HL Deb 20 May 1996 vol 572 cc653-6

2.56 p.m.

Lord Monk Bretton asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether, in spite of the European Union ban, they are entitled to give away safe beef from beasts aged over 30 months to consumers in needy countries.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, no. The export of meat from any bovine animal slaughtered in the United Kingdom is currently prohibited by virtue of Commission Decision 96/239/EC.

Lord Monk Bretton

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that somewhat brief reply. Nevertheless, will he ask his right honourable friend in another place not to dismiss from his mind altogether the possibility of a giveaway of beef? Will he also bear in mind the moral virtue in avoiding the waste of edible food?

Can my noble friend say something about the extent of the backlog on farms of cattle awaiting slaughter? Press reports yesterday gave estimates of 120,000 to 400,000 head. Is my noble friend able to be a little more precise? Can he indicate the proportion of that figure as regards dairy cows and clean cattle? Is there an estimate of the length of time that it will take to clear the backlog?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, clearly the export of beef to countries which do not themselves have the right to export beef to the European Union is a matter that we shall be addressing at a very early stage when we discuss the lifting of this unjustified ban. It would have the great advantage that, if countries—it would have to be their decision—were prepared to take our over-30 month beef (which I have been eating happily for many years now), that would help to clear the backlog. The backlog exists because of the difficulty of sufficient rendering capacity. I would guess that the backlog stands at about 150,000 animals at present. I cannot divide that figure between cows and beef animals. We hope to clear it in reasonable time, but it will not be immediately.

Lord Thomson of Monifieth

My Lords, will the Minister answer the earlier question from the noble Lord, Lord Annan, that he failed to answer? Is it a fact that from 1989 both America and Canada banned our beef imports because of our failure to deal with the high incidence of BSE in this country? Would it not be altogether better for the Government to concentrate on restoring consumer confidence here rather than seeking to make a scapegoat of the European Union?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, no, we are not trying to make a scapegoat of the European Union. It is quite right that America and Canada banned our beef a long while ago. That is the kind of action that one can expect from people who are our out and out competitors. When dealing with people who are supposed to be our friends first and competitors second, we expect a different standard of behaviour. That is the reason for our disappointment with the initial reaction from the European Union. We seem to be having more constructive discussions with most of the European Union these days.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, does the provision to which the Minister referred expressly prohibit a one-off free humanitarian distribution of the type proposed by my noble friend Lord Monk Bretton? Further, in circumstances where one has to strike a balance between certain death by starvation and zero risk or minimal risk of fatal infection, is it not reasonable to seek some derogation?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, my understanding is that yes, the directive prohibits distribution, free or paid for. It prohibits export, and export is the physical movement of goods rather than anything to do with payment for them. Whether or not it is a good idea I leave to the recipients.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, can the Minister say what reason Canada and the USA gave for banning our beef for so long?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, they cited dangers which they perceived from BSE.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, is the Minister aware that two severe problems are building up with the backlog? First, my local market is unable to send cattle on to the renderers because they are asking too much money for carrying out the job and therefore stocks are building up. Secondly, with the late spring the grass has not grown and farmers are finding it extremely difficult to feed their cattle. Is there not a danger that more farmers will die from self-inflicted wounds than from CJD?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, I sincerely hope that few farmers die from self-inflicted wounds. Enough die from that already, without any increase. That kind of argument lay behind the announcement by my honourable friend Mr. Baldry that we would put in place a mechanism to provide an interim payment to farmers who are unable to find the necessary slaughtering and rendering capacity for their animals.

Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior

My Lords, in view of what the Minister said about the mature beef assurance scheme, if accepted, does he agree that it is a welcome step forward? Will he further consider whether it would be worth while storing beef, frozen, canned or otherwise, from those beef herds that do not come within the seven-year criterion until such time as the herd of origin meets the requirements? The meat stored could then either be released on to the market or, as my noble friend Lord Monk Bretton suggested, given away to a needy nation.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, we are still having consultation on the exemption scheme. Doubtless considerations such as those mentioned by my noble friend will be included. The future of the beef industry in this country depends crucially on our taking measures which restore, or rather keep restored, consumer confidence. The long-term interests of the beef industry are identical to those of the consumer. We must keep that in mind rather than any short-term problems which beef producers may face.

Lord Carter

My Lords, is the Minister aware that in pressing for the lifting of the export ban, the Government should reflect on the Saturday morning farming programme? Mr. Keith Meldrum, the Chief Veterinary Officer of MAFF, said on that programme that we should have eliminated the feed source of BSE from all animal feed at the outset. We in the Labour Party asked for that in 1990 and the Government introduced it three weeks ago.

Mr. Meldrum also said that more rigorous control measures should have been taken at a much earlier stage. That is again something that we asked for but the Government consistently refused it until recently. Do the Government agree with the statements of the Chief Veterinary Officer?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, I did not listen to the farming programme and have not seen a transcript. However, I am sure that with hindsight and knowing what we know now, we could say that had we taken the decisions in 1990 with the prescience of present knowledge, rather than dealing with the scientific advice and knowledge that we had at the time, we might have taken different decisions. However, at the time we acted on the best scientific advice. I agree that it has not turned out for the best. It would have been nice if we had known what we know now, but we did not.

Lord Carter

My Lords, we asked for those measures in 1990, six years ago, not with hindsight.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, we were acting at the time on scientific advice and not with the advice of the Labour Party.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, can the Minister inform the House which body will decide when consumer confidence has been restored? Has it to be decided by the whole of the Council of Ministers? For example, can Herr Kohl and his Government hang out indefinitely against all the rest, if it suits them politically? Who will decide when consumer confidence has been returned to a point where the British taxpayer may be relieved of the necessity for providing vast sums for the unnecessary slaughter of many animals?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, I am sure that the consumers will decide whether consumer confidence is restored. However, the actions of governments help and in that context we were all delighted by the reaction and subsequent assistance of the French, following the visit here of President Chirac.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, does the Minister agree that in these circumstances majority voting has a great deal to recommend it?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, on some issues it has.

Lord Walton of Detchant

My Lords, I speak as a member of the Southwood Working Party which made recommendations to Government in 1989 about the removal of animal-based material from ruminant rations. Does the Minister accept that since that time our conclusion to the effect that any risk to human health arising out of the BSE epidemic was minimal—very slight indeed? Does he further accept that such experiments as have been carried out since that time which attempt to demonstrate transmission from beef muscle to experimental animals have been totally negative? Under the circumstances, is it not the case that British beef is perfectly safe to eat?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, I totally agree with the final and also the penultimate comments of the noble Lord.

Lord Whaddon

My Lords, would it be more appropriate for the Government to show a more pro-European stance and understanding of the concern for the health of countries receiving hazardous exports? In that connection, why do the Government not propose a ban on Greek tobacco?

Lord Lucas

My Lords, there is clearly nothing hazardous about British beef. That is why we are so upset with the European Union for taking precipitate action in banning a perfectly safe product. As for Greek tobacco, perhaps that is why the Greeks are voting against British beef.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the British consumer has regained confidence in British beef and that sales are nearly up to the same level as before the current scare arose?

Lord Lucas

Yes, my Lords, I believe that that is the case, certainly with prime cuts.