HC Deb 17 December 1998 vol 322 cc1091-2
12. Mr. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South)

What steps he is taking to end the export ban on beef. [62996]

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Nick Brown)

The Commission decision providing for exports of deboned beef from the whole of the United Kingdom under the date-based export scheme—DBES—was adopted on 25 November. That was a major breakthrough reflecting months of dialogue within the European Commission and with our European partners.

We are now pressing ahead with arrangements to implement the scheme. We issued plans for the operation of the scheme on 14 December, seeking views from the industry. For hon. Members who are interested, I have placed a copy in the Library.

Mr. Chapman

The decision to lift the ban was indeed important and welcome, but it does not of itself put money into beef producers' pockets. In addition to the DBES, there is a need to restore confidence in overseas markets generally, and for our exporters to re-establish themselves in those markets. That will take time. What plans does my right hon. Friend have to help British beef producers re-establish themselves, and when does he expect substantial beef exports to take place?

Mr. Brown

My hon. Friend is right in his analysis of the situation. Officials in my Department and Ministers are working closely with representatives of the beef industry and in particular those who want to come into the date-based export scheme as suppliers or producers, to make sure that we get the scheme up and running as soon as possible. I anticipate that we will be able to start exporting deboned beef by the spring of next year. Markets will take time to grow, but it is a premium product for which we can find a place in international markets early on. The Government will stand behind producers and exporters to help them to regain market share.

Mr. William Thompson (West Tyrone)

How soon after the lifting of the ban on beef on the bone in the United Kingdom does the Minister expect it to be lifted in Europe, so that exports of such beef to Europe can begin?

Mr. Brown

The hon. Gentleman is speaking about two separate schemes. The ban in the United Kingdom is a domestic ban, which was put in place for consumer protection reasons. Discussions are going on in the European Union about Europe-wide specified risk material regulations. Separately, there will be continuing discussions with our partners about the export of boned, rather than deboned, beef. I am afraid that, because of the terms of the Florence agreement, an announcement on that matter is still some way away. I do not want to raise the hon. Gentleman's hopes by implying that it might be early.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire)

Further to the Minister's reply, there is a direct link. The new conditions require that meat companies dedicate whole abattoirs entirely to the export business. The most lucrative business before the ban was that of beef on the bone for whole roasts to Europe's highest-quality restaurants and meat distributors. I do not know of a single meat business that is prepared to commit itself to dedicate an entire abattoir until the beef-on-the-bone ban is lifted.

Mr. Brown

The hon. Gentleman is wrong. After discussions with the industry, we are certain that we shall be able to get producers and abattoir operators into the scheme so, under the terms of the agreement, a volume of deboned beef will be available for export. The hon. Gentleman's question goes wider than the answer that I have just given and criticises the initial terms of the Florence agreement. All that I can say on that is that it was made by his Government.