HC Deb 22 December 1997 vol 303 cc677-99

5 pm

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Dr. John Cunningham)

With permission, Madam Speaker, I wish to make a statement on the beef industry and on BSE and its consequences, but first I repeat my earlier apology to you and to Members on both sides of the House for the problem that occurred with the computers in my office earlier today, which necessitated the postponement of the statement. I recognise that that postponement has not been convenient for right hon. and hon. Members, and I give my unreserved apology for that happening.

Many UK beef producers face exceptional difficulties including closed export markets, the need to adjust to BSE-related controls and low prices.

The House will be aware that livestock producers have demonstrated at ports and elsewhere over recent weeks. Some demonstrations have involved interference with trade and, in one case, the destruction of a consignment. Such action will not be tolerated here.

The Government have already committed very large sums to supporting the beef industry. All told, some £2 billion was paid in 1996–97, and we expect to spend some £1.4 billion in 1997–98. These are very large sums indeed. They cannot be maintained indefinitely.

There is over-supply of beef throughout Europe, and a long-term decline in consumption of beef everywhere. The Government are convinced of the need for substantial restructuring of the European industry. The European Commission also recognises that restructuring is vital, and has proposed radical changes to the EU beef regime in the framework of Agenda 2000. The Government strongly agree and believe that the restructuring needs to start now. In the interests of consumers, taxpayers, the environment and not least farmers themselves, we must reform the beef industry so that it becomes economically and environmentally sustainable.

Our long-term aim should be to reduce the scale of the subsidy to producers. That is what we shall continue to argue for in Brussels. As BSE is eliminated from the UK cattle herd, the current very high levels of taxpayers' support will also inevitably be wound down.

In future, there will be fewer producers but a more viable beef industry in the UK and Europe generally. It is essential for UK producers to plan now on the basis that major changes will come about. In the long run, such structural change will be beneficial for the industry and for the economy as a whole. The Government are committed to bringing it about as quickly as possible.

The Government therefore now intend to open early consultations with the farming industry to achieve the restructuring that is essential. In that context, we shall explore whether the EU' s early retirement scheme and other EU structural measures can play a part in achieving the Government's objectives in the longer term.

Also with a view to restructuring, the Commission has proposed as part of Agenda 2000 that consideration be given to the overlap between less-favoured areas and areas of high nature value, and to the scope for transforming the related support scheme—which in the UK, is delivered via hill livestock compensatory allowances—into an instrument to maintain and to promote low-input farming.

The Government support the Commission's efforts to replace HLCAs, which are production-linked payments, with instruments better designed to deliver environmental benefits. The Government intend to review the existing HLCA scheme with those objectives in mind.

While restructuring is necessary and desirable, it should occur as a result of careful, rational decisions by those concerned. Present circumstances are not conducive to such a process. Producers are under intense pressure, and any restructuring brought about now might not be well founded. Accordingly, there is a strong case for exceptional, one-off help. That will give producers time to prepare for the future, but I must emphasise that those payments are exceptional and one off.

Subject to consultation with the European Commission, I therefore propose to utilise £60 million for the beef sector from the EU compensation available to offset the effects of sterling green rate revaluations; it will be distributed mostly via extra payments for suckler cows. Most of the benefit will go to hill farmers. The payments are 100 per cent. EU funded, although such payments are subject to the Fontainebleau mechanism.

I also propose to increase hill livestock compensatory allowances by £25 million for 1998 only, the increase to be divided equally between beef and sheep. About 25 per cent. of the payments are funded by the EU, but that is also subject to the Fontainebleau mechanism. By any test, £85 million of additional support is substantial.

Let me reiterate the Government's aim for agriculture policy. It is to change fundamentally the narrow producer focus of the present common agriculture policy, to decouple support from production, to work for sustainable farming and to give consumers, taxpayers and the environment greater priority.

I turn now to even more serious matters. As the House knows all too well, BSE has had the gravest human consequences. The scientific data we now have provide convincing evidence that the agent that causes BSE is the same as that which causes the new variant of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. That dreadful disease has already cost the lives of more than 20 people, most of them young adults. The Government feel the deepest sympathy with their families. Naturally they want to know how their loved ones came to contract a fatal disease. BSE has also threatened the livelihood of thousands of people throughout the farming and food industries; it has cost the taxpayer huge sums; and it has caused considerable difficulties in our international relations. It has been, literally, a disaster.

The Government agree with those who have been arguing that a national human tragedy of this importance, taken together with the economic and other disruption that has ensued, requires a full, independent assessment. We have a responsibility to the country to take a reasoned look at how circumstances developed in this disastrous manner.

Events since the parliamentary statements on 20 March 1997, Official Report, columns 716–17, have been, and continue to be, the subject of extensive political and media attention, and have to some extent obscured the initial chain of developments through which BSE emerged. For all those reasons, the Government have decided to institute an inquiry into the emergence of bovine spongiform encephalopathy and new-variant Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease. The Government have accordingly asked Lord Justice Phillips to carry out a non-statutory inquiry into the emergence and identification of BSE and new-variant CJD and the action taken in response to it up to 20 March 1996, and to report within a year. Its terms of reference are: To establish and review the history of the emergence and identification of BSE and new-variant CJD in the United Kingdom and of the action taken in response to it up to 20 March 1996; to reach conclusions on the adequacy of that response, taking account of the state of knowledge at the time; and to report on these matters by 31 December 1998 to the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the Secretary of State for Health and the Secretaries of State for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. I am setting out fuller details of the inquiry in a separate written answer today. Let me emphasise again that the aim is not to reopen old wounds. [Laughter.] One would hardly have thought that laughter was appropriate to such a serious matter. Nor is the aim to make party political capital. As I have said, it is to discover the facts, to take a reasoned look at how matters came to pass and to learn the necessary lessons for the future.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has written to the Leader of the Opposition inviting his support for the inquiry, and to Lord Callaghan, Baroness Thatcher and the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) about the release of papers of their Administrations to the inquiry.

Following long-standing conventions on access to papers of a previous Administration, present Ministers will play no part in the presentation of evidence by their officials to the inquiry. The Government would, in any case, not expect to comment on the course of the inquiry until we have received Lord Justice Phillips's report. The Government will answer to the House in the normal way for any action following that report.

