HC Deb 25 November 1998 vol 321 cc189-206 2.30 pm
Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker

I would like to take the point of order after the statement. I have had some indication of what the point of order may be, but if the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I must take the statement first.

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

With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the outcome of the European Union Agriculture Council held on 23 and 24 November, at which I represented the United Kingdom. My noble Friend Lord Sewel, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, was also present.

The Council voted on a proposal by the Commission for the lifting of the worldwide ban on the export of British beef in respect of meat from animals born after 1 August 1996: 10 member states voted in favour of the measure; only one, Germany—for understandable domestic reasons—voted against; and Spain, France, Austria and Luxembourg abstained.

The vote represented a substantial move towards the Commission proposal by five member states from the earlier vote in the Standing Veterinary Committee. Most importantly, the procedures under which the vote was taken in Council enable the Commission formally to adopt the decision.

I can now announce to the House that, within the past three hours, the Commission has adopted the proposal permitting the export from the United Kingdom of boneless beef and beef products from animals slaughtered between six and 30 months of age and born after 1 August 1996. That is the date on which the Commission has verified that all contaminated feed was removed from the feed chain. There are further conditions aimed at preventing the offspring of BSE cases from entering the export scheme; a requirement for the slaughter of offspring of BSE cases; and strict rules on slaughtering and processing.

The Government will shortly issue a consultation paper on our proposals for implementing those rules. I shall lay before Parliament secondary legislation to make compulsory the offspring cull, which has been operating since July on a voluntary basis. The legislation will provide compensation at the market rate to owners of animals slaughtered.

I am sure that the House will welcome this excellent outcome. It has been achieved against a background of scepticism about the seriousness with which we have tackled BSE. We have overcome the misconceptions, and had our case judged objectively on its scientific merits and supported by independent Commission inspections, taking as our overriding principle the absolute need to safeguard public health.

Every Agriculture Minister who spoke in the Council, including those who did not vote in favour, had very positive things to say about the commitment shown by the new United Kingdom Government to tackling the problems presented by BSE. The outcome is also an affirmation of the value of the Government's close co-operation and dialogue with our partners in Europe and with the European Commission.

The lifting of the ban comes hard on the heels of the support measures for agriculture that I announced to the House on 16 November. Both demonstrate the Government's commitment to securing a viable long-term future for the sector.

The Council also held a discussion of the Commission's proposals for common agricultural policy reform in the context of the Agenda 2000 measures. The proposals are essential for the future stability of European agriculture, and in order to facilitate a successful enlargement of the Union to the east. The Council agreed a report to the Vienna European Council next month identifying the main outstanding issues, and expressing its determination to reach conclusions on the package as a whole by next March.

It is an important Government objective to secure an ambitious reform of the CAP that serves the national interest, and, on behalf of the Government, I warmly welcomed the commitment by the Council to take early decisions. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor made similar points in the discussion at ECOFIN on 23 November on the future financing of the European Union.

It was a very important Council meeting for the United Kingdom. We have achieved a major objective of our policy towards Europe in the lifting of the beef export ban. Although it will take time for the British beef industry to win back markets that have been lost to it in the past two and a half years, I believe that we have created the conditions in which it can now plan for the future, confident that the industry has been modernised and is operating to the highest possible standards. Our immediate task is to work with the industry to ensure that the scheme that we have successfully negotiated in Europe works effectively to help to regain recognition for the quality of British beef on world markets.

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk)

I welcome unreservedly the partial lifting of the beef export ban, and I warmly congratulate the Minister on his achievement. It is a tribute to his personal skills that he has secured an agreement that eluded his less diplomatic predecessor.

In the spirit of bipartisanship, and without detracting from his negotiating success, will the Minister acknowledge that the measures needed to satisfy the European Commission were in place before the general election? Is he also aware that there will be disappointment that the lifting of the ban is only partial, and that beef on the bone will still not be eligible for export? Does the Minister agree that many customers want carcase beef, and, because they will not be able to buy it from Britain, a significant part of the market will still be closed to us?

I turn to the conditions attached to the decision. Are there still animals in the cohort cull which need to be traced? Could he expand on the strict rules he mentioned which will be required for slaughtering and processing? For example, will the abattoirs from which beef for export will be taken have to be dedicated solely to exports? How quickly does he expect the European officials to carry out the necessary inspections in this country? What support will the Government give to the promotion of British beef exports, especially in view of the help that was given to Northern Ireland and the need for mainland British beef producers to receive some assistance? What steps will the Government take to ensure that beef is back on more school menus? How soon will British service men abroad be able to enjoy British beef?

Does the Minister agree that recovering our export markets requires the co-operation of all European countries? Was he concerned by the report in The Guardian today of a possible German threat to boycott British beef? The Government are keen to have dialogues with their European partners, and the Minister met a German Minister only last week. Was that possible ban discussed at that meeting? If Germany is able to ban the sale of British beef, why does not the Minister immediately halt the sale of imported pigmeat in Britain produced under conditions that we do not permit?

