HL Deb 12 June 1997 vol 580 cc1025-32

6.17 p.m.

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

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement on the opinion of the European Union Scientific Veterinary Committee on the United Kingdom's proposals for a certified herd scheme which is being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The Statement is as follows:

"The terms of the Florence Agreement for lifting the export ban on British beef provided for a number of steps, including meat from animals in certified herds. It envisaged that these proposals would first be considered by the Commission's Scientific Advisory Committee before the Commission made changes to the European Union legislation.

"On 25th February, the previous UK Government submitted their proposals for a certified herds scheme to the Commission, which passed them to the Scientific Veterinary Committee for an opinion. The committee delivered its opinion yesterday and expressed concern on five points relating to the identification of animals, the tracing of the animals on farms and of their meat through the slaughterhouse and the degree of veterinary supervision. The committee suggested that changes needed to be made to the UK proposals before they would be acceptable.

"It is disappointing that the Scientific Veterinary Committee has asked for further clarification when it did not take up our offer to send an expert to explain our proposals at an earlier stage. We are not surprised that it has some criticisms. We are already considering carefully the points made and will give a detailed technical response very quickly. Officials are in Brussels today and discussions will continue over the next few days. We recognise that all consumers will be anxious to have full assurances in line with sound scientific assessments of risk. At the same time we will press for the removal of the ban where those assurances can be given. I will keep the House fully informed on developments."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

6.19 p.m.

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for repeating the Statement made by his colleague in another place. Consumers, producers and processors must be very disappointed. We had been told that soft words would turn away anger and would probably lift the ban as opposed to the tremendous support which the previous Government gave to the industry. But today's news leaves us in a very unsatisfactory position.

Why is it said that insufficient information was taken forward? If there is a desire for an identification system, what is wrong with the system in operation in Northern Ireland? The Commissioner has said already that he is happy with that. The EU vets have crawled over that system. If that is an issue, why did the Minister not press for those animals to be allowed back into the market place?

Will the Minister tell the House when it is proposed to establish a computerised system in England? When will the tracing take the form not of planned visits but planned inspections? What is the timetable that he foresees for those inspections?

The Statement does not help us as regards any new ideas or new approaches which are to be brought to this matter. In the past, we have given information to that committee. It was assumed that all the necessary information had been given. What is now different from the requirements that were imposed before Christmas?

As regards the identification of cohorts to meet the selective slaughter, will MAFF make arrangements to ensure that the selective slaughter in Northern Ireland, which is well under way, can be completed? Will it have priority?

What are the noble Lord's views on a ban not only in Europe but in the rest of the world? The South Africans are prepared and happy to take beef from Northern Ireland. What right does the European Union have to stop that? Is it based on the assumption that re-imports into the Union cannot be controlled? If so, that is not a problem for farmers in the United Kingdom.

The Minister may need to reply to my next question in writing. What are the Government doing about the fact that the French continue to refuse imports of meat that is processed in the United Kingdom but which comes from other countries which may have BSE? That meat can go back into Europe but has been stopped by the French. If the Minister looks at that issue, he will find a thick folder on it. I hope that that is a matter which the Government have taken on board.

One anxiety which is not touched on in the Statement relates to compensation for farmers in the future. I understand that there is to be no additional compensation. But if, as it appears, we are working towards settling the issue by allowing into the market place only those animals born after August 1996, that would involve heavy costs. The previous Government never walked away from supporting the producers and processors.

The main issue about which I wish to ask the Minister is whether he believes that there is now no safer beef anywhere in the world than that from Northern Ireland. That is well identified and well measured. It is hoped that Scotland and England will come up to that standard. Can the Minister give me some indication of the timetable that we can look forward to?

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

My Lords, I thank the Minister for answering the Question and making the Statement. Because it is a PNQ rather than a Statement as such, we did not have copies of it in advance. I draw that to the attention of the noble Lord the Chief Whip, who is here. I am sure that he is here in two capacities, as he will be interested in the subject as well as our procedures. This is not like an ordinary Question at Question Time when the questioner should not be told what is the Answer before he produces his supplementary questions. The procedure which we are following is very much the same as that for a Statement when, because the subject is complex, the details are provided in advance. But that is by the way.

The Statement is very disappointing. I am sure that everyone will find that that is so. Do the Government accept that the most important and urgent issue, rather than the opening of the export market as such, is the need for the harmonisation of import and export controls throughout Europe so that all beef that is consumed is of the same standard? Of course it is important that we look after the health of the public. It is very important also for the future of Europe that we see that there is fair dealing. That should be one of the Government's objectives.

