HC Deb 14 October 1996 vol 282 cc464-74 3.32 pm
Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East)

(by private notice): To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a statement on the future of the selective cattle slaughter programme which was agreed at the Florence European Council.

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

I welcome the opportunity to give further information to the House this afternoon about the selective cattle slaughter programme, also known as the selective cull.

Right hon. and hon. Members will recall that, in an Adjournment debate just before the House rose in July, I presented draft legislation to implement the selective cull. During the debate I said that it was likely, although not certain, that Ministers would sign the relevant orders in the course of the next few weeks.

On 19 September, the Government issued a statement about the future of the selective cull of cattle in relation to bovine spongiform encephalopathy. My colleagues and I wrote to right hon. and hon. Members on 23 September to explain our position, which in substance is as follows.

First, the Government remain committed to making decisions on the basis of public and animal health and of objective scientific criteria. That was the approach agreed at Florence.

Secondly, since June, the Government have been working actively within the terms of the Florence agreements so as to take all the steps envisaged by the framework—with, of course, the exception of the selective cull.

Since the Adjournment debate on 24 July, the scientific assessments that formed the basis of the culling programme have been further developed. We have received valuable assistance from Professor Roy Anderson and his team. They published an analysis in Nature on 29 August, which shows that the epidemic will virtually die out around 2001, irrespective of any further measures. It is clear that there is no credible cull policy that will substantially accelerate the rate of decline or bring forward the date when BSE will be eliminated.

Moreover, interim findings reported in July showed that the calves of dams infected with BSE were more likely to develop BSE than the calves of unaffected dams. That was interpreted as evidence for "maternal transmission". Further work that has become available since July has shown that the findings are not necessarily caused by the passage of infection from mother to calf: there are other and equally plausible explanations. Further analysis of the study is being undertaken by Government and Oxford university scientists and will be considered shortly by the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee.

For those reasons, the Government are not, at least for the time being, proceeding with a selective cull. However, we shall consider the position further in the light of the developing science and other relevant matters. The Commission decision that implements the Florence agreement specifically recognises that the UK's plan for the eradication of BSE may need to be adapted in the light of scientific and epidemiological developments.

Moreover, there is another development. It has become increasingly clear during the summer that the prospect of other member states agreeing to an early and substantial lifting of the export ban for the United Kingdom has lessened. That fact is likely to diminish the support that right hon. and hon. Members would wish to extend to a substantial accelerated cull policy.

There will be further consultations with the European Commission on proposals for relaxing export restrictions for animals and products from herds that can be certified to have had no history of BSE. The idea of certified herds is referred to in the Florence framework. The beef assurance scheme for specialist beef farmers with late-maturing animals is one example of that approach. We are in discussion with the Commission about other possible options. Clearly, if there were a prospect of early progress on exports from certified herds, we would need to take account of that when considering the options for a selective cull. Equally, if there were clear evidence of maternal transmission, which for the moment there is not, we would need to take account of such evidence too, when looking at other cull options.

In conclusion, I recognise the importance of the issue for the farming industry and the interest that it arouses in the House. I shall continue to report to the House as circumstances warrant.

Dr. Strang

Accepting that it will be some time before we know whether there is an increase in the number of cases of the new variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, and accepting that it will be some time before we know whether there is any link at all, any cause whatever, between the eating of contaminated beef and beef products and the new variant of CJD, I put it to the Minister that he has a responsibility to do all that he reasonably can to minimise the suffering in the farming and the beef industries that has resulted from the BSE crisis.

I remind the Minister of what the Prime Minister said on 24 June, reporting on the Florence European Council, when he informed the House that he expected to be in a position to take a major step towards lifting the ban on the export of our beef and beef products in October, and that he hoped that in November we would be in a position whereby we could export all the meat overseas that we are unable to sell in this country. I also remind the Minister that, on the last day that the House sat before the summer recess—on 24 July—he himself described the Florence agreement as a great success and said that it was solidly pointing the way forward.

I put it to the Minister that, of course, the results of the experiment on maternal transmission and the results of the statistical analysis carried out by Professor Roy Anderson and his colleagues at Oxford on the issue mean that we can redirect the selective slaughter programme to make it more effective in terms of reducing the number of BSE cases for a given number of cows slaughtered.