The Government intend to work closely with the beef industry to resolve its difficulties. The Government also seek the co-operation of all those involved in the circumstances surrounding the emergence of BSE and new-variant CJD to ensure that we learn all the lessons we can from the disaster. We owe it to the families involved, to the public at large and to our future generations. I commend this statement to the House.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde)

May I first thank you, Madam Speaker, for your courtesy in affording us the suspension of the House while we considered the statement that eventually arrived from the Minister? While we all have sympathy for computer problems, we should not forget that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will be running the new computerised cattle database.

Given that we have been talking about today's statement for the best part of a week and that British agriculture has been in a state of crisis for much longer than that, I find it quite staggering that the Minister could not have produced the statement before his computers failed. Perhaps he should not have moved them to his sumptuous premises in Smith square.

The first question we must ask ourselves is whether the statement was worth waiting for. For anyone who knows or understands anything about British agriculture, the short answer is an unreserved no. By its third page, the statement has painted a chilling picture for the British beef industry. Does the Minister acknowledge that it is now policy to cut the size of the British beef industry—just when many farmers are scraping and scrimping to stay in it?

The statement says that the Minister wishes to bring forward the rundown of the industry as quickly as possible. Does he agree that, in relation to Europe, he wants us to do it unilaterally? Does he further agree that his proposal to allow the United Kingdom industry to restructure Europe's beef industry is effectively exporting agricultural jobs to mainland Europe? Is not his package of the 90th review—the early retirement scheme—the first example of Labour's work-to-welfare programme?

I was a third of the way through the statement before I found any mention of help for the United Kingdom agricultural sector and beef in particular. It is a travesty for the Minister to tell the House that he is giving £85 million to the beef and sheep industry. At the last agriculture Question Time, the Minister gave me a straightforward no. He said that there would be no more money for agriculture because there was no more money. So where is the money coming from?

The Minister says that he is giving £85 million to the industry. How can that be? Does he agree that, with higher meat hygiene charges of £44 million, the loss in income of the over-30-months scheme of £29 million, the extra expense of £19 million on the cattle passport scheme and the lack of full compensation for the reduced HLCAs of £35 million, he is taking £127 million from the sectors that he claims to be helping? In addition, does he not acknowledge that, during his stewardship of the Ministry, he has had to announce a £1.8 billion fall in receipts to farmers because of the drop in prices? Has he not tried to put before the House a travesty of the true position? Does he agree that the package he has just announced is providing no help to any sector of British agriculture other than sheep and cattle?

Does the Minister accept that many farmers heeded his words in good faith when he said that they should come to the House and lobby in a democratic fashion to put their views? Does he not realise that their hopes were raised as a result of that exercise and that now there will be despair tonight in the farmhouses and the countryside at his announcement? Does that not show that the Government care little for rural Britain?

I now turn to the inquiry that the Minister has announced today. Let me say on behalf of the Opposition that, if it helps to find better ways to protect the public health, we welcome it. Of course we will give the inquiry every assistance. Does the Minister acknowledge, however, that policy to date has been founded on the best scientific advice available, and that £56 million has already been spent on research?

When did the Minister last meet Lord Justice Phillips to discuss the way in which the inquiry will operate? In the light of his almost unbelievable statement that the Government are not out to make political capital out of the matter—he must think that we were born yesterday—will he place in the House of Commons the details of the instructions to Lord Justice Phillips as to the way in which the inquiry is to be conducted?

In his statement, the Minister talked about assessors. Can he tell us who those assessors are? How will they be chosen? Does he accept that the people who may have to provide scientific back-up to the inquiry are the current experts in setting policy in BSE? How much will the inquiry cost? Will the Minister assure me that he will provide the necessary practical, scientific, secretarial and financial back-up and support to those past Ministers, officials and others who may be called to give evidence to the inquiry, so that their evidence can be properly given? Will he tell us exactly who in Whitehall will have sight of the documents if it will not be Ministers?

Is not the real reason for the statement the fact that it will provide a public smokescreen for the Minister's failures to help British agriculture? Does the Minister not realise that he has given an open goal to those in Europe who do not want the beef ban lifted? Does he not realise that they will say to him, "If you are so concerned about the handling of the BSE inquiry that you now need a separate inquiry on the matter, we had better wait until the results of that are known before we even consider raising the ban"? He has failed to convince the European standing veterinary committee to impose the specified risk materials ban. His statement is an open goal and a gift to those who would keep the beef ban in place.

Does the Minister realise that the inquiry has been proposed to act as a smokescreen for his inability to enforce the ban on meat coming into this country without SRMs being removed and his total inability to impose his ban on beef on the bone? Does he not realise that the statement and inquiry will give the British beef industry—an industry weakened by his Government's actions—up to two years of uncertainty, and will do nothing to reinforce the messages of confidence that he has been trying to put out about the safety of British beef?

This is a miserable little statement. It has been by a Minister who is exhibiting Scrooge-like tendencies towards British agriculture. It will do nothing to enhance the safety of British beef. Farmers will see it for what it is. He has lost out to the Treasury and failed British agriculture.

Dr. Cunningham

At the end of that long, convoluted series of questions, it is difficult to know exactly what the right hon. Gentleman's position is either on public expenditure or the future of the beef industry—or, indeed, the inquiry itself. He seemed to want it both ways. He is, after all, a right hon. Member who was both a Minister in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and a Treasury Minister when the events were unfolding.

On the right hon. Member's first comment about the crisis in the British beef industry, we all know very well the origins of that crisis. We all know who was in charge in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food when the crisis developed. It is manifestly absurd to suggest that the problems faced by our beef farmers have all occurred in the past seven months.

As for the right hon. Gentleman's disdainful reference to £85 million-worth of additional expenditure and support for farmers, we shall see whether the farming industry and the rural communities share his view. I will tell him something. How can those former occupants of the Treasury Bench be so disdainful about public expenditure when, with this additional money, we shall be spending on one sector and one product—beef—between £1.4 billion and £1.5 billion in the current financial year? That is a measure of the support for the beef industry.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to my failure—I think he said that is what it was—to take action to prevent beef coming into the country that had not had SRMs removed. That decision will take effect from 1 January. It has been widely welcomed by farmers and Farmers Weekly, whose leader column said: Dr. Cunningham deserves our support for defending the best interests of UK consumers and farmers. On the position of the right hon. Gentleman and, for that matter, the shadow Cabinet on the decision on selling beef on the bone, is he aware that his right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), a Minister of Agriculture in the Conservative Government, said on the radio that, if he had had the same advice as me, he would have taken the same decision? Is the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) aware that his right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), another member of the shadow Cabinet, said something similar?