In view of the Council's decision, is the lifting of the Government's home-made ban on beef on the bone in Britain now more or less likely? Does not every day that that ban remains further undermine confidence in British beef? Did the Minister use the two-day Council meeting to raise our growing concern about the export to Britain of meat products produced under conditions illegal in this country? In view of the confusion caused by conflicting statements from the Minister and the British Retail Consortium, and by the Government's failure to bring forward promised legislation on the food standards agency, is not the halting of such illegal imports, which include poultry from the far east, all the more urgent?

Did the Council discuss the review of the labelling directive? What steps are the Government taking to end the practice of selling food labelled with a Union Jack that contains food grown outside Britain and merely processed here? Will the Minister press his fellow Ministers for more honesty in labelling?

The Minister referred to Agenda 2000 in general terms. What progress has been made on specific issues since the March Council? For example, can he give the House the Government's view on labour unit modulation? Does he still support Lord Donoughue in the call for a 30 per cent. cut in milk support prices? What is the Government's view on proposals for national envelopes? I ask these questions in an entirely constructive spirit. The Minister deserves credit for his achievement, but the bottom line is how soon significant beef exports will resume. When will the farmgate price of British beef start to rise, and when will one of Britain's most famous and desirable products resume its rightful place at the top of menus around the world?

Mr. Brown

I welcome the hon. Gentleman's ungrudging and unqualified endorsement of my statement. He had some subsidiary questions, some of which run a little wide of the original statement. He asked about farmgate prices in the beef sector. I am certain that, when the market returns to normal, which includes recovering a substantial proportion of the export markets that we used to have, we will see an impact on the domestic industry as well.

I am not in a position to give the House a forecast today. I can say that it is my objective to have the date-based export scheme up and running and past its Commission inspection by next spring, so that we will be able to make a start on exporting, as the hon. Gentleman rightly said, deboned beef products worldwide. We are not talking just about trade with the European Union: it is a worldwide ban.

On national envelopes and the British proposal, along with the Italians, the Danes and the Swedes, for a more radical review of milk quotas, I can tell the hon. Gentleman that, although those things were discussed by Ministers on the Monday night, there are no conclusions yet. I can tell the House that Ministers have taken a hard look at the estimate of the costs of the different reform proposals that have been put forward by national delegations and by the Commission.

The hon. Gentleman asked about my meeting with the British Retail Consortium to try to get clear labelling so that consumers can make a choice. I have already told the House that the agreement made was for fresh meats, processed meats and own-label meats that are directly under the control of the supermarkets concerned. I cannot ask the supermarkets for a commitment on processed meats that are supplied to them by other suppliers in turn—[Interruption.] I thought that the Conservative party used to believe in free trade. There are those of us who believe in free trade and consumer choice, and I believe that consumers should be able to choose.

Mr. Yeo

What about illegal products?

Mr. Brown

The hon. Gentleman is shouting about illegal products. If products are illegal, I and the rest of the Government stand ready to take action. I invite the hon. Gentleman to send me the specific evidence that he undoubtedly has—he would not have made the comments otherwise—about food products coming into this country without meeting the standards that Parliament requires; I will then have it looked at by the competent officials, and stand ready to respond to any serious detailed allegation that he can make.

I must tell all hon. Members that is not enough to make generalised charges—we can all do that. Just as we object to consumers in other countries saying that they are not sure that British beef is safe to eat—they are wrong, because British beef is among the safest in the world—surely it is not right for us to say that other nation states cannot produce food products to the standards that we insist on here, because they clearly can.

The hon. Gentleman asked about beef on the bone. I have told the House before that, when the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee reports to me that it is appropriate to lift the domestic ban on beef on the bone, I will do so. I will do so on the basis of scientific advice, not on the basis of political will, which is what the hon. Gentleman is advising me to do. At the Conservative party conference, he said that he would lift the ban. There would be no consideration of whether it would be right to do so: he would just lift it anyway. I cannot do that. It would not be responsible for me to do that. The scientific advice comes first. I will consider it, and, when it is proper for me to do so, I will lift the ban.

The hon. Gentleman made a point about the importation of pigmeat, and invited me to ban it. If he has specific evidence that pig products that are coming into this country do not meet the proper food safety standards, I will consider that, and make sure that the appropriate authorities look at it. He must come forward with specific evidence, not generalised assertions.