Neither of those pieces of evidence can be used to justify not implementing our side of the Florence agreement. Surely the Minister is aware that the only way to regain the jobs and rebuild the beef industry is to secure a lifting of the ban, and that the only mechanism on the table for achieving that is the Florence agreement. Is he walking away from that agreement as a concession to the increasingly strident anti-European faction in the Conservative party? Does the decision to suspend the selective slaughter programme have something to do with the confusion and chaos that has resulted from the Government's complete inability effectively to implement their own over-30-month slaughter scheme?

On the day the House rose, the Minister said that he hoped to clear the backlog in that scheme by about the middle of October. We are now told that it will be December. Does he intend to wait to at least the end of December before embarking on the selective slaughter programme? He has not justified his decision to suspend that programme and is adding to the uncertainty in the industry.

Finally, may I draw to the Minister's attention the fact that the National Farmers Union of England and Wales last week passed a motion of no confidence in him? The union explicitly said that he had lost touch with the industry and was unable effectively to represent the interests of the industry or those of the country in the European Union. Is he aware that the National Farmers Union was speaking for beef farmers the length and breadth of this country, for the beef industry and for the country as a whole? Is it not clear as each month passes that, yes, we need a new Minister, but we also need a new Government if we are to tackle the BSE crisis effectively and decisively?

Mr. Hogg

The hon. Gentleman effectively made four points. He began by saying that it was important to address the financial difficulties in farming, and I agree. He will recall that in July, in negotiation with the European Union, we brought forward a package of £109 million to help beef producers. In September, I announced a further package of £60 million on hill livestock compensatory allowances, and the hon. Gentleman will recall that we have increased the advance payment of premia from 60 to 80 per cent. payable in November, which increases the sum payable for beef to about £25. If the hon. Gentleman had been at the Bournemouth conference, he would have heard me announce a further package of beef support of £29 million. He will also bear it in mind that we are in discussions with the European Union about a further beef package.

I think that the hon. Gentleman was pressing me to present a selective cull policy. I have two observations. First, it would not be appropriate to announce a large-scale selective cull policy unless it was fairly clear that there would be a rapid and substantial lifting of the ban. It is fairly clear that there will not be such a lifting of the ban, because the other member states do not want that. As to the other justification for a selective cull, if there was a free-standing scientific reason for it, I might announce one. There might be in relation to maternal transmission, for example, if the evidence proves that there is such transmission, but at the moment it does not.

We are not walking away from the Florence agreement. The hon. Gentleman asked about the over-30-month scheme. He would have enjoyed my Bournemouth speech, because he would have heard me announce a further £16.6 million to clear the backlog. He will be extremely pleased to know that last week we slaughtered about 40,000 beasts under the over-30-month scheme. That is a large step towards achieving the 55,000 a week that we hope to reach fairly shortly.

Mr. John Bitten (North Shropshire)

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that many hon. Members fully appreciate the intractable nature of the problems? To enable the House the better to make an assessment, can he say what has been the reaction of our European Union partners, either explicitly or informally, to the findings of Professor Anderson and his Oxford team?

Mr. Hogg

They are still considering the significance of the findings. There is no substantial challenge to the central proposition that the disease will have been largely eradicated from the national herd by around the turn of the century. There will be some debate as to the extent of the tail past 2001, but the plain fact is that the disease is dying away from its high point of 36,500 confirmed cases in 1992. The figure last year was about 15,000, while this year we shall see about 8,000 cases. The numbers are falling by 40 per cent. year on year, so we are fairly confident about the 2001 date. However, there will be some dispute about the size of the tail.

Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)

I shall be interested to hear how the Minister justifies his statement that he is not walking away from the Florence agreement. How does he square his announcement this afternoon with that statement? Does he agree that the selective cull cannot start until the over-30-month cull has been completed? Will he give an assurance that he will take emergency powers to clear the OTM backlog unless it has been cleared by Christmas? How does this afternoon's announcement square with the possibility of getting a partial lifting of the export ban on the basis of regional and accredited herds?

Mr. Hogg

The hon. Gentleman will recall that the Florence agreement explicitly stated that proposals should be considered in the light of the most up-to-date scientific and objective criteria, and we are invoking that. He will have heard me tell the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang) that last week we succeeded in slaughtering just short of 40,000 cattle under the 30-month scheme. I intend to increase the weekly slaughter to about 55,000, and I very much hope that we shall clear the backlog by the end of the year.

