HC Deb 30 April 1998 vol 311 cc445-7
6. 6. Mr. Dennis Canavan (Falkirk, West)

What progress he is making on ending the export ban on British beef. [39113]

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

The European Union Agriculture Council agreed in March to allow exports from Northern Ireland to resume under the export certified herd scheme. The Commission is now preparing a proposal for a date-based export scheme, which would apply across the whole of the United Kingdom and permit the export of beef and beef products from animals born after 1 August 1996.

Mr. Canavan

Although I welcome the approval of the export certified herd scheme for Northern Ireland, has our presidency of the European Union led to any indication of exactly when the total ban on UK exports will be lifted? Once the new cattle traceability scheme has been introduced in September this year, can we expect the ban to be lifted before the end of the year?

Dr. Cunningham

I hope that the Commission, which is in charge of the timetable on this matter, will bring a proposal before the Standing Veterinary Committee of the European Commission next month. It will then be for that committee to determine whether the scheme is acceptable. If it decides that it is not, the matter may then come to the Council of Agriculture Ministers for a final decision. I assure my hon. Friend and the House that my ministerial colleagues, officials in the Ministry and I are making every possible effort to expedite those decisions. The cattle traceability scheme will be operational later this year. The important point about the date-based scheme is that it would apply to all animals throughout the United Kingdom born after 1 August 1996. However, existing restrictions, such as the over-30-months scheme and other schemes to safeguard the public, would remain in place, at least for the moment.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)

The Minister will recall that when we met him a few weeks ago, we pressed for a date-based scheme. To that extent, we welcome the progress that has been made. When the matter is considered in the Standing Veterinary Committee towards the end of May, will he know whether all our partners in Europe agree with that procedure? If that committee gives the go-ahead, will that mean that, by the autumn, the ban could be lifted?

Dr. Cunningham

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his comments. That is the accepted procedure and there can be no deviation from it. Whether every member state is happy with the proposal remains to be seen. If the scheme is approved, it will be the beginning of the end of the ban on exports of British beef.

Mr. Alan W. Williams (East Carmarthen and Dinefwr)

At Question Time yesterday, in reply to the hon. Member for North Tayside (Mr. Swinney), and at Question Time the previous Wednesday, the Prime Minister struck a note of cautious optimism. He said that there was a reasonable prospect of success at the May standing committee. Will my right hon. Friend throw a little more light on that?

Dr. Cunningham

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is right to be cautious, because it is difficult to predict the outcome as we have to convince a qualified majority of the member states of the European Union to support the scheme. We are doing everything we can to maximise that support. Like the Prime Minister, I am cautiously optimistic. In the meantime, we shall do everything possible to persuade our partners to support the scheme.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde)

In the past 12 months, whenever I have raised the issue of extra help for Britain's beef farmers, the Minister has chastised me for making such an overgenerous suggestion. He prays in aid the size of the public spending limits that he inherited. Will the right hon. Gentleman assist me and the House by telling us what the public spending limit was that he inherited, what the outturn was, and what his plans are for the current year?

Dr. Cunningham

Notwithstanding what we said when we came into office, we have provided an extra £155 million for the livestock industry.

Mr. Jack

The Minister does not know what public spending limit he inherited and cannot tell us what the outturn was. Let me help him. He should have spent £139 million more than he has done. His target for next year is an underspend of £46 million compared with the figures that he inherited. Does he agree that farmers will regard that as a rip-off, and will feel that the Ministry has failed in its duty to support fanning at such a difficult time? Will he reconsider spending for the current financial year and ensure that he spends up to the public spending limit that he inherited to make certain that the help we left for farmers reaches them?

Dr. Cunningham

That is total and absolute rubbish. The right hon. Gentleman is comparing estimates. From the little that we can glean from his almost incoherent presentation of the facts, he is referring to Intervention Board expenditure, not to MAFF's budget. That is further evidence of his failure to grasp the reality of what is going on.

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