What does the right hon. Member for Fylde think about the MAFF press release which says: SEAC and the Chief Medical Officer have said that any risk is minuscule. The Government's policy of extreme caution in relation to BSE requires us to ensure that the tissues in which infectivity might potentially occur are removed from the human and animal food chain"? That is a MAFF press release, put out by his right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard), the shadow Leader of the House—another member of the shadow Cabinet—when she was Minister of Agriculture. Who is speaking for the Opposition on safety in food? I take it that, in spite of the chief medical officer's comments that no one should knowingly allow infectivity involving BSE into the human food chain, the right hon. Member for Fylde begs to know better. That is his apparent position.

The right hon. Member dismissed a reference to the possibility of an early retirement scheme for farmers. Why he did that, I do not know. I can tell him that there are plenty of people—and organizations—in agriculture who are interested in sitting down to discuss it with us. That is another thing about which he and his colleagues did absolutely nothing during 18 years of government.

The right hon. Member began by saying that he would support the inquiry into BSE and new-variant CJD, and then went on to disparage it at length, saying that, among other things, it would deter people in Europe from lifting the beef ban. He has not a shred of evidence for saying that, of course—not a scintilla. We have made much more progress in dealing with our colleagues in Europe than he and his colleagues ever did, and we shall continue to do so.

As for the right hon. Member's remarks about political bias, does he really expect us to believe that Lord Justice Phillips would accept the appointment of conducting this important inquiry in the public interest on anything other than totally independent grounds?

Mr. Jack

Give us some details.

Dr. Cunningham

I have given more details this afternoon in a written answer. I have given the terms of reference in my statement. There will be two special assessors—one for scientific matters and one for administration. We shall discuss their appointment with Lord Justice Phillips before announcing their names. The reality is that, if the Opposition had nothing to hide, they would welcome an inquiry into the issues, as I believe the public will.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West)

Will the Minister acknowledge—given the financial context of his statement and the fact that the Liberal Democrats have been critical of the Labour party before, during and since the election for its unwillingness to break the Conservative constraints set by the previous Chancellor of the Exchequer—that the farming industry will be totally bemused to hear the Conservatives, of all people, complaining that their constraints have been broken? After all, the Conservatives have previously demanded that those constraints be broken in the context of supporting the beef industry.

Taken together with the fact that the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman spent longer talking about the inquiry than he did about the details of the package, the Conservatives' reaction tells us all we need to know about their credibility and priorities. That is the parliamentary and political point.

Will the Minister also acknowledge that some decisions relevant to the beef sector of the industry are entirely the remit of his Administration, not least the changes to the over-30-months scheme and the additional costs that will be imposed next year by passports and the like? Given the total package, in the context of green pound revaluation and the horrendous difficulties that the strength of sterling is causing, large sections of the agricultural community will reach the political and practical conclusion that—try though he has—his proposals will be too little, too late for many of our hill farmers and rural communities.

On the question of the Commission and the second part of the Minister's statement, I seek further reassurance about the political attitudes at Brussels level. Some people at that level will take any opportunity they can to hold back further progress in the lifting of the beef ban. Has the Minister discussed with the Commission the terms or the timetable of the committee of inquiry in advance of his statement today? Without doubt, some of our past problems with Brussels have been because announcements have been made here, and the first that the Commission has heard of them was over the news tapes and not directly from Ministers.

I make a final general plea to the Minister. Will he recognise that we cannot restructure in isolation or without due regard to the longer-term aims of Agenda 2000 and the reform of the common agricultural policy? He has rightly identified the need for greater emphasis on conservation and countryside management generally. Will he also recognise that the most fundamental requirement to make that a reality is the people of the countryside? If the net effect of the statement is that more of the sons and daughters of smaller-scale, less well-heeled family farmers do not anticipate being able to follow their fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers in the rural communities that they have served so well, that will negate and make impossible the very priority that the Minister and the EU Commissioner have set out for CAP reform. The crisis of morale will remain, despite the statement, and we will have to return to some of those issues, as a matter of urgency, in the new year.

Dr. Cunningham

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for a more measured and more informed contribution than that from the right hon. Member for Fylde. The hon. Gentleman pointed out that the right hon. Gentleman spent longer trying to damn the inquiry than referring to the situation of the beef industry; that proves that he did not have a lot to say.

I am aware that costs that will be introduced at the beginning of the next financial year will have a significant impact on the industry, but we must face the reality that we cannot go on simply using more and more taxpayers' money in the way that we have done. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the reluctance of some young people to follow their parents into farming. I see that among hill farmers in my constituency.

It is principally because—as has been evidenced in the 28 years that I have represented them—their position in the farming income league table has not changed. Hill farmers were at the bottom of the league when I was elected to the House almost 28 years ago, and they are still there. The inescapable conclusion is that the policies that have been followed have not made it easier, more profitable or more economically advantageous to pursue hill farming. That is why young people choose other and better careers for themselves.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned agri-monetary compensation. If I had taken advantage of the total agri-monetary compensation available to the Government for the beef sector, it would have amounted to £77 million. The package that I have announced exceeds that figure, as the hon. Gentleman knows. He said that the package is too little, too late. Time will be the judge of that. My guess is that most reasonable people in agriculture will welcome the statement as representing significant help for them.

As for the hon. Gentleman's question about the views of Brussels, I share his concern that the political attitudes of some people—and not veterinary or medical science, or the manifest safety of British beef—have led to the decisions that have been made. As I have said many times, that is unacceptable to the Government, and it was for that reason, among others, that I made it clear to my colleagues last week that I was not prepared to delay any further the introduction of the specified risk materials controls on imports of beef to this country. For those reasons, and because of our consistent pressure, I hope and expect that the Commission will produce a proposal in January, to be considered in Brussels, for the partial lifting of the ban.

