HL Deb 25 April 1996 vol 571 cc1266-75

4.25 p.m.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, perhaps I may now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer to a Private Notice Question in another place. My right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food said as follows:

"Madam Speaker, right honourable and honourable Members will recall that I made a Statement in this House on 16th April in which I made it plain that the Government's purpose was to achieve, as speedily as we could, a rapid and complete lifting of the ban on exports of British beef and beef products.

"In that and previous Statements, I set out a wide range of measures, including a buy-up scheme for all cattle over 30 months, further tightening of SBO controls and of the rules governing animal feed. I discussed the details of those measures with Commissioner Fischler on Tuesday. As I stated on 16th April, we were looking at the possibility of a scheme of selective culling to accelerate the decline in the incidents of BSE at an acceptable cost.

"Since that time, I have developed the idea yet further, and I have incorporated a more flexible approach to the targeting of animals identified as being most at risk of developing BSE. That concept involves giving farmers the choice between slaughtering them or placing them under a restriction order.

"As was made plain in my previous Statement, the scheme thus outlined would involve only limited numbers of animals, amounting to tens of thousands rather than hundreds of thousands. It would not involve the slaughter of whole herds.

"I have now sent an outline of my ideas to the European Agriculture Commissioner who is considering them ahead of next week's Agriculture Council. I have made it clear to Commissioner Fischler that the Government would only consider implementing such a scheme in the context of plans for a lifting of the EU ban on British beef. I shall report to the House on the outcome of those delicate and sensitive negotiations.

"I am discussing my proposals with representatives of the British beef industry. I and my officials will be having further discussions with them and with others in due course".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

4.28 p.m.

Lord Carter

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating that Answer to a Private Notice Question in the other place. As always, I declare an interest in that the farming company with which I am involved has dairy cattle.

I should explain that as it is a Private Notice Question I do not have the benefit of a written Statement to which to respond, so this is very much a preliminary response. If what we hear beyond the Answer—that animals born after September 1990 may be those included in the proposal—is right, that seems to admit implicitly that the feed ban was broken in the early 1990s. We presume that the scheme will deal with animals born after the feed ban on the basis that they risked eating infected food. That can come only through cross-infection in the feed mills or transgression of the ban by feed companies.

I believe that I am entitled to point out that it was six years ago that we suggested the banning of the inclusion of meat and bonemeal in all forms of animal feed. If that had been accepted at the time, it would have prevented the situation with which we are now dealing.

Have the Government the information to trace all the animals that they wish to trace in this selective slaughter scheme? There were proposals in 1989 and 1990 to improve the traceability of cattle. If it is to be the cohorts—animals born in the same year as the infected cattle—which are to be traced back, they could be spread over a large number of farms. Not all dairy herds are self-contained or have the good recording systems which are required. Are the Government confident that they have the systems necessary to trace all the animals that will be involved?

Let me take the example of what I might describe as a clean farm—a farm which has never had a case of BSE. It purchases perhaps an in-calf heifer which it does not realise is a cohort at another farm. Eventually the animal purchased is traced and removed because its sister animal, as it were, has gone down with BSE. That farmer, who has never had a case of BSE on his farm, will presumably lose his BSE-free status. What about the flying herds—that is, the herds which purchase their replacement heifers every year? We will have to trace back to heifer rearing farms and then trace all the cohorts over a large number of farms. Therefore, technically, this will be a fairly hard system to impose.

As I understand it, our negotiating position is that we will not introduce the system unless the export ban is lifted. However, the European Union has made it clear that it will not lift the ban until we introduce the system. That does not seem to me to be a particularly brilliant negotiating position to be in. It will be interesting to know how the Government propose to deal with it. As regards compensation, there will obviously be a cost to farmers over and above the cull value of animals in terms of lost milk production, the loss of profit, and so on. Can the Minister say whether that will be included in any compensation which is to be provided?

