HL Deb 16 April 1996 vol 571 cc597-612

5.29 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Scottish Office (The Earl of Lindsay)

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I should now like to repeat a Statement which has been made in another place by my right honourable friend the Minister of State for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The Statement reads as follows:

"With permission, Madam Speaker, I would like to make a Statement on BSE.

"In my previous Statement of 3rd April I stated that there were signs that confidence was returning. I am very pleased to tell the House that matters have continued to improve. The latest reports I have are that consumption is at roughly 85 per cent. of pre-crisis levels and that cattle throughput in markets is nearing 60 per cent. of previous levels. That is encouraging as it is only by restoring confidence in beef that the industry's future will be secured for the long term. The measures that I am about to announce are geared to the achievement of that aim.

"I have consistently made it clear that the Government are determined to ensure a viable future of the essential sectors in the beef chain; that is, farmers, the slaughterhouse sector, manufacturers and renderers.

"I take farmers first. I announced on 28th March that the EU calf premium scheme would be opened in the UK. The scheme will open next week and will be run by the Intervention Board. Slightly over £100 will be paid for each qualifying calf.

"The House is aware that animals slaughtered at 30 months of age or more are now excluded from the food chain and of the expectation that farmers would be compensated by the EC scheme. I can announce today that this will now come into effect in the week beginning 29th April and will also be run by the Intervention Board. Depending on the weight of their animals, farmers could receive nearly £500 per animal, effectively the cull cow price. The Government will bear the costs of slaughter and destruction of the animals.

"I recognise that some producers of steers and heifers plan to bring their animals to market at over 30 months and will not have had time to adjust their production systems. Such animals would typically fetch significantly more than cull cows. I am pleased to announce today that the Government will pay a nationally-funded supplement to the basic premium in respect of such steers and heifers, at a rate which reflects the historic differences between cow prices and those for steers and heifers. This supplement will be payable for six months which will allow producers time to adapt their marketing programmes to the new circumstances. The cost is likely to be up to £80 million. In general, the total return for animals over 30 months should not be greater than the market price of animals below 30 months going for consumption. The market is, however, turbulent at present. It would be helpful for producers to be clear about the position when the scheme comes into operation. Accordingly, the "top up" will be set at no less than 25 pence per kilogram for the first four weeks that the scheme is in operation.

"In the longer run we need arrangements to allow back on the market meat from those breeds—for example, specialist breeds—which often do not mature until after 30 months. Many are in herds with no history of BSE. The case for exempting animals such as these from the 30-month rule is very strong. My officials are urgently working up the technical elements of a scheme which would allow clearly defined exemptions to be made.

"I reported on 3rd April extensions in the coverage of beef intervention. On 12th April a further widening of the categories of intervention applicable in the UK and the removal of weight limits were agreed. For the first time, intervention on young bulls will be possible in the United Kingdom.

"More generally, I am also pursuing with food retailers and manufacturers ideas for quality assurance schemes to help restore confidence in British beef. As a result, I am able to announce that we are urgently proceeding with arrangements to improve animal identification and traceability. I hope to be in a position to introduce a system of mandatory animal passports for this purpose with effect from 1st June. That will make a valuable contribution to the development of marketing strategies by retailers and manufacturers to persuade consumers that our beef is of the highest quality.

"I believe that these measures taken together, in addition to those we have already announced, will provide the essential support that our beef farming sector needs.

"So far as manufacturers are concerned, on 12th April I amended the Emergency Control Order to allow imports of beef from animals over 30 months of age produced in certain third countries traditionally supplying the UK in which there is no history of BSE. That was necessary to prevent closures in parts of the meat manufacturing industry that for technical reasons are heavily dependent on imports of older beef. I should emphasise that my decision to lift the ban on imports does not apply to imports from EU countries.

"I turn now to the slaughtering sector. In my recent Statements, I have informed the House of the additional resources that we are giving to the Meat Hygiene Service to ensure rigorous enforcements of the rules on hygiene in slaughterhouses, in particular on SBOs. We have now received a report from Coopers & Lybrand who were appointed on 4th April to quantify the economic difficulties facing the slaughterhouse sector. I have today placed in the Library of the House a copy of their report, with minor excisions for reasons of commercial confidentiality. Coopers & Lybrand have concluded that there is a substantial "blockage" of unsold meat in the slaughtering sector, valued at some £132 million at pre-crisis price levels, which is undermining the financial viability of many companies to the extent that, in the absence of action, widespread company failures are likely soon. Against this background, I believe that exceptional assistance is justified.

