HL Deb 05 March 1968 vol 289 cc1226-32

2.52 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question of which I have given Private Notice.


My Lords, the noble Lord has asked: Is Her Majesty's Government satisfied that there is sufficient justification for the lifting of the ban on imported beef which was announced yesterday by the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food? The Answer is: Yes, my Lords. The decision announced yesterday was taken after the most careful consideration and taking into account not only the specific animal health factors but the wider economic implications of our national trading policy.


My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for both asking the Question and answering it for me so pleasantly. Is he aware that the lifting of the ban on Argentine beef imports is bound to shake the industry and the industry's confidence in the sincerity of Government policy with regard to the expansion of home meat production, and therefore to deter farmers from fresh outlay on this account; and that the industry is in no condition to stand additional strains after the devastating experience it has had in recent months? May I ask the noble Lord this question? Have the Government taken a calculated risk as to the effect on home production and in fact come down in favour of the other factors involved, such as the Argentine trade and the immediate level of beef prices here?

May I put a further, technical point to the noble Lord? With regard to the special stock of vaccine which was imported as a last line of defence last December, and which will lose its potency by about the summer, will the noble Lord say whether it is the Government's intention to renew this stock so that there will be this last line of defence throughout the period when the public inquiry under the Duke of Northumberland is being conducted?


My Lords, I am sorry that the noble Lord suggests that the decision announced yesterday will in some way upset the confidence of the industry. The fact of the matter is, as he will recognise, that my right honourable friend gave a most categorical assurance in the first place that the ban was a temporary one, and he undertook to review it by March 4, which was yesterday. So if it is a question of fulfilling obligations, I cannot really think my right honourable friend has failed in that regard. As far as the actual risk is concerned, the noble Lord will have read, I have no doubt, the report of the Chief Veterinary Officer, in which attention was called specifically to mutton and lamb; and it is because of the trouble which it is thought was caused by that imported meat that the continued ban relates only to mutton and lamb.

It is perfectly true, of course, that one had to weigh up certain risks (and there are risks, one admits) in allowing the continuation of imports from a country in which there is endemic foot-and-mouth disease. At the same time, one had to count the cost of insurance, and on the present information it was thought that the cost of complete insurance was excessive. As to the question which the noble Lord asked about the potency of the vaccine, I am afraid I cannot answer it now, but I shall certainly find out about this and let him know.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord whether there was not a clear undertaking on the part of the Government that there would be no action taken while the Duke of Northumberland's Committee was consider this matter; and will the Government not honour what was, I will not say an undertaking but certainly a very clear understanding? Surely there could be no point in appointing the Duke of Northumberland to inquire into this unless some attention was going to be paid to him. Secondly, have not the Government had from one of the highest veterinary authorities in the country a very clear opinion that it would be madness to import beef from the Argentine unless it was boned and without any offal?


My Lords, I really am sorry that the noble Earl talks again to-day about honouring undertakings. It is not only unfair but inaccurate to say that there was an undertaking in this regard. The undertaking was to have a temporary ban. As far as the Committee of Inquiry is concerned, what my right honourable friend has said is that the Report made eventually by the Northumberland Committee will of course be given every consideration, and the question of a ban on imports will be reviewed in the light of that Committee's Report.

So far as the boning of meat is concerned, I know there are suggestions that the risk would be further lessened if beef were imported only after it was boned, but there is by no means a consensus of opinion among the veterinary surgeons on this point. There are many who say that there are other risks in the act of boning; that there is a possibility of other infection setting in during the course of the boning. The general view of the people best able to tell seems to be that it would not have helped the situation to limit the imports of meat only to boned meat.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord, if he will, to try to say something really clear to dispel the understandable impression which has been given, that this decision is one of the worst sort of compromise, which is always a temptation for a Government when there is a strong case that can be made out in two directions. Does he not see that to maintain the ban on lamb and yet to free beef, when cattle are generally believed, rightly or wrongly, to be more susceptible than sheep, is really something very difficult for the farming community and for the country to understand?


My Lords, for what it is worth, this is a point which occurred to me, and it was a point which I tried honestly to pursue. I am assured by the veterinary officers in the Ministry that the point here is that it is much more difficult to detect infection in sheep than in cattle, and that there is a greater risk of infection from imported mutton and lamb than there is from imported beef. Moreover, the action taken follows the report of the Chief Veterinary Officer, and as the noble Lord will know, if he has read that report, reference is made only to mutton and lamb.