The hon. Gentleman asked about consumers in Germany. I hope that consumers there, throughout western Europe and worldwide will understand that we have made an enormous effort, and spent an enormous sum—more than £4 billion will have been spent on the BSE crisis by the end—to ensure that our beef products are among the safest in the world. I fully accept that consumer perceptions may be based on the conditions of 10 years ago, not the conditions now. We must explain ourselves, and I stand ready alongside the Meat and Livestock Commission to explain what the Government have done to ensure that British beef is safe, and to enable us to recover our export markets. The effort includes serving British beef to service men overseas, and ensuring that education authorities and others in the United Kingdom who purchase meat products in bulk have confidence in British beef.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the Commission inspections. The date-based export scheme process will have to be inspected by the Commission, and I am confident that we can get that scheme up and running, and get it through its inspection. The Commission is ready to make the inspection when we get the scheme up and running. The hon. Gentleman asked about slaughterhouse rules. The scheme is slaughterhouse-based, not farm-based. The rules require slaughterhouses to be dedicated to the date-based export scheme, but they may also handle other animals, such as pigs and sheep. They cannot handle non-date-based export scheme cattle.

The hon. Gentleman asked about progress on the cull. Some progress has been made with a voluntary cull, but there is more to do, and that is why the Government will make the cull compulsory. I shall introduce regulations soon, and compensation will be paid to farmers at market value.

The hon. Gentleman asked me to confirm that the arrangements for lifting the ban were first put in place by the previous Government. It is true that the agreement in principle was made at Florence, but that was not the difficult bit. The difficult bit was implementing the agreement, both credibly and in a way that would persuade our partners in the European Union that we had implemented it credibly. The agreement was based on co-operative working, and on our acceptance that we had to be able to explain the scheme, to prove it and to justify it on the basis of science and on its technical implementation.

I would not have been able to achieve agreement without the hard work, energy and skill of my predecessor, the Minister for the Cabinet Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham). Agriculture Ministers from other nation states always ask after my right hon. Friend, mentioning the skilful way in which he managed the British presidency. The impact that my right hon. Friend made on the Agriculture Council during our six-month presidency convinced our EU partners that we were a new Government with a new approach, with whom they could deal. That was not the case with the previous Administration.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud)

I unreservedly welcome my right hon. Friend's announcement. It is a victory for effective diplomacy and quiet negotiation, unlike what happened under the previous Administration. Will my right hon. Friend say a little more about his welcome decision to extend the cull to beasts affected by maternal transmission of BSE, including cases in which cohorts are affected? Does he agree that we will be safe only if we move as quickly as possible towards implementing a food standards agency?

Mr. Brown

I welcome my hon. Friend's remarks. I am committed to the food standards agency, as are other members of the Government. I intend to discuss with territorial Ministers and my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Health, the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, and the Chancellor how best to take the proposal forward, given that it has no slot in the legislative programme. That proposal is going to be taken forward. My hon. Friend is right to say that the cull is a necessary condition of the scheme. Of course, farmers will be compensated at market rates, but the proposal must be taken forward. The voluntary scheme has not brought in all the animals that I would have wanted, so we must make the cull compulsory.

I estimate that about 3,500 animals will have to be culled under the scheme, which is designed to deal with maternal transmission. It is so important that we not only get the date-based export scheme up and running, but that we do so in a way that will restore consumer confidence in our products, not merely in the markets that are used to dealing with the United Kingdom but among those countries that have been the most critical and sceptical. I look forward not only to a completely clear report from the Commission but to our being able to explain what we have done in countries such as Germany, where there is still uncertainty about British beef products.

Mr. Richard Livsey (Brecon and Radnorshire)

The Liberal Democrats warmly welcome the Minister's negotiating skills. This has been one of the worst crises to affect agriculture this century, and we are pleased with the result that he has brought back from Brussels. The industry has warmly welcomed the proposal, and rightly so. It is a bit rich for the Conservative Opposition to carp about it. After all, they are equivocal about qualified majority voting and the powers of the Commission that the right hon. Gentleman has announced today. If the Opposition's policy were in place, the attitude of the Germans, who wanted to maintain the ban, would have ensured that it stayed in place. That is an extraordinary state of affairs.

Perhaps the Minister will also accept that we are pleased that full market values will be given for animals that have to be sold under the offspring cull, which will greatly help the farming community.

The development of the market is extremely important. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman can give us some idea what the MLC will be doing to promote British beef on the continent, and why the French and the Spanish, in particular, did not vote in favour of lifting the ban, but abstained. What were their reasons for doing so, and will that affect our ability to market in France and Spain?

Finally, the Agriculture Council discussed many other agricultural matters, and I am sure that reference was made to the package to supply food to Russia this winter to relieve starvation. Will the right hon. Gentleman consider the possibility of a special scheme to send British sheepmeat to Russia this winter to alleviate problems in the sheep market here and assist the Russians by preventing starvation?

Mr. Brown

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his welcome for today's announcement, and for the constructive part that the parliamentary Liberal Democrats have played in these matters.

On food aid and sheepmeat, we cannot use our food surpluses crudely to provide stocks to Russia. Humanitarian aid schemes to Russia are being put in place, which involve credit lines and the provision of some food aid. They are being co-ordinated on our behalf by the European Union, and the United States has put in place a separate range of measures.

However, in these matters we must be conscious of our obligations to the World Trade Organisation. It would not be fair to take other people's market opportunities by dumping our surpluses. Nevertheless, we should stand by Russia in what is going to be a difficult winter, and show solidarity with the Russian people, which means ensuring that any food aid sent—I am certain that some will be—gets to the people who need it. There are clear concerns about the distribution network there.

