HC Deb 30 November 1999 vol 340 cc151-8 3.30 pm
The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Nick Brown)

With permission, I am pleased to be able to announce the Government's intention to lift the retail ban on beef on the bone. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hurrah!"] That seems to have gone down quite well. This follows further advice from the chief medical officers, who now collectively agree that it is possible to lift the ban on retail sales. I and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health have accepted this advice. I am placing a copy of the advice in the Library today. Officials of my Department will later today be consulting on draft proposals to lift in England the ban on the retailing of beef on the bone. This includes lifting the ban on food prepared for direct sale to consumers in restaurants and other catering establishments. Similar consultations will be taking place in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to lift the ban there also.

As recommended by the chief medical officers, the ban on the use of bones for manufacturing food products, including infant foods, which lies at the extreme end of BSE protection measures, will remain in place. This also has the effect of preserving explicit consumer choice.

This lifting of the ban has been long awaited and I am delighted that it can now go ahead. The announcement will bring a welcome boost to the beef industry in what continue to be difficult times. I believe that we need to move forward as quickly as possible with the consultation on the lifting of the ban. Therefore—[Interruption.] Opposition Back Benchers should listen to the end of the statement before condemning it. Therefore, subject to the consent of the House, I propose to use the accelerated procedure for making the regulations to allow retail sales to take place before Christmas. Consultation will start today, with the aim that the amending regulations will take effect on Friday 17 December. These proposals will take effect in England only, but it is intended that similar legislation will be implemented in the other parts of the United Kingdom to the same timetable.

I know that enforcement authorities will wish to take note of my statement and of the Government's clear intention to implement the lifting of the ban by 17 December.

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk)

I warmly welcome the statement and the very belated recognition by the Government that there is no justification whatever for a ban on beef on the bone.

I have five questions for the Minister. First, will he confirm that when the ban was imposed two years ago it was only one of three options put forward by the Government's scientific advisers, and that the first option was publication of the research findings and the risk assessment of beef on the bone so that consumer choice really could be preserved?

Secondly, will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the Government's compliance cost assessment shows that the ban has cost the industry more than £170 million since 1997?

Thirdly, will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that it is 10 weeks since the chief medical officer advised that retail sales of beef on the bone could safely restart? During that period, the industry has lost another £15 million.

Fourthly, why does the Minister consider it safe to lift the ban today, when it was not safe to do so on 21 September when the chief medical officer reported? Has the Minister allowed Scotland and Wales a veto over whether English consumers can buy beef on the bone?

Finally, is the Minister aware that one month ago, the agricultural counsellor at the French embassy said that Britain's ban on beef on the bone at home was one reason why France was blocking British beef exports? Will the Minister now admit that his failure to lift the ban more quickly has seriously damaged confidence in British beef abroad, and has made the task of regaining our export markets much more difficult?

Mr. Brown

I thank the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) for the unstinting welcome that he has given to my announcement. His judgment, or lack of it, on the issue is exceeded only by his failure to follow the debate. As I have said repeatedly in the House, the beef-on-the-bone ban has absolutely nothing to do with the date-based export scheme, because the date-based export scheme is, as everybody who has followed the debate knows, for deboned beef.

With regard to the advice given me earlier by the chief medical officer for the United Kingdom, not only did I say that I accepted it, as did the then Secretary of State for Health, but I put it in the House of Commons Library so that every hon. Member could see it. Most hon. Members took notice of it and could study the issue on the basis of professional advice.

We did not implement the advice just in England because the Government believe it right to proceed consistently throughout the United Kingdom. That is what we are doing today. It required the consent of others. We sought and obtained that consent, and now we are proceeding. There is nothing new in that. It has been the basis of discussion for several months, as the hon. Gentleman ought to know. As for the advice that was given to my predecessor, that has also been put in the public domain.

With regard to the hon. Gentleman's question about compliance cost assessment, that is not the basis on which Government policy is being driven. The Government's policy is being driven by the overriding desire to provide proper protection for the public. The test of whether we are doing so is whether we are acting on the basis of professional medical advice. We are willing to do so and to put the interests of the public first. As the hon. Gentleman has said repeatedly in the House, the current Conservative party leadership is not willing to do that.

Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East and Musselburgh)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the progress that he is making. Does he agree that if the Conservatives had won the last election, the likelihood is that the ban on our beef exports would have lasted for the duration of this Parliament?

On the BSE-linked controls on sheep carcases, will my right hon. Friend tell the House what prospect there is that the restrictions on the sale of carcases of sheep over one year old will be lifted? Does he accept that the resumption of the trade in whole sheep carcases would be welcomed in the Scottish industry and throughout the UK?

Madam Speaker

Order. The Minister has come to the House to make a statement about beef on the bone. I will not allow him to answer questions in relation to other subjects. He has made a very restricted statement, and I hope that he will not stray from it when he answers the first part of the question.

Mr. Brown

My right hon. Friend is right. The Government have consistently followed scientific advice, and it is difficult to see how the Opposition could get any of the restrictions lifted in the institutions of the European Union if they are willing to put the scientific advice to one side.

Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall)

We welcome the announcement that the ban will one day be lifted, and we hope that that will be on 17 December. We, like the farming community, would have preferred that to happen some months ago. I did not hear the Minister's answer to the question that the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) asked about costs. Will he confirm that the set-up costs for the ban were approximately £25 million and that about £77 million a year has been spent on maintaining it?

Will the Minister also confirm that the Ministry received advice that suggested that it was not assured of success if challenged in the European Court? However, because of probable delays, the Ministry was happy to go ahead with the ban because a challenge was unlikely to be issued within an acceptable time scale. If that is true, why did the Minister allow prosecutions to proceed against many people who sold beef on the bone, especially Mr. "Beefy" Bowman of the Drover's Inn, Harrogate, whose case is on-going although it is currently adjourned? Does he believe—

Madam Speaker

Order. I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman has many more questions? If so, perhaps he could make written representations.

Mr. Breed

I would be only too pleased to do so. Does the Minister believe that those prosecutions should be dropped without further ado, so that those who have cases hanging over them can get on with running their businesses?

Does the Minister agree with the Leader of the House of Lords that the ban was introduced for "purposes of European diplomacy"? If so, does he believe that £200 million has been well spent?

Mr. Brown

At least my correspondence section will be relieved that the hon. Gentleman managed to get all that out. European diplomacy has nothing to do with the ban. The Government have acted consistently on the advice of their professional advisers; we continue to do that.

On existing prosecutions, I emphasise that the Ministry is not the prosecuting authority. Cutting abattoirs are a matter for the Meat Hygiene Service and other issues are for local authorities to decide. They and the courts—not me—are responsible for enforcing the law.

Our policy is not cost driven. The Government's overriding priority is the protection of the public. The hon. Gentleman asked about the delay in lifting the ban. We have to go through parliamentary procedures to protect the rights of the Opposition. If they want to throw those rights away, that will be an amazing revelation to my right hon. Friend the Government Chief Whip, who will take careful note of it.

The hon. Gentleman is wrong to say that the ban will be lifted "one day"; it will be lifted on 17 December.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the news that the ban on beef on the bone will be lifted. That news will be welcome to small butchers in Chorley. When I go to Mr. Brown's shop every Saturday to buy my meat, he tells me that he hopes that the ban will be lifted. I can now give him that positive news.

Farmers as well as butchers in Chorley will welcome the news. They believe that agriculture is at the heart of Government policy and that the Government will support them through continued grants. We would welcome my right hon. Friend to Chorley; we hope that he will visit our farmers and ensure that we continue to support agriculture.

Mr. Brown

I hope to be able to visit my hon. Friend's constituency soon, once I have completed one or two other tasks. In the meantime, I know that the butchery trade will welcome the lifting of the ban, because the Government act on the best professional advice that is available to us and to other authorities in the United Kingdom. We are able to lift the ban throughout the United Kingdom, and thus ensure that the announcement is greeted with confidence by consumers as well as the industry.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon)

There is a serious business behind what is becoming a Whitehall farce. The Government legislated for devolution and under devolution it is expected that there should be different policies in different parts of the United Kingdom from time to time—otherwise, devolution would not exist. Was it thought necessary not to lift the ban in England—even though the Minister and his advisers were convinced that it should be lifted—because that was not acceptable in other parts of the United Kingdom? Will he ensure that he will not hesitate to act on behalf of the devolved interests of the English if a parallel case arises?