My Lords, is it not the case that in the Argentine mutton goes through the same slaughterhouses as beef, and there is a risk of infection from the mutton to the beef? Yet you are still freeing beef imports from the Argentine to this country.


My Lords, it is the case that the sheep run through one part of the building and the cattle through another. But, again, this is one of the points that the mission and afterwards the veterinary officers' delegation going to Argentina will be able to look at.


My Lords, does the noble Lord mean to imply that the Government have done this without having fully ascertained that no beef animals are being slaughtered and their meat sent to this country from the same frigorifico from which have come these lamb and mutton carcases?


My Lords, I do not know what the noble Lord means by "implying". What I am saying is that there is no evidence at all that we have had brought into this country any infected beef. There is a certain amount of circumstantial evidence that we have had infected mutton and lamb. The decision taken is to continue the ban on imported mutton and lamb.


My Lords, may I ask one question to clarify something in the Answer to the original Question? Do we understand that if the Duke of Northumberland's Committee found that beef was a cause of the infection, Her Majesty's Government would feel completely free to re-impose a ban; and could we say, therefore, that the relief of the ban is temporary until the Duke of Northumberland's Committee reports?


My Lords, I hesitate to use the word "temporary" because I think it could be misleading. All these decisions are temporary in the sense that the Government, if new evidence comes along, can reverse a decision. The undertaking given here is that the Report from the Northumberland Committee will be given every consideration. If it were to report that it was unwise to import either beef or mutton then the Government would be perfectly free to reverse the decision which we are now discussing.


My Lords, may I ask whether the Chief Veterinary Officer at the Ministry has agreed with the Government's policy, whether they are acting on his advice and whether he now, despite his Report, says it is safe to import beef from an area where foot-and-mouth disease is endemic?


My Lords, I am surprised, after the experience of the noble Lord in the same Department as mine, that he should expect an answer to that question.


My Lords, could the noble Lord tell me how many cases of foot-and-mouth disease; since the war which have definitely been established as being due to a particular cause have been due to imported beef, how many have been due to imported mutton and how many have been due to other causes? If the noble Lord cannot answer now, could he make a statement about it in the future, so that people in this country can judge whether the Ministry's action is really in the interests of the farming community of this country or purely a nasty compromise?


My Lords, if the noble Duke were to put down a Question, I should be happy to give him the fullest possible answer. It is true that there have been cases in the past of infection from imported beef. It is also true that the Administrations of those days were never concerned to ban imported beef.


My Lords, referring to the point made in answer to the first Question, may I ask whether the noble Lord could tell us if the Government are satisfied that the serious threat of cancellation of very important industrial contracts has been lessened by the decision that the Government have taken?


Yes, my Lords, those considerations were covered in the original Answer when I said that the decision had been taken in the light of the overall trading policy of this country.


My Lords, could the noble Lord answer the question by my noble friend Lord Balerno, in which he asked whether it was the case that the Government had lifted this ban before finding out if mutton and beef were separated in the Argentine before being exported here?


My Lords, I am not sure that that question was put by the noble Lord. If it was, I am sorry if I did not answer it. The fact is that there is a separation on purchase; there is an agreement, as I understand it, that all meat—mutton, lamb and beef—should be exported only after proper inspection in the slaughter houses in the country of origin. It is this sort of point that will be considered by the delegation now going to the Argentine.


My Lords, would the noble Lord not agree that it would make more sense if all meat from this specific frigorifico had been banned from entry into this country?


No, my Lords. This is a question which has been asked, I know; but in so far as the infection has this time been attributed to mutton and lamb, all mutton and lamb from this particular depot, No. 1408, will be banned, together with mutton and lamb from other slaughter houses.


My Lords, can the noble Lord say whether the mutton is almost invariably frozen, whereas the beef is chilled? I venture to ask that question because for many years I had to deal with that trade and that was always the case. It might be hoped that freezing did something to do away with the infection.


My Lords, the noble Marquess is probably right as to the different treatment which different meats receive. I think, however, that the effect is probably the reverse of that which he suggests.