On the opposition from France and Spain, at the Standing Veterinary Committee, France, Spain, Italy, Holland and Germany voted against the Commission's proposal. I had bilateral meetings with each of those member states, and was able to justify the Commission's proposal, which is, of course, the United Kingdom proposal, on the basis of the science and the implementation of the scheme. I was able to ensure a welcome shift towards the Commission from all those national delegations. I would have preferred a positive vote for the Commission proposal, but the best that I could get was the abstention, which enables the proposal to be brought into effect by the Commission.

The overriding reason why countries are not able to give whole-hearted support to the scheme is the enormous damage that BSE has done to the beef market across western Europe. It is not only a United Kingdom problem; the market has fallen further in Germany than it has in this country, because of consumer fears about BSE. This is naturally a serious matter for our partners, and when we are trying to achieve agreement on matters of this kind, it is a good idea to step back and try to see the problem from their point of view, instead of asserting our own, and demanding that people always agree with us.

The measured, science-based approach that the British Government have adopted is the right approach. It has commanded respect from national delegations, even those that have not felt able to lift the ban yet. Nobody—not a single nation state—said that it should not be lifted; the issue was timing, and clearly the political leaders will have been worried about consumer opinion in their own countries. That is a perfectly reasonable thing for them to worry about—the protection of the public must come first in these matters.

As for explaining ourselves in difficult markets, the Government stand ready to work with the Meat and Livestock Commission—and, indeed, the industry— to make sure that we explain ourselves and rebuild our markets. I certainly stand ready to do what the Government properly can to help.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)

My right hon. Friend's announcement is a further example of the Labour Government delivering on their pledges—we have done it; the Conservatives destroyed the market.

I take my right hon. Friend back to the Meat and Livestock Commission, and what part it can play in Europe. Will we support it with increased resources? Will it sponsor an advertising campaign throughout the European Union to develop the markets for beef, and our re-entry into those markets? Will there be any opportunity for British producers to promote beef—perhaps through trade fairs—and perhaps even to foster some sort of beef price war in Europe so that we can reclaim markets, taking into account the experience of the Northern Irish in recent months, which has not been too good?

Mr. Brown

I welcome what my hon. Friend says, and thank him for his kind remarks.

On exports from Northern Ireland, when I visited Bologna last week, Paolo de Castro, my Italian ministerial counterpart, served me Northern Ireland beef and Italian mushrooms for lunch. It was not only delicious, but a great compliment, and it shows how far things have moved. The best thing that we can do is explain how Britain has got through the BSE crisis, explain what measures we have put in place to ensure that exported British beef is truly among the safest in the world—that goes for Northern Ireland beef from the herd scheme that is in place in Northern Ireland as well—and restore consumer confidence in British beef as a first-class product.

The MLC has a number of ideas, and I stand ready to explore all these matters with it, but I do not want to make a further announcement this afternoon.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

May I congratulate the Minister, without equivocation, on his achievement in obtaining a lifting of the export ban on British beef? There is no doubt that his personal negotiating skills have played a part, and I congratulate him on that.

Will the Minister answer two questions? First, when does he think that SEAC will advise him to allow the sale of beef on the bone in the United Kingdom? That would be another fillip and encouragement to the farming industry. Secondly, will he ensure that the veterinary and hygiene costs that are to be imposed on our abattoirs are no greater than those imposed on abattoirs in countries elsewhere in the European Union? The abattoir industry in this country is greatly concerned that the costs that it is having to meet will put some abattoirs out of business. Those costs are unfair, and not the same as those being imposed in other EU countries.

Mr. Brown

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks. He has not always spoken warmly about the European Union and its institutions, so his remarks today are all the more welcome. I promise that I will take a hard look at the costs of the meat hygiene service and veterinary surgeons in abattoirs, and see what can be done. Public safety must come first, however, so I am not certain that I shall be able to do everything that he wants. I take the point that he made about comparable costs in other member states. He asked about advice from SEAC. I anticipate a report from it soon.

Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East and Musselburgh)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that he, his departmental colleagues and the Minister for the Cabinet Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham), deserve the thanks of the whole House for getting us to this point?

Although I accept that, if we are to meet the stringent conditions for exporting British beef and rebuilding our export markets, the main challenge lies with the meat industry, including abattoirs, does my right hon. Friend agree that the Government have an important part to play, not least because of the emphasis on traceability in relation to the cull and the criteria for exporting beef? Is he willing to take a personal interest in the new cattle traceability scheme, and do his level best to make the centre at Workington a model not just for Europe but for the rest of the world in terms of speed, reliability and overall efficiency?