We are working on the concept of certified herds, which will be a scheme involving herds that one could plausibly describe as having had no association with BSE—the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) will forgive me for using shorthand here—of which the beef assurance scheme is one sub-set, and we are in contact with the Commission about that. The schemes are general in their application in the United Kingdom, although it may well be that some parts of the United Kingdom—especially with regard to the certified herds scheme—will find it easier to satisfy the criteria sooner than others.

Mr. Michael Alison (Selby)

In his helpful letter to colleagues on 23 September, my right hon. and learned Friend referred to his recognition of the fact that the specialist beef industry had been hard hit in the past six months. He went on to state that a £60 million cash injection was to be made available under the less-favoured areas scheme. Will he bear it in mind that the disease hits indiscriminately the less-favoured and better-favoured areas? The vale of York has been particularly hard hit, and needs the kind of support that is being provided to the less-favoured areas. In saying that, I represent the views not only of my constituents, but of my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway), who cannot be with us this afternoon.

Mr. Hogg

My right hon. Friend is entirely right. He will forgive me if I remind the House about the package of £109 million that I announced in July which is general in its application. He touched on the £60 million for HLCAs, and he will forgive me if I refer again to the £29 million that I announced at Bournemouth, which again is general in its application. As I also mentioned at Bournemouth, there are discussions within the EU about the nature and shape of a future beef support package. We shall make a judgment on whether there are further national steps that we can take when we have seen the outcome of those discussions.

Mr. Martyn Jones (Clwyd, South-West)

The Minister has had more than three months to negotiate a timetable for the lifting of the ban, but he is no further forward. Is it not time that someone else had a try?

Mr. Hogg

The hon. Gentleman is not right to say that I am no further forward. There is a recognition that there may be scope for movement in respect of certified herds in the beef assurance scheme, but the plain truth is that there is an unwillingness on the part of a number of member states—for example, Germany—to lift the ban rapidly and substantially. The reason for that is the concern that EU Agriculture Ministers feel about demand in their countries, and their political anxieties about the reaction of their farming constituents to lifting the ban. That is clearly an obstacle to a rapid and substantial lifting of the ban. It should not be, but it is and the House needs to face that fact.

Sir Jim Spicer (West Dorset)

My right hon. and learned Friend is right, but is it not true that the Commission is being fair and impartial in examining the scientific evidence, whereas all the other member states— particularly Germany—are determined that they will not lift the ban until BSE is eradicated in this country, whatever we do? If that ban is to remain in place until 2001 plus—probably 2002, 2003 or 2004—why on earth are people suggesting that we should go down the road of a massive additional slaughter, with nothing to show for it?

Mr. Hogg

My hon. Friend puts the argument clearly. As to our relations with the Commission, we have worked closely with it, and our working relations with the Commissioner and his officials are good. It is true that a number of member states have proved pretty obdurate. I am not as pessimistic as my hon. Friend about the date when the ban will be lifted. I have already mentioned certified herds, so I shall not repeat that. If confidence in beef were restored in EU member states, those states might be willing to make more rapid progress than seems likely at the moment.

Sir James Molyneaux (Lagan Valley)

Does the Minister accept that the case for the exclusion of Northern Ireland from the ban rests not on territorial or political considerations, but on the uniquely high standard of animal health and the traceability even of individual animals? Will he bear that very much in mind when he is considering those further options?

Mr. Hogg

The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. There have been under 2,000 confirmed cases of BSE in the Province—I am using figures off the cuff, so I might be marginally wrong, but I think that there have been about 1,700. I think that there have been 46 cases this year—again, that figure is off the cuff—which is very low. Northern Ireland has a much better traceability scheme than the rest of the United Kingdom. That is a reflection of its computer-based movement-recording system. The concept of certified herds was worked out with Northern Ireland very much in mind. It is not specific to Northern Ireland in the sense that it excludes any other part of the United Kingdom, but I fancy that Northern Ireland will find it easier to satisfy the criteria.

Sir Hector Monro (Dumfries)

I appreciate the excellent work that my right hon. and learned Friend and his colleagues in the four countries are doing. Does he appreciate that the day-to-day complaints that one gets on farms concern the 30-month scheme? Despite the excellent figures that he has given, which show an improvement in the past week or two, will he try to speed things up even more? With winter approaching, cattle now have to come in and that is costing farmers a great deal of additional money while the value is dropping.

