HL Deb 25 November 1998 vol 595 cc66-76

5.30 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 outcome of the European Union Agriculture Council held on 23rd and 24th November at which the United Kingdom was represented by my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. My noble friend Lord Sewel, Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Scottish Office, was also present. The Statement, which was made earlier in another place by my right honourable friend the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, is as follows: The Council voted on a proposal made by the Commission for the lifting of the worldwide ban on the export of British beef in respect of meat from animals born after 1st August 1996. Ten member states voted in favour of the measure; only one, Germany—for understandable domestic reasons— voted against. Spain, France, Austria and Luxembourg abstained. This vote represented a substantial move towards the Commission proposal by five member states from the earlier vote in the Standing Veterinary Committee. Most importantly, the procedures under which the vote was taken in Council enable the Commission formally to adopt the decision. I can now announce to the House that within the last three hours the Commission has adopted the proposal, which permits the export from the United Kingdom of boneless beef and beef products from animals slaughtered between six and 30 months of age and born after 1st August 1996. That is the date on which the Commission has verified that all contaminated feed was removed from the feed chain. There are further conditions which aim to prevent the offspring of BSE cases from entering the export scheme; a requirement for the slaughter of offspring of BSE cases; and strict rules on slaughtering and processing. The Government will shortly issue a consultation paper on our proposals for implementing these rules. I shall be laying before Parliament secondary legislation which will make the offspring cull, which has been operating since July on a voluntary basis, compulsory. The legislation will provide compensation at the market rate to owners of animals slaughtered. This is an excellent outcome which I am sure the House will welcome. It has been achieved against a background of scepticism about the seriousness with which we have tackled BSE. We have now overcome these misconceptions and had our case judged objectively on its scientific merits and supported by independent Commission inspections, taking as our over-riding principle the absolute need to safeguard public health. Every agriculture Minister who spoke in the Council, including those who did not vote in favour, had very positive things to say about the commitment shown by the new United Kingdom Government to tackling the problems presented by BSE. The outcome is also an affirmation of the value of this Government's close co-operation and dialogue with our partners in Europe and with the European Commission. The lifting of the ban comes hard on the heels of the support measures for the agriculture sector which I announced to the House on 16th November. Both demonstrate the Government's commitment to securing a viable long term future for the sector. The Council also held a discussion of the Commission's proposals for CAP reform in the context of the Agenda 2000 measures. These proposals are essential for the future stability of European agriculture and in order to facilitate a successful enlargement of the Union to the east. The Council agreed a report to the Vienna European Council next month identifying the main outstanding issues and expressing its determination to reach conclusions on the package as a whole by next March. It is an important government objective to secure an ambitious reform of the CAP which serves the national interest and I very much welcomed, on behalf of the Government, the commitment by the Council to take early decisions. My right honourable friend the Chancellor made similar points in the discussion in ECOFIN on 23rd November on the future financing of the European Union. This was a very important Council meeting for the United Kingdom. We have achieved a major objective of our policy towards Europe in the lifting of the beef export ban. Although it would take time for the British beef industry to win back markets which have been lost to them in the past two-and-a-half years, I believe we have now created the conditions in which we can now plan for the future, confident that its industry is operating to the highest possible standard. Our immediate task is to work with the industry to ensure that the scheme which we have successfully negotiated in Europe works effectively to regain recognition of the quality of British beef on world markets". My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

5.37 p.m.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. We on these Benches warmly welcome the Council decision to lift the beef ban. Will the noble Lord also acknowledge that many of the measures that were needed to satisfy the EU Commissioners were in place before the last general election?

While welcoming the lifting of the ban, I must point out that it is only a partial lifting, not a complete one. Restrictions are still in place for beef on the bone. Those countries which prefer to buy carcass beef will still be unable to buy British beef on the bone. Will the Minister accept that one of the ways in which that process may be speeded up is to lift the current ban on beef on the bone in this country? That would not only stimulate confidence in the UK; it would also help to rebuild confidence abroad. While the ban is kept, it reflects our uncertainty.

The Statement details further conditions, mentioning the specific requirements of the slaughter of offspring of BSE cases. In addition to that, does the Minister accept that there are still animals from the cohort cow which need to be traced. What progress is being made in that regard?