Mr. Martyn Jones (Clwyd, South)

Will my right hon. Friend agree that farmers in less-favoured areas, especially in Wales, will be helped greatly by his announcement? Will he also confirm that he will press his European partners to ensure that the ban on British beef will be lifted in the near future, because that is the real answer for our farming industry in the long term?

Dr. Cunningham

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. It is absurd for the Conservative party to pretend that giving an industrial sector such as the beef sector another £85 million will somehow damage its interests or will not be generally welcomed by people in the industry. [Interruption.] We hear it again: too little, too late. We are proposing to give the beef industry more money in this financial year than the previous Conservative Government did. [Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Fylde says from a sedentary position, "Less than you have taken away." That is also wrong, because most of the announcements that we have made will not take effect until the beginning of the next financial year. I can promise my hon. Friend's constituents, and farmers generally, that we shall continue to work assiduously and constructively with our European colleagues for a lifting of the ban.

Mr. John Swinney (North Tayside)

May I welcome the Minister's statement in relation to the BSE inquiry, but seek his reassurance that the inquiry will not be a further obstacle to the lifting of the beef ban during the deliberations that take place over the next 12 months?

Secondly, the Minister has made clear the Government's commitment to some form of decommissioning scheme and restructuring within the beef sector. The details he has given so far have a rather indiscriminate feel about them. What reassurance can he give to quality sectors of the market—such as the Scottish quality beef herds—that they will be protected from an indiscriminate cut in production?

Finally, does the right hon. Gentleman understand that there are declining incomes and revenues in almost all sectors of the farming industry, and that the assistance is targeted at a proportion of the industry? There will still be enormous unease in areas of the farming industry where incomes have substantially fallen in recent months and years, as there is nothing on offer in the package today.

Dr. Cunningham

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his supportive comments about the decision to institute a public inquiry, and I am sure that that decision will be widely welcomed.

I emphasise that we want to have a dialogue with the industry about an early retirement scheme, which will be voluntary—after all, we cannot make it compulsory. Britain has never taken advantage of the European Union availability of early retirement schemes. Ten of our partner countries have such schemes; we and four others do not. Rather like their failure to make an early start on the decommissioning of fishing vessels—which they should have done, and could have done, but failed to do—the previous Administration failed to take any action on providing an early retirement scheme for farmers. I want to have a dialogue about that with farmers. If we can agree the general outline of a scheme and have it approved by Brussels, it will be available—but, I emphasise, on a voluntary basis.

The hon. Gentleman asked me about other sectors of the farming industry. We have said from the outset that we recognised that the problems were most severe in the beef sector and that if we were to produce additional resources, we would target them at that sector. That is what we have done.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle)

Is the Minister aware that the families of those people—young people, in the main—who died from the new-variant CJD will be pleased with the announcement of the inquiry today? When I see Opposition Members laughing at that announcement—I have a constituent who died from CJD—I think that they have their priorities wrong. The inquiry will be public, and we need to get to the truth. Will the inquiry have the power to subpoena witnesses?

Dr. Cunningham

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I hope that his prediction is right, and that the families— and people well beyond the families—who have lost loved ones as a result of a cruel degenerative disease for which there is no cure will welcome the decision.

The answer to my hon. Friend's question on the subpoenaing of witnesses is no. This will be a non-statutory inquiry, rather similar to the Scott inquiry in that regard. As then, the Government will watch the proceedings carefully. We will take advice from Lord Justice Phillips, and if he believes that some extra powers are needed, we will be ready to consider them.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

On the question of the inquiry, does the Minister accept that I and those of my colleagues who had ministerial responsibility look forward to the report of the inquiry, believing as we do that—at least for the most part—all the necessary decisions were fully and promptly taken? Does he further accept the real anxiety that the mere fact of holding the inquiry will make the lifting of the ban more difficult to obtain?

On the question of compensation, does the right hon. Gentleman understand the anxiety in the farming industry as to the modesty of this package? Will he accept that there will be considerable concern at what he has said about restructuring, which, in effect, amounts to a reduction in UK production capacity which is not matched by a reduction in capacities in the EU? Does he also accept that there will be concern that he has not done the things that lay particularly within his competence—to reduce, at least in part, the charges he has imposed, and to lift the weight cap on the over-30-months scheme?

Dr. Cunningham

I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for his comments about the inquiry. He referred to the modesty of the package. We live in strange times when £85 million of additional taxpayers' money is described as modest. His comment reflects on the colossal sums and the scale of the finance currently going into the beef sector. Set beside the £1.4 billion provided for the beef sector, most people would say that £85 million was modest. However, set beside the calls on the Government's public expenditure and the need for constraint—and compared with the level of support given to other industrial sectors—£85 million remains a substantial sum. People outside will be astonished to hear the Conservative party saying that it thinks that £85 million of their money can be produced just like that and dismissed as not sufficient, as he and his right hon. and hon. Friends have dismissed it.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman asked about restructuring. It is not the Government's position that we want to see the restructuring of only the UK beef sector. We have made it clear consistently that we want an urgent restructuring of the beef sector in Europe as a whole. One consequence of the ban is that Britain is taking far more of its share of the burden of beef; the over-30-months scheme and the calf processing scheme are clear examples of that. We want to see the beef sector in Europe as a whole restructured. I thought that the Conservative party supported the proposals for reform in Agenda 2000. I thought that that was Tory party policy; it is certainly the policy of the National Farmers Union.

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries)

I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement, which will be welcomed in many rural communities, not only because of the additional finance for the industry but because of the establishment of the inquiry.

Earlier today in my constituency, a local meat packing company—Lockerbie Meat Packers—announced that it was to go into receivership with the immediate loss of some 71 jobs, with another 24 jobs in jeopardy. I sincerely hope that it is my right hon. Friend's long-term aim to remove the ban on beef exports. It is somewhat ironic that, only last month, this Government sat with other EU states at a summit to discuss the importance of jobs within the EU. I hope that my right hon. Friend will push as hard as possible to ensure that the ban is lifted.