Mr. Hogg

My right hon. Friend is right. I am conscious that the farming industry and right hon. and hon. Members are particularly concerned about the backlog. That is why I announced the £16.6 million last Tuesday, which we shall use to take up cold storage facilities of various kinds. Last week, we were a few score short of 40,000 killed, which is a huge improvement on what we have been averaging. I hope that we shall get the weekly cull rate up to 55,000. If we can, and if we can sustain it, I hope that we shall clear the backlog by around Christmas or the end of the year.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)

The Minister has repeatedly stated that our European partners are stopping us selling our meat in Europe and arguing that the ban should not be lifted. If that is the case, why does he not stand before a committee of European Members of Parliament? They have asked him to give evidence to such a committee, so that he can reassure them. Is the real reason why he will not meet them and give evidence the fact that he has something to hide? Is not the truth that in so far as the whole market for beef throughout the Community has been destroyed, the Minister should be prepared to give evidence directly?

Mr. Hogg

That is an interesting question, because it tells us something about the Labour party's attitude to the relationship of Ministers to the House and to the European Union. Let me state clearly to whom I am accountable: I am accountable to this House and to the British electorate and this is the only place to which I am accountable. In furtherance of that accountability, I have given evidence to a joint meeting of the Health and Agriculture Select Committees and I have appeared in this place many times to answer questions, today being an example. However, I was not aware that I was accountable to the European Parliament.

Sir John Cope (Northavon)

My right hon. and learned Friend's statement is welcome in the circumstances, for the reasons given by my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Sir J. Spicer), but the acceleration of the existing cull is the immediate problem. On acceleration, will he give special attention to the south-west where, as far as I can see from the figures, we are further behind than are most parts of the country? The problem is made more difficult by the reduction in the price offered for animals sent for slaughter in that way.

Mr. Hogg

My right hon. Friend will recall that I had a very spirited meeting in the south-west some two weeks ago. What we need to do—and we shall be in a better position to do it with the registration scheme—is to identify the areas of greatest pressure. When we have identified them—and I am quite sure that the south-west will be one—it will be possible to give greater emphasis to those areas in the course of making rendering and slaughtering facilities available.

Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth)

While some areas may suffer more pressure than others, does the Minister accept that the smaller beef farmers in many places face real and urgent crises? I spent several hours on Saturday with a small beef farmer in my constituency. He cannot wait until Christmas if he is to survive. European Ministers may be looking after their farmers, but can we have some guarantee that small beef farmers in Britain will survive the next few months?

Mr. Hogg

The hon. Gentleman is right to focus on the small specialist beef producer who does not have any other products and does not run a mixed farm. That is the point behind his observation, and it is perfectly true. We took account of that to some degree when we targeted the last £29 million, which was part of the July tranche. He will also remember the July package and the various other measures that we have outlined. We have a further £29 million to spend, which I announced on Tuesday last. We shall certainly discuss with the industry how best to give assistance to beef producers. I am conscious of his point, and I shall take account of it in the course of the negotiations within the European Council.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend bear it in mind that small farmers simply cannot bear the cost of feeding their cattle off the fields? As the acceleration of the scheme is what matters most, he should consider the incineration of carcases in the open, because the bottleneck with the Tenderers is insupportable. There would be much public sympathy and understanding for that position, in view of our experience with foot-and-mouth disease.

Mr. Hogg

My hon. Friend is right to emphasise the importance of clearing the backlog. That is wholly correct. I hope that he will accept that we are doing our utmost to get that done. On open field incineration, I am bound to say that I am extraordinarily unenthusiastic about it. There is a range of legal and environmental problems—I suspect that we would be taken to court if we tried it—but my real objection is different. I ask myself what the effect would be on consumer confidence in beef if we were to burn hundreds of thousands of carcases in the fields, which presumably would be shown on television. I very much doubt that that is in the interests of the farming industry.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)

May I remind the Minister that there are only two abattoirs in Wales that are certified for the purposes of the cull and which serve the whole country? At present, only a trickle of animals is going through. One of the abattoirs is now importing animals from Scotland for slaughter, thereby leaving Welsh farmers with nowhere to take their animals. May I ask the Minister's Department to intervene as soon as possible in that argument, to ensure that Welsh farmers have fair play?