The Statement refers to proposed rules of slaughtering. Will the Minister tell the House how the relevant abattoirs will be selected? Will they be export-only abattoirs? How quickly will that process be put in hand? Who will be part of the inspection team? What is the geographical location? And, with regard to the inspection team, will Germany be included? As we know, Germany voted against lifting our ban. If there is to be delay in the process being put in place, will the Minister accept that such delay will reflect a lack of will in Europe to open our export markets?

In the Statement the Government acknowledge that it will take time for the British beef industry to win back its markets. What additional help will the Government give to speed up that process? Within the home market, will the Government give more direction to encourage greater consumption of beef in our public sector? And will they make it possible for our servicemen once again to enjoy British beef?

The Statement mentioned nothing about labelling. As there is so much concern not only among beef producers but also among pig and poultry producers, does the Minister accept that, in promoting the best of British beef, all producers wish to see honest, clear, proper labelling of our food? It should state clearly that the product was produced in the UK and was subject to our very strict animal welfare standards. That should not include meat produced abroad but processed in the UK. Perhaps the Minister will respond to that important issue and reflect on whether it was discussed at the Council meeting earlier this week.

Finally, might I press the Minister to tell the House what progress has been made since the March meeting? The Statement refers to ambitious reform, so will the Minister enlarge on some of the specific proposals which are under discussion? For example what is the Government's view on labour unit modulation? What is the Government's view on the proposal for national envelopes? Does the Minister still hold the view that there should be a cut in milk prices of some 30 per cent.?

Those are all very serious questions. While we on these Benches welcome and congratulate the Government on achieving their partial lifting of the beef ban, it is just a start. How soon will we see our exports being restored? How soon will our farm gate prices begin to rise? How soon will our great British beef be available on menus all around the world?

5.41 p.m.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for repeating the Statement and I congratulate the Government on their limited success, which is definitely a step forward. The Government's tactics in co-operating with and talking to those in Europe have been infinitely more successful than the tactics of the previous government, who threatened the countries of Europe with non-co-operation if they did not get their way. That was a dismal failure, so this Government have done better.

The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, clearly made many good points to which we shall have answers and I shall not repeat them. I wish to make some more general points. The Statement informs us that there will be legislation to provide compensation at the market rate to owners of animals slaughtered. Which market rate are we talking about? Is it the market rate before or after the tragedy of BSE? It is important that the compensation is reasonable so that the Government have full co-operation from people who have cases of BSE.

As regards the promotion of exports schemes, the Government have already made a start by giving farmers £300,000 to put towards another £300,000 for certain exports. They should carry that measure a great deal further because, as the noble Baroness said, there is a great deal of work to be done before the process is re-established. I agree with her about the removal of the ludicrous ban on beef on the bone so that once again I can buy sirloin on the bone which tastes much better. There is a certain amount of BSE all over Europe where beef on the bone is still being sold and I believe that progress can be made on that issue.

A big effort must be made in the export of lamb to Germany. The Germans are good trenchermen and they do not eat a great deal of lamb. Lamb, as we know, is very good and its consumption needs to be encouraged.

Another point which the Government should make strongly in Europe is that our suckler herds had hardly any BSE. The beef from the Aberdeen Angus herds and their cross herds is far superior to the miserable stuff which comes off a Friesian cow or a Friesian bullock. Such produce is worth promoting and can be promoted. Help and instruction needs to be given about that.

The Government had good intentions and I hope that they continue. Co-operation with the farmers on marketing is a way forward.

As regards Agenda 2000 and the hopeful statement that agreement might be reached by next March, how does the Minister believe that we shall reach agreement on acreage payments in eastern Europe when those countries join? Are the acreage payments to the western countries of the European Union to be reduced so that the same budget can apply? I know from friends who are farming in Poland and other eastern European countries that at the current prices they are making good profits simply because their costs are so low. We face a most curious situation, so perhaps the Minister could tell us a little more about the mechanics of making the present budget stretch over any new entries into the European Union. It is a very difficult issue and he needs to tell us more about it.

5.46 p.m.