Dr. Cunningham

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is right to draw attention to the continuing consequences of the ban on the exports of British beef. Sadly, he has experienced some of those consequences in his constituency, and I very much share his sorrow that people are losing their jobs. That is exactly why it is important for us to have constructive and open dialogue with our European colleagues about the nature of our rigorous approach to safeguarding British beef and the strength of our case for lifting the ban. If our European colleagues and partners had any idea that we were withholding information, that would be far more likely to prevent us from getting the ban lifted than our open and constructive attitude to all the issues.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon)

Does the Minister understand the sheer despair of farmers at the frozen immobility of the Government in the past two months, which has made the incomes crisis worse? Does he realise that he already has an early redundancy scheme—it is known as bankruptcy? Does he acknowledge the sheer haemorrhage of farmers of all sorts off the land, particularly in areas such as his constituency and mine where they are essential to its upkeep? When he next talks about environmental improvements and the role of the environment, will he add that farmers are necessary for the environment?

Dr. Cunningham

I am not sure what the right hon. Gentleman's question was—if, indeed, he asked one at all. Yes, I understand what is going on in those areas, as he does, because we represent similar constituencies and he spoke at the Dispatch Box as an Agriculture Minister, with some success.

I do not dispute it when the right hon. Gentleman says that there is a crisis, but I dispute the fact that the crisis has arisen only since 1 May. Being a reasonable man, he must know that the problems, particularly those faced by beef farmers, are very long-standing and deep-seated. The crisis has been gathering momentum for some years. Sadly, the end of it is not in sight. That is the reality of where we are, and I can tell the right hon. Gentleman and his right hon. Friends, as well as the farmers, that the way out of the crisis is not simply by throwing more and more public money at it. There have to be better ways than that.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud)

In welcoming my right hon. Friend's statement and the two aspects that he has dwelt on, may I ask for an assurance? One thing that all farmers are asking for from 1 January is effective labelling of all foreign imports and, more particularly, some dealings not merely with supermarkets, which we understand have their own difficulties but are coming into order, but with the catering industry, so that it plays fair and there is a level playing field.

Dr. Cunningham

My hon. Friend the Minister of State and I continue to work for the level playing field that my hon. Friend asks for on behalf of farmers. I know that they want that, and that is the reason for the implementation of the specified risk materials decision from 1 January. That is also why the previous Administration rightly took action to ban imports of over-30-months beef. Farmers keep telling us that they believe that over-30-months beef is coming into Britain, but we have no evidence of that. If they have tangible evidence, we will immediately take action to prosecute the people involved. As for a beef labelling scheme, we expect to have such a scheme in place by the spring of next year.

Finally, next year we will also be publishing for the first time the hygiene assessment scores of abattoirs and meat cutting plants so that everyone—consumers, butchers and wholesalers—will know exactly the quality of hygiene provision in our plants. That, too, should give British beef a positive boost.

I emphasise that British beef is the safest beef produced anywhere in Europe. We continue to take action to ensure that that is so, and I would encourage anyone who buys beef, either as an individual consumer or an organisation, to try wherever and whenever possible to buy British beef.

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire)

May I seek clarification from the Minister on one point? In an earlier answer, he said that about £77 million was available for the beef sector in agri-monetary compensation. In evidence to the Select Committee on Agriculture, he said that £980 million was available in total across all four agricultural sectors for compensation. Can he say how that breaks down among the four sectors?

Why did the Minister's list of objectives for the reform of the common agricultural policy omit any reference to creating a competitive UK agriculture industry? Does he understand that that fuels suspicions among the farming community that he is happy to see a disproportionate amount of the burden from restructuring falling on the British beef producer rather than throughout Europe as a whole?

Finally, what assurances has the right hon. Gentleman sought from the European Commission and from other member states that they will not use the inquiry as an excuse to delay any aspect of the lifting of the beef export ban?

Dr. Cunningham

There is no answer to the final question because, as the hon. Gentleman knows and as I said earlier, I suspect that some people are more motivated by political or economic considerations than by considerations of human health or veterinary science. We continue to resist that approach wherever and whenever possible.

The hon. Gentleman began by asking me about the total available for agri-monetary compensation. He is right. The total is £980 million. Of course, that would be spread over three years, and up to half of it would have to come from the United Kingdom alone, but 50 per cent. could qualify for some EU support. Within that total and those restrictions, the total available at present in support for the beef sector is £77 million. I should be happy to come back to his Select Committee to go into that in greater detail, as I understand that it is to investigate the matter.

I said in my statement—the right hon. Member for Fylde questioned this—that we had to have economically as well as environmentally sustainable agriculture. That is one of our objectives, again not merely for the United Kingdom but for reform of the CAP. Those words were contained in the final declaration from the Council of Agriculture Ministers which went to the European summit in Luxembourg. Now we are awaiting specific, detailed proposals to give effect to the legislative changes that we anticipate from Commissioner Fischler in the beef sector, in the dairy sector—I still hope—and in the cereals sector, too.

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Order. The statement has been running for nearly an hour and there are many hon. Members on their feet. I shall let it run for a little longer, but I appeal to hon. Members for brisk questions, and I think that the Minister will oblige with brisk answers. We must get through as quickly as possible.

Mr. Barry Jones (Alyn and Deeside)

In the absence of a Welsh Office statement—I understand the reason for that—may I ask my right hon. Friend about the implications for my constituency, our beef farmers and the amounts of money involved?

I welcome my right hon. Friend's decision to have a public inquiry. May I tell him about Miss Vicky Rimmer, a young woman who fell victim to a CJD or CJD-type disease, and who died only last month? Her family will welcome his decision to have an inquiry.

Dr. Cunningham

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support for the decision to hold an inquiry. I was making the statement on behalf of my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Scotland, for Wales and for Northern Ireland. I think—I am speaking from memory here—that Wales will benefit by about 25 per cent. of the hill livestock compensatory allowance and about 10 per cent. of the agri-monetary compensation; Welsh farmers will benefit considerably from the statement.

Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater)

The Minister said that everyone knew the cause of BSE. Will he confirm that he will not rule out Lord Justice Phillips's investigation into alternative possible causes that might be advanced? Does he recognise that the test of his statement will be whether it gives confidence again to the industry, which is facing a very serious crisis? He rightly said that he is not responsible for many of the background problems that affect the beef industry, but what is different under his Administration is the continuing and sustained level of the pound. There have been five increases in interest rates in the past six months and there are reports that because of increasing wage. rates there is likely to be a further increase in interest rates. Does he recognise that that is a particularly grave problem at present and that it is affecting all markets? Against that background, does he recognise that, sadly, it does not look as though his statement will give the confidence that is needed?