Can the Minister also tell the House what proposals the Government are putting to the Commission in the case of exemptions for beef animals over 30 months for human consumption where they are from BSE-free sources? I have already referred to the problem of the cohort animals which could mean a farmer losing his BSE-free status, even though he has never had such a case on his farm. Is the Minister absolutely confident that the proposed restriction order will not be open to fraud?

I also understand that there is a possibility that calves from cows which are subject to a restriction order will not be used for human consumption. Can the Minister say whether that reflects a change of thinking from the ministry on risk, or the possibility of the vertical transmission of BSE? As regards the hope that we have for funding from the European Union, can the Minister explain how much of the cost of the scheme it is intended will be met?

I should like to reiterate to the Minister the obvious point; namely, the concern of all of us that the ministry and all those involved recognise the potential welfare problems for animals under the new measures. We hope that they will ensure that full consideration is given to that aspect.

I am extremely glad that the Government have rapidly retreated from the sabre rattling we heard on Monday. Can the Minister say what the Government will do if the Council of Ministers rejects the proposals? What are the "other options" that the Prime Minister has mentioned? I believe that we are entering into a numbers game. We have produced the minimum number that we think we can introduce on the negotiating table. However, if that is refused, it seems to me that the number can only be negotiated upwards. That is a very serious position for the dairy and beef industry as regards the uncertainty that we all know currently exists.

From this side of the House I should like to say that, in our view, it is important that a negotiated settlement is presented and agreed on the basis of sensible measures rather than relying on empty threats and, as I said, on sabre rattling. We want to see a clear programme of measures that will help the beef sector at all levels and measures to protect and reassure consumers so as to restore stability to the beef market. We support any move that will put us on course for that objective.

Lord Hooson

My Lords, I should also like to thank the Minister for repeating the Answer to the Private Notice Question given in another place. I presume that I am right in assuming that the response clearly sets out the negotiating position, or part of it, for discussions with the Agriculture Commissioner with a view to having the European world ban on our exports lifted. I should say immediately that it is my view—which I have always expressed from these Benches and, indeed, which has been expressed by my party—that it is very much better to go down this pathway rather than the other one; in other words, to go for selective slaughtering.

I should declare an interest as, indeed, I have before. I am the owner of a pedigree suckler herd which, over the 30 years of its existence, has never had a case of BSE. I believe that I am representative of the majority of suckler herd owners and probably of the majority of other herd owners in the country. I do not understand why on earth one should embark upon the needless expenditure of getting rid of millions of animals which are perfectly healthy in a kind of panic reaction. That has always seemed to me to lack proper justification.

I believe that the Government should have announced such a measure immediately. I say that because what consumers, our compatriots and, indeed, members of the European Community are concerned about is that we should ensure that we take effective action. The most effective action is to get rid of all those animals which are most likely to have BSE; in other words, those which have been in contact with other animals which have had the disease.

As the noble Lord, Lord Carter, pointed out, there are many problems as regards tracing some of those animals. Am I right in thinking that, in putting forward the scheme, the Government have worked out, at least broadly, that they can carry out the operation pretty swiftly? Although drastic action is needed, it must, as I said, be effective action. That is what people are looking for in this country and elsewhere. After all, two or three months have now gone by since the outbreak and it is only now that we are getting close to something like effective action.

There has been a knock-on effect in the rural community. Indeed, I witness it every time I return home. It is not just farmers and slaughterers who are affected. All the ancillary industries in the rural areas have been enormously affected by the crisis. I hope that the Government will bear in mind the need to compensate some of them. Otherwise the whole of the rural economy could be badly damaged by the announcement originally made about BSE in cattle and the serious possibilities of it affecting human beings.

