HC Deb 02 July 1997 vol 297 cc270-8 1.30 pm
Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones (Ynys Môn)

I welcome the opportunity to debate this important subject. I thank the Minister in advance for responding to this debate and to the previous one. I know that he is having a heavy day in the Chamber; I am sure that when he eventually returns to Gwydyr house he will insist on being served a good lunch of Welsh lamb or Welsh beef—a decent recompense for his hard day's work in the Chamber.

There is a crisis facing the livestock sector in Wales. I informed the Minister's office that I would concentrate today on the crisis in the beef sector, especially in Wales—although I understand that the issue is also important in the other countries of Britain.

I need not remind the House of the crisis that the industry has faced for the past 15 months. The difficulties that followed the announcement by the then Secretary of State for Health on 20 March last year have been severe for the industry. That statement will be etched on the memory of farmers for a long time to come. I shall not recount the events since then in any detail—merely say that I have attended more mass meetings of farmers who are worried about the crisis than I have at any time in the past 20 years or so.

Most farmers were under the impression that once the over-30-months scheme was nearing a conclusion the crisis would probably be over. They thought that confidence and prices would start to recover, but things are worse now than they were at the height of the crisis. Prices in the marketplace are lower and farmers are losing a considerable amount of money on the cattle that they sell for slaughter. Such losses cannot be sustained for much longer. Interest rates have been historically low, but there are signs that they will rise in the next 12 months, thus adding to the pressure on farm incomes.

I accept that the fall in beef prices is due to a combination of factors. First, there is the revaluation of the green pound and the failure of the previous Government to ask for European Union money to alleviate the consequences. I hope that the new Government will make positive moves to rectify that. Secondly, there is the importation of beef from EU and third countries—beef that does not meet the high hygiene standards in the UK imposed as a result of the BSE crisis. Thirdly, the market has yet to recover the full confidence that it enjoyed before the BSE crisis erupted.

Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that British and Welsh beef is now the safest that can be bought anywhere in the world?

Mr. Jones

That is a good point. I shall reiterate it to the Government with some force before the end of this short debate.

The decision by the current Government to cut compensation for beef farmers entering the over-30-months scheme has caused considerable resentment in the industry. The Government need to recognise—whether we like it or not—that the compensation price affects the market price. The great danger that many farmers perceive is that the cut in the one will affect the other—the market price will fall even lower.

I acknowledge the considerable cost to the Exchequer resulting from the BSE crisis and I know that that cost has been revised upwards in recent days, but I hope that the Minister will recognise the importance of agriculture to the rural economy. We need to underpin that economy; anything that affects beef producers is bound to have a deleterious effect on the rural economy.

Farmers recently received a significant boost when McDonald's said that it would reintroduce British beef to its fast food outlets. That showed that confidence is returning to the industry. It is thus all the more surprising that many public bodies in Wales and the rest of the United Kingdom buy the vast bulk of their beef from abroad. When I looked into it, I was astounded by the scale of this purchasing problem.

I have a letter from the chief executive of the Naval Bases and Supply Agency stating that the task of procuring food for the armed forces is contracted to the Navy, Army and Air Force Institute. I am told that some British beef is purchased, but that the Armed Forces' requirement is mainly for frozen products and the majority of beef joints are sourced on cost grounds, from Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, New Zealand and Australia. So none of this frozen beef is bought in Wales or anywhere else in the UK.

I have also inquired about the purchasing policy of health trusts in Wales. Many of them are located in prime beef-producing areas. My office was able to contact eight trusts; of those that could supply me with information, none had a policy that ensured that local beef was purchased as a matter of course—although some local beef was used. They all said that they now had to ensure value for money. The trusts that gave me information included the Bridgend and District NHS trust, the Carmarthen and District NHS trust, the Clwydian Community Care NHS trust, the Derwen NHS trust, and the Glan Clwyd District General Hospital trust. Some of them did not even know where their meat came from.

I understand that most, if not all, of the trusts in Wales receive their supplies under standard contracts negotiated by Welsh Health Supplies, which is a business unit of the Welsh Health Common Services Authority, or WHCSA. The NHS in Wales ceased purchasing carcase meat some time ago, moving to prejointed frozen cuts. Under the current arrangements, those frozen cuts of beef, lamb and pork come from South America, New Zealand and the home market respectively. That may be good news for Welsh pig farmers, although there are not many of them, but it is very bad news for the vast majority of Welsh farmers who are lamb and beef producers.