"I can announce today that I propose to introduce an aid scheme which will inject some £110 million into the slaughtering sector. This will consist of two elements. The first is that all slaughterhouses which continue to slaughter bovines will receive payment based on their throughput of cattle in 1995–96. This payment will be made in two stages, 80 per cent. to be paid immediately and the remaining 20 per cent. in two months' time. This assistance will replace the proposal to relieve slaughterhouses from Meat Hygiene Service red meat inspection charges to which I referred on 3rd April. Assistance will be paid at the rate of around £8.75 for every bovine slaughtered during 1995–96, giving a total of £30 million to he paid under this head.

"The second is that the Government will introduce arrangements for purchasing and disposal of the blockage, which has already been identified and audited under the supervision of Coopers & Lybrand. The Intervention Board will purchase these stocks at a valuation of 65 per cent. of the pre-crisis market price and will take responsibility for their secure disposal. The board will enter into urgent discussions with the trade associations on the detailed mechanisms.

"We estimate that the total cost of this second aid will be some £80 million, making £110 million in aid overall.

"Pending parliamentary approval, which will be sought by way of Supplementary Estimates, necessary expenditure for this and the top-up payment to producers of animals over 30 months old, to which I referred a few moments ago, will be met by repayable advances from the Contingencies Fund.

"The slaughtering sector was recognised, before the latest crisis, to have substantial over-capacity and Coopers & Lybrand have confirmed that view. Rationalisation is therefore necessary. The substantial package of support that I have announced should, however, provide a breathing space during which companies can adjust to the new market circumstances and make rational decisions about their future operations. Without this support, we risked the disorderly collapse of a sector upon which a secure and efficient beef supply chain crucially depends.

"I am, of course, aware that there may be other sectors which also have stocks which they cannot bring to market. The support that I have announced today is, however, based on the particular circumstances and the role of the slaughtering sector. The Government do not therefore consider that equivalent assistance should be paid to other sectors. In the interests of public health and market confidence I am, however, asking the Intervention Board to accept responsibility for disposal of unsaleable stocks currently held in the United Kingdom at Government expense, if requested to do so.

"The waste material, offals and carcass meat resulting from the actions that I am announcing today will be treated primarily by rendering, with the resultant material to be disposed of by the best practicable environmental option. The ways and means of this are being discussed urgently with the industries concerned.

"This indicates the importance of the rendering industry to the beef chain. I announced previously a temporary subsidy for renderers and first payments will be made this week.

"Madam Speaker, the announcements I have made provide a comprehensive system of support for the essential links in the beef chain. They should enable the industries to plan ahead for the future with confidence.

"However, there are two other aspects on which the House will wish to know the Government's position. I refer to the EC ban on UK exports and the possibility of selective culling to accelerate the decline in incidence of BSE.

"So far as the ban is concerned, the Government will make every effort to secure its speedy elimination by whatever means are most likely to prove effective, including a legal challenge in the European Court of Justice shortly.

"So far as selective culling is concerned, my experts are looking carefully at whether a cost effective scheme could be devised. This remains to be seen. However, I should say at once that the picture that some have painted of a mass slaughtering policy involving millions of cattle and a large proportion of the British herd is wholly unreal. The Government have no intention of adopting any such measure which would be altogether unacceptable on many grounds. The models we are looking at involve limited numbers of individual animals—in the low tens of thousands, and not hundreds of thousands, far less the millions which are sometimes described—and do not provide for the slaughter of whole herds.

"If an acceptable scheme can be devised—that is, one which is likely to reduce the incidence of BSE significantly at acceptable cost—then the Government will consult on the details with all those interested before taking matters forward. So far as implementation is concerned, we would only go ahead if we were satisfied that to do so was to the clear benefit of the UK beef industry; for example, if there was a direct understanding about the lifting of the EC ban.

"The past few weeks have been a period of great concern for all those who work in the beef industry. As a Member of this House representing a rural constituency, I share the very real anxiety felt by all those who farm and whose livelihoods depend on the beef industry. The extensive package of measures I have announced today should go a long way to reassuring farmers and other essential sectors of the beef industry that they can rely on the full support of the Government in this their hour of need".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

5.44 p.m.

