HL Deb 16 June 1997 vol 580 cc1069-72

2.44 p.m.

Lord Bruce of Donington, on behalf of Lord Wyatt of Weeford, asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they have studied the report in the Sunday Times of 1st June which indicated that beef imported into the United Kingdom from European Union states carried a high risk of being infected by BSE: and whether they will seek a ban on the export of beef by those states.

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

My Lords, I trust that my noble friend is not too ill in Ascot week. The Sunday Times report refers to findings by a Commission study of BSE controls in the European Union indicating lapses in the identification and reporting of BSE in member states. The Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee considered this matter at its most recent meeting and recommended that action should be taken to extend our specified bovine material controls to imported material. In the light of that advice, the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food announced on 5th June that we were opening consultation on proposals which would mean that the requirement to remove and dispose of specified tissues would apply not only to carcasses of cattle slaughtered in the UK, but also to imported bovine material. We are not proposing an import ban.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that satisfactory reply. However, is he aware that when this matter first arose in May of last year, when the European Commission put out a regulation banning the United Kingdom from exporting beef to countries other than those in the EC, the then government and the then opposition were united in support of my contention that the EC acted entirely illegally? One would hope that that action is still being pursued. If any doubts arise again in the future, I hope that Her Majesty's Government will not hesitate to take the appropriate legal action through the European Court of Justice.

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his question. The Government are proceeding, as did their predecessor, through the European Court of Justice in protest against what they see as an excessive use of the powers of the European Union. We await the result of that judgment which we consider should be due before the end of the year. In relation to any ban which members may incline towards, it would not be appropriate for us to pursue a ban on imports while at the same time protesting that such a ban was beyond the EU powers. I should point out also that it is contrary to GATT, to which we are a signatory, as well as contrary to the single market treaty.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that all our undertakings on BSE followed strict scientific advice? Is he happy and confident that other European countries are proceeding in the same way as we have always proceeded?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, to the best of my knowledge that is the case. We act only on strict scientific advice. When my right honourable friend announced on 5th June that we were applying the same controls to imports that we applied to our own meat, it was based on the SEAC report. The European Commission takes independent veterinary advice and acts upon it. I have no reason to believe that that is not independent and highly qualified advice.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, can my noble friend say whether or not I misunderstood him? I believe he said that the Government were adopting a ban which they would not enforce. What is the use of an unenforced ban?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I do not believe that that is what I said. or anything like it. I said that we were not introducing a ban. However, we are applying controls to imported meat of the same kind that we apply to ourselves. That will be strictly enforced.

Viscount Waverley

My Lords, who will pay the cost of the measures outlined in the noble Lord's initial response?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, consultation is currently taking place. That will be completed at the end of this month. The Government will then announce their proposals.

Lord Hooson

My Lords, if we are imposing the same kind of controls over imported meat from the European Community as we do on our own meat, does this also extend to other countries such as the United States? That, after all, in 1950, was the first country to ban imports of British beef.

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, the controls apply to all countries where it is suspected that there is BSE. They do not apply to countries such as the United States; to some what I would call old Commonwealth countries; to one or two countries in Africa; and to one or two countries in South America, where there is no reason to believe that there is BSE. If there is reason to believe that there is BSE, the controls will be applied.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, in the light of the report in the Sunday Times and the risk of BSE infected meat now entering this country, will my noble friend have conversation with firms such as McDonald's and Burger King and with food manufacturers which rushed to ban British beef, which is now recognised to be the safest in the world? Will he have words with them now and ask them to reverse their ban and include British beef in their products?

Lord Donoughue

Yes, my Lords. We believe that the ban was precipitous. My right honourable friend is in the process of being in touch with the firms that my noble friend mentioned.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, is it not the case that all these measures were taken because of the fear that BSE was transmissible to humans? Can he say whether there has been any confirmatory scientific evidence of the work of Professor Collinge, which precipitated the announcement by Mr. Stephen Dorrell last March bringing in all these extra measures?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I wish I knew what was ultimately confirmatory scientific advice. We can only take the best advice we get and be as cautious in applying it as we can. That is what we are doing

Lord Lucas

My Lords, does the noble Lord accept that we are delighted by what the Government are doing? Can he tell us whether the European Commission is similarly delighted? Can he also clear up a little confusion in my mind from the Statement last Thursday? Was the noble Lord saying then that the Government are contemplating continuing the 30 months' scheme for a considerable period into the future but reducing—perhaps even substantially reducing—the compensation paid to farmers under it?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, on the latter point, our proposals for compensation will emerge in due course. On the other point, it would only be honest to say that not everyone on the Continent welcomed with complete glee what we said. The Commission itself is troubled by the situation on the Continent in terms of surveillance and control of BSE and has, first last December and again on 14th May of this year. put forward proposals to introduce Europe-wide standard controls. So in the Commission there is considerable understanding of our approach.

Lord Dixon-Smith

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that it is only the existence of an adequate compensation scheme for farmers in this country that ensures that infected animals are brought forward for slaughter? It is the absence of such a scheme across most of mainland Europe which means there is doubt as to whether infected animals are brought forward. Will he bear that in mind in any review of the compensation scheme the Government might undertake?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I wholly agree with the noble Lord. The need to avoid fraudulent evasion and the need to ensure that all cases are brought forward and disposed of will be the main factors behind our decisions on compensation.