Dr. Cunningham

I disagree with the right hon. Gentleman. I did not say that we knew the cause of BSE; I said that we knew that there was a direct link between BSE and the new variant of CJD. There is scientific evidence for that. Of course it will be for Lord Justice Phillips to decide who should give evidence and the way in which it should be taken. That procedure is entirely a matter for him, and neither I nor any of my ministerial colleagues will intervene in that in any way, as I made clear in my statement and I am happy to make clear again to the right hon. Gentleman and the House.

I accept the point about the test of time being what happens in the market. This morning, I was unhappy to learn when listening to "Farming Today", as no doubt were many right hon. and hon. Members, of the collapse in lamb prices, for example, and of the reality that we are producing more lamb than the market can take. I listened with care to Robert Forster giving the reasons. It is about consumer choice, not only here but abroad. That is another important factor.

Questions about the strength of sterling and interest rate policy are more properly addressed to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

Will the inquiry consider the work of Harash Narang, who was developing a live test for BSE when the resources were taken away by the previous Government? If that research had been successful, it could have saved the country millions, indeed billions, of pounds.

Dr. Cunningham

I have been in correspondence with Dr. Narang, and the Ministry is co-operating with him in a collaborative venture. I can respond as I did to the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King): if Dr. Narang wants to give evidence to the inquiry, he should approach Lord Justice Phillips in the normal way. The address of the inquiry secretariat is published in the written answer that I have given today.

Mr. William Thompson (West Tyrone)

I welcome the crumbs that have fallen to the farmers from the Exchequer's table, but does the Minister recognise that a section of the farming industry, the beef finishers, will not be directly affected by the money? They are the most severely affected people; does he intend to let them go to the wall? What effect will the package have in Northern Ireland?

Dr. Cunningham

Beef finishers should be among the people who benefit from the low cost of cattle in the market. We have directed this assistance—the hon. Gentleman called it crumbs, but he may wish to reconsider, as £85 million is hardly crumbs—to the primary beef producers, and it will benefit them significantly.

Farmers in Northern Ireland will benefit, although I am sorry that I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman by exactly how much; perhaps I can drop him a note about that.

Mr. Nick Ainger (West Carmarthen and South Pembrokeshire)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement and particularly the way in which he has managed to target the help towards those sectors that need it most. Will he confirm that farmers in Wales will receive approximately £12 million as a result of his announcement? When can farmers expect to receive that additional help? As he knows, they face very severe financial circumstances. Does he intend to enforce rigorously the controls on imported EU beef and to ensure that they are applied not only at the ports but at the packing plants where much of the processing is done?

Dr. Cunningham

I think that my hon. Friend is right, and that farmers in Wales will benefit by about £12 million. That is based on calculations on the back of an envelope, and I hope that no one will nail my hide to the wall on the figure if it is slightly out. No doubt hon. Members think that they have better reasons for doing that in any case.

When will the money be paid? As soon as is administratively possible, consistent with getting my decision approved by the Commission in Brussels. My hon. Friend asked whether we would be rigorous about enforcing the controls; the answer is yes. Indeed, we now insist that the controls be exercised before any meat arrives in the UK in the first place.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton)

Has the Minister had an opportunity to consider the longer-term effect on those who look after livestock on the uplands and in the less-favoured areas? He has announced £25 million for them today, but he will know that, if they go out of business or take early retirement, that will have a considerable effect on both the rural economy and the local environment in sparsely populated areas. It is only the keeping of livestock and the careful grazing of them on the uplands that maintains the British countryside in its present state. If he has not done that exercise, will he do so urgently?

Dr. Cunningham

The hon. Lady makes an important point, and we have indeed considered that. She is right to say that hill livestock compensatory allowances are targeted particularly on those in the less-favoured areas. It is also important to recognise that the total of £60 million in agri-monetary compensation is targeted at suckler herds, so some will go to people farming in the upland areas.

Mr. Hugh Bayley (City of York)

I have in my hand an article from March 1989—nearly nine years ago—in which I warned of the danger of the infective agent jumping species from cattle to humans; at that time, the Conservative party accused me of scaremongering. Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the factors that contributed to the lack of trust in British beef in Europe was the previous Government's lack of candour and openness, and that the decision to hold an open inquiry will help to rebuild the confidence in British beef that we all want?

Dr. Cunningham

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The important thing in all such matters is to be absolutely candid and transparent about the problems that we face and how we are to resolve them. The Government are determined to eradicate BSE completely from the national herd. The House, and the United Kingdom as a whole, have nothing to fear from an inquiry into these events in the terms in which we have set it up. We are more open and more candid about these matters than anyone else; it is important that we should remain so, because that is the basis of the strength of our case.

Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow)

Given that the Minister has decided to channel this wholly inadequate help to the beleaguered beef farmers through the medium of the HLCAs and the suckler cow premium scheme, can he assure the House that the premium will now be brought up to the maximum permitted by the European Union; and if not, why not?

Dr. Cunningham

That is just a simple demand for more money, and it comes ill from the hon. Gentleman, who, when he was on the Government Benches, used always to be critical of public expenditure.

Mr. David Hanson (Delyn)

May I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement; for the extra money that is now due to Wales; and for his action since 1 January on a level playing field and on labelling? Can he assure us that the inquiry into the BSE crisis will include an inquiry into the payments made to date to farmers, because there is grave concern in my constituency that much of the money that has been put into the industry has found its way not into farmers' pockets but into those of middlemen?

Dr. Cunningham

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, but I think that the final part of his question goes beyond the terms of reference of the inquiry to be held by Lord Justice Phillips.

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale)

Does the Minister not accept that the £25 million that he has announced in HLCA additions would have had more impact if he had announced it to the House two months ago, in the normal course of events, and if the Government had not decided not to pay the £60 million suckler cow addition that the previous Government paid at this time last year? Because of the procrastination, with the Minister going round cap in hand to the Treasury, confidence has been eroded. It is all very well for him to say that he wants to support the British beef industry, but his decision to wind down the industry has caused more and more British beef farmers to go out of production. We will have a smaller effort in beef, and more will be imported.

