HL Deb 20 June 1996 vol 573 cc452-5

3.19 p.m.

Lord Taverne asked Her Majesty's Government:

What progress they have made in obtaining a timetable for the lifting of the beef ban in Europe.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, we have already succeeded in removing any restrictions on the export of semen and agreeing conditions for the export of gelatin and tallow. This is an important first step. Our policy on the next steps is to agree a framework which sets out clear and agreed conditions which have to be met to lift the export ban progressively. Negotiations with our Community partners on this are proceeding and we will keep the House informed of progress.

Lord Taverne

My Lords, may I express my sympathy to the Government for sounding the bugles of advance to cover their retreat. Is it not becoming increasingly evident that the policy of boycott, far from securing the desired timetable, is in fact having the effect of making our partners in Europe determined to try to find a way round British obstructionism, as they see it, contrary to our interest? Is it not a fact that the fiasco of the past month—probably the biggest diplomatic disaster since Suez—can only give satisfaction to those who wish to see us leave the European Union altogether?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, with respect, what a load of rubbish! The policy we have pursued over the past month shows every sign of producing results in the very near future—not only of producing results, but producing exactly those results that we had hoped for.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

My Lords, can my noble friend tell the House under which powers Her Majesty's Government propose to enforce the killing of healthy cattle, as opposed to cattle which may be infected?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, I am sure my noble friend will be prepared to wait for us to bring before this House the necessary orders. He may recall that during the foot and mouth epidemic we killed whole herds, not because every animal was proven to be infected but because infection was in the herd. I do not think he need worry about our not having the necessary powers.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, is the Minister aware that we already know that the Prime Minister is a master of appeasement and climbdown, and has already shown that to be so in the case of the further mass slaughter of cattle? Will he give the House an assurance that, at the Florence Summit, the Prime Minister will not agree to any other matters being discussed until the proposals put forward by the Commission have been agreed by all heads of government? And will the Prime Minister reprimand the president of the Commission for his gross interference in our internal political matters, and for the threats and bullying of the past week or two?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, I really cannot reconcile the words "appeasement" and "climbdown" with getting what we want, which looks like happening. However, I can reassure the House that the action we have taken will not cease until we have the agreement that we seek from our partners.

Lord Marsh

My Lords, can the Minister give the House any other examples of where a sovereign elected government are given orders by unelected bureaucrats?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, I am not at all sure to what the noble Lord refers.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the Deputy Prime Minister—

A Noble Lord

My Lords—

The Lord Privy Seal (Viscount Cranborne)

My Lords, I believe that we have time. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Harris, might take precedence, and my noble friend could follow.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, is the Minister aware that on television this morning the Deputy Prime Minister referred to the ban on the importation of beef imposed by the United States and by Hong Kong? Will he share my puzzlement at his own Written Answer to my Question which appears in Tuesday's edition of Hansard (col. WA 17) in which I asked specifically which countries had imposed such a ban? The names of Hong Kong and the United States did not appear. Given the fact that it took four weeks for his department to answer the Question, would they at least try to get it right first time?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, indeed we have got it right. The name of Hong Kong was absent because the noble Lord asked which countries had imposed a ban before the European Commission imposed its ban. Hong Kong imposed its ban afterwards. The United States was absent because the United States has not imposed a ban on the import of British beef.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, the Deputy Prime Minister was wrong, was he, this morning when he said that the United States had imposed a ban?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, I was working, not listening to the radio.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, the politics in all this are giving everybody a field day. What farmers want to know is what they will have to do, and when, in order to get their market back. Does the Minister have grounds for foreseeing the possibility, once the framework is agreed, of telling farmers exactly what the timetable will be and what they will have to do?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, what we rightly have is a framework, a procedure that will be followed in order to enable the ban to be lifted. There will be things that we must do to achieve that, because we are seeking to convince our European partners that they will be right to resume importing British beef. We shall be setting ourselves a rigorous timetable to achieve that aim.

Lord Carter

My Lords, in an earlier answer the Minister referred to foot and mouth disease. He really should know the difference between a disease that can be passed from animal to animal such as foot and mouth and a disease like BSE, which cannot.

Is the Minister aware that every farmer in the country will have been staggered by the remark of the Deputy Prime Minister, Mr. Heseltine, on the "Today" programme this morning when he casually referred to the "handful" of cattle now to be added to the 80,000 already in the selective slaughter scheme? Is that "handful" 20,000 or 67,000? In his evidence to the Select Committee on Agriculture in the other place yesterday, the Minister of Agriculture, Mr. Hogg, quoted the figure of 67,000 as the additional number and said that 20,000 is too low. What is the reduction in actual numbers—not vague percentages—of BSE cases now expected to result from the selective slaughter scheme, and how many cattle are to be slaughtered?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, doubtless we shall have an opportunity to go into the details of this matter when they are presented to Parliament. However, I will help the noble Lord to the extent that I am able to. We are not looking for a disease that is passed from cow to cow; I am glad for the noble Lord's confirmation of that. We are looking at culling a group of cattle that are likely to be already infected even though not showing signs of infection. So far as the number of cases that we might expect to eliminate is concerned, of the basic cull—the original 42,000—we reckon that one in 14 would show the disease. There may be a number which would not show the disease; it is not something that can be diagnosed before symptoms appear. In the other sections of the cull, that percentage will be rather reduced. I do not have the figure with me. It is very much a question of seeing what we can do to reduce the incidence of BSE without going to unreasonable lengths. It is a matter on which Parliament will have a chance to have its say.

Lord Carter

My Lords, is it not extraordinary that the Minister—

Noble Lords

Next Question! Order!

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, I hope the noble Lord will forgive me. I very much enjoy listening to my noble friend Lord Lucas answering the Opposition. Equally, I know that the House is looking forward to hearing my noble friend Lady Chalker.