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her thanks and congratulations. We believe that this is a major achievement. I confirm that the detailed measures of the agreement were on the table before the election. However, that was of little relevance to British farmers or to the exports of British beef because of the way in which the previous government conducted themselves towards Europe. No progress would have been made under the previous regime of waging a war on Europe. The difference is not in the details of the agreement that is being reached. They were rational details agreed at Florence and they meet the requirements. Progress has been made in putting in place a regime for safe British beef and a policy towards our partners in Europe which makes them more willing to trust us. That is the difference. One cannot be certain to a date exactly when exports will begin, but we are looking hopefully at the spring.

As regards beef on the bone, the ban will be lifted when we have scientific advice from SEAC, from the Chief Medical Officer, that it is safe. We had firm scientific advice from the Chief Medical Officer that it was unsafe and that was why we rightly banned it. When I attended the Agriculture Council, I understood from our partners in Europe that there was no prospect of getting the beef ban lifted if we did not ban beef on the bone. But when we receive scientific advice that beef on the bone is safe we shall be as happy as anyone to lift the ban.

As regards progress on the maternal cull, a voluntary cull has been in place since July or August. Some 850 animals have been culled and we anticipate culling up to 3,500 by the spring. That process of tracing, which is very complex and involves the state veterinary service, is currently in operation.

As regards abattoirs, many of the details will emerge in the consultation process which will take place in the months ahead. We shall also have to bring in secondary legislation.

The inspectors will be the appropriate inspectors acting on behalf of the Commission. They have already been to inspect during the summer and have given a favourable report. Therefore, the proper inspectors will come. It would be quite outrageous to suggest that any single country's professional inspectors should not be allowed in. It is as though the Iraqis were able to veto American inspectors in their process. We anticipate that there will be two inspections—in February and March. I know of no evidence of lack of will because they have been already and have reported positively.

The noble Baroness asked me about the military and British meat. I personally have been in negotiation with the Ministry of Defence in relation to British beef. It has been arranged that the British Army at home will be eating 100 per cent. British beef. The export market now begins to open up as a possibility for British troops abroad. But certainly if one looks at non-beef—for example, lamb—then there are other complications. In the end, it is a question of price. But we are currently involved with the Ministry of Defence and representatives of the farming and meat industries to see what progress we can make there. But already some progress has been made.

The question of labelling was raised. Discussions continue in Europe. I should point out that it is not the Agriculture Council but the General Affairs Council which discusses labelling. However, we are continuing to have discussions on that. Your Lordships will be aware that we have already made some progress with British retailers who have agreed certain changes and improvements in labelling which should make clearer the origins of meat and, in particular, the origins of British beef.

There are a whole number of issues in relation to Agenda 2000 and I shall not detain the House about that. We have made statements about it and it is quite a long programme. I should be happy to write to the noble Baroness about that.

I have answered some of the questions which the noble Lord, Lord Mackie, asked. In particular, I thank him for his appreciation of our tactics. I share entirely his view of the unsatisfactory and totally negative tactics which operated before 1st May last year.

I have answered his comments about beef on the bone. He asked about compensation and the market rate. All productive adult and pedigree animals will be valued individually. Other stock will be valued to a scale linked to market prices. I was interested in what the noble Lord said about promotion and marketing in Europe. It will be for the Meat and Livestock Commission, and not for the Government, to undertake the marketing for the industry. The industry must, in my view, put more emphasis on modern marketing and less just on production. However, what the noble Lord said was interesting.

I agree entirely with what the noble Lord said about co-operation. Since I have taken up this post, I have been struck by the fact that the British farmers need more co-operation or collaborative marketing—call it what you will. We have far less mutual collaboration than almost anywhere in Europe. For example, if there is concern about the negotiating position in relation to powerful retailers, the farmers should look to their own marketing and to joint and co-operative efforts, which will give them relative strength.

5.53 p.m.

Lord Davies of Coity

My Lords, I appreciate that we still have a long way to go but the lifting of the beef ban is certainly welcome news. I am sure it will be welcomed by the British agriculture industry.

At the outset of her questions, the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, tried to claim credit for the work done by the previous government. But is it not the case that we are indebted to my right honourable friend Jack Cunningham for the work that he did in Europe during the period of the British presidency of the European Union? Secondly, is it not also the case that if the previous government had handled the matter differently, we should not have found ourselves in the mess we were in?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I thank my noble friend and agree with every word he said. We did not inherit any benefits or assets whatever. We were definitely in a negative game and it is indeed true that my right honourable friend, especially during the time of the British presidency, managed to undo much of the damage that had been done before.