Mr. Brown

I welcome what my right hon. Friend has said. He, too, has played a part in those matters. What he says about traceability is absolutely right. Traceability is here to stay. I have visited the cattle movement service headquarters at Workington—indeed, I opened it. I found the young staff enthusiastic about what they were doing, and doing a good job well. On support for the meat industry and the Meat and Livestock Commission, I shall see what I can do to help.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde)

I hope that the Minister and the House will join me in thanking the Minister's officials, who deserve praise for their contribution to the lifting of the ban. Without their work behind the scenes, none of the progress in which we can rejoice today could have been made.

The hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) and my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) asked the Minister whether resources would be made available from within his existing budget to help with the marketing effort. Will he produce a parallel package—in pro rata terms, worth some £11 million—to that provided by the Northern Ireland Office to help it to rebuild its markets in Europe?

Mr. Brown

I must operate within the budgetary constraints of the comprehensive spending review, but I shall see what I can do. It is right that the Government explain to those who used to be our trading partners in beef—we hope that they will be our trading partners again—exactly what we have done to ensure that the public, overseas and at home, are protected from BSE and new-variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. The only way that we can rebuild our markets is through proper explanation.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for what he said about my officials. In my short time at the Department, I have been well served by senior officials, who have put in very long hours, not only to join me in the range of bilateral discussions that I have had to have with other countries, but to prepare for the meetings and discuss with other officials, so that the Ministers I meet are properly advised. They have worked extremely hard, and deserve the House's gratitude.

Mr. Barry Jones (Alyn and Deeside)

I thank my right hon. Friend for his successful and doughty efforts. He speaks for the whole country. How does he assess the impact of the lifting of the ban on Wales, especially on my constituency, where farmers have had a nightmarish time, and have edged towards bankruptcy? How does he assess the impact of CAP reform on dairy farming?

Mr. Brown

The British, Italian, Danish and Swedish proposals for reform of the dairy sector are extensive, and involve a phasing out of quota by 2006. They have not been agreed by others on the Council of Ministers, and the Commission and other member states have made alternative proposals. It is too early to give my hon. Friend a definitive answer, but we want radical reform.

The announcement was widely welcomed by farm leaders from Welsh farming unions. Such is the importance of the announcement that they were in Brussels to hear at first hand how matters had transpired at the Council of Ministers. I hope that today's announcement, together with the one I made last week on support, particularly through the hill livestock compensatory allowances, will have a positive impact on agriculture in Wales.

Sir Peter Emery (East Devon)

I congratulate the Minister, as I am sure the whole House does. First, has he taken any action with America and Canada to ensure that their import ban is lifted? No one can now argue that British beef is not as safe as beef from anywhere else in the world. Secondly, is it not a hurdle to the export of animals that it has to be proved that the dam was alive six months before the animal to be exported goes into the scheme? Is it correct that a statement witnessed by the farmer will not be adequate? Will the Ministry of Agriculture establish a special unit for this purpose? If so, will he ensure that farmers, who have suffered profit losses of between 45 and 50 per cent. over these years, will not have another cost imposed on them, and that the cost will be borne by MAFF?

Mr. Brown

The right hon. Gentleman makes two important points. We shall have to set up a unit in MAFF to deal with that technical issue. The dam must be alive six months before the animal goes into the scheme. As certification from the farmer will not be enough, in itself, for the workings of the scheme, the only way we can verify that is to establish a unit within the Department.

I am examining what the Government can properly do about costs. I am, in principle, considering making a contribution from the funds of my Department, at least to the start-up costs of the scheme, although some costs will have to be borne by the industry. No final decision has been reached, but the Government will have to provide some support to get the scheme up and running.

The worldwide ban was imposed on the United Kingdom by the European Union, and it operated worldwide. We have got that lifted, so it is now possible for us to commence discussions with other countries who were previously our trading partners in beef products, such as America and Canada, to get their bilateral bans lifted. I shall certainly attempt that.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley)

Obviously, this is great news for farmers in the north-west, which is the second most affected region. What can we do to promote the quality beef that is produced in England? Wales can sell its beef on the back of the success of its Welsh lamb, which is delivered all around the world. That is a prime example of the good branding of a quality product. I believe that we shall not have the same support in England. What new initiatives will the Minister introduce to support English farmers? Will he give them the same support as is given to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?

Mr. Brown

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that issue. I shall be working with the Meat Livestock Commission to ensure that there is proper marketing support behind the new export drive. It is also important for us, as public representatives, to play our part. This issue should not become unreasonably politicised, but we should explain what our country has done to ensure that our beef is entirely safe. That is the key message we should be sending out, and it has the great merit of being completely true. Beef is safe.

Mr. William Thompson (West Tyrone)

First, I thank the Minister for his statement, and I congratulate him on the efforts that he has made since he took office. A great handicap to the export of beef is the fact that beef on the bone cannot be exported. I know that the Minister anticipates that that ban will be lifted in the United Kingdom—in the near future, I hope. Will the same apply, in the end, to the export of beef to Europe, or will there have to be another month of tortuous negotiation with the European Commission?