The good news, however, is that WHCSA is reviewing the policy and the balance between frozen and fresh meat and asking for more flexibility to be applied to contracts. On behalf of Welsh beef and lamb producers, I ask the Minister to urge the authority to introduce these proposals at an early date.

I have also made some inquiries with local education authorities in Wales about their school menus. The Minister will be aware of the report in the Western Mail in March of this year which stated that most schools in Wales did not serve beef to children. At the time, 13 of 22 LEAs were operating policies that totally or partly excluded locally produced beef from school menus. Of those 13, seven operated a total ban on beef, one gave head teachers discretion to use imported beef and five excluded beef from primary schools. My office contacted some of those LEAs and found that, in Cardiff, beef is on the menu only in secondary schools. Even there, there is no policy of buying local beef and LEAs follow what is described as the value-for-money rule.

In Denbighshire, an area noted for quality agricultural produce, beef is banned in primary schools and in secondary schools, where beef is offered and there is a choice, there is no policy to buy local beef. All meat is bought through a purchasing consortium.

In Rhondda Cynon Taff, all the beef used is imported, although I am pleased to say that a review of that policy is taking place.

The purchasing policy of Ynys Môn and Gwynedd county councils specifies the use of locally killed beef in schools.

Needless to say, the farming unions in Wales want the Welsh Office to encourage public bodies not only to purchase beef, but to buy locally produced meat. They and I understand that no one can be forced to buy or eat Welsh meat, but the Government can use their considerable authority to encourage its consumption.

In a letter to me, the Farmers Union of Wales asks that the Government positively discriminate in favour of fresh, home-produced meat, the value and quality of which are second to none. It would also help if the Government advocated the specification of fresh as opposed to frozen products in public body contracts. Such a move would be greatly welcomed.

The NFU has told me that, following the decision by McDonald's Restaurants to obtain local beef, it is renewing its strong invitation to public bodies to source their beef from British supplies.

The industry generally welcomed the stance taken by the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food when he made it clear that he expected imports from the European Union to meet the standards on the removal of specified bovine material that must be met by British beef and that, if they do not, orders banning imports will be laid before the House. He repeated that warning on the Floor of the House during the recent debate on the common agricultural policy.

Given that that is the Government's position, that—as the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik) said—beef is safer than it has ever been and that we now have stringent hygiene standards, I believe it is right to expect Ministers to encourage its consumption now. It is ironic, is it not, that while statements in the House and elsewhere are made about the nutritional quality of locally produced beef, hospital patients, members of the armed forces and schoolchildren are eating beef from every country under the sun except their own. It is ironic, therefore, that the Government are not bringing pressure to bear on public bodies.

I believe that we are entitled to ask today for a clear statement from the Minister that all contracts entered into by public bodies for the purchase of meat be reviewed so that locally produced meat can be considered. That can be done quite easily by stating that they should consider fresh meat as well as, or instead of, frozen meat. That would give public bodies a clear signal that they should buy local beef.

There are encouraging signs from the WHCSA and local education authorities. I am asking the Minister to give a clear signal to those that are not moving in that direction to consider their contract sourcing policy. Will he encourage the local education authorities who still refuse to have beef on their menus to think again?

I feel that a bigger battle lies ahead with the purchasing policy of, for example, the armed forces. I made contact with the Ministry of Defence during the period in office of the previous Government; I have done so again, and there appears to have been no movement on their part. Will the Minister talk to his colleagues in the Ministry of Defence and at least ask them to review the position? The public pronouncements on the value and quality of our beef will ring a little hollow unless those organisations of which the Government have control start to change their purchasing policies.

I know that the Minister will have listened very carefully to my speech today. I hope that he can respond positively.

1.43 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Win Griffiths)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Ynys Môn (Mr. Jones) on successfully securing this Adjournment debate. I am pleased to have the chance to respond on the important issues that he has raised. They are near to the heart, mouth and stomachs of consumers, who want safe food, and of producers, who provide it. The issue is one of confidence. I am convinced that confidence is justified.

Let me set out our approach to dealing with the impact that BSE has had on the beef industry—especially confidence in British beef. Throughout the crisis, the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee has been a source of independent advice. It has advised on a range of precautionary measures to minimise the risk to human health. Scientists can never guarantee that there is no risk, but SEAC's chairman, Professor John Pattison, is on public record as saying: in any common usage of the word, beef is safe to eat". That is the starting point for the restoration of consumer confidence in beef.

