtering only the cattle for which there are genuine scientific reasons for doing so. There would be great anger among farmers and people in general if we were seen to be slaughtering perfectly healthy animals in large numbers simply to appease our so-called partners in Europe. There is still a fair amount of confusion on the ground about the system. I urge my right hon. and learned Friend to do all that he can to ensure that his staff get things moving as quickly and efficiently as possible, and that most of all he ensures that farmers are regularly informed what is going on.

Mr. Hogg

My hon. Friend makes a very valuable point when he says that we should do our utmost to ensure that the farming community is aware of all relevant facts and new developments—we shall certainly do our best. I recognise that very great anger could arise at any selective cull policy that did not seem to be proportionate or justified. The concept that we have introduced to trace cohorts is designed to identify the beasts that one could sensibly say are at a pronounced risk of developing BSE because there is a high likelihood that they have been fed contaminated foodstuffs. I cannot think of a better way of adopting a cull policy. I am prepared to argue in favour of a selective cull policy, and I think that many right hon. and hon. Members would support that approach were they to reflect in great detail on the scientific arguments underpinning it. I hope that my hon. Friend may feel able to do so as well.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Does the Minister recall that in a debate last week I said that some abattoirs, including one in my constituency owned by Ben Elliott, were on the original list but were then, for some mysterious reason, taken off it? The only thing that had happened in the meantime was that somebody from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food had asked, "Are you a member of the federation?" I got the clear impression that Mr. Ben Elliott, not being a member of the federation, or part of some kind of freemasonry—

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham)

A closed shop.

Mr. Skinner

Yes, a closed shop. Ben Elliott was being penalised for not being a member. Representations have been made over the weekend. Ben Elliott can slaughter about 200 cows a day, and many farmers in the area, despite the fact that they do not agree with the cull, have to get rid of their animals, so can I have an assurance that he will be back on the list so that he can help to deal with the problem?

Mr. Hogg

I believe that that is the first time that I have ever heard the hon. Gentleman refer to a closed shop in a somewhat disparaging manner. I regard that as progress.

The problem is that we must slaughter at the maximum capacity, and that means linking abattoirs to renderers. It also means that we must not have too many abattoirs at the outset, because if we did we should not be making the most effective use of the rendering capacity. For that reason, the original number of abattoirs was reduced to 20 or 21. We have it in mind substantially to increase that figure, to about 40—next week, I think. I do not know whether the new list will include the abattoir that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, but the Parliamentary Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton (Mrs. Browning), is considering that point, because the hon. Gentleman raised it with her in last Thursday's debate.

Mr. David Tredinnick (Bosworth)

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that there is apparently confusion in some abattoirs? One in my constituency, which is on his list, is not slaughtering because the intervention board will not provide it with the necessary information. Despite having made and sent 20 or 30 telephone calls and faxes, the abattoir has had only one reply in six weeks.

Secondly, is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that it is now impossible to send barren cows to slaughter in some parts of the country? From a humane point of view it is distressing that because of bottlenecks, some injured animals cannot be slaughtered. Will he give that situation some thought?

Mr. Hogg

We have made provision for casualties, including injured cattle, although I am afraid that I cannot comment on the particular constituency case that my hon. Friend identified. I suggest that he raises it with the Minister of State, who has day-to-day charge of such matters in the Ministry.

The real problem is that we cannot give approval to every abattoir on the original list, because that would make for inefficient use of the rendering capacity. If we went down that road we would not be able to achieve the maximum throughput that I believe is the desired objective of all right hon. and hon. Members.