Lord Carter

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for repeating the Statement that was made in another place by his right honourable friend. As always, I declare an interest in that the farming company with which I am involved has dairy cattle and we shall be involved in the cull cow scheme and possibly a selective slaughter scheme if one is produced.

I quote from the Statement, cattle throughput in markets is nearing 60 per cent. of previous levels". However, I am sure the Minister is aware that this still represents a substantial problem. We have had a late, cold spring and forage stocks are running out fast. Until the cattle throughput has returned to something like its normal level, there will still be a substantial financial burden on farmers. We are pleased that the calf premium scheme is to start next week. It is slightly ironic that the Government refused to introduce the scheme to stop the export of live calves when that was proposed some time ago but a large number of those exported live calves have now been slaughtered in Holland and in France.

The nationally funded supplement to the basic premium in respect of steers and heifers is obviously welcome. However, I wonder how practical it is to say that this supplement will be payable for six months, and that that will allow producers time to adapt their marketing programmes to the new circumstances. The production of beef is not like an industrial production line. It will take a lot longer than six months for the beef producers to adjust their systems. As I understand the Statement, the top-up will be set at no less than 25p per kilogram—that is, about £125 for a 500 kilogram animal—for the first four weeks that the scheme is in operation. Is the Minister able to give us any idea what will happen after the four weeks? What do the Government think should happen then?

My next point is extremely important. Can the Government explain which Act of Parliament gives them the legal power to introduce the slaughter scheme at all? Is it introduced on grounds of animal health or on grounds of public health? We welcome the exemptions for the specialist breeds as we are all aware of the problem in that regard. It is interesting that the Government are now pursuing the idea of a quality assurance scheme. That was proposed by the Labour Party after the first Statement was made on 20th March. Your Lordships will remember that the idea was comprehensively rubbished by the Prime Minister in the other place. We are glad to see that that idea is now being accepted.

The matter of traceability is extremely important. We are pleased to note that there will be a system of mandatory animal passports. The decision to lift the ban on imports does not apply to imports from the other member states of the European Union. Are the Government confident that they can control the trade of animals which are exported from other member states and are then reimported here from third countries? As regards the slaughtering sector, the Coopers & Lybrand report states that the stocks are valued at some £132 million at pre-crisis price levels and the Government are proposing aid of £110 million. As I understand it, that means that the slaughtering sector is being asked to pick up the tab of £22 million in a short period of time. I wonder whether that will be sufficient to prevent the widespread company failures to which the Government referred.

As regards the Intervention Board arrangements to purchase the stocks which are a part of the blockage, as it were, the Government state that the Intervention Board will purchase these stocks at a valuation of 65 per cent. of the pre-crisis market price and will take responsibility for their secure disposal. Will the Minister tell us exactly what that means? What is meant by secure disposal? What is the method that is intended to be used to dispose of these stocks? Are they able to enter the food chain or do they have to be destroyed?

As regards the disposal of the unsaleable stocks which are currently held in the United Kingdom, the Government state that these will be cleared, but have they any idea of the compensation levels that will be paid for the unsaleable stocks? Have the Government any idea of what this will cost? There is also the overwhelming problem of the disposal of the offal from the rendering industry. The Government are considering the best practical environmental options for this. As we all know, the meat and bonemeal industry has been a massive exercise in waste disposal. It would be helpful if the Minister could tell us just what environmental options the Government are considering.

On the question of the legal challenge in the European Court of Justice, we heard this morning that the NFU is proposing to sue the Government and Customs and Excise as a party of the first part, as the lawyers say. Will the Government explain how that action will march with the one which they are proposing in the European Court of Justice? Will they bring the Commission or the Council of Ministers in as a third party or will it be a separate action? How will the two actions march together? On the subject of the ban, the Government have been asked before to give the precise Community authority, by article of treaty, by regulation number or by directive, which gives the European Commission the power to impose the ban. I believe that question has been asked before but I am not sure that it has been answered.

We welcome the fact that whole herds or large numbers of animals will not be slaughtered. As the Statement correctly stated, some have painted a picture of a mass slaughter involving a large proportion of the British herd and that is unreal. I remind the House that that was a remark made by the Minister, Mr. Douglas Hogg, on a television programme on the Sunday after the first Statement was made. It is important that if there is to be a selective slaughter system we should know about it as quickly as possible as the situation is creating uncertainty.