Mr. Barry Jones (Alyn and Deeside)

The leaders of the NFU in Flintshire were very grateful to my hon. Friend for receiving their recent deputation. The worries continue. The leaders of the National Farmers' Union of Flintshire—Mr. Idris Roberts of Pwll farm in Treuddyn and the farmer who leads the NFU of Flintshire in Carreg y Llech, Mr. Terrig Morgan, also in Treuddyn village, say that they still have considerable worries and urge the Minister and the Government to continue to do everything possible to help their industry.

Mr. Griffiths

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I hope that what I have to say will be helpful and that other continuing negotiations will prove to be helpful.

The hon. Member for Ynys Môn mentioned the announcement made last week by McDonald's Restaurants that it was resuming use of British beef products in its United Kingdom outlets. I am very encouraged that that decision was taken as a direct response to the views of customers, and I believe that, last night, Burger King made a similar announcement.

In March 1996, directly after the announcement of a possible link between BSE and the new form of CJD, 70 per cent. of people surveyed by McDonald's Restaurants said that they would not buy British beef products. Now, however, there has been a complete reversal. A recent survey showed that 74 per cent. of people wanted McDonald's to sell British beef and it has followed customer preference. I am glad that Burger King has now done the same.

That is clear evidence that consumers' confidence in British beef is returning. Beef consumption as a whole is now only 3 per cent. below pre-crisis levels. In June, sales of beef in Wales were 42 per cent. greater than in the same period in 1996—the highest percentage increase in the United Kingdom.

I turn now to the issue of NHS trusts using British beef. Although NHS trusts are accountable to the Government, it is not our role to dictate what they should or should not do across a wide range of their responsibilities. Into that category falls the source of the beef provided to patients. Decisions about hospital meals are made by local management, in the light of central guidance.

Trusts in Wales as elsewhere, receive guidance on issues such as hygiene and dietary standards and are expected to provide patients with a choice of meals that respects their dietary needs. Information on CJD and BSE has also been sent to trusts, but the use or non-use of British beef has not been stipulated, and is not monitored centrally. However, I can tell the hon. Gentleman that I am receiving anecdotal evidence from trusts that they are reviewing that policy, and I hope that what is said in the Chamber today will give them confidence to make other moves.

The inclusion of beef on the menus of local authority schools is a matter for individual local authorities. They have been advised that there is no reason to withdraw beef from school menus, but they should continue to provide a choice of menu to accommodate different dietary and cultural preferences. I believe that beef can form a part of any well-balanced nutritional diet for our children, and I hope that local education authorities will take that view on board.

Before 20 March 1996, public bodies were under no obligation to restrict their beef supplies to those from Wales—or even from the United Kingdom generally. Indeed, the treaty a Rome prohibits public bodies from discriminating in favour of national interests. Consequently, Governments could not force public bodies to source their beef in Britain, even if they wished to do so. In any event, that should remain a matter for local discretion. Patients in hospitals, and school children and their parents are also consumers. Like McDonald's, trusts and schools that have stopped using British beef will use it again if that is what patients or parents and their children want.

Last summer, under the previous Administration, representations were made to the Ministry of Defence in a bid to reduce the armed forces dependency on imported beef. The MOD was supportive, but maintained that procurement of any goods should be on the basis of best value for money. The MOD purchases a limited amount of beef, but its decision to buy more imported beef is based on market conditions and suitable distribution services, rather than reaction to BSE. Perhaps the British beef industry should therefore speak to the MOD about how it might play a bigger part in supplying it.

The Government cannot force consumers, whether they be at home, in schools, in hospitals or in the armed forces, to buy and eat British beef.

Our role is to safeguard the public interest and to make sure that the public are aware of the facts so that they can make decisions for themselves. To that end, measures were, and continue to be put, in place to ensure the safety of public health. Cattle suspected of BSE are compulsorily slaughtered and their carcases destroyed. Healthy cattle more than 30 months old may not enter the human food chain—they are slaughtered separately and their remains destroyed.

Milk produced from cows suspected of having BSE may not be used for human consumption, despite the fact that infectivity has not been found in milk. Specified risk materials—the head, brain, spinal cord, tonsils and spleen from cattle over six months, and the thymus and intestines from cattle of any age—may not go into the human food chain.

