HC Deb 02 November 1998 vol 318 cc541-2
4. Mr. David Kidney (Stafford)

If he will make a statement on his Department's policy in respect of the supply of British beef for the United Kingdom's armed forces. [55880]

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. George Robertson)

I am pleased to advise the House that our food supply contractor, Booker Foodservice, is buying from British sources 100 per cent. of beef for consumption by our forces based in the United Kingdom. That follows agreement by the European Commission to proposals from me and my colleagues at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to allow access to intervention stocks of high-quality British beef at competitive prices. We are unable to use British beef for our forces overseas at the moment because of the continuing ban on the export of British beef.

Mr. Kidney

I thank my right hon. Friend for that news, which was even better than I had expected. It will be welcomed by all farmers, especially those in the two branches of the National Farmers Union in my constituency. On their behalf, and in view of my right hon. Friend's emphasis on the quality of British products, may I push the boat out by asking whether he can achieve the same for British lamb for the British armed forces?

Mr. Robertson

I wish that we could do so. British lamb is the best in the world. I used to help to rear it, and I want British troops to eat it. I hope that the industry will compete to get it on troop canteen plates. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, who has spent a lot of time and energy on this matter. An attempt was made to procure a substantial forward buy of British lamb, but that was not successful as the industry was not capable of coming forward with it. Urgent discussions continue with the farming industry and the Meat and Livestock Commission. We shall ensure that we use every effort to put the maximum amount of British lamb on British forces' plates.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury)

Of course that is good news and we welcome it, but why has it taken so long? It was first negotiated with the commission back in February and an agreement was announced in the House in June. Six months on, fresh beef is still not to be used; the meat is out of the intervention stocks. What about getting on with British lamb? The Meat and Livestock Commission, the National Farmers Union and the contractor are willing to vary contracts and do their best with lamb. What is holding up the sale of British lamb, because at present none is used by British forces?

Mr. Robertson

I know that the public get a bit tired of being reminded that a Conservative Government were in power 18 months ago, but that Government put in place the procedures that we are having to use. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has used his energy and ingenuity to make substantial strides, despite the straitjacket that he inherited. At the start of October, the intervention stocks were released and now 100 per cent. of British troops are being supplied with British beef.

The discussions on British lamb continue, but we are up against the fact that the bulk of British lamb in this country is provided fresh or chilled while the Ministry's requirement is for frozen lamb. We are discussing with the contractor and the industry the best way to get the maximum amount of British lamb on to British forces' plates.

My hon. Friend's efforts in other areas have been particularly successful: 100 per cent. of the pork and 50 per cent. of the bacon used by British forces is British. We are trying to ensure that, within the constraints of value for money for the British taxpayer, we do the best for British farming we can.

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