HC Deb 17 February 1998 vol 306 cc876-8
2. Mr. Russell Brown

When he next intends to meet farmers and the Scottish National Farmers Union to discuss the agriculture industry. [28069]

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Donald Dewar)

I met leaders of the National Farmers Union of Scotland on 9 February. No date has yet been set for a subsequent meeting. My noble Friend Lord Sewel meets Scottish NFU leaders regularly.

Mr. Brown

I thank my right hon. Friend for his reply. Farmers throughout Scotland will be looking forward to continual contact with him and Lord Sewel. May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to the difficulties that the sheep export business may face in the coming months because we have to remove specified risk materials? When carcases are split, they do not travel well to the export market and French business could be turned away.

Mr. Dewar

We recognise the severe difficulties that face the beef and sheep industries. That is why both have been targeted in the recently announced £85 million increase in support payments. I recognise the problem caused by the removal of specified risk material and we have discussed it with the NFU. All European member countries will face that problem from 1 April; we are anxious to find the best way forward. Above all, we must have regard to safety and that is the basis on which the move has been introduced.

Mr. Charles Kennedy

Does the Secretary of State, also, welcome the road-to-Damascus conversion—having been briefed by his local NFU branch—indicated by the question of the hon. Member for Dumfries (Mr. Brown), given his intemperate remarks about the state of Scottish agriculture at the Scottish Grand Committee? Will the right hon. Gentleman acknowledge that the problem is widespread throughout the country and that the alarm felt in particular by hill and upland farmers will have been accentuated as a result of Lord Sewel's television interview on Saturday night, in which he clearly stated that he expected there to be fewer people in hill and upland farming in the future? That interview has set the alarm bells ringing in many of our constituencies. I have requested a meeting with Lord Sewel on behalf of my hon. Friends to discuss that problem further. Will the right hon. Gentleman give his support for an early meeting if at all possible?

Mr. Dewar

I may be wrong, but I did not see the hon. Gentleman at the agriculture debate to which he referred. I am relieved to learn that he reads the Hansard reports so avidly. I am not inclined to take lessons in intemperate speech from the hon. Gentleman—he does it rather well. On the substantive point, of course there is concern. A few minutes ago, I referred to the £85 million additional support package announced recently by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, which is strongly supported by the Scottish Office. We are conscious of the difficulties of getting the reform and the structural change in the industry that the NFU wants as much as the Government. We will all work hard to make progress on Agenda 2000 in Brussels and we are conscious of the need to ensure that it is not a unilateral effort on the part of the United Kingdom, but something on which the whole of Europe is moving—I hope in the right direction—as one.

Dr. Fox

The Secretary of State may be aware of the report in the New Scientist of the week commencing 5 January that E. coli 0157 and 0111 are at epidemic levels in beef produced in Chile and Argentina. In view of that evidence, what guarantee can he give us that beef imported from those countries is as safe as home-produced beef?

Mr. Dewar

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we check and we will continue to take stringent precautions on those matters. British beef is safe—we have repeatedly said that and so, to be fair, did our predecessors. We are urgently trying to help the industry to boost sales at home and to reassure the public. The positive encouragement of quality beef sales is important. Of course we want to ensure that foreign imports are fit for human consumption and we have taken steps to do so.

Mr. David Stewart

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is important to encourage the British armed forces to buy as much British beef as possible? Does he welcome the fact that they have doubled expenditure on it in the past 12 months?

Mr. Dewar

That is a matter for my colleagues in the Ministry of Defence. I welcome the fact that British beef has been competitive. I guess that, for obvious reasons, the Army buys sensibly at good prices. That it is buying more and more British beef underlines the fact that it is a good buy for everyone.