Those measures are enforced by the Meat Hygiene Service, a Government agency. In addition, the State Veterinary Service makes unannounced audit visits to abattoirs to ensure that the controls are fully enforced.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

The Minister says that he will not dictate to public bodies that beef should be on the menu, but will he positively encourage them to put beef back on the menu?

Mr. Griffiths

I hope that my speech will be a signal of encouragement to public bodies in Wales and the rest of the United Kingdom.

The hon. Member for Ynys Môn will also be aware that the Commission last week announced that it would take action against member states, other than the UK, that fail to enforce adequately the ban of meat and bone materials in feed for ruminants. I welcome the recognition that UK controls are now the strictest in Europe.

I also welcome the Commission's publication of rules for removing risk materials from meat produced throughout the European Union. I very much hope that the Agriculture Council adopts that measure in the near future.

Mr. Richard Livsey (Brecon and Radnorshire)

Will the Minister assure us that if that is not accepted by the Agriculture Council, he will instruct authorities in Wales not to accept beef products from countries that refuse to follow those guidelines?

Mr. Griffiths

The hon. Member stopped me in my tracks; I was about to consider that very point. I am sure that he knows that the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, my right hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham), announced recently that we will apply the same controls to imported meat as we do to our own. This is not a ban on imports—the controls will apply in the United Kingdom—but it will reassure consumers that any beef that they eat here is produced with the same rigorous attention to safety.

We hope that those steps to restore confidence in British beef will be taken on board by the public at large. We know that the final step in restoring full confidence in British beef will be having the export ban lifted.

We have fulfilled the Florence pre-conditions and we now need recognition of the measures taken and sacrifices made. Lifting the ban will not be easy, particularly in the light of the negotiating failures of the last Administration, but we hope that this Government's constructive and positive approach to the Commission's ruling will pay dividends. We are, at this very moment, exploring with the Commission how we can best move forward.

We shall give a detailed technical response to the points made by the EU's scientific veterinary committee on our certified herd proposals very quickly. We recognise that consumers in all member states will be anxious to have full assurances in line with scientific assessment of the risk. At the same time, we will press for the ban's removal where those assurances can be given.

In addition, in order not only to restore the pre-crisis level of beef sales but to increase them, we need to make consumers more aware of the quality and versatility of the product. That can most effectively be done through efficient marketing and promotion activities. The Government are taking steps to promote beef and beef products.

The hon. Member for Ynys Môn will know that, in Wales, the body charged with undertaking that task on behalf of the Welsh food industry is Welsh Food Promotions Ltd., which is actively supported by the Welsh Office. In the past year, it has sponsored numerous promotional events, including the Welsh beef championships; promoted our beef at food events both at home and abroad; and is working with mainstream retailers to secure contracts for Welsh producers and processors. It also operates schemes such as the farm assured Welsh livestock scheme, with more than 3,000 members, to help give consumers confidence in the quality of Welsh beef.

I hope that Welsh beef farmers will also consider how they might come together, for example in co-operatives, to negotiate with supermarket chains and provide them with a ready supply of good-quality beef.

Mr. Cynog Dafis (Ceredigion)

Are not animal welfare and environmental sustainability also relevant to the marketing of both Welsh beef and Welsh lamb? Are not extremely high standards of animal welfare maintained in the production of Welsh beef and lamb?

Mr. Griffiths

Yes. The hon. Member makes a worthwhile point. We must bear in mind the fact that both beef and lamb farming have extensive and traditional methods of rearing animals, and people can be reassured of the humane way in which the animals are brought up and cared for.

The measures that the Government and by agencies such as Welsh Food Promotions Ltd. have taken will restore public confidence in beef. Indeed, the evidence shows that that is beginning to happen already. The Government can demonstrate clearly the safety of British beef. Once that has been accepted by our European partners, British beef will once again take its place as a product of the highest quality on international markets. The Government are also negotiating with theCommission to create the means by which that can be brought about. In the meantime, we are actively involved in helping the farming and food industries to promote British beef to the consumer as a quality product.

I can only hope that all those involved in purchasing, on behalf of the public, in public organisations such as NHS trusts, local government and Government Departments, will take heart from the fact that the Government are confident that British and Welsh beef is a quality product, produced under the most stringent public health and safety conditions, and that all consumers can purchase and eat it with confidence.

It being Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Sitting suspended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 10 (Wednesday sittings), till half-past Two o'clock.