As regards the selective slaughter scheme and the European ban, the Statement states that so far as implementation is concerned, the Government would only go ahead in the context of a clear understanding about the lifting of the EC ban. But which comes first? If your Lordships will excuse the pun, this could be an expensive game of chicken. Can the Minister now give the final cost of this measure to the UK taxpayer after deducting the European contribution from our rebate next year? It is not easy to work that out from the Statement. What will be the final cost to the UK taxpayer when all the various complicated transfers have taken place between this country and Europe? Can he give us any idea of the global figure?

This is four weeks of the worst crisis that any of us can remember in our farming lifetimes. We shall wish to call the Government to account in the debate in the name of my noble friend Lord Richard on the Order Paper tomorrow. But at least with this Statement the Government are starting to recognise the magnitude of the problem and are beginning at last to deal with it.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. It is an encouragement. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Carter, said, it has been four weeks, and during that time a number of people have suffered immense distress and financial loss. Can the Minister tell me whether the Government mean to do anything about those people who have had to sell their animals at a great loss? I see no way under this scheme that they will be compensated. Those are the people who have already suffered greatly.

I was pleased to see that the qualifications for intervention are to be widened. I always thought that the intervention scheme took in the best animals, good meat, and put out poor meat some months later. If the system is extended to take much wider categories of meat off the market, and if that is done immediately, it will help to restore normality.

The six-month period in which to alter a system of marketing older beef is too short. You cannot change a farming system in six months. The Minister may well know that it takes nine months for a calf to be born. I understand that this is an interval that you cannot speed up.

I have already said that the intervention is welcome. It is totally necessary. It must begin and must be extensive immediately.

I do not wish to go into the Statement to a great extent because we have the debate tomorrow. That will be an opportunity for everyone to study the Statement and to add that to the experience that we already have of BSE.

As regards the slaughtering section, the assistance is welcome. I hope that it will be applied quickly because the sector is in dire straits financially. This assistance will give those people some hope that the bankers may support them until they can get out of their trouble.

I welcome the fact that the Statement says that, the waste material, offals and carcase meat … will be treated primarily by rendering". I hope that when it is rendered into bonemeal—it makes the most marvellous phosphatic fertiliser—the Government will ensure that mistakes in the rendering industry which precipitated this crisis are not repeated and that the system is absolutely safe.

We must all work to reverse the ban on exports. It appears to everyone quite ludicrous that Mr. Fischler should say that he will eat beef and that it is perfectly safe, while the export of beef is banned. The sooner that companies such as McDonald's which use beef go back to using British beef which is guaranteed safe, the better.

I echo my relief that the nonsense about killing every animal in Britain if necessary has now been laid to rest. This I must say. I cannot excuse the Government because the first person I heard that from was the Minister of Agriculture himself.

The Earl of Lindsay

My Lords, I am grateful for the general welcome which the noble Lord, Lord Carter, and the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, have given to today's package. Indeed, I am also grateful for the specific parts of that package to which they referred.

The criticism—I believe that it is totally unjustified—that they both decided to echo was that the Government are only now finally getting round to doing something. I remind noble Lords that this is, I believe, the fourth Statement by an agriculture Minister on this issue. In the first 20 days of this BSE saga we announced 20 measures. In the first 20 days we secured funding for rescue packages of somewhere between £500 million and £1,000 million. That is between £0.5 billion and £1 billion worth of rescue measures. We are now at about the 27th or 28th day and the number of measures is up by an equivalent figure, and so is the funding. From day 1 we were bringing forward measures and securing funds. We have acted positively and urgently throughout.

The noble Lord, Lord Carter, quite rightly pointed out that at 60 per cent. throughput our slaughtering sector is still well down on the activity that it requires. That is why such a large proportion of the measures that we have in place are aimed specifically at market activity. When the calf scheme, the residual beef scheme, intervention measures and all the other measures are accelerating that throughput, that 60 per cent., we hope, will rise significantly. It will also help many other related trades such as the haulage industry.

