HL Deb 11 February 1998 vol 585 cc1133-6

2.45 p.m.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they intend their ban on the sale and consumption of oxtail to be permanent and which other countries have taken similar action.

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

My Lords, the ban on the sale of oxtail will, like other BSE control measures, be kept under regular review. Any future decision to lift it will be taken in the light of scientific developments and progress with the eradication of BSE. It is a national measure to protect public health and to enhance confidence in British beef. We are not aware of other governments taking similar action.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, I hope that the Minister will be persuaded to open his mind a little further than is permitted within the narrow confines of his department. Will he accept that the risk now attaching to eating beef produced in this country is so minuscule as to be non-existent? Will he also accept that the ban, which is difficult and expensive to enforce, will prove haphazard in its application and is causing unwarrantable damage to the beef industry in this country? Surely there are other greater perils from which a vigilant government would wish to protect us before getting into a mess with this one.

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I have always enjoyed the noble Lord's interventions, but I have not hitherto been on the receiving end. I repeat that the Government are convinced of the reasons for the ban. The reasons relate to public health, restoring the confidence in British beef and assisting us to lift the European ban on the export of British beef. I do not accept that there is no risk. There is a small risk, but there is a real risk.

Lord Hardy of Wath

My Lords, in how many countries is British oxtail already banned? Have not this Government and their predecessor been told to give the highest possible priority to the removal of the international ban on British beef? Would that ban have been more easily removed without the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food having taken the decision which was entirely justified on medical evidence?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his question. We are working hard to try to get the beef ban lifted. It is conceivable that not every member of the European Union is as enthusiastic as we are in that process. It is important that we give them no ammunition to delay the process of lifting the ban. In Brussels, I was assured that had we allowed into our human food chain meat which was technically not safe that would have provided ammunition to delay the lifting of the beef ban.

The Earl of Radnor

My Lords, does the Minister believe that, when we are so frightened of eating our own beef, the right message is going out, and that we are convincing members of the Community to eat our beef and our oxtail? Surely the message going out is we are terrified of eating our own beef, so why should you eat it?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I am not sure that that is the case. The reality is that British beef is totally safe because of the controls which have been introduced not only by this Government but by the previous government. The message that we are sending out is that our beef is totally safe. We will continue to take whatever measures are necessary to reinforce that message.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, I congratulate the Minister on his answers to these important questions and contrast his behaviour with the absence from the other place of the Secretary of State when similar issues were raised last night.

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his kind remarks which I know were generously meant. I do not believe that it would be appropriate for us in this House to comment on activities in another place. However, I should point out that wherever a junior Minister is operating, it is inappropriate and not conventional for a senior Minister to be present.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that some of us on this side are extremely disappointed by his Answer today? Is he not now regretful that he and the Government did not take the opportunity given them by this House on 27th January to reconsider the matter and to have widespread consultation with those affected, including the customers? In spite of what happened last night, would it not be as well if the Government did exactly that? The people of this country simply do not believe that this ban is necessary on health grounds; they believe that it is a sop to the European Community.

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I am always sorry to disappoint my noble friend. As regards regrets, I do not think that we can afford regrets in this regard or in life generally. I restate what I said. The Government's position has been clear. It was not accepted in this House, and was rejected by quite a large majority; but it was accepted in another place last night by a very large majority.

Lord Hooson

My Lords, will the noble Lord confirm that the European Community never requested a ban on British beef on the bone or oxtail? Will the Government confirm that the estimation by the scientists of the very small risk was accepted by the Community? Will the Minister tell us what has been the cost to this country of the ban on beef on the bone and oxtail, and what has been the greatly increased cost therefore of killing cattle in our abattoirs?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I cannot tell the noble Lord the cost. We could speculate on the cost of not having imposed the ban if it prolonged the ban on British beef. It is not a question of whether or not the European Union requested a specific measure, because of course, other than the five conditions of the Florence Agreement, that is not done. But its general position is that it must be totally assured that British beef is safe. Had we not banned the beef on the bone, it would not have had that assurance and some member states might be quite happy not to have it.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that he referred to restoring British confidence in British beef? My understanding is that both in this House and throughout the country, the British have confidence in their beef and wish to go on eating it on the bone. Moreover, if the Minister or any other noble Lord is after a raffle prize, he should rush to his supermarket and buy that thing more precious than pearls—a tin of oxtail soup.

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, oxtail soup is different from oxtail. Assuming that it is properly prepared, which it is, oxtail soup is permitted and is on sale. It is the oxtail which contains the bone which contains the marrow which is dangerous and which is banned.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, will the noble Lord accept our congratulations on the skill, charm and courtesy with which he handles questions which he cannot answer?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that. It is of course the case that I have quite a lot of experience in that area.