HL Deb 11 December 1997 vol 584 cc240-2

3.30 p.m.

Lord Monro of Langholm asked Her Majesty's Government:

What steps they are taking to relieve the current difficulties of the United Kingdom beef industry.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Lord Donoughue)

My Lords, since taking office the Government have pressed vigorously in Brussels for the lifting of the export ban and for the adoption of European Union-wide measures to ensure that beef produced in Europe is subject to the same strict controls as that produced in the United Kingdom. The Government are currently considering how and whether further support can be offered to this hard pressed sector, given the constraints both of European Union rules and of limited UK financial provision.

Lord Monro of Langholm

My Lords, I declare an interest as a farmer and thank the noble Lord for his reply. Does the Minister understand how serious the situation is at present for beef and hill farmers? They expect a lead from the Government. Will the noble Lord be able to help through the livestock grants or compensation to the green pound? Finally, can the Minister say firmly that British beef is the best and that there is no worry about safety whether it is on or off the bone?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, yes, we believe that, given the current controls including the latest ones we have introduced, British beef is safe. We are of course aware of the sufferings of those sections of the farming community. They are not backward in coming forward, I may say, to make their feelings felt. We are looking at whether it is possible, and in what way it would be possible, to assist. But the noble Lord will be aware of the enormous assistance—£1.4 billion a year—that already goes to the beef sector. That is paid for by the British taxpayer.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, is the Minister aware that not only the farmers but also the British public are completely and utterly confused and bewildered as to what is going on in relation to beef and now lamb? Is it a fact that the risk factor from eating beef off the bone is 600 million to one? Is it also a fact that as regards lamb and lamb cutlets there has been no case of CJD related to BSE? Indeed the scientists are unable to find a link. Is it not awful that people in this country should be frightened and farmers' livelihoods affected by such junk research? Are these people vegetarians who are trying to impose their way of life on all of us?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I do not know whether they are vegetarians. When I took office The Times accused me of being a vegetarian. We have taken the measures on beef because our top priority is the safety of the public. We received advice from the official advisory committee that there was a risk. It is one thing to sit feeling inconvenienced because one cannot order one's T-bone steak. However, when a Minister is confronted with the risk that someone will die, he takes the decision from a different point of view. The Minister acts from the precautionary principle. He decided that he was not prepared to risk people's lives.

On lamb, the noble Lord refers to a report from an advisory committee in Europe. No decisions have been taken in Europe. The evidence was considered by our advisory committee which reported to Ministers that it saw no reason for action. So British lamb is safe, and, as my right honourable friend said, there is no reason not to eat British lamb.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, do the Government foresee the export ban being lifted first from Northern Ireland, given its system for tracing individual animals and the very low incidence of BSE in Northern Ireland?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I visited Northern Ireland. We are aware of the circumstances there and the fact it has the lowest incidence of BSE. Northern Ireland has a cattle traceability scheme. Responding to the Florence Agreement, we submitted two proposals to try to get the beef ban lifted. One is the certified export scheme. That is for herds certified free of BSE. But the Europeans require full traceability. If they agree the scheme would apply mainly to Northern Ireland until our cattle traceability scheme is up and running which should be in the late spring. Our second proposal is a born-after date scheme. If we can get that accepted, it would be of benefit to the whole of the United Kingdom.

Lord Geraint

My Lords, I am sure the Minister is well aware that beef producers' profits are down by 40 per cent. this year. What does the Minister envisage will happen next year?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, on the figures before us, the squeeze on virtually all sectors of the farming community will be severe. We do not have the figures for the near future. That is why I have said that we shall look at ways in which we can help within the constraints I have stated. However, I should point out that other sectors of the economy suffer and they do not always expect to be bailed out.

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