Mr. Brown

I am afraid that the blunt answer to the last question is yes. The date-based export scheme relates to deboned beef: it therefore excludes live animals and whole carcases, and, indeed, any other beef on the bone.

As the incidence of BSE in this country lessens, we shall want to deal with the issue, but the Government's view is the same as that of the last Government when they negotiated the agreements in Florence. We think that we should make a start, and this is a good start, which will give us a chance not only to recover markets, but to explain our current arrangements to ensure that beef products from Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom are completely safe.

Mr. Andy King (Rugby and Kenilworth)

I thank my right hon. Friend for all the efforts that he has made since taking up his present post. I know that farmers in my constituency have great confidence in him, because they cancelled an arrangement that they had made to come here, yet again, to lobby Warwickshire Members. Owing to my right hon. Friend's efforts, they decided that such action was unnecessary at this time. That denotes an enormous increase in confidence in him, and in the present Government.

My right hon. Friend has plainly met one major challenge, but the greatest challenge of all will be reform of the common agricultural policy. What part are the Government taking in that?

Mr. Brown

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks.

Since becoming Minister of Agriculture, I have set out to meet not just farm representatives, but individual farmers. The priorities in my work load have been informed by what I have been told by farmers, as well as their representatives.

I assure my hon. Friend that the British Government are in the vanguard of nation states that seek radical reform of the CAP, so that it can meet the challenges of an increasingly liberalised world market that is moving remorselessly towards us, whether we reform or not. The Government believe that we should be ahead of the game, rather than running behind it.

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale)

I congratulate the Minister on bringing a good day to British farming. That has been rare in recent years. Does he accept, however, that the crisis is not yet over, and that a difficult winter lies ahead for many farmers in my constituency and elsewhere? Will he consider working with representatives of the British banking industry, and trying to persuade them that they should continue to support farmers in the coming months, so that, when better days come, there are still farmers in business to enjoy them?

Mr. Brown

Yes. A huge effort has been made, in terms of officials' as well as Ministers' time, to secure what I have announced today. Last week, I announced a package of measures specifically designed to deal with the current difficulties in the farming sector. The purpose of all that has been to ensure that the industry can experience better times—and those better times, we hope, are being negotiated within the CAP. CAP reform is crucial to the long-term stability and security of the domestic industry.

I hope to meet representatives of the sector that specialises in agricultural banking shortly.

Mr. Paul Marsden (Shrewsbury and Atcham)

I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend and his predecessor on the tremendous news that we have heard today, and on the excellent work that went into bringing it about. I pay tribute to other Shropshire Members, past and present, and to the MEP for Hereford and Shropshire—a constituency that includes Wyre Forest—who have undertaken some hard lobbying of my right hon. Friend.

What initial targets and estimates has my right hon. Friend for the reclaiming of the export market? In particular, may I ask what figures he has in mind in relation to the next 12 months?

Mr. Brown

I thank my hon. Friend for his remarks, and acknowledge the tribute he pays to representatives from his area, who have all played a constructive part in the discussions.

I shall not be setting targets. It would be quite wrong for us to do anything other than acknowledge that it will be difficult to recapture markets that were lost to us. A surplus of beef products in the EU makes it pretty difficult to do so. The important thing is that the legal barrier to us trying to do so has been lifted, and we can make a start. It will take time, and I am afraid that the early start might be slow, but we must get on with it.

Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones (Ynys Môn)

May I also congratulate the Minister on his success in securing a lifting of the ban throughout the European Union? I thank him for his visits to Wales during a difficult period for farmers, and for his work alongside ministerial colleagues in the Welsh Office. While he thinks about ways in which we can promote Welsh beef and beef from other countries of Britain, may I commend to him the success, for example, of branding Welsh lamb? When he considers ways in which he can sell the idea of reopening markets for Welsh beef, will he remind our colleagues in Europe that some of the best beef is finished on grass? That should be an enormous selling point. Will he confirm that any measures implemented in MAFF will be mirrored in the Welsh and Scottish Offices?

Mr. Brown

Yes, I can confirm that. My visits to Wales have enabled me to hear at first hand the views of farming leaders as well as individual farmers in Wales. The fact that the Government are listening and making policy that is informed by what farmers say has been widely welcomed—nowhere more so than in Wales. I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's remarks.

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North)

I welcome very much my right hon. Friend's statement. Is he aware of substantial concerns about the safety of beef production and the incidence of BSE elsewhere in Europe and the world? What discussions are taking place in Europe to ensure that other Governments implement the same stringent controls as ours in order to prevent the spread of BSE?

Mr. Brown

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's remarks. The EU is considering Europewide measures on specified risk material and other precautionary regimes on BSE that would apply throughout Europe. The UK's contribution to those discussions is, of course, informed by our experience of these matters. I have offered to share our science and technical expertise with other member states, so that, if a crisis looms in their countries, they can get through it with knowledge of some of the things that we have had to learn the hard way.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry)

Although I, too, welcome the Minister's statement, which reflects his personal efforts as well as those of his predecessors, will he use this opportunity to remind the House that this decision very much falls into the context of the progressive decline of the BSE epidemic in cattle? There is a strong probability that no more than 1 per cent. of total cases ever has yet to come to light.

