HL Deb 20 May 1996 vol 572 cc647-50

Lord Boyd-Carpenter asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether the ban imposed by the European Union on the importation of British beef has now been lifted; what has been the loss in British exports resulting from the ban; and whether they intend to retaliate for this interference with British trade.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, regrettably the ban remains in place. That is affecting exports worth nearly £700 million last year. The Government are taking all possible action which they believe will be successful in getting this unjustified and disproportionate ban lifted.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for the spirit of his reply. However, can he elaborate a little on the nature of the steps that the Government are taking? Are they in fact proposing to retaliate for this damaging attack on British trade with the heavy loss to which he referred, or, alternatively, what action is contemplated? My noble friend indicated that there was "possible action", but he did not tell us what it was.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, we have to separate two events here. I share my noble friend's sense of outrage and deep disappointment at the way in which the European Community reacted to the news and the way that it behaved initially. However, we must recognise that that has done a great deal of damage to the confidence of EC consumers and to its own beef markets. Indeed, the European Union used to take 90 per cent. of our beef exports. It is the consumers in those countries who will decide whether we can start re-exporting to them. Therefore, we must act in ways which will help European governments rebuild the confidence of their consumers in our beef exports. I believe that that is best done by talking and arguing, because we have an extremely strong case.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, in answer to previous Questions tabled in your Lordships' House, the Minister has stated that the Government regard the actions of the Community as illegal, indicating that they would take legal action themselves in order to ensure redress. Can the noble Lord, first, elaborate on the steps that the Government are now taking to secure legal redress for actions that they regard as being wholly illegal? Secondly, in view of the fact that the commissioner responsible has agreed that the action taken was not based on health grounds, can the noble Lord inform the House whether he is aware that the veterinary committee in the Commission which is meeting to discuss the matter appears in some instances to be following not veterinary but political grounds?

Lord Lucas

Yes, my Lords; we are quite aware that a number of people in the Standing Veterinary Committee have done so in the past and, indeed, may well still be taking political rather than scientific decisions. We are committed to taking the issue to the ECJ and expect to be issuing proceedings soon.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, while admitting to a certain personal interest in the matter, may I ask my noble friend the Minister to convey to his right honourable friend the Minister my unqualified admiration for his principled and courageous battle for the interests of British farmers?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, hear, hear!

Lord Barnett

My Lords, in Answer to his noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter, the Minister referred to a shared concern about the beef ban. However, do I take the second half of that answer to mean that, basically, there is no question of any retaliation?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, I am not aware that there is any present question of retaliation.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, is it the whole of the Community or is it just the Germans who are leading the fight against British beef and British beef exports? I heard today that the Germans are obsessional about health and that under no circumstances will they lift the ban. Can the Minister confirm whether that is so? Further, I understand that Mr. Hogg has gone to Europe today to offer a cull of twice the original number—that is, 80,000. If the ban is still not lifted under those circumstances and with that offer, just how many cattle are the Government prepared to sacrifice before we get the ban lifted?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, so far as concerns the noble Lord's second question, I believe that the matter at issue is extending the time-scale of the originally proposed additional cull. The original cull had a first cut-off date of, I think, September 1990, which is when our record keeping took a step upwards and it became easier to trace animals. There is the question of whether that should be pushed back a year or two. We had a cut-off date for cases occurring up to April of this year. There is also the question of whether the same principle of culling should apply to cases which occur in the future. Those are the matters which will be discussed in Brussels over the next few days.

As regards the noble Lord's first question, clearly—as the noble Lord recognises—Germany will have particular problems with the climate among consumers in that country. As I understand the position at the moment, within the Standing Veterinary Committee the Germans' known supporters are Austria, Spain and Greece.

Lord Burnham

My Lords, what use are the Government making of the figures given to me in a Written Answer; namely, that the total number of cases of CJD this year is 15, of which 14 are described as sporadic? What does "sporadic" mean in this context?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, it is too early to say what this means, but if this pattern were to continue we would in the course of this year become much more confident that what we were seeing was a low incidence of CJD that was likely to remain so rather than become anything which might be described as an epidemic.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, at the heart of this unhappy problem lies the possible danger to health. Will the noble Lord tell the House what view the Government take of this at the present time? What is the view of the medical profession in this country, or is it the case that we no longer think there is such a danger?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, so far as I am aware nothing has changed one way or the other since our original announcement.

Lord Annan

My Lords, is it true that in 1989 the United States imposed a ban on British beef, and Canada did so in 1990? Is not the reason that this ban is continuing in Europe that there is in Europe the feeling that our standards of food hygiene are not high enough? Does not the noble Lord think it sad that there seems to be, in addition to Creutzfeldt-Jakob syndrome or whatever it is called—the Government themselves announced that there might be a link between this and BSE—another form of madness which seems to have seized some people, that is, xenophobia?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, xenophobia was present well before we encountered BSE in cows. As regards the noble Lord's first question, I do not feel that there is such a problem as he describes. There is nothing that I am aware of which has taken place which should lead to that conclusion.

Lord Carter

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the chairman of Unilever said only last week that the BSE fiasco—those were his words—is in the UK and not in Europe? Is the Minister further aware that with their proposals for a selective slaughter scheme—first the figure was 40,000 and now it is 80,000 cattle—the Government have manoeuvred themselves into a numbers game which they can only lose? So far our European partners have given nothing. They have just sat and waited while the Government have been forced to increase their bids to get their support. Does the Minister agree that science and competent negotiation went out of the window a long time ago and now we just stumble from one ad hoc proposal to another?

Lord Lucas

No, my Lords, I do not agree with that at all. Clearly the latest cull plans are based on the same principle as the earlier ones; namely, can we identify a population which has a high risk of presenting BSE in the future?

Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior

My Lords, in view of the Minister saying that this is a question of public confidence, will he give wide publicity, to the public in this country and in the European Union, to the fourth annual report on CJD surveillance which concludes, The case control studies do not provide any conclusive evidence of a change in CJD that can be attributed to BSE"?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, clearly that is the case.

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