The top-up is based on a time limited six-month period. Both noble Lords queried that. We have taken advice both in England and Scotland from agricultural advisers as to the amount of time that it takes to change the feeding regime of an animal in order to bring it up to market weight prior to 30 months. We have been advised that if an animal at present is over 24 months and on a slow fattening regime, it is unlikely, whatever one does to that animal, that it could be marketed at under 30 months. However, if an animal is under 24 months today, it is possible to change the feeding regime and bring it up to a marketable weight under the age of 30 months. I remind noble Lords that we are urgently working on exemption schemes which will be specifically aimed at those breeds which are naturally slow fattening.

The noble Lord, Lord Carter, asked whether the minimum 25p per kilogram which has been announced for the first month is not too little; and said that we had not announced what will occur in the second month. The important point is that we wish to be able to exercise some judgment after the first month to see how things are going and whether any adjustments should be made.

The legislation that introduces this scheme is principally based on the Commission regulation which was adopted on 12th April by the Beef Management Committee. But the ban that we brought in more rapidly—it was an early and substantial measure announced by government in the early days in response to a consensus voiced from the farming community through to the retail community—on the sale of meat over 30 months old to consumers was under the emergency powers in the Food Safety Act.

The quality assurance scheme, which we regard as important, is principally as regards traceability. However, the Government have a long history of involvement. Despite the derogatory comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Carter, about my right honourable friend the Prime Minister, throughout the agricultural departments we have a legacy of seeking to promote and stimulate quality assurance within the industry. I can speak specifically for Scotland. Along with Northern Ireland, we have the two longest and best proven track records of encouraging, through pump-priming, industry based quality assurance schemes. We recognise that while the Government may well have a principal role in traceability, the industries, which know the products and consumers best, should be the principal arbiters of what quality assurance schemes should and should not include.

As I have announced, the slaughter sector will benefit from the injection of about £110 million. The noble Lord, Lord Carter, is quite right, the Coopers & Lybrand audit value of the stocks stuck in cold stores and chill rooms is approximately £132 million. Coopers & Lybrand have been the impartial experts and were helped by the Meat and Livestock Commission. Their report is in the Library and it states that the book value of stocks in a chill room or cold store usually achieves between 80 per cent. and 90 per cent. of the maximum value in a normal market situation. Therefore, Coopers & Lybrand recommended 85 per cent. as being a realistic rate of return; that is the rate of return that they would normally expect. Therefore, the £110 million is a combination of the £30 million immediate injection which relates to cattle throughput plus the £80 million buying in the stock. It comes to a figure which is exactly 85 per cent. of the £132 million.

The noble Lord, Lord Carter, asked about the secure disposal of some of the waste arisings of the residual beef scheme. We are confident that the existing arrangements and capacity, in the rendering industry are sufficient to deal with the new arisings. However, we are aware that, given a change in pattern and quantity, the best practical environmental option must be the option which is chosen to dispose of the arisings of the residual beef programme. We are urgently discussing those options with the experts in terms of SEAC, the regulators in terms of the environment agencies, the waste industry and the renderers themselves.

The noble Lord, Lord Carter, asked about compensation on the unsaleable stocks in other parts of the food chain which as a government we are prepared to dispose of at our cost. He asked whether there would be some partial compensation offered for them. The important point is that the funds that we are able to bring to bear on the situation must be targeted principally at consumer confidence, market activity and ensuring that assistance is given to that part of the market which is most closely linked with activity and consumer confidence. Therefore, we have concentrated the targeting of resources at the farmers, the slaughterhouses, the cutting plants, renderers and in a sense at the consumer through the 30-month programme. We want the resources involved to be aimed at activity and confidence. What we cannot do is to spread the resources too thinly throughout the whole diverse industry and therefore lose the effect that concentration would have at the centre of the industry.

The noble Lord, Lord Carter, is right. Both national farming unions of England and Scotland have threatened legal action; we shall take legal action. The extent to which there is co-ordination between the different parties taking legal action is an issue on which it is premature to comment.

The statutory basis for the EC ban on UK exports (Commission decision 96/239) is as follows. It was adopted by the Standing Veterinary Committee acting under Council Directives 90/425 and 89/662 concerning veterinary and zoo technical checks on intra-Community trade in animals, animal products and meat. If the noble Lord wishes to pursue the statutory basis further, we could do so possibly in correspondence or perhaps in the debate which the House will have tomorrow.

