HC Deb 10 February 2000 vol 344 cc392-3
4. William Thompson (West Tyrone)

What progress is being made in discussions with the European Commission to categorise Northern Ireland as a low BSE incidence area; and if he will make a statement. [107881]

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

The matter is under discussion between the UK Agriculture Departments. The Northern Ireland Minister, Brid Rogers, made out a strong case when we met recently. I find the Northern Ireland case persuasive and want to help to take it forward constructively.

Mr. Thompson

I thank the Minister for his positive reply. I am sure that he appreciates the efforts that have been made by the new Minister of Agriculture in Northern Ireland to further the case. It is a strong case, and I urge the Minister to redouble his efforts to bring it to a happy fruition, because of its importance to the farming industry in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Brown

I want to work constructively with the responsible authorities in Northern Ireland to take the issue forward in a constructive way. The case is a good one. Other countries that have been accepted as low risk, such as the Republic of Ireland, have a higher incidence of the disease than Northern Ireland. The House may be interested to know that, in 1999, there were some eight cases of BSE per million head of adult cattle in Northern Ireland. That compares with about 25 in Ireland, 50 in Switzerland, 230 in Portugal and 365 in Great Britain.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

I was pleased with my right hon. Friend's response. I support the position adopted by the hon. Member for West Tyrone (Mr. Thompson) who, on this matter, is supporting a united Ireland approach and obviously believes in equality for farmers throughout the island of Ireland. My right hon. Friend will be aware that the Ulster Farmers Union has stated: On science and on fact we qualify as a low incidence region. There were, I believe, only six cases of BSE in Northern Ireland in 1999.

Mr. Brown

The figure that I have is between seven and eight, but we will not quarrel—the point is clear. We have not yet succeeded, but the case is a good one, founded in fact, and I want to take it forward.

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk)

If the Minister is too weak to stand up for Northern Ireland, will he tell us— [Interruption.] Yes, he is engulfed in bureaucratic excuses for not doing what the hon. Member for West Tyrone (Mr. Thompson) asked. Will the Minister tell the House what action he is taking to protect British consumers against the dangers of eating French beef, following this week's report which exposed the scandalously defective procedures in France, where large numbers of potential BSE cases are being slaughtered without proper inspection or even proper recording, and from which meat is being sold for human consumption?

Mr. Brown

I see now why the hon. Gentleman was not moved in his party's last reshuffle—certainly not to Northern Ireland. These issues are not easy. The proper approach is to work constructively with those who understand them and to find a constructive way forward. We do exactly the same on food safety issues—

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)


Mr. Brown

I do not think that the public who are being protected by the measure that we have in place would regard the Government's attitude as supine. Such remarks come ill from members of the Conservative party, which presided over the BSE crisis in this country. We act on professional advice on the safety of food and of imported food, and we will continue to do so.