Dr. Cunningham

I accept none of that. The hon. Gentleman well knows that his party, when in government, made no provision whatever for the continuation the following year of the special one-off payment of £60 million. The fact is that I am providing £85 million; in case he cannot work it out, that is £25 million more.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

Has not BSE been our most poisonous inheritance from the Conservative Government? I return to a point made earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) about those who attend at the non-statutory inquiry presided over by Lord Justice Phillips. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that there will be no impediment to civil servants attending? He mentioned former Prime Ministers. Is it simply a matter of courtesy to ask them to open up the papers relating to their Administrations, or do the Government need their permission to gain full access to all official papers?

Dr. Cunningham

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's comments and I am happy to tell him that we will place no impediment in the path of anyone. Civil servants from all Departments will co-operate fully with the inquiry. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has written, as a matter of courtesy, to former Prime Ministers in the period concerned. Papers will be available. Current Ministers will have no involvement in the preparation or provision of those papers, or in giving evidence at the inquiry.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

Liberal Democrat Members warmly welcome the judicial inquiry, having pressed for it for 12 months without reaction from the previous Government. Does not the inquiry have two purposes? First, it must learn from mistakes so that we can avoid repetition of what the Minister correctly described as total disaster. Is it not ironic that local government councillors and officers who make drastic mistakes can be surcharged but Ministers escape scot free? Is not the second purpose to ensure that everyone in this country, in Brussels and on the continent knows that there will be no further cover-up, and that we can be assured that British beef, in the Minister's words, is truly not only the safest in the world but demonstrably the safest?

Dr. Cunningham

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his measured and constructive response. Yes, the principal purpose is to learn from the mistakes that were made—probably genuinely. We must learn the lessons of what has been a human tragedy and a financial disaster. It has been a disaster for everyone associated with our beef industry.

On personal surcharge, the proper view—I had better say that it is my personal view—is that it is inappropriate for people in elected office at any level to be liable to personal surcharge. I have always thought that; I am on the record on that. The people in current difficulties must face the consequences of the law the way it is.

It is important that it is demonstrable beyond any doubt that we have disclosed everything and have not been involved in the withholding of any advice, information or scientific knowledge about how these disastrous events developed. I believe that an inquiry is a further clear demonstration of our commitment to that approach.

Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth)

May I welcome my right hon. Friend's announcement on the inquiry into BSE and the support for the suckler cow sector, which will benefit farmers in my constituency? Frustration will continue among those farmers when they see imported beef from countries such as Namibia and Botswana being sold in British supermarkets under misleading labels. If it is possible for consumers to know the country of origin of every bottle of wine that they buy, could they not know the country of origin of every joint of meat?

Dr. Cunningham

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his welcome for my statement, respect both in of the inquiry and of the considerable support for beef farmers. We will introduce a beef labelling scheme from spring next year. While we cannot discriminate against lawful trade—I emphasise that we have legal obligations—it is nevertheless my experience that consumers want to know more and more about the provenance of the food they buy, whether it is animal or vegetable products. We are pressing ahead on that basis. We will encourage supermarkets and food chains to do the same, so that people have all the knowledge that they need about the origin of the food and food products that they buy.

Sir Peter Emery (East Devon)

Does the right hon. Gentleman understand the tragedy of the west country in the figures published by Exeter university on the reduction of income—a fall of 85 per cent. for lowland livestock and of 59 per cent. for specialist areas? It goes on with every sector. Does he understand the feeling in the west country that the ban on beef on the bone is a coup de grace? His medical advisers stated that there was a million to one chance of infection. With that information, why cannot the consumer choose whether he wants his Sunday joint to be on the bone or not? Why should we nanny the consumer? We do not do it with cigarette smoking; why should we do it with beef?

Dr. Cunningham

I try very hard to understand the problems faced by beef producers. We shall go on doing so. The actions that I have described today and others that I have taken are all aimed at helping our beef industry. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food published its own agreed analysis of farm incomes on 1 December. The right hon. Gentleman can examine a copy in the Library. I think that the figures are different from the Exeter university ones, which I have not seen. They show very serious falls in income. There is no dispute on that general point.

As for what the right hon. Gentleman said about taking beef off the bone, my wife did a little research with our family butcher this week. He said that he sold six or seven T-bones a week. We are talking about 5 per cent. of beef; 95 per cent. is already sold off the bone. Nothing in what I have decided is going to harm anyone. Let me remind him of the views of the chief medical officer and of the shadow Leader of the House when she was Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The CMO serves me, as well as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health, and said: It would be matter of grave concern if any tissues that have been shown to transmit BSE were knowingly allowed to remain in the human food chain. This is a real risk, not a theoretical risk. In June 1994, the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) said that she had to act with extreme caution in relation to BSE … to ensure that the tissues in which infectivity might potentially occur are removed from the human … food chain."—[Official Report, 30 June 1994; Vol. 245, c. 654.] That was the position of the Government supported by the right hon. Member for East Devon (Sir P. Emery). Our position is the same.

Mr. Cynog Dafis (Ceredigion)

Will the Minister note that in many European countries, the early retirement scheme is linked to a scheme for encouraging young entrants to the industry so that it becomes not only a restructuring but a revitalising process? If he would consider that, I think that there would be some appreciation of the scheme's introduction.

The Minister has made a great deal of environmental sustainability, but is not the production of beef from grass a model of environmental sustainability compared with the intensive production systems that bring us our poultry meat and much of our pig meat? Is it not time to consider the whole meat sector?

I welcome the Minister's remarks on imports, but would it not be appropriate for the Government to institute a comprehensive investigation—an inquiry, indeed—into imports so that people's minds can be put to rest and they can really understand what is going on and what might be done about it?

Dr. Cunningham

I repeat that the proposal on the early retirement scheme is for discussion; it has not been decided yet. We must try to agree a scheme, first, with farmers and their representatives and, then, with the Commission in Brussels. I am willing to listen to all the arguments about what should be in such a scheme.

I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman about the extensive production of beef and low-input farming, to which I referred in my statement.

