HC Deb 14 January 1998 vol 304 cc336-7
4. Mr. Thompson

If she will make a statement on the problems facing the beef farming sector in Northern Ireland. [20854]

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. Paul Murphy)

The beef farming sector is facing a difficult period, but the Government have been working on a number of fronts to alleviate the problems. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food announced a substantial package of financial aid amounting to £85 million just before Christmas. Northern Ireland will receive about £14 million of that. We have also succeeded in persuading the European Union to restore intervention and, most important, we are pressing hard to get the beef export ban lifted.

Mr. Thompson

I thank the Minister for his reply. May I emphasise to him that even when the beef crisis is over, there will be a considerable period before the export market builds up? Will he consult his right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to ensure that intervention continues during that initial period?

Mr. Murphy

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. As he knows—and as we speak—the College of Commissioners is meeting in Strasbourg and the Standing Veterinary Committee in Brussels. I very much hope that the Commissioners will agree to recommend to the Committee that it endorse the proposal for a certified herd scheme which will lead to the lifting of the ban. That will help farmers in Northern Ireland.

I take the hon. Gentleman's point about export markets. I understand that the Northern Ireland Meat Exporters Association believes that it could restore 50 per cent. of the former export market within a year of the ban's being lifted.

Mr. Hume

In the light of the expected very positive and welcome statement this afternoon in Strasbourg by the European Commission to relieve the beef crisis, will the Minister—I join the hon. Member for West Tyrone (Mr. Thompson) in asking this question—take the necessary steps to assist our farmers to recover their lost markets? Agriculture is by far our biggest industry, and this has been by far our biggest crisis. Are the Government willing to take action to compensate farmers for the massive losses that they have already suffered, and to urge the European Commission also to go forward by implementing the date scheme?

Mr. Murphy

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. We should pay tribute to him and to his two colleagues in the European Parliament for all the work that they have put into ensuring that the Commissioners are meeting to consider lifting that ban. I take the points that he has made closely into consideration. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has met leaders of the farming industry in Northern Ireland. I believe that—with the lifting of the ban and the other factors that my hon. Friend mentioned—the future is brighter for farmers in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Peter Bottomley

Traditionally, beef has been regarded as being of a very high health status and of equal status north and south of the border. Is it the Government's view that beef is still the same healthy food that it should be, and that it should be treated equally north and south of the border?

Mr. Murphy

It is certainly not for me to respond on behalf of the Government of the Republic of Ireland on what they do with their beef industry. I will, however, confirm that it is our Government's view that the measures that they have taken over the past few months are absolutely right in ensuring that the safety aspects of the beef industry are considered, and that, ultimately, we must consider the health of the people in this country who eat beef.

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