HC Deb 04 February 1999 vol 324 cc1067-8
7. Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

If he will make a statement about the powers he has to ban imported meat. [67802]

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

The rules for intra-Community trade in meat and for imports from third countries are laid down in European Community legislation. Member states have powers to take interim protective measures in cases where a disease or other serious threat to public or animal health exists.

Mr. Swayne

I thank the Minister for that helpful reply. As my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) pointed out, under the treaty of Rome, the Minister has the power to ban imports on grounds of animal welfare and public health. Will he use those powers to alleviate the crisis in the pig industry, where producers are being undercut by meat from abroad that is reared in much less suitable circumstances and fed on feeds that would be illegal in this country?

Mr. Brown

I can use the powers under article 36 for the purposes that are set out. We use them, for example, to ban imports of specified risk materials from cattle, sheep and goats, but I cannot use the article as a general protectionist measure, as the hon. Gentleman wants me to do.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield)

This morning, we have had many questions about GMOs, but some of us think that an even greater threat to public health could come from artificial growth hormones that are injected into, or fed to, beef cattle. As I understand it, the product is already coming into this country and we are defenceless to stop it. What is the situation? Is it too late to stop that threat to public health?

Mr. Brown

Those matters are under consideration by the Commission. The European Union has a difference of view with the United States.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West)

What assessment has the Ministry made in view of the unfortunate industrial dispute that is taking place in the Meat Hygiene Service and this week's threat that the one-day stoppages or withdrawals may escalate to two or three days? What action does the Ministry propose to take to deal with the knock-on impact that that escalation could have on domestic demand for meat consumption, and the fact that all it will do is help our competitors to penetrate our market with imports that are all too often of an inferior quality?

Mr. Brown

The Meat Hygiene Service is set up as a next steps agency. I hope that the industrial dispute that is under way is resolved soon. As I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be the first to appreciate, the Government's priority is to ensure that the public are protected.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)

Why should we not, on principle, simply block the importation of pigmeat if it has been inhumanely produced?

Mr. Brown

Because this country has a huge vested interest in free trade, rather than in specific protectionist measures. I want British farmers to get that welfare premium in the marketplace, but, to achieve that, we must have clear labelling, the support of the British retail consortiums and other retailers and, above all, the support of United Kingdom consumers. We must encourage them to consume from welfare-friendly production systems, which will be a great support to the UK industry and, indeed, a great advance for animal welfare.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)

Yes, the farmers are looking for a level playing field, but, to be able to export, farmers have to survive the winter. Does the Minister accept that many sheep farmers are finding it extremely difficult because the grass has stopped growing and they have no money with which to buy feed for their animals? Can he accelerate the hill livestock compensatory allowance package and the ewe premium package that he announced last November to bring the cash forward more quickly?

Mr. Brown

It is my intention that the enhanced HLCA payments that I announced last November are paid before the end of this financial year. I know that that will give some support for the hard-pressed sheep industry. The mechanism that I used—enhancing the HLCAs—was the only one that was open to me to give extra support to the sheep industry. The Government recognised the difficulties and responded with that one-off aid package.