The final cost to the UK taxpayer will no doubt be substantial. However, the industry is absolutely essential to UK agriculture. It is especially large around the fringes of the UK. As the noble Lord, Lord Mackie, knows, in Scotland the cattle livestock industry comprises 30 per cent. of our entire agricultural product. Tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of jobs depend on the beef industry. Therefore, although the final cost will become apparent when more .judgments can be made and more decisions taken, at the moment it is too soon to say, but we are confident that the money involved, if well targeted, will be well spent.

The last point is on the suggestion made by the noble Lord, Lord Mackie, that McDonalds and similar chains should buy British beef once again. We have always said that and continue to say it. If the commissioner himself—and I believe that President Santer is of the same opinion—says that UK beef is safe to eat, then we cannot understand why certain large multiple buyers are not following that advice. In the light of those comments, it makes an irrational and disproportionate ban look totally ludicrous.

6.5 p.m.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that many of us are grateful to him for repeating the Statement? Speaking for myself, I found it extremely reassuring and it seems to me that, faced with an enormously difficult situation, the Government have got a grip on it. I am greatly cheered by the manner in which my noble friend dealt with the issue and with his indication of the way in which the Government are handling an extremely difficult issue.

I have one question for the Minister. It relates to the ban by the Europeans on the export of British beef which is absolutely intolerable. Will my noble friend make it clear that, unless the ban is lifted speedily, we shall retaliate against other European financial activities, many of which are vulnerable to British retaliation?

The Earl of Lindsay

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for the reassurance that he sees in today's Statement and the measures which we have announced today. I genuinely agree with him that we have got a grip on a difficult situation. I repeat that over the past 28 days we have introduced a series of measures, some of which span consumer confidence, some of which cover market activity; others cover the farmers, renderers or slaughterhouse industry. Some specifically cover animal or human health. With the measures brought forward numbering between 20 and 30, we have sought urgently and positively to get a grip of the situation.

The ban is intolerable. We will not accept the status quo. We will seek to negotiate a rapid and fair removal of the ban. We will also seek legal action to remove it; at the end of the day there is no scientific basis for it. That fact has now been admitted by the agriculture commissioner himself.

Lord Winston

My Lords, I find myself puzzled by the Statement and wonder whether the Minister can help me. I ask this in all innocence as I know nothing about farming; I only understand human medicine somewhat imperfectly. It is extremely welcome to hear the Minister say that the intention is probably only to cull relatively few cattle, perhaps tens of thousands. Will the Minister explain to us how the cull is chosen? I do not understand how the diagnosis is made and on what basis the cull will be carried out. To what extent will the animals be examined to ascertain whether they are free of the disease? What risk is there of culling animals which are perfectly innocent of the infection? Forgive me for asking a naive question, but I do not understand the basis for the cull and I should be grateful for clarification.

The Earl of Lindsay

My Lords, the noble Lord asks an extremely good question. He was unnecessarily modest about his knowledge of human medicine which, as the House knows, is considerable. We have not committed ourselves to any selective cull. Although our colleagues among other European agriculture ministers would like us to produce a programme by 30th April, we will only produce such a programme if it makes sense. We are currently examining the possibility of a very tightly targeted culling of those animals that are most at risk of incubating BSE. If such a programme could deliver a very much accelerated decrease in the incidence of BSE—of course, it is already decreasing at a significant rate—taking us closer and closer to eradication, it may well be worth it. There will be a cost to the industry from any such programme. We want to make sure that that cost is also taken into account when one is seeking to measure the benefits.

At the centre of the noble Lord's contribution is the inescapable question which seems beyond the comprehension of some of our European colleagues; namely, the scientists have said there is no justification in pursuing such a policy. Therefore, we shall have to convince ourselves before we pursue it that there will be benefits not yet identified by veterinary advisers.

I stress to the House that a second, absolutely critical benefit without which we will not institute any such cull is the lifting of the ban.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, can my noble friend help me? I declare an interest as a farmer. I do not have any beef cattle, even though my farm has 350 fat cattle waiting to go to slaughter. What other hypotheses are the Government looking for in relation to the possible connection between BSE and CJD? So far as I am aware—and perhaps my noble friend will confirm this—there is absolutely no evidence whatever of species jump, except orally from scrapie-fed mice to mice.