In the wider context of Agenda 2000, will he consider with his European colleagues the implications of supply and demand in the European beef industry for land use, and contemplate constructive measures to encourage further extensification, and possibly the conversion of some grazing land to other uses?

Mr. Brown

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's remarks. He makes two important points. On discussions on Agenda 2000 proposals, there is widespread recognition throughout the EU of a structural surplus in beef products with which we must deal. Within that broad recognition, there is further discussion on whether priority should be given to extensive or intensive systems. Clearly, different countries approach that depending on their domestic circumstances.

I am pleased to be able to tell the House that the reported number of BSE-affected cattle seems to be coming down in line with predictions, which rather confirms and underpins the Government's approach.

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his achievement, which is very welcome. However, does he agree that, if the previous Government had taken positive action when BSE first raised its head to ensure the safety of food in the food chain, the whole crisis might well have been averted?

Mr. Brown

I do not want to say anything that might pre-empt the outcome of the BSE inquiry, the results of which will eventually come to me and my right hon. Friends. Nevertheless, it is stating the obvious to say that, in the early stages, the issue could have been handled better than it was. Specifically, it is right to say that our relationships with our European Union partners are crucially important. We must get ourselves into a position in which we are treated seriously and with respect by our partners and can negotiate with them, rather than merely shouting impotently at them.

Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow)

The Minister will know that one of the United Kingdom's largest regular sales of finished cattle is held each week at Ludlow. His announcement of the lifting of the export ban will therefore be very welcome among the beef farmers of south Shropshire, which is one the country's premier beef-producing areas. However, he will be aware also that there is not much optimism among meat traders that our export trade will be quickly regained.

Will the right hon. Gentleman expand on his statement that that trade will be allowed only through dedicated abattoirs, whereas all hon. Members will know that every abattoir has to comply with EC standards for intra-Community trade? More to the point, will he give the House an absolute undertaking that there will be no further let or hindrance to those exports once they have passed the inspectorate at the dedicated abattoir?

Mr. Brown

The purpose of the agreement is to ensure that beef that has gone through the scheme—the date-based export scheme is a project-specific scheme—can get into the European market. The only let and hindrance that exports would then face are free market conditions—such as consumer choice and the terms of trade—that are faced by every product. As I said, I do not believe that we will immediately be exporting vast quantities of meat. We have a lot to do to rebuild markets that we once had, in an already over-supplied market. Clearly it will not be easy, but we must make a start. We must all work together, without overstating the matter, to achieve as much as we possibly can.

Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney)

Does my right hon. Friend remember, about two years ago, the previous Government's policy of non-co-operation in Europe, which left us isolated and friendless in Europe? Does not last Monday's meeting and today's statement show that constructive engagement with Europe brings results? Furthermore, are not those results the best news that British farming has had for a long time—which is why, on Monday, champagne corks were popping on farms in my constituency?

Mr. Brown

Of course my hon. Friend is right. For the Conservative party, the beef war is over.

Mr. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon)

I know that my constituents will be delighted to welcome the decision that the Minister has brought back from the Council of Ministers, and that they have been waiting for this moment since the ban was imposed. However, may I pass on to him concerns that have been expressed to me about how we will re-establish a profitable beef industry when we have no market for older cows, we have no market for offal—processors were once paid £80 a tonne for trimmings, but now must pay £60 a tonne for them to be taken away—and we have the heavy costs of inspection and traceability?

What will the right hon. Gentleman do, first, to try to minimise those costs, and, secondly, to ensure that such costs as have to be borne are spread fairly across the industry—rather than to permit a situation in which supermarkets manage to protect their margins, while unsubsidised finishers are forced to carry an unsustainable loss?

Mr. Brown

The Government, of course, currently carry some of those costs. I fully accept that the BSE crisis has hit the domestic industry pretty severely. Specifically, the industry now has to carry costs that it did not have to carry before. The costs of inspecting abattoirs and of traceability are here to stay, but they are not here to stay uniquely in the United Kingdom. Traceability is now a requirement across the European Union. The way forward is to ensure that we can convince consumers of the safety of our meat products, and to ensure that we—Government and industry—work hard together in trying to get back into markets that we once had but have been out of for the past two and a half years. Those obstacles will have to be overcome—the Government cannot simply lift them out of the way.

Mr. Nick Ainger (West Carmarthen and South Pembrokeshire)

I join in the congratulations to my right hon. Friend, especially on behalf of my constituency which is a significant beef producer. The announcement is the light at the end of the tunnel for which many of my farming constituents have been waiting.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that to the congratulations he has received from both sides of the House should be added an apology from the Opposition, bearing in mind the evidence given by the former Health Minister, Edwina Currie, to the BSE inquiry on Monday? She said: More people became ill, more people became infected and more people died because of inadequate actions by Government Ministers over a long period of time. That should warrant at least a small apology from the Opposition.

