HC Deb 17 July 2003 vol 409 cc429-30
7. Mr. Peter Duncan (Galloway and Upper Nithsdale)

If she will make a statement on prospects for the UK beef industry. [126283]

The Minister for Rural Affairs and Local Environmental Quality (Alun Michael)

The prospects for UK beef are excellent. The recent recommendation by the Food Standards Agency to phase out the over-30-month rule is a demonstration of high confidence in UK beef. Producer returns are at their highest level since 1995, and CAP reform will simplify support systems and encourage beef farmers to produce what the consumer wants.

Mr. Duncan

The Minister will be aware that the lifting of the over-30-month scheme will be welcomed by everyone in the UK beef industry, particularly in my constituency. However, the manner in which the scheme is to be removed poses a real threat to price stability in the industry, with the threat of a collapse in market price if change is effected too quickly. Some very fragile rural communities face uncertainty once more. Will the Minister commit his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to looking once again into phasing out the scheme over two, three or four years, to provide market stability while ensuring that consumer confidence is maintained?

Alun Michael

The hon. Gentleman raises some important issues. It is clear that a large increase in supplies of beef could cause disruption to the market. We are discussing the implications of changes to the OTM rule with the European Commission, which has primary responsibility for managing the market in the EU. We have also set up a working group with the industry to explore the likely impact on the market of increased supplies of beef and how they can best be managed. So we are addressing the concerns expressed by the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon)

Does the Minister accept that to get rid of the over-30-month scheme would be an enormous prize for the whole agricultural industry? We had to introduce it because there was an emergency in people's confidence in food and in animal health. That had the consequence of closing our export markets. It would be absurd if we put the cart before the horse and failed to recognise that getting rid of the scheme would be the greatest vote of confidence that we could possibly give our industry. Will the Minister ensure that, even if there are risks of market disruption, they are balanced against the prize to be seized from the scheme's removal?

Alun Michael

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. The confidence that has been placed in the British beef industry is well merited. When one meets beef producers around the countryside, it is interesting to see that many are now taking the initiative to connect well with their market, not only by producing what consumers want but by getting across to them the quality of the product that they are offering. I agree with the right hon.. Gentleman: we should have confidence in the industry.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

May I reinforce what my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) has said? It would also be reassuring to know that the Minister was keeping under review the need to continue testing over-30-month beef. In particular, will he also keep under review the costs of those tests?

Alun Michael

Yes, the right hon. and learned Gentleman is right; we are absolutely committed to that course.