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness and the noble Lord for their questions.

The noble Baroness asked why the committee felt that there was insufficient information. It set that out in its document. We do not necessarily accept that but it has put forward its reasons. We shall examine them and do our best to provide further information.

As regards Northern Ireland, which was the subject of about six of the noble Baroness's questions, our view is that we must achieve a lifting of the ban for the whole of the United Kingdom. We accept that in many ways the situation is better in Northern Ireland. When we achieve acceptance of certain solutions that we are trying to put forward, then it is quite clear that Northern Ireland will be a beneficiary because, in many ways, its herds are in a better state. The traceability is certainly better. Northern Ireland will benefit and we very much want that to happen and we bear very much in mind the situation in Northern Ireland because of its greater dependence on agriculture.

The noble Baroness asked when the computerised system would be set up. The previous Government were responsible for the handling of that. My understanding is that that is now under way in Great Britain and by the beginning of next year we are looking to have a reasonable, although not a full, establishment.

The noble Baroness asked about France. That really is a matter for the Commission. We shall submit our views on that.

On compensation, we are subject to strict budgetary restraints. We shall look at the matter and try to protect the British farming and meat industry as far as we possibly can. But I am bound to say that we act in a budgetary situation in which the previous Administration bequeathed us insufficient provision even to meet the present needs.

On the need for harmonisation, I should tell the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont, that we wholly agree with it; indeed, we have put that view fully to the Commission, and that is also its view. However, the Commission has its problems in the Council, as we do. As regards any further questions to which I have not responded, I shall write to the noble Baroness.

6.30 p.m.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, does my noble friend the Minister accept that I think his description of the decision of the veterinary committee is disappointing? Indeed, that is probably a grave understatement; I believe that it is catastrophic. Can he confirm a report which appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on 8th June that Professor John Pattison has now conceded that the CJD epidemic running into hundreds of thousands of cases which he predicted, and which gave rise to the BSE catastrophe, will not now occur? Faced with the dramatic decline in the number of CJD cases, the professor has now apparently admitted that the final number of such cases may end up not in hundreds of thousands but in only 200.

If that is so, is it not a fact that the professor and other scientists got it grievously wrong and that the then government were grievously at fault in too easily accepting the doomwatch scenario painted by the scientists which resulted in the futile killing of a million animals over 30 months of age and cost the taxpayer £3.5 billion in compensation—that is, £134 for every single household? If that is the case, does my noble friend the Minister agree that we have in fact been faced with enormous expense and enormous damage to our farming industry for no reason at all? Further, will he now take a far more robust attitude with our European partners than was taken by the previous government?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his intervention. The handling of this issue, and others, by the previous government did, I believe one can say quite gently, contain many defects. So far, we are pleased that there is no epidemic. However, there have been eight cases since last March and there are now 18. That is not an epidemic, but it is serious. In government one always finds oneself in the dilemma, especially when one is dependent on scientific advice, to which my noble friend referred, whereby one has always to preserve the balance between caution over the national health—and one probably always has to be over-cautious—and over huge costs. History will judge whether the previous government got that right. But we, with them, would not want to take major risks with the health of the nation.

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, I should like, first, to congratulate the noble Lord on his new post. I should also like to say how lucky in my opinion the farming industry is—and I declare an interest as a farmer—to have someone of such ability in the position that the noble Lord now occupies. Secondly, I must say that I find myself very much in agreement with the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart. Of course, I am delighted that the present Government are following some 90 per cent. plus of the previous government's policies. However, this is one area where, frankly, they should scrap them totally. They should cease to attempt to appease the unappeasable in the case of Europe and recognise that, however much anyone may be trying to get a balance between budgetary constraints and risks to human health, there is no way in which we can justify spending £3.5 billion on 18 cases of a disease which may be linked to BSE in cows. Indeed, there is no way in which the budgetary decisions so made could be justified.

With the massive majority that the Government have, perhaps I may urge the Minister to take a totally fresh look at the matter and say, "We shall not export our beef until BSE is ended". It will end in due course because the numbers are falling rapidly at present. Indeed, there is probably a great deal less BSE in Britain than there is in France, and the time has now come to stop spending taxpayers' money, to stop the slaughter—certainly of cohorts—and to wait until the situation comes to a natural end.