Will the Government please look at other hypotheses? This is very important, considering the very small number of CJD cases that there have been. Furthermore, what evidence do they have that the 10 new cases of CJD in young people are CJD and not another encephalopathy disease? Considering that Creutzfeldt-Jakob's first discovery of CJD was, I believe, in a 28 year-old, it is possibly nothing new that it happens to young people.

Secondly, can my noble friend be of greater assistance on the legal basis for the ban on the selling of cattle over 30 months? He accepts, by the fact that some cattle over 30 months can be eaten, that it is not dangerous to eat cattle over 30 months. Therefore there can be no threat to human health. Presumably, therefore, the Food Safety Act does not apply.

If it is accepted that there is no danger to human health from BSE, what right at all had the European Community to introduce Decision 96/239? If it had no right, why do we not simply ignore it, in the same way as we are ignoring feeding Emtryl to pheasants? If the Community is doing something that is obviously and palpably extra-legal, why pay a blind bit of notice to it in the first place?

The Earl of Lindsay

My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right. No threat to human health has been identified by the scientists from eating beef that has come from animals over 30 months old where they have been processed in such a way that slaughterhouse rules have been followed and where, according to the first SEAC recommendation, they are deboned. The Government want to return to that position as quickly as possible. Therefore, as I stressed both today and on other occasions, we see the European ban on our exports as unjust, ludicrous and irrational, and as one that should be the target not only of negotiation but indeed of legal action by ourselves in the European Court of Justice.

I return with some trepidation to the scientific inquiries of my noble friend. As many in this House with a scientific background will be aware, scientists are slow to come forward with categoric assurances of 100 per cent. safety. I can tell my noble friend that SEAC has examined all the angles. An in-depth review of each of the cases of the new CJD variant and consideration of other possible causes—such as cases being identified merely because of increased awareness of the disease on the part of doctors—has failed to give an adequate explanation for the new form of CJD. On current data, and in the absence of any credible alternative, the most likely explanation is that cases are limited to BSE before the introduction of the SBO ban in 1989.

The Government accept what the scientists have told us; namely, that their conclusions are based on only a likelihood. There remains no direct evidence of a link between BSE and CJD—neither the initial CJD symptoms nor the new symptoms. In that sense, the risk is still theoretical. However, on the subject of BSE the Government have always undertaken to protect the public from any theoretical risk as well as any that is subsequently proven. Therefore we are happy to be guided by SEAC, which represents the greatest concentration of expertise on this subject. We are not happy, however, to be guided by some of the over-reactions that we have seen from our European colleagues, or indeed from some commentators in the media.

Lord Blease

My Lords, there is a question that I want to put to the Minister about the Intervention Board. However, first, may I say that I welcome the statement that the measures will apply to the United Kingdom as a whole. Those who know anything about farming will know the pronounced and very distinctive regional differences in farming practice in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Those practices throw up many problems in administration and in forms of legislation.

The fact that the Intervention Board is central to the present situation will not cure everything in connection with the present crisis. Will the Minister explain whether the Intervention Board will be governed by the Ministry of Agriculture and be subject to parliamentary control in all its aspects? That is important in respect of any equity, sense of justice or meeting demands in respect of regional difficulties as they appear today in this crisis.

The Earl of Lindsay

I can reassure the noble Lord, in that the Intervention Board is managed by the four agriculture departments: those of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Therefore the judgments they make and the management systems they devise to cope with the new programmes will reflect the circumstances so far as is possible in the different territories.

I am grateful that the noble Lord intervened. As I suggested earlier, the beef industry in Northern Ireland is of absolute importance to the economy there. It is therefore important that, so far as possible, the rescue packages we introduce for the farming community and the slaughter and processing community are applicable to the beneficiaries there.

There is always a balance to be struck between a system which is very complex and sophisticated in order to recognise every individual circumstance of every farmyard, versus a system that can be quickly implemented and seen through in terms of getting payments to beneficiaries and which involves some generalisations having to be made.

Everyone in the House will acknowledge the urgency of delivering aid as quickly as possible to those who are under pressure. Therefore, some generalisations and presumptions will have to be made about the width of circumstances to be found in different territories. But they will be aimed at the average recipient.