I shall not probe any further into the question because I believe that the Minister of Agriculture is now in a negotiating position and, obviously, he wants to present the scheme as a very effective alternative. I assume that it will be an alternative to the slaughter of 10 or 11 million animals. However, if it is to be part of it, I think that the matter should be reviewed after the initial slaughter of 45,000 animals, or whatever the number is. The progress that has been made could then be assessed. I make that suggestion because there has been a very sharp decline in BSE in this country over the past year or two. If this is an effective measure, we can look back on it afterwards with a view to reprieving all those very safe herds and animals which are really the pride of the country. It seems to me that there is no real justification for slaughtering them.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Carter, asked me a large number of questions. I shall do my best to reply to them reasonably briefly. He asked why we had decided on September 1990. I should tell the noble Lord that that is the date from which we can run traceability. That is when we started to keep the records required by the European Union. Animals older than that which became infected as calves are likely to have developed the clinical disease already, so we do not anticipate there being any problem as regards that being the starting date. Traceability looks like being pretty good. It is not perhaps perfect and we have obviously not got into the nitty-gritty of the process. However, we have investigated it to the point where we are sure that we are offering the European Union a real and effective programme.

The noble Lord made the point about age cohorts being spread over several farms. Indeed, they may be. It is no more fair, as it were, that a farm loses its BSE-free status because it imports an animal which turns out to have the disease than that a farm keeps a BSE-free status because it happens to have exported all the animals which go down with BSE. That is clearly a matter which will need to be taken into account when we deal with the question of exemptions to which I shall turn in a moment. The noble Lord asked about flying herds. It seems to me that the noble Lord always knows something I do not. I thought that they only occurred in nursery rhymes.

So far as the question of lifting the ban is concerned, that is obviously a question of a quid pro quo. The proposed cull is not something which is, in scientific terms, strictly and absolutely necessary. In many ways it is arguably desirable in order to get BSE out of the herds more quickly but it is not essential for human health. It is therefore something which we are offering the European Union as a quid pro quo for its lifting of the ban and is something to enable it to have the necessary confidence in lifting the ban. It is a matter which we shall be discussing with an open heart and, I must say, after recent discussions with Commissioner Fischler, with great optimism. We have had some very constructive discussions with Commissioner Fischler and we go into the negotiations next week with no feeling that we need to spend time considering what happens if they fail, any more than we need to spend time considering what would happen if the ban were lifted tomorrow, before formal negotiations. We go in to achieve the object we wish to achieve. We are not allowing ourselves to be sidetracked by other thoughts.

Of course, compensation will be required for slaughtering animals under the cull, and it should be full and fair compensation. Exemptions are something we have been discussing with the Commission. This will be a matter to be set out in the negotiations. It may not emerge at absolutely the first stage, but it is clearly at least the second item that we should deal with—those parts of the United Kingdom, those herds in particular, which are free of BSE and demonstrably free of BSE. Fraud is clearly something we will guard against but since the system is not up and running I cannot point to why it will be fraud-free. We put a very high premium on making sure that we are not cheated in this country.

The noble Lord asked whether the calves from culled cows will be included. That is entirely a matter of speculation at the moment. There is no question of evidence of vertical transmission and, therefore, no reason why they should be included in a scientific sense. As to the percentage of the costs which the European Union would meet, that is entirely a matter for negotiation.

The noble Lord, Lord Carter, also asked about welfare. Of course, that is very high on our list of priorities and must be something we keep in mind at all times. I believe that I have replied to most of the questions asked by the noble Lord, Lord Carter. I shall however read Hansard to see whether I need to write to him.

The noble Lord, Lord Hooson, said that it was important to get rid of animals which have been in contact with animals that have gone down with the disease. That is not the right way of putting it. As far as we know—and we know pretty well—there is no risk of picking up BSE from the neighbouring cow which has it. It is a feed-transmitted disease. It is not therefore a question of contact with another animal; it is a question of whether you have eaten another animal and is entirely to do with whether the animals were sharing rations at that point rather than who their neighbours were.

