HL Deb 14 May 1996 vol 572 cc454-6

7.2 p.m.

Baroness Denton of Wakefield rose to move, that the draft order laid before the House on 30th April be approved.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the order would introduce provisions to bring the Food Safety (Northern Ireland) Order 1991 broadly into line with the provisions of the Food Safety Act 1990 already in force in Great Britain. While this order, in providing regulation-making powers for the Department of Agriculture, may appear to be somewhat at odds with our earlier debate on deregulation and contracting out, I can assure your Lordships that the issues are technical and procedural and necessary to ensure parity between the Province and Great Britain.

I believe that it will be helpful if I comment briefly on the order and then say a few words about the detailed provisions.

The main purpose of the order is to amend the Food Safety (Northern Ireland) Order 1991 to provide enabling powers for the Department of Agriculture to implement by regulation various European Community directives on structural and hygiene standards and on inspection and associated controls in premises processing meat and meat products, including poultry meat. The order also includes a number of procedural amendments in relation to enforcement responsibilities on milk.

The opportunity is also being taken to make minor amendments to bring the Food Safety (Northern Ireland) Order 1991 more into line with the Food Safety Act 1990 in Great Britain.

In addition, the draft order draws on the provisions previously discussed of the Deregulation and Contracting Out (Northern Ireland) Order 1996, relating to the effect of contracting out on departments and other persons responsible for the provision of services and the termination of contracting arrangements and ancillary provisions regarding contracting out authorisations.

Perhaps I may stress that this is a necessary technical and procedural order. I commend it to the House.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 30th April be approved.—(Baroness Denton of Wakefield.)

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I thank the Minister. I welcome all forms of regulation which inure to the protection of the public health. On that basis, I have nothing further to say.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham

My Lords, I too thank the noble Baroness. I support the order, as I support anything which relates to the safety of food products, in particular meat. Perhaps I may shamelessly abuse this opportunity and comment on BSE as it affects the industry in Northern Ireland. It is a subject which we have not had an opportunity to discuss in this House. Agriculture is three times as important to the economy of Northern Ireland as it is to the rest of the United Kingdom. The dairy and beef industry in Northern Ireland has a uniquely high reputation. The beasts are fed and cared for to the highest standard. There is every reason to believe that cattle in Northern Ireland have been relatively immune from some of the excesses produced by the wrong feeding and the whole chapter of accidents with which we have become all too familiar.

I hope that if and when there is an opportunity, within the EU, of obtaining "advance treatment" of beef products in Northern Ireland the Government will not be inhibited by their general negotiating position on behalf of the United Kingdom as a whole. I hope that they will be prepared to support the high quality beef of Northern Ireland, given the potentially friendly treatment which, during the past two or three weeks, has appeared possible in Brussels. I hope that for the sake of general negotiations they do not hold back an early relaxation of the ban in the European Union. That would be a great mistake and would not be understood by the people in Northern Ireland who farm to the highest standards.

Viscount Brookeborough

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Holme, for raising the issue of BSE. I support what he said. As the Minister is aware, approximately 80 per cent. of beef is exported from Northern Ireland. Therefore, the situation is serious for its economy, which is more rural than any other part of the United Kingdom. There cannot be a shop in Northern Ireland which is more than 15 minutes from a green field and therefore affected by the agricultural spending power.

We have the most modern system in the United Kingdom, perhaps one of the best in Europe, for logging the movement of cattle. One wonders why it is not used in this country. The traceability of progeny from BSE-infected cattle should be easier to cope with.

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Brookeborough and the noble Lord, Lord Holme, for bringing to our attention the effect of BSE in Northern Ireland. If the noble Lord abuses the opportunity he does so in the interests of Northern Ireland, about which we all care.

It is right that the beef and dairy industry in Northern Ireland represents 4 per cent. of GDP. Nowhere is the effect of an export ban felt more keenly. Fifty per cent. of meat is exported because it is of such high quality and more than 70 per cent. leaves the Province. We must discover how to get the ban lifted. When I ask what is required to have the ban lifted, I receive replies to the effect, "How long is a piece of string?" That is not a scientific answer by any stretch of the imagination. I hope that we shall see a more rigorous and logical examination of the issues in Brussels tomorrow.

Northern Ireland has a tremendously high standard of traceability and inspection. I have absolute confidence that the veterinary service in the Department of Agriculture ensures that all requirements are complied with. Veterinary officers are available at all times at meat plants. There is a much smaller incidence of BSE in Northern Ireland. I am pleased to say that cases are down to nine per month, which is significant progress. In fact, that progress demonstrates that the rules which were imposed have been observed. However, there is an incidence of BSE and we must restore confidence.

I assure noble Lords that no one could be fighting harder for the lifting of the ban. My colleagues recognise that the effect on Northern Ireland is greater than anywhere else; I believe that even the Scots are prepared to acknowledge that. We must work extremely hard to establish what is required to lift the ban. I am certain that all the benefits we have in Northern Ireland will leave us ahead of the field, and we shall make quite certain we stay there.

Lord Sefton of Garston

My Lords, before the noble Baroness sits down, is she implying that the standards in the rest of the United Kingdom are lower than those which apply in Northern Ireland?

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, I am talking about investment in traceability, which is unique to Northern Ireland. As my noble friend said, a similar system is not available in England. In addition, we have more veterinary officers in the industry which enables us to ensure that those who wish perhaps to bend the rules are not in a position to do so. I commend the order.

On Question, Motion agreed to.