Lord Prior

My Lords, will my noble friend confirm that in his answer to the noble Lord, Lord Winston, he did not rule out the fact that cull cows will be slaughtered and disposed of; and that that is the main disposal that takes place under the scheme? Will he accept that I welcome the scheme and agree with him that, under the arrangements for fattening those cattle that are now over two and a half years-old, it should be possible for the system to be changed within the time limit he has laid down? In this horrendous business, which I suspect will not be the last, given what goes on in the food world at the moment and the scares that go around, it is absolutely vital that we think through what else may happen and how to communicate. Perhaps on top of all that politicians and others in the media should take a grip on themselves and realise the damage that can be done to people's living and confidence and that this is a much bigger issue than the terrible business we are in at the moment, which must be dealt with on a long-term basis.

The Earl of Lindsay

My Lords, my noble friend makes a most telling point when he emphasises the fact that such talk can cost lives and livelihoods. The unguarded accusations and allegations made within the political system and the media, but in many other places as well, are totally uncalled for. If only those who sought to comment or suggest that they had expert comment to make had confined themselves to the conclusions reached by the experts on SEAC, I do not believe the scare would have been so damaging.

The wider question raised by my noble friend is how generally we seek to deal with such food scares, given that there probably will be other similar—not, it is to be hoped, of similar proportions—situations which cast doubt over something which we all otherwise trust. The Government will certainly be looking at that and would welcome advice and suggestions from other parties.

I can confirm to my noble friends that the cull cow programme or the residual beef programme, which simply seeks to keep out of the human food chain the meat arising from carcasses of animals that are over 30 months old, is the main disposal programme. Therefore, the selective cull about which the noble Lord, Lord Winston, spoke is simply an option which we are looking at and we are not committed to it in any way at all. I welcome my noble friend's reassurance that the six-month rule on top-up should be sufficient. There will possibly be some specific cases in which people will feel unjustly treated by that, but we have taken advice from the Scottish agricultural colleges, ADAS and others in order to ensure that it is principally a fair system.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, from this side of the House I congratulate the Minister on the expertise and courtesy that he has shown in dealing with questions on this very difficult subject. In doing so, perhaps I may revert to a question that has already been asked by my noble friend in regard to the nature of the proceedings which are contemplated.

Does the Minister agree that an action which may take a couple of years to be heard is scarcely likely to relieve the present problem? Are his legal advisers, who, I am sure, are extremely competent, considering the question of a speedy application of what corresponds to our injunction restraining the European Community from the ban?

The Earl of Lindsay

My Lords, I am grateful for the initial comments made by the noble Lord. We realise that in the normal course of events the European Court of Justice action could take up to two years. We would seek an interim judgment before that time. However, I suspect that never have so many government lawyers and legal advisers applied their minds to one single subject so much as they are to the European ban that is so unjustified. Therefore, any other avenues which promise a speedier conclusion will indeed be pursued.

Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior

My Lords, I speak for many in this House when I thank my noble friend the Minister for the considered Statement. At long last, there is an injection of science into the situation. My profession has been monitoring the situation very carefully and is very glad of the Statement on BSE and what is proposed, having heard the Minister in the other place.

However, there are one or two issues to raise, without pre-empting the debate tomorrow. We are glad that compensation is to be paid for the culling of more ancient animals. But it seems to be taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut to slaughter something in the order of 15,000 animals per week when in fact the number of cases of BSE will now be about 200 and in two year's time about 60 per week. We particularly welcome the logical approach to the beef herd, where breeds of various kinds are not the appropriate breeds to have a 30 month cut-off point. I am sure that the quality assurance scheme will be most welcome to many beef breeders, as will the animal passport scheme. We welcome the Statement, and hope that we shall have further information later.

The Earl of Lindsay

My Lords, I appreciate my noble friend's considerable expertise in the veterinary field and trust that he will make a contribution to the debate tomorrow so that we can hear more of his wisdom. He welcomed the injection of science. The whole saga started off on the basis of science and was blown off course by some rather idle comment. Rather than welcoming the injection of science, I hope that he welcomes the return to a more scientific foundation.

Let me say to my noble friend and to the British Veterinary Association—that they lament the fact that we have to slaughter 15,000 cattle a week but that they are muddled. With the residual beef programme or the cull cow programme we are taking those cattle which anyway are coming to market to be slaughtered in the normal course of their working life and excluding them from the food chain. So, no animal under the cull cow programme will be slaughtered before that point in time at which it would have been slaughtered in normal farming practices.