HC Deb 22 January 1998 vol 304 cc1129-32
5. Mr. Edwards

If he will make a statement about the problems facing beef farmers. [22305]

8. Mr. Hanson

If he will make a statement on his Department's current support for the British beef industry. [22309]

Dr. John Cunningham

I am well aware of the problems of the British beef industry and I set out proposals to the House on 22 December for a special aid package, worth £85 million, for livestock producers. I have no current plans to make further aid available.

Mr. Edwards

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for the measures that he has already announced. Does he agree that the farmers from Monmouthshire who came to the House on Tuesday made a strong case for clear and honest labelling of meat and meat products in British supermarkets, stringent controls on the import of substandard beef and a review of the tendering process so that public bodies can be encouraged to buy British beef?

Dr. Cunningham

Yes. All those measures are under consideration.

Mr. Hanson

What progress has been made on lifting the ban in Europe, given the welcome news about the potential for allowing Northern Ireland to export beef? I re-emphasise the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (Mr. Edwards), that many purchases are made by public bodies such as hospitals and schools and, indeed, Government Departments. What steps can my right hon. Friend take to encourage them to purchase British beef?

Dr. Cunningham

It was excellent news when the Commission in Brussels gave an emphatic yes to the export certified herds scheme last week. Yesterday, the Standing Veterinary Committee acted swiftly to follow that up by setting up a working party that I understand will meet again in Brussels next week. I hope that it will reach a positive decision.

Public bodies are bound by rules and guidelines that require them to get the best possible value for money when purchasing food. I have already had informal discussions with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence about purchases by the Ministry of Defence.

Mr. Hayes

Will the Minister acknowledge that his decision to charge a flat-rate licence fee to fund the Food Standards Agency is attracting widespread criticism, including from Chris Haskins, the head of the Government task force? He also criticised Ministers for a tendency to overreact; the ban for being unscientific; and the whole regulatory framework, saying that people misjudged the matter if they thought that increased regulation would increase food safety.

Dr. Cunningham

I am not sure what the hon. Gentleman's question was, but I have read some of the reports. The hon. Gentleman's first point was completely misplaced, because we have made no decision to have a flat-rate licence fee for retail outlets or anyone else. We simply gave an illustrative example when we published the White Paper.

Regarding the comments of my good friend Christopher Haskins, I can understand that, since he was appointed by the Government to ensure that we have better regulation, he should be concerned about the abysmal regulations that we inherited from the previous Administration.

Mr. Kirkwood

Does the Minister agree that one of the most urgent and difficult cost increases that beef producers face immediately is the cost of disposal of fallen stock? Will he consider a small transitional fund so that the industry can get itself sorted out in the immediate aftermath of the withdrawal of the subsidy scheme and so that we can guarantee that high-risk and fallen stock material does not illegally find its way back into the human food chain? Can it possibly be in anyone's interest for the Minister to knacker the knackers' yards?

Dr. Cunningham

Temporary provision—transitional support—was made for the rendering industry. No further provision is available for it. The object of the support for the rendering industry, which was decided by the previous Administration, was to avoid problems in the meat chain in the immediate aftermath of the BSE crisis. We have no proposals for any temporary fund for the industry. The conditions of last year that gave rise to the problems no longer exist.

If people were to dispose of fallen stock in the way the hon. Gentleman suggests, they would be committing a very serious offence.

Mr. McGrady

The Minister is aware of the enormous, disproportionate impact of the BSE crisis on beef farming in Northern Ireland. In those circumstances, why has there been undue delay in the release of the agricultural monetary compensation fund? Will he look into the matter and take action to release that fund so that farming incomes may be properly upwardly adjusted?

Dr. Cunningham

I am somewhat surprised by that question. Farmers in Northern Ireland, just like those elsewhere in the United Kingdom, will qualify for their share of the £85 million package that I announced on 22 December.

Mrs. Spelman

A group of beef farmers from my constituency who attended the rally on Tuesday were bitterly disappointed and surprised to find that, when the audience was asked whether a Labour Member of Parliament was present in Westminster Hall, no one put up their hand. Is that indicative of the Government's position on the beef industry?

Dr. Cunningham

That of course depends on who the farmers invited—does it not?

Mr. Jack

Even the right hon. Gentleman could have gone.

Dr. Cunningham

The right hon. Gentleman is a little behind the news. I spent Monday and Tuesday in the Agriculture Council in Brussels. I chaired my first Agriculture Council meeting on Tuesday and returned to London at 8 pm on Tuesday.

Mr. Sheerman

Is my right hon. Friend aware that I was at the meeting at which, supposedly, no Labour Member was present? May I inform him that the beef farmers and other farmers who came to see me that day wanted most to talk about the way in which the previous Government, for 18 years, failed to come through with policies that helped small and medium farming enterprises? The policy that this Government will institute will create a healthy living for such farmers.

Dr. Cunningham

I am pleased to say that I agree with my hon. Friend's comments.

Mr. Jack

I can understand, after that exchange, why the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) did not put his hand up in Westminster Hall.

The Minister will be aware that consumers and farmers have put much faith in his assurances that proper checks are being made on beef that is coming into the United Kingdom. Pursuant to the Minister of State's written answer on 20 January, how does the right hon. Gentleman know that all the checks are effective? The Minister of State told the hon. Member for North Tayside (Mr. Swinney) that his Ministry was unable to say how many checks are carried out. Will the right hon. Gentleman undertake to answer from the Dispatch Box the question that I tabled yesterday, in which I requested a complete breakdown of just what has been found as a result of the surveillance exercise?

Dr. Cunningham

I shall answer all the right hon. Gentleman's questions in due course. We have the right to inspect each consignment of imports from third countries if we think it necessary. On EU imports, the right hon. Gentleman should know—whether he does is another matter—that, due to requirements and obligations under the single market, we can make only sample checks. That is done, and we check all the paperwork available to us.