Lord Monro of Langholm

My Lords, perhaps the Minister will accept my warm congratulations on what Ministers have managed to achieve. But does he agree that life would be much easier if governments on the Continent would accept independent scientific advice, because they took a long time to accept that?

Perhaps the Minister will answer three further points. First, as one who tries to deal with cattle passports and other difficult red tape in the meat industry today, I ask the Minister whether he will streamline the administration in relation to exporting cattle. Secondly, he attends as a representative of the Government at food fairs on the Continent. Will he do all he can to help to promote British beef by helping MLC and others? Thirdly, I cannot understand why the scientific committee in this country is taking so long to make up its mind about beef on the bone. It was a marginal decision a year ago which has been totally discredited. I hope now that a conclusion will be reached before Christmas that at least in Britain we can eat beef on the bone.

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord about the streamlining of administration. I am not enormously optimistic. It seems to me that it is an intrinsic feature of any highly complex regime such as the CAP that it will be hugely bureaucratic. That is one further reason for trying to alter the regime.

I entirely agree with what the noble Lord said about promotion. As Ministers, we must go to European food fairs—it is basically the MLC—and we must do all we can to help. Today I have been—and only just got back in time for this Statement—to the Birmingham food fair, where I did what I could to promote British beef.

I can only say what I have said before about beef on the bone. It was not a ludicrous decision but a decision which was in favour of British farmers, because it contributed towards restoring confidence in British meat. That was essential. We shall lift the ban when we receive scientific advice that it is safe to do so. But while we have advice from the Chief Medical Officer that it is unsafe, it would be irresponsible to do that.

Lord Hardy of Wath

My Lords, has my noble friend detected an attempt to seek to spread the blame for that dreadful matter across both sides of the House? Is it not the case and should it not be recognised clearly that serious suspicions were entertained more than 15 years ago; that the severity of the disease was diagnosed more than 12 years ago; that the government were slow to introduce prohibitions on infected material; and the clear position was not allowed to emerge until in most weeks more than 1,000 cows were being diagnosed as diseased? Therefore, is it not right to expect congratulations to be offered to my noble friend and his colleagues in the Ministry?

Will my noble friend stress that the ban on beef on the bone, which clearly contributed to the favourable situation we are now enjoying, was a tough decision but one designed to help, though some of those helped were not particularly appreciative of that decision? Also, will my noble friend encourage the Meat & Livestock Commission and all those involved in this trade to develop urgently the marketing techniques that are clearly necessary?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for those congratulations and for that contribution. Since taking office, on the whole, we have tended not to dwell on blame. The parties involved in this terrible BSE scandal were widespread and often well-meaning. But there is no doubt that it was a terrible scandal which cost the farming industry and the British taxpayer billions of pounds. We set up an inquiry into the scandal and await a report on it, some of us with great interest and some opposite, perhaps, with trepidation—of course, I do not mean individuals.

The decision to ban beef on the bone was a tough decision. We knew that it would be an unpopular decision in this House. But it was not as unpopular in the country as one would imagine from listening to the debates in this House or reading some of our more curious newspapers. When a major opinion poll was carried out some months ago on whether or not it was important to lift the ban on beef on the bone, the number of people who said yes was so small that it had to be significantly upgraded to reach 1 per cent.

Earl Peel

My Lords, surely on that basis alone it should be a question for the consumer to decide. I appreciate that the Minister has to take advice from the chief vet based on all the scientific evidence in front of him and that risk assessment is always a difficult matter, but, because of the enormous publicity attached to this matter, the consumer is fully aware of the situation. It would be in the farmers' interests if that decision was left to the consumer, and the Government should authorise the lifting of the ban on eating beef on the bone as soon as possible.

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, that is the dilemma that Ministers face. We would prefer to leave consumers to choose. But the noble Earl will be aware that in a whole range of areas affecting public health we do not choose to leave the individual citizen to choose. Where there may be a major risk to public health based on proper scientific advice, Ministers have to act. Whatever their failings, on every occasion the previous government, when advised that there was a need for action, took it. They were acting in a responsible way, as we are now acting.

