HL Deb 16 December 1996 vol 576 cc1269-72

2.48 p.m.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether, in the absence of any firm commitment either by the European Commission or by the governments of member countries to suspend the ban on the export of British beef, they will abandon the proposal for selective slaughter.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will be making a Statement shortly in the other place. I am sure that my noble friend will understand that that will limit what I can say to him today. However, I can confirm that we shall be implementing in full the Florence agreement.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, I sympathise with my noble friend in that he finds himself constrained by the rules from telling the House whether what was said on the BBC this morning was true or not. That is not his fault and I make no point of it; I am extremely sorry for him. However, will he bear in mind that, in the event of the cull going ahead and there being no date agreed either by the Commission or by member governments for the raising of the ban, this move will be greeted with widespread dismay, if not horror?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, I think not. There has been a very considerable turn-around in farmers' opinions on this matter over the past few months. Farming organisations, and now farmers themselves, are clearly wholeheartedly in favour of some form of selective cull if it is quite clear that a selective cull is the only way in which we can make progress on the matter of exports. If that is what we decide to do, I am certain that all sides of the House will support us.

Lord Grantchester

My Lords, is the Minister aware that there are many farmers who do not support the NFU's call for a targeted cull but go along with veterinary opinion and that of the Government's scientific advisers that this will do little to speed up the end of BSE? Given that the consumer confidence card is being played, will the Minister explain how confidence is increased by killing livestock unnecessarily? Given, too, that farmers have experienced great difficulty in gaining access to slaughtering facilities for their normal culls, will the Minister agree that the NFU's claim that farmers have been undertaking the targeted cull themselves is purely hogwash?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, it is quite clear that any selective cull is for the purposes of making progress in relation to lifting the European export ban. It will reduce the number of animals dying of BSE but it will not bring forward by one day the elimination of the disease. Nonetheless, that is felt by many to be something worth achieving. I should have thought that, as a dairy farmer, the noble Lord would understand that his colleagues in the beef industry have particularly strong feelings on this matter.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, is the Minister aware that on this side of the House we are very pleased that the Government have at last made up their mind, in view of the tremendous harm that they have done by making an agreement at Florence, then putting it into suspension and then going back to it? If the Government are to be consistent, at least that may restore some of the respect felt for us in Europe and may eventually help to achieve an agreed lifting of the ban.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, I am delighted to hear the noble Lord's comments.

Lord Rathcreedan

My Lords, will the noble Lord confirm that in the event of the cull going ahead, the Government are confident of being able to trace all the animals that will be at most risk from BSE? That may be a weakness when we return to our European partners and say that we have carried out the Florence agreement: they may cast doubt on whether we have been able to trace all the unregistered cattle (not pedigree cattle but those that are unregistered) which will need to be slaughtered in order to fulfil our side of the bargain.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, should we go ahead, we shall have to wait and see exactly what state all the necessary records are in. Clearly, no exercise has been carried out to trace these cattle. Until it is done, I do not wish to put my head on the block to say that it will be perfectly executed. However, at the moment we have no reason to suspect that we cannot carry out the necessary tracing.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, is the Minister aware that on the radio this morning a Member of the other place from Ulster advised the audience that the ban on beef sales from Ulster would be lifted within two months of certain government actions? Can the Minister confirm that it is a feasible proposition that cattle from Ulster would be allowed to be exported?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, we are looking at a United Kingdom solution, not a solution for any particular part of the UK. Ulster has certain advantages; namely, its cattle traceability system and the low incidence of BSE. But I have no information that any special arrangements are proposed or are being made for Ulster as opposed to those for herds that might fall within some particular category.

Lord Carter

My Lords, is the Minister aware that it is only a few weeks since the Government said that they did not intend to go ahead with the selective slaughter scheme because it would not make much difference to the incidence of BSE and our European partners would not lift the export ban even if the scheme were introduced? His right honourable friend the agriculture Minister stated that in another place on 15th October. Now it seems that there is a complete U-turn. Apparently the Government are going ahead with the scheme but still with no guarantee of a lifting of the export ban. Why has there been this change of mind?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, I do not think there has been a great change of mind. We said that we would pause and examine again the science on a selective cull, and that we would consult with our European partners whether there might be better ways forward. During that time the farming unions have changed their mind. That makes a considerable difference as to how effective and appropriate a selective slaughter policy might be. I do not think that we are looking at anything that can be described as a U-turn. Rather, we looked for a sensible confirmation that what we proposed was right before we went ahead.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, will the Minister tell the House what has been the cost to date of the selective slaughter scheme?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, I do not have that information. I will write to the noble Lord.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, will the Minister say what the cost will be of the additional cull? Is he aware that people in this country, including myself, are completely and utterly bewildered at government policy? The Government say that there is no scientific evidence for the cull and yet they can give no guarantee that, if it is carried out, the export ban will be lifted. So apparently, at great cost to the taxpayer, we are to kill a further 142,000 animals for no definite good purpose. Will the Minister say whether he has received any statement or any representation from the RSPCA, which ought to be concerned about the fate of over 1 million cows?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, I am not aware of any representations on this matter from the RSPCA. There are many aspects to the noble Lord's question which, with leave, I shall skirt round since they will be covered in the Statement in another place later today. It seems quite sensible on some occasions to take a risk and rely on one's partners being as good as their word, to put oneself in the position where one has the advantage of the high ground and to hope that those with whom one is in association live up to their word too.