Mr. Brown

I am happy to act on the devolved interests of the English, as the right hon. Gentleman puts it, and I have asked the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Ms Quin), to act within the Department as the Minister for England, as well as carrying out her other responsibilities. We decided not to proceed on an England-only basis because it is clearly in the interests of consumers, as well as the industry, to have a uniform pattern of regulation throughout the United Kingdom on this particular issue. Although it may be possible to act differently on a particular subject, that does not mean that one should seek to do so—especially if it is more rational to act together—and my discussions with my colleagues in the devolved Assemblies have been very mature on all these issues. Those discussions have gone well and we all agree that it is right to act, if we can, in the same way and to the same timetable across the United Kingdom.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on what he has achieved and urge him to ignore the comments of Conservative Members—we would not be anywhere near this far along the line if we relied on their approach. I remind him that the ban on beef on the bone was imposed because of infectivity in the dorsal root ganglia and possible infectivity in the marrow. Can he assure the House that that has not been proved and that that is why he has been able to lift the ban?

Mr. Brown

I am able to raise the ban on retail sales and sales through catering establishments—direct sales—because that is the professional advice I have received. That advice is for all to see, because I have placed it in the Library today. My hon. Friend refers to the attitude of the Opposition, who seem to want to welcome the announcement and jeer it at the same time. They need a more mature strategy for dealing with those issues than merely jeering from the sidelines; and given how these circumstances were brought into being in the first place, a little humility might be appropriate.

Sir Peter Emery (East Devon)

We are not jeering from the sidelines; we are condemning the Minister for having had the advice since September and doing nothing about it for England. If he is thinks that his logic about having to have uniformity for the whole of the United Kingdom makes any sense for my constituents in Devon, he is talking nonsense. Will he therefore give this country an undertaking that, if a similar situation arises, he will not be vetoed by the Scottish Parliament or the Welsh Assembly?

Mr. Brown

The right hon. Gentleman should now take a deep breath. The different authorities in the United Kingdom are acting in concert not because we have to, but because we want to.

Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's announcement, which is consistent with sound scientific advice and administrative common sense. However, what guidance will he give the enforcement authorities in the consultation period until 17 December? He has correctly drawn attention to the fact that the Ministry is not the enforcement authority in these cases.

Mr. Brown

My hon. Friend is on to a good point. I have asked the enforcement authorities to take careful note of today's statement and, in particular, of the fact that it is the Government's clear intention to have the ban lifted across the United Kingdom, in concert with the other authorities, by 17 December.

Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow)

Will the Minister of Agriculture apologise to the House? Once again, we find that the House is being informed a long time after the press has been briefed on these matters, and it is a contempt of the House for the Government repeatedly to make announcements outside before making them to Members of Parliament.

Mr. Brown

I take that as a welcome for today's announcement. If the House is due an apology, surely it should come from those who presided over these circumstances in the first place.

Mr. Ben Bradshaw (Exeter)

Will my right hon. Friend take the opportunity once and for all to explode the myth that was being peddled as the Conservative spokesman traipsed the radio and television studios this lunchtime in advance of this parliamentary announcement? He said that the beef-on-the-bone ban has hindered the lifting of the beef export ban. Is not the opposite the case? Will my right hon. Friend confirm that we would not have got the beef export ban lifted if we had ignored our official scientific advice? Does that not show that the Conservative party has learned nothing since it gave us BSE?

Mr. Brown

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The date-based export scheme and the beef-on-the-bone ban are not related, because of the nature of the export scheme. This is a national interest and should not be a party political point. It does our country no favours to wander around the studios suggesting that there is a connection when there clearly is not.

Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border)

When will we get the truth from the Government, which is that two years ago they introduced an unnecessary ban when they had an option not to do so, because that was part of the chief medical officer's advice? When will they stop blaming the chief medical officer for their own lack of judgment? When will we get an apology from Ministers for wasting two years with an unnecessary ban that has caused damage not just to farmers, but to restaurateurs, hoteliers and caterers? Will Ministers be prepared to make reparations to the people whom they unnecessarily damaged?

