HC Deb 25 November 1999 vol 339 cc737-9
2. Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

What plans he has to press for compensation for British farmers for loss of exports to France over recent months. [98838]

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

Compensation is a matter for the courts.

Miss McIntosh

Farmers in my constituency are rapidly losing patience with the Minister. They are perfectly entitled to compensation. I know that farmers have taken up the matter personally with the Minister. Can he now tell the House which agency, or which member of his Department, is dealing with it—or is he going to tell us that the love-in between Britain and France has extended to the point at which our farmers will be denied the compensation to which they are entitled? It should be borne in mind that the French are notoriously slow to accept that they must pay compensation, and even slower to pay the compensation to which our farmers are entitled.

Mr. Brown

If the hon. Lady's constituents are entitled to the compensation to which she says they are entitled, they can obtain it through the courts.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud)

I certainly do not condone the action of the French, but is it not a question of rebuilding confidence, and is not the best way to rebuild confidence to rebuild the local food chain? Would my right hon. Friend care to comment on ways in which we can seek local marketing solutions?

Mr. Brown

I am strongly committed to helping the industry to market its way through the present difficulties, and I believe that joining up the food chain is one way of achieving that. Like other Ministers, I have made a number of visits to distributors, retailers and producers to demonstrate our commitment to that approach.

Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall)

The Minister is right to pursue compensation claims. I hope that he will continue forcefully to do so, and that the matter will ultimately be resolved. What farmers now want more than anything, however, is the opening of their export markets in other spheres, such as the Commonwealth. Has the Minister engaged in any discussions with his colleagues in the Department of Trade and Industry about a specific export drive to those markets? If not, what measures is he taking to encourage other countries—now that, hopefully, we have persuaded France—to lift their beef bans, thus providing farmers with more immediate support?

Mr. Brown

The first thing that we must do is ensure that the decision made last November to introduce the date-based export scheme is implemented properly throughout the European Union, and that is an immediate objective of mine. Next Wednesday, the Prime Minister will host a meeting of all who have an interest in beef exports to discuss strategies and, in particular, to explore ways in which the Government can help.

Mr. Barry Jones (Alyn and Deeside)

Does my right hon. Friend recall my bringing to him recently a deputation of representatives from four farms in my constituency? We are very grateful for the hour that we spent with him. Does he recollect that my constituents told him of their fears for the beef industry, as well as for the sheepmeat and dairy industries? That conversation emphasised the difficulties of the family farmer. How has my right hon. Friend attempted to help family farms so far, and how might he do so in the future?

Mr. Brown

I am pleased that my right hon. Friend was able to bring a delegation of farmers to see me. I consider my contacts with ordinary working farmers to be extraordinarily important to my stewardship. Those farmers did raise the question of support for family farms, and we explored the possibility of support measures under the common agricultural policy, which is the overarching policy instrument. But I also look to the rural development measure, which may provide new ways of producing income streams for family farms.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)

Does the Minister agree that, although compensation may be necessary to deal with what has happened in the past, we should consider other measures, when no compensation questions arise, so that our farmers can export not only beef but lamb to France and other European Union countries with no let or hindrance? Is progress being made to ensure that lamb exports, in full-body form, are able to reach all destinations, including France?

Mr. Brown

The right hon. Gentleman is right: far and away the best solution for the livestock industry is to return trading conditions to normal as quickly as possible, and that is the objective of my strategy. We need to be able to market our way through the present difficulties, and the Government will do all that they can to assist. That includes dealing with the matters raised by the right hon. Gentleman.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon)

I refer the Minister to the explanatory note which is attached to his press release of two days ago—in which he refers to the Commission's declaration on the labelling of exports of British beef—and in particular to the sentence which says: This will enable them"— the other member states— to require the labelling on their own territory of British beef, if they so wish. What steps will the Minister take to ensure that member states do not so label British beef so that it represents a large invitation to the consumer not to buy it?

Mr. Brown

That would not be permissible. I deplore the irresponsible statements that have come from Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen suggesting that, somehow, a British label is a stigma on what is a fine product and among the safest in Europe. Labelling is a clear condition of the date-based export scheme. It was also a clear condition of the certified herd scheme, which was brought into being by the previous Government.

Mr. Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his constructive approach and, in particular, on the fact that he has agreed to the labelling of British beef. Can that be reciprocated by our clearly labelling French products in our shops so that our consumers can decide whether they wish to buy products that are of a lower standard or have not been produced to the same welfare standards?

Mr. Brown

The Meat and Livestock Commission's assured British meat schemes provide a way for domestic consumers to consume to the highest United Kingdom standards. Under consideration in the EU is a beef labelling regime which would apply throughout the EU. The United Kingdom, French and German Governments are supporters of that regime, as is the Commission.

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk)

Now that the European Commission has confirmed that country of origin labelling within the EU is lawful, why does the Minister think it right to require British beef to be labelled as British when it is sold in France, but wrong for French beef to be labelled as French when it is sold in Britain?

Hon. Members


Mr. Brown

I have just answered that question. If Conservative Members listened to the answers instead of just trying to work out how to ask the same question, we might make a bit more progress. I thought that the hon. Gentleman was in favour of labelling schemes. He has wobbled about on this issue like a demented political yo-yo.

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