As for imports, I believe that we now have the strongest checks and safeguards on imports of beef of any European country. There is always room for improvement, and if I can see practical ways in which to introduce better safeguards, I will consider them. As I have already said, however, it was the previous Administration who made it illegal to import over-30-months beef into Britain. We have built on that approach, and we are now looking at stringent safeguards on all beef imported into this country. If there are others things that we can do which would not fall foul of our obligations in the European Union, I would be willing to consider them.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)

In the first half of the Minister's statement, he described the plight of British farmers, and his solution was partly to allow for the structural reform of the industry so that more and more farmers will disappear. He then went on to describe the inquiry process and linked that section of his statement with his comments on structural reform by saying that the inquiry is "even more serious" than that reform. Would he not agree that there is nothing more serious than the plight of British farmers at the moment? The British farmer has always provided the backbone of British society, but the Government are setting out to remove it.

Dr. Cunningham

On reflection, the hon. Gentleman may regret that intervention. I said that that inquiry is more serious because CJD has cost the lives of more than 20 young people.

Mr. Gray

Twenty-five farmers have committed suicide.

Dr. Cunningham

The hon. Gentleman is not doing his own or his party's case any good by persisting with that. Many more people may die as a consequences of that awful disease, and we need to treat that threat extremely seriously. That is what the Government are doing. I am sorry that we cannot carry the hon. Gentleman and his party with us.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)

Can the Phillips inquiry be prevailed on to find out why the previous Government refused for four consecutive years to invest in a cattle identification scheme—an animal tracking centre—which was critical in the Florence agreement and is one of the principal measures that would ensure the lifting of the beef ban?

Dr. Cunningham

I emphasise that the inquiry to be conducted by Lord Justice Phillips will be politically impartial. The nature of the proceedings will be determined by him. As for my hon. Friend's comments about a cattle traceability scheme, in that and other regards I agree that the previous Administration's approach was woefully inadequate and slow, as was their approach to the selective cull. I am pleased to say that the cattle traceability scheme will be located in my hon. Friend's constituency of Workington. It will create more than 260 jobs and it will be operational in the early part of next year.

In respect of the selective cull, when we took over, the previous Administration had identified and culled 2,000 cattle. In the seven months that we have been in government, we have increased that total to more than 50,000. That represents the difference in approach.

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet)

Last week, I tabled a priority written question asking how much the United Kingdom had saved since the Fontainebleau agreement in payments to the European Union. As is the custom with the Government, that priority question has not been answered, but I understand that the figure is about £21.5 billion. That money was saved, at least in part, at the expense of the farmers' insurance policy under the agri-monetary compensation scheme. Instead of giving farmers 10 per cent. of what is, in fact, their own money, why does the Minister not give them what they need—5 per cent. of what we have saved?

Dr. Cunningham

That is just another plea for more and more public expenditure, with no account taken of how that money would be provided. What the hon. Gentleman says is patently absurd.

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale)

Can the Minister assure the House that the £85 million to which he has referred is entirely additional to his Department's existing public expenditure survey line and that there will be no parallel reductions in his PES line elsewhere either in this year or in future years?

Dr. Cunningham

This is additional funding.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough)

Given the catastrophic fall in farm incomes, which the Minister has accepted, and the fact that, as the Minister would agree, most farmers are concerned not so much with global amounts as with how much is available to them at their farm gate to get them through the next year, has he conducted any research on how much money, on average, will be available to individual lowland beef farmers, given that most of his support will go to hill farmers?

If the right hon. Gentleman is unable to answer that question today, will he accept that many might well come to conclusion that the sum for each individual farm will be very modest indeed?

Dr. Cunningham

Speaking from memory, I think that the answer is about 30 per cent. The hon. Gentleman must bear in mind the fact that a significant proportion of the aid will go to those with suckler herds in the lowlands as well as in less-favoured areas.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

Is the Minister able to understand why my farmers in Ribble Valley will be very angry at his statement? In one part of that statement, he said that farmers will get a one-off payment of £85 million, but, next year, they will face lifetime extra costs that will exceed that amount. Does he understand that, next year, they will face increased costs for which that money will not compensate? Does he appreciate that all the farming industry has been hit sideways, including the ancillary industries that rely on farming? The rural economy has had the wind knocked out of its sails because of his announcement today. The bleak prospect in 1998 is of many farmers going out of business involuntarily because the banks will call in their loans.

Dr. Cunningham

I am astonished that the hon. Gentleman apparently takes no account of the fact that the problems with the rural communities and the rural economy, as well with agriculture, are in large measure due to the 18 years of Conservative rule. That was made manifest by the electors on 1 May when they drove out Conservative Members of Parliament from so many rural areas because they believed that those Members' policies had failed them.

What I understand about beef, agriculture or any industry in the United Kingdom economy is that, if it can be sustained only by more and more subsidy, it has no long-term prospect of viability. That is not the way forward.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough)

Will the Minister share with me the disappointment of my constituency farmers, especially beef farmers in the south-eastern quarter of Leicestershire, that, although until now he had done nothing to apply to Europe for agri-monetary compensation—today we have been offered just a small proportion of the total available—up until now our farmers have had to pay through their own taxation for the agri-monetary compensation paid to the farmers of other European Union countries? Can the right hon. Gentleman tell us why he has applied for such a little amount on this occasion?

Dr. Cunningham

Yes. I have already said that a total of £77 million was available for the beef sector. I am applying for £60 million of it, added to which will be £25 million of hill livestock compensatory allowances. The hon. and learned Gentleman asked why we, as taxpayers, contribute to the funding of the European Union. The answer is that we are members of it.

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Thank you. That is the end of the statement. We must get back to the main business. I call—

Mr. Evans

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I have already made my views known about the enormous cost of calling Parliament—

Madam Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman asked a lengthy question on the statement and I hope that he is not trying to extend the time given to it. It went on for an hour and a half and many of his colleagues have been disappointed because I was unable to call them. I hope that his point of order is one with which I can deal.

Mr. Evans

Yes. I hope so. The House of Commons is sitting for one day this week, obviously at an enormous cost—perhaps £50,000 in Members' travelling expenses for calling them back. A large amount of fresh food has been brought into the House today which may not be put to use in the next two weeks. Will you use your good guidance to ensure that no food is thrown away and that any left over is given to hostels for the homeless or other people?

Madam Speaker

That was barely a point of order for me. We have a superb organisation in the House, and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that it has not brought in too much food.