Mr. Hogg

I do not want to deal with the specific points raised by that particular problem, but the hon. Gentleman has correctly highlighted some of the problems that have arisen in Wales. We have been able to address those matters, but the registration will give us a clearer view and will enable us to decide whether further action is justified.

Mr. Richard Alexander (Newark)

I should like to give a particularly warm welcome to my right hon. and learned Friend's decision not to kill perfectly healthy young cattle unnecessarily. Is he aware that abattoir capacity for the over-30-month scheme is not being allocated fairly over the whole country? Is he aware that Newark cattle market, for example, is particularly affected? If the OTM scheme is to be accepted, it must be dealt with fairly across the country and people must feel that all is being done for them as fairly as possible.

Mr. Hogg

We try to allocate fairly. Our overriding objective is to clear the backlog. There is a certain amount of rough justice because we are trying to maximise throughput. That is why we have been able to kill 40,000 cattle a week, as we achieved to all intents and purposes last week. The substantially increased throughput will go a long way to meeting the anxiety of my hon. Friend's constituents. I hope that we shall clear the backlog by the end of the year. We shall certainly strive strenuously to achieve that.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

I find it difficult to reconcile the Minister's remarks with the reality in my constituency. It is clear that the existing cull will not be cleared by the end of the year. It may not be cleared by March. There are already problems with incineration and with renderers, and impossible situations have arisen with far more carcases than anyone can deal with at the moment. The farming community has a legitimate complaint against the Minister for incompetence. Worse than that, the vets in my area are not now able to deal with sick or injured animals. Unless the Minister takes urgent action, the chaos will continue. The sooner he hands over to someone who knows what he is doing, the better.

Mr. Hogg

I am not as pessimistic as the hon. Lady on any of the points that she made. She has overlooked my announcement last week of £16.6 million, to enable us to increase the slaughter throughput substantially. I am glad to say, as I have mentioned several times already, that we have increased the throughput to 40,000 a week. The hon. Lady's conclusions are therefore mistaken.

Casualties are an issue of concern. If the hon. Lady would care to discuss it further with my Department—

Mrs. Dunwoody


Mr. Hogg

Again. The hon. Lady is never backward. My colleagues will be happy to discuss the issue further, because we want to address the specific problems that have been identified by right hon. and hon. Members.

Mr. David Harris (St. Ives)

While I appreciate the steps already taken by the Government and the huge sums already earmarked to deal with the horrendous situation, is my right hon. and learned Friend aware of the dire situation here and now in the south-west, particularly the far end of Cornwall? Will he listen to the representations that I have made and those made by my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Coe) to increase the abattoir capacity in that part of Cornwall? If he does not do that, he will have to reconsider having to resort to open-air burning of carcases, even though one appreciates that that would cause difficulties and bad publicity.

Mr. Hogg

My right hon. and hon. Friends have taken account of what my hon. Friend has said about the backlog in the south-west. Points made by him and other colleagues caused us to conclude that a further injection of public money—£16.6 million—was justified to clear the backlog. I am grateful for the advice that he has given us on that. I remain cautious about incineration in the fields. I do not want to advocate such a policy, because it would be damaging for the reputation of beef in Britain.

Mr. Nick Ainger (Pembroke)

Is the Minister aware that one reason why his colleague the Secretary of State for Wales is not with him on the Front Bench may be that on two occasions today he has been barricaded in at his appointment by angry west Wales farmers and has had to be rescued by the Dyfed-Powys police helicopter? Perhaps the Secretary of State for Wales now appreciates the anger—particularly in Wales, but presumably throughout the farming community—at the Government's inaction, particularly over the cull programme. Can he give us an assurance today on the current regulation operated by the Intervention Board that prevents former abattoirs—slaughterhouses—with European Union approval from being used for the current cull programme? I have a letter from his colleague the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Evans), stating that those abattoirs cannot be brought back into the scheme because they are not currently operating. That is utter nonsense, but unfortunately it illustrates only too well the Government's incompetence in handling the programme.

Mr. Hogg

The hon. Gentleman is just mouthing words and has clearly not been paying attention to what I have been saying in my reply to the private notice question. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales is extremely aware of the difficulties in Wales and has been active in meeting the requirements and demands of the farming community there. It was partly because of those demands, along with representations made by my hon. Friends and others, that I announced a substantial package last week, which included the £16.6 million to clear the backlog and the additional £29 million to meet the beef producers' requirements.

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

We shall now move on to the business statement.