I am sure that the noble Earl is aware of the large number of deaths from CJD. It is a horrendous disease for which there is no cure. If taking that risk meant more people died—that could still prove to be the case; we do not know the incubation period—that would damage confidence in British beef. That is bad for the farmer; it is bad for the food industry; and it is one of the reasons that countries like Germany, even though the ban is lifted, will probably buy very little of our beef. They do not have full confidence in our measures. We believe that they are wrong to be so sceptical. But if we had taken a loose approach and said that it is for the consumers to choose whether they will risk eating the beef and dying from CJD, it would have made it much harder for our beef exporters in Europe. No amount of clever marketing through the MLC would get through to people in Germany if they thought that we were not taking every measure possible to prove that our beef is safe. What we did was in the interests of British farmers and the British meat industry.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, I hesitate to intervene in farming matters. The question of the science behind this issue triggers a response from me on the basis of my experience in the European Select Committee.

On a number of occasions reports from your Lordships' Select Committee have been highly critical of the science base of some of the Commission's findings. The same can be said about the science base of some of the decisions relating to the BSE crisis.

Are the Government confident that the scientific advice being given in Brussels is adequate? Are they worried that some of it may be politically slanted? What can they do to pressurise the Commission to make sure that the scientific advice given is transparent, that we know who is giving the advice and that the advice can be subject to peer review in the future?

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, the noble Lord raises a number of important points which Select Committees of this House have raised. In this country we can only establish and take the best scientific advice that we have available. It may not be perfect, but we will do what we can to make it as comprehensive and professional as possible. The advice in relation to beef on the bone came from our Chief Medical Officer based on other scientific advice.

The question of risk is a complex one. We do not have perfect systems of risk analysis and one periodically spots anomalies and incongruities—we have all done that. But in MAFF and the Department of Health we have units of risk analysis and we take the best risk advice we can. As Ministers we can only be as responsible as we can with the best analysis available. In the European Union there may be different levels— some better and some worse. We and the European Union must accept what advice there is. There have been suspicions of political awareness in some of the scientific advice but, in the end, the scientists recommended lifting the ban. We still have BSE in cattle. The work of the committees of this House is a major force for good in that area. But we welcome anything that can be done to improve the situation. My impression is that the quality of the scientific advice in this country is extremely high.

Baroness Young of Old Scone

My Lords, I add my congratulations to the Minister and the agricultural team on the excellent progress they have made on lifting the beef ban. However, perhaps I can press the Minister on some of the longer-term and deeper lessons to be learnt from the BSE exercise, particularly in terms of the increasing intensification of agricultural production. We have a lesson to learn about the risks of intensive production, certainly for human health. We are already aware from a whole variety of sources of the risks of intensification of food production on the environment.

We also heard praise heaped upon the ministerial team for their new approach to Europe and for the increasing confidence that our European partners have in the United Kingdom within the European setting. I would add my praise to that, but I would ask the Minister whether, in taking that approach forward, he will be urging the agriculture team for the United Kingdom to use this well-developed track record in European negotiations to support the Scandinavian member states, including the Danes, in their commendation of the introduction of environmental conditions on all payments under the common agricultural policy, particularly the mainstream and compensation payments, including, where necessary for public health and the environment, intensification payments and conditions as part of the Agenda 2000 Agreement.

Lord Donoughue

My Lords, I thank my noble friend. She is quite right in saying that we should look into the longer-term implications. I think the longer term is the main question hanging over British agriculture at this moment. Although we are all obsessed with the problems of the short term, we cannot have a longer term that comprises a series of short-term crises. I think we have come to the end of that particular programme and so I agree with my noble friend on the long term. As to her particular concern about intensification, that is absolutely right. Ultra-intensification has led us into some of the problems that we have with food health, and of course in Agenda 2000 we are looking to see whether there are ways of becoming more efficient while not being over-intensive. That is a rather difficult balance, and almost a dichotomy. It is an important point to raise.

On supporting the Scandinavians, when I attended the Agricultural Council I would say that we frequently took the position of supporting the Scandinavians, and they supported us. As regards environmental conditions, cross-compliance and so, that is quite a complicated matter, in which historically our position has been to try to go for absolutely clear and clean environmental conditions. The cross-compliance ones involve an element of compromise over direct subsidies of which we are a little wary. On the whole, I think my noble friend will find that on these broad issues we are standing with our Scandinavian colleagues, especially our Swedish colleagues.