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his kind remarks. I have taken note of his alliance with my noble friend who is sitting behind me. I am not sure whether that has always been the case and, therefore, I shall view what the noble Lord says with even greater care. I shall certainly report his views to my right honourable friend. Nevertheless, I have to tell the noble Lord that we are not totally—or even 90 per cent. in general—continuing the policies of the previous government, but we are locked into a particular process and we have certain obligations which we shall pursue while taking a radical look at them. We would not wish taxpayers to pay more than is necessary. We are most concerned about the consumer interest, but the health of the country is our top priority.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, I have perhaps an easier question for the Minister. Can he say what progress is being made to secure the removal of heads, spinal cords and some other offal from beef carcasses imported into this country from continental Europe?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord. However, I can assure him that it is my observation that there are no easy questions in this department. We announced last week our proposals to ensure that specified risk materials are removed, and, indeed, are removed from imports. We have given the European Union until 22nd July to come forward with proposals to ensure that it has similar controls. Therefore, we have taken quite new and radical steps in that respect. I hope that that will satisfy the noble Lord.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the case we have to put before the Scientific Veterinary Committee is an unanswerable one? We have all the evidence and we have done all the things that we need to do in order to be able to get the committee to agree with us. If we find the committee continuing with the obfuscation and obstruction which it has demonstrated on this occasion and which may be a hangover from previous days, or if at the end of the process it reaches the conclusion that we should not be allowed to go ahead with a certified herd scheme, would that not be a great disappointment to the Minister and cause him to question whether the approach being taken by his Government towards Europe is going to pay the dividends which he hopes? Further, can the Minister tell the House what conceivable disadvantage would occur to any other part of the United Kingdom—except perhaps to the amour propre of the Scots—if Northern Ireland were allowed to go ahead of the rest of us in getting permission to market its beef?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his intervention. I believe that our case is very strong. It is not in all specifics the case that we might have submitted; indeed, it was submitted by the previous government. However, we believe that the thrust of the case is absolutely right. But if the committee has questions about particular details and phrasings, we shall look into them in order to try to be constructive. As the noble Lord knows, it is an independent scientific committee; it is not a group of European politicians. Therefore, we must treat the committee with respect and we shall try our very best to do so.

I should also tell the noble Lord that my right honourable friend has been in contact today, by telephone, with both the relevant commissioners—namely, Commissioner Fischler and Commissioner Bonino—to discuss how we should take the matter forward positively. It is clear that their view is that this step is not a slap in the face or a rejection; it seeks to establish the basis on which we can go forward and secure a lifting of the ban. It should be viewed more positively than it has been in the British press.

As regards Northern Ireland, I can only repeat what I said to the noble Baroness. We sympathise with and are concerned about the beef industry in Northern Ireland. We shall do everything we can to help it. However, our basic aim is to seek a lifting of the ban for the whole of the United Kingdom. If we obtain specific concessions—for example, on certified herds or on animals born after certain dates—there is no doubt that those in Northern Ireland will he the main beneficiaries. As regards damage, I do not believe that the industry in Northern Ireland could inflict any damage on the rest of the United Kingdom. However, the Scots are often sensitive about these matters.

Lord Monson

My Lords, I wish to pick up a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Denton of Wakefield, which I do not think was answered. Does the noble Lord accept that what infuriates the British people more than anything else with regard to the beef ban is the power, or purported power, of the European Commission to ban exports of our beef and beef derivatives to countries outside the European Union which may wish to buy our beef, notwithstanding the BSE scare? I suspect that 18 months ago 99.99 per cent. of the people in this country would have found it quite inconceivable that the European Commission possessed such draconian powers at the expense of national parliaments. Will the Minister say under what clauses or paragraphs of the Treaty of Rome, the Single European Act or the Treaty of Maastricht the European Commission is given such powers? If he does not have the facts at his fingertips, will he be so kind as to write to me? At the same time can he say whether the power to ban such exports is confined solely to agricultural produce, or could it be extended to manufactured goods which the Commission deems to be in some way unsafe?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I point out to the noble Lord that we are challenging that action as being excessive and beyond the Commission's powers. We must await the judgment of the European Court on that matter. We do not accept that the Commission has those powers.

Lord Willoughby de Broke

My Lords, when do we expect the European Court of Justice to deliver its verdict on this matter?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I am sorry, we have no idea, but we hope it will be by the end of the year.