Mr. Brown

I have complete confidence in the professional advice that I receive from the UK Government's professional advisers. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why not act on it?"] I am acting on it. The right hon. Gentleman asks when we will know the truth. I think that we will know the truth about the BSE tragedy, inasmuch as anyone ever can, once the inquiry reports.

Dr. George Turner (North-West Norfolk)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the reasons the British public are eating more British beef than they did before BSE is that they now know that the Government will properly protect the consumer and will take sound medical advice, rather than play every food issue for petty party advantage?

Mr. Brown

Of course my hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Government's priority is to protect the consumer, and we do that by acting on professional advice.

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)

Today's announcement is a bit late, but most welcome. Will the Minister concentrate on giving the Meat and Livestock Commission sufficient resources to ensure that it can work hard to recover the market that we have lost?

Mr. Brown

I agree with that. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I are meeting those most directly concerned with beef exports tomorrow to discuss the way forward.

Mr. Andy King (Rugby and Kenilworth)

It is rich of Conservative Members to demand an apology from the Minister on this issue, which he has handled with enormous skill that is worthy of the support of the House. He has done remarkably well. I have not heard an apology from Conservative Members for BSE the whole time I have been in the House. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the House should receive an apology from Conservative Members for their mishandling of the BSE crisis?

Mr. Brown

I think that I can modestly agree with that. As for the apologies, we shall await the outcome of the BSE inquiry.

Sir Nicholas Lyell (North-East Bedfordshire)

Has the Minister no sense of urgency? Does he not realise that farmers in Bedfordshire, whether they are producing beef, poultry or pigs, are dying on their feet and watching him doing nothing week after week? We welcome this statement at last, but others who are watching their businesses go down the drain are looking for action. Please will he take it?

Mr. Brown

Farmers are indeed getting action today because I am lifting the ban. There is a parliamentary procedure to go through. We have such parliamentary procedures to protect the rights of the Opposition, which I would have thought the right hon. and learned Gentleman would be keener on now that he is that side of the House. The procedure that I am adopting, which I assume has the House's consent, is an accelerated procedure. I have also specifically drawn today's statement to the attention of the enforcement authorities.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde)

I welcome the lifting of the ban, but will the Minister acknowledge that it caused serious damage to the reputation of the finest beef in the world—British beef? It also exposed a dangerous rift in Government over how questions of risk should be dealt with.

Now that the ban has gone, what steps is the Minister taking to re-examine the operation of the over-30-months scheme, particularly in respect of beef herds in which there has been no incidence of BSE, and in which the animals are fed on grass and are slow in maturing?

Mr. Brown

The first step is to receive advice from the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee, and I expect to receive it soon.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his welcome for the lifting of the ban, but I fundamentally disagree with his point about damage to the beef industry. I believe that real and sustained damage would be done to the industry if the public could not have confidence in the public protection measures that enable me to say with confidence that British beef is among the safest in the world.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine)

As one who voted against the ban, I obviously welcome its lifting; but can the Minister reassure farmers in my constituency, especially given the falls in their incomes? He said in his statement that he continued to envisage difficult times, and, although it was a morale-boosting statement, there is a long way to go before the tragedy of BSE and the crisis in agriculture have been dealt with.

Mr. Brown

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his welcome for the statement. The right way forward for the beef industry is for it to provide a product that its customers want, and in which they can have confidence. That is why, given the tragedy of BSE, public protection measures are so important to consumers, and therefore to the industry itself.

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire)

Does the Minister agree that there is more joy in heaven when one sinner repenteth, no matter how belated that repentance may be? Will he give an assurance on the subject of uniformity? This is something that I simply do not understand. Will he assure us that there will never again be a veto over English agricultural policy by the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly?

Mr. Brown

Theology is not my strong point, but I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the different authorities in the United Kingdom are acting in concert, because we all believe that it is right to do so. It is in the interests of consumers, and in the interests of the United Kingdom beef industry.

Mr. Yeo

The Minister says that the two-week delay in the lifting of the ban is intended to protect the rights of the Opposition. May I say on behalf of the Opposition that, in the interests of British consumers, we are willing to forgo those rights and approve the necessary order this afternoon?

Mr. Brown

The hon. Gentleman was not the leading or significant opposition that I had in mind. There may be real opponents of what I have announced today, and they should be given some time in which to have their say.

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