Lord Hooson

My Lords, I referred to contact because an article which appeared this week talked about the possible transference of BSE by hay. There was a photograph of what we all know is the kind of shipment where hay is taken along from one cow to another. It was suggested that such contact could be relevant.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, there are all sorts of speculations in science and in the newspapers concerning this disease, about which we do not have perfect knowledge. But what we do have is a great deal of epidemiological evidence from this epidemic which gives us a very clear picture of the fact that it is a feed-borne epidemic and is not spread by other agencies.

Clearly, the cull will be done with all possible expedition, if and when it is agreed upon. Again, I cannot say how fast, but there would no reason to delay it or to slow it down. The noble Lord says that only now are effective measures being proposed. Effective measures were put in place immediately. These are additional measures which are necessary to restore consumer confidence. That is something which can only be established now when we are a decent distance from the panic and can look at things in a stable and rational manner and when consumers have had time to get used to the new information they have been presented with.

As to compensation, we are not in the business of compensation; we are in the business of keeping the industry running. We have put a lot of money into that. Compensation for losses is not something we are contemplating. There are all sorts of people who have endured, and are enduring, hardship as a result of this epidemic. Our interest is in making sure that the industry gets through it rather than seeking to compensate anyone who might stick his hand up and say that he has been hurt by it.

As to whether we will review matters, I do not believe that the science or information is moving fast enough for us usefully to review things in short order. I am sure that we shall do so in due course, but we do not know enough about the disease and there is not information which is developing fast enough to enable us to believe that an early review would serve any useful purpose.

4.45 p.m.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, will my noble friend indicate when the negotiations on the lifting of the ban are due to take place? On which day will they start, because each day, for obvious economic reasons, is a serious consideration. Secondly, will my noble friend indicate whether if, unhappily, the negotiations for raising the ban are a failure, it will mean rather fewer of the measures that he outlined would be undertaken by the British Government?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, the negotiations, in the sense of discussions with the Commission, are well under way. The Council meets on Monday and the matter will be discussed then. As to the question of which measures would or would not happen if there was not agreement in Council, the measure which would not happen is the cull. The cull is proposed as part of an agreement with the European Union and is not something we would undertake for the protection of our own citizens.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, representations have been made concerning animals between two-and-a-half and three years old, coming either from organic herds or from certain late maturing beef breeds. I would be grateful if the noble Lord can say what consideration has been given to these arguments and whether the Government have made up their mind or when they will make up their mind about them. The noble Lord will appreciate, I am sure, that these animals come from long, intensive systems—extensive systems, as they are called. It would be a great pity if animals in this six months age range were not allowed to be used for human food when, in fact, they are perfectly healthy and perfectly edible. It would possibly save the Government a small sum in compensation.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, the question of exemptions is very high on our list of priorities. It is something we have been actively discussing with the Commission. We would like to see early movement from the Council. Clearly, there are a number of specialist breeds and a number of particular areas of the country where BSE has had a very low incidence, where there is every reason to expect it should continue to have a very low incidence and where we should be able to put in place a scheme to allow beef from animals over 30 months old to be sold. That is a matter which will require discussion with the Commission and in Council. I cannot give the noble Lord any assurances other than to say that this is very high on our list of priorities.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that it is only 14 days since the Leader of the House, in notifying the position so far as the Commission is concerned, said that the Government would examine as a matter of urgency the legality of the steps taken by the Commission in bringing forward the decision it had made? Is he further aware that since that time it has emerged most certainly that the Commission's decision under which the various orders were made is in itself illegal, according to legal opinion? I refer the noble Lord to the recital of the Commission's decision of 27th March in the official journal No. L78, page 47.

I refer also to Article 1 of the same decision which indicates clearly that the Commission has exceeded its powers. Will the noble Lord explain how bringing forward proposals by Her Majesty's Government on this whole matter does anything other than weaken their position legally in the whole affair? Why is it that the Government did not initially decline to accept the decision of the Commission, which is quite illegal?