My right hon. Friend's statement referred to reform of the common agricultural policy. What indication has he received from our European partners that, in the Agenda 2000 negotiations, we can move towards decoupling support from production? We may well get over this crisis, but others will loom if we do not decouple support from production.

Mr. Brown

The point about decoupling support from production—support for rural Britain—is absolutely at the heart of the current discussions on reshaping the CAP. There is a willingness among Ministers to deal with the problems of structural surplus, the challenges of world market prices and the increasing liberalisation that are marching towards us. Getting our partners to go further is a Government negotiating objective, but it is too early to say whether we will achieve all of it.

I must not pre-empt the BSE inquiry. I note that Mrs. Currie has treated it to her opinions, and I wait to see what the inquiry makes of them.

Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset)

I echo the compliments of my right hon. and hon. Friends to the Minister for this further step in restoring traditional markets to the British livestock industry. However, the statement relates to beef exported on the bone from cattle over six months old. One of our most significant traditional markets was the calf market. Can the Minister say when the resumption of calf exports is likely? Will there be any support for the calf industry beyond the announcement he made last week, which will end in March 1999?

Mr. Brown

My announcement last week on extending the calf processing scheme at a reduced rate was designed to give some assistance to the industry in what are clearly restricted trading conditions. There are ethical problems as well as animal welfare problems with the handling of calves. I should like a domestic organic veal industry to develop, rather than looking to live exports, which are a very long way away.

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford)

I, too, congratulate the Minister on the excellent news. The beef farmers of Herefordshire, including some of those he met a couple of weeks ago when he visited my constituency, will be delighted.

Following on from the comments of the hon. Member for West Tyrone (Mr. Thompson), the problem is not yet over. The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that Herefordshire beef—the finest beef in the world—populates the globe, largely through the export of cattle and semen for breeding. What is the position on those exports, and when will the bans be lifted?

Mr. Brown

I enjoyed my visit to the farms in the hon. Gentleman's constituency. It gave me an opportunity to hear about the problems directly from the farmers. The export of some of the products that the hon. Gentleman mentioned is already permitted by the European Union. Today's announcement pushes forward that agenda.

Mr. Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye)

I want to tell my right hon. Friend how impressed my constituents, especially the farming community, are with his stewardship since his appointment. They have been writing to me to tell me that. Is he not encouraged by the fact that the national president of the National Farmers Union said this week that diplomacy rather than table thumping is the reason we have achieved this result?

Mr. Brown

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks. The farming unions have been taken into my confidence as we have gone through the negotiations, and they have done what they can to help with their sister organisations in other member states. They welcome the Government's constructive engagements with our partners, from whom, after all, we expect to get the decision. I have had a strong welcome for the approach that the Government have adopted.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

I am delighted that the Minister is here to make his announcement to the House, and I add my congratulations. I am pleased that, for an hour and a half on the flight back from Brussels yesterday, I resisted the urge to discuss the matter with him. I know that he is interested in the Vale of York, because he met one of my constituents, the president of the National Farmers Union, there recently.

What can the Minister do to satisfy producers and consumers of beef in this country that the high standards set in the European Union for beef production in this country are matched by foreign exporters? What can he do to put their minds at rest as to whether foreign exporters are meeting the same high standards that exporters in this country enjoy?

Mr. Brown

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her remarks—and, indeed, for her company on the flights back from Brussels; we have twice been on the same flight. She asks whether other countries are maintaining the same high standards as we do, but I am afraid that, in the rest of Europe, that point is often put to me the other way around—it is our standards and our products that are questioned. What we should do—all of us; it is not a party political point—is set out to explain what our country has done and at what cost, and explain why we are now able to offer the greatest consumer safeguards anywhere in the world. British beef is among the safest in the world. That is a simple message, but we all need to get it over.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire)

It would be churlish not to congratulate the Minister on his success so far, and I congratulate him on that partial success. However, this morning, I had a discussion with a major meat export business, and was told that, before the ban, it exported seven to eight truckloads of dressed meat to quality distributors and restaurants in Europe. It was made clear to me that 50 per cent. of that beef was on the bone, for high-quality roasts sold to the best restaurants. It is of absolutely paramount importance that the Minister lifts the beef on the bone ban in this country, and gets the export of beef on the bone allowed to the whole of Europe. Can he give us a clearer idea of a timetable on that?

Mr. Brown

The hon. Gentleman raises two separate propositions. On the second, the right thing to do is to get the date-based export scheme—which, as the hon. Gentleman rightly says, is for deboned beef—up and running and gaining market share, because, as we gain market share, we also restore consumer confidence. On the question of the domestic beef on the bone ban, as soon as SEAC reports to me setting out the parameters, I shall consider what it says; if the scientific evidence means that I can come to the House and lift the ban, I shall do so.