Nobody wishes to defend any action taken by the Government that would worsen the health position, even though the Commissioner concerned has long since abandoned the health grounds of the original decision. Can the Government explain those matters and say why they cannot adopt such action under their own powers at home to take what steps they like rather than obey cravenly a Commission decision which is illegal in the first instance?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, in general, we stay within the law in order that we may encourage other people to do so. At root, laws are all matters of consent, and we are in the European Union as a matter of consent. Therefore, the right way to challenge a decision which we believe to be illegal is to challenge it in the European Court of Justice; and that we are doing.

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, I declare an interest as a dairy farmer. In his reply to the noble Lord, Lord Carter, my noble friend made it clear that there is no scientific evidence to suggest that the new cull policy will make British beef safer. Indeed, I believe that he made it clear that it is intended to re-establish British and European confidence in British beef. Does he really feel that it is justified to spend hundreds of millions of pounds of public money fighting irrational fears which are due primarily to press hysteria in this country and European schadenfreude? Would it not be better and cheaper to conduct a good PR exercise to show people that British beef is safe? We are talking about hundreds of millions of pounds. Will the Government consider that course of action before offering this Danegeld?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, I assure my noble friend that we have looked extremely carefully at the cost of this measure. I am sorry to say that we do not have my noble friend's faith in a PR campaign by the British Government in Europe.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, answering my noble friend Lord Carter, the Government said that the cause of BSE-infected cattle is due to problems with feed. Only recently a Member of your Lordships' House reported that he had had a case of BSE in his herd in a calf which was born in 1991. That is almost two years after the feed ban was introduced. Are the Government now admitting that the feed ban was not successful and that there was cross-contamination or malpractice in the feed industry which caused a continuing risk of BSE infection after the ban was implemented by the Government?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, I should not refer to it as malpractice. There were certainly imperfections in the feed industry ranging from cross-contamination happening in the feed mills, which is perhaps a matter of sloppy practice, to farmers feeding the wrong sort of feed to the wrong animals.

Clearly, infectious feed existed after the ban. That is why animals have continued to contract the disease. That is the only source we can find for the disease from which the cattle are suffering. Nothing else matches. But since there is no test, it is not possible to pick up a sample of feed and say that the feed is infectious.

Lord Wade of Chorlton

My Lords, I declare an interest as a director of a meat exporting company. If the result of the negotiations is a withdrawal of the ban, how will that affect or change the status of that meat which is now in the hands of exporters and importers in non-third world countries which has been stuck in cold storage since the ban was imposed?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, I can only answer that question after agreement has been reached.

Lord Geraint

My Lords, I declare my interest as a retired farmer. Last night I met a delegation of auctioneers from west Wales. They are truly worried. The Government intend to introduce a new scheme on Monday to kill barren cows. Those auctioneers told me that if the markets are to open next Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday, more than 2,000 cattle from that part of the world will go to those auction markets. They have received no information from the Welsh Office or from any department as to how to dispose of the stock once it is taken to market.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, that distresses me. I shall talk to my colleagues in the Welsh Office to make sure that information is being circulated with all possible speed. My understanding is that the arrangements for the purchase of culled cows will come into effect next week. That is none too soon from the point of view of those farmers who are having to feed the animals.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

My Lords, will my noble friend clarify how much of the cost of this operation is to be borne by the European Community and how much by this country on a net basis? I ask because it would appear that the British media, who did so much to stoke up this problem in the first place, have got it into their heads and are constantly saying that the European Community is going to be so generous as to pay some 70 per cent. of the costs of the exercise. My understanding is that an accurate analysis is that it will pay all of 15 per cent. Therefore we shall be left with 85 per cent. of the cost; furthermore, we will be left with 100 per cent. of the cost of any disposal that is involved. Will my noble friend clarify this matter for the House and perhaps for the British media?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, the European Union is indeed meeting 70 per cent. of the cost of the programme which has been agreed to date. But we meet 71 per cent. of that 70 per cent. Therefore, the net position is that we are paying 80 per cent. and our partners from the European Union are paying 20 per cent.