HL Deb 04 November 1999 vol 606 cc988-91

3.30 p.m.

Lord Willoughby de Broke asked Her Majesty's Government:

Why they believe imported French beef to be more wholesome than British beef on the bone.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Baroness Hayman)

My Lords, the clear advice given to Ministers is that there are no public health grounds for preventing the import of beef from France. As regards British beef on the bone, the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Donaldson, has concluded that the risk from the retail sale of beef on the bone is now so low as to be unquantifiable. The Government have made clear their view that it would be preferable to go forward to amend the current beef bone regulations on a UK basis.

Lord Willoughby de Broke

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. However, does it go far enough? On the one hand, we have French beef that is fed on materials which are unmentionable in this august Chamber. On the other hand, we have the best beef in the world. As the noble Baroness has said, British beef on the bone has been cleared by the Chief Medical Officer, but it is still an illegal substance. Why do the Government not take the opportunity to give British farming a boost by now lifting the ban on British beef on the bone?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, when I answered a Question in your Lordships' House two weeks ago, I believe I made clear that the Government do wish to lift the beef on the bone ban as soon as the medical advice throughout the United Kingdom allows it to do so. We believe that it is in the interests of the industry and of consumers to take this forward on a UK basis. At the moment, before giving advice to their legislatures, the chief medical officers for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would prefer to await the further epidemiological evidence from the Oxford group which is expected this month. I made that clear the other day. In view of other issues within Europe, I do not believe it is sensible to suggest that we should ban illegally the import of beef from France when there is no scientific advice to suggest that it is unsafe.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, will the noble Baroness explain why it is that, prior to the beef ban, nearly 80 per cent of the beef imports by France from this country were of old culled cows, some of which were imported with brains? Will the Minister ask the French to explain why they have such a low level of CJD? Will she also ask them to look on the Internet at the reports of the BSE inquiry, where it appears that the science indicates that it may not be beef at all that has been causing the spongiform encephalopathies?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I am sure that the French and UK Governments monitor very carefully what the noble Countess says on these issues and will take account of the points that she has made today. I do not believe that I should answer from this Dispatch Box for the import policies of the French Government before the ban.

Viscount Bledisloe

My Lords, is it not the case that the only power which the Government have to ban the sale of this otherwise legal product is on public health grounds? If that is the case, and the Government have already decided that in England this is perfectly safe, what justification in law is there for continuing the ban merely on the grounds that some other jurisdictions have not yet reached the same conclusion?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, as I explained the other day, the view of Her Majesty's Government is that on this as on many other issues of food safety, it would be sensible to wait a few weeks to see whether it is possible to find a consensus between Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. I believe it is in the interests of the British beef industry that we should take a coherent view across the United Kingdom on this important issue, rather than drive a wedge between different parts of the United Kingdom.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, will the Minister explain why there is any need for restaurants and shops to import French beef at all when there is plenty of excellent British beef to go round for everybody?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, the noble Baroness makes a very good point. I believe that we in this House are all interested in promoting British products, particularly meat products whose level of safety and quality, in our opinion, is the highest in the world. Indeed, that is the argument which we adopt also in relation to exports.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead

My Lords, is it not a little unfair for Northern Ireland to be bracketed with Scotland and Wales where there is devolution, while in Northern Ireland there is not?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, the reason why I put the three together was that the chief medical officers of all three would prefer to see the advice from the Oxford epidemiological unit as to the incidence of BSE. Professor Donaldson had an estimate of that incidence, and it was on that that he based his own advice before suggesting to Chief Ministers that the ban should be lifted.

Viscount Addison

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that an effigy of a French farmer will probably be burnt in Kent on Guy Fawkes' night tomorrow? Does that not mean that the escalation of the feelings of farmers in this country is reaching the point at which the Government should be giving them some help and consideration?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I believe that the escalation of feeling has been extremely unhelpful in a great number of areas. However, the Government are trying to take an approach that is rational, sensible and reasoned on both the issues of the current disputes with France in terms of their imports under the date-based export scheme and in other areas. Yesterday, Commissioner Byrne praised the "intelligent, reasonable and rational approach" that the British Government had taken on these issues. I wish I could say exactly the same of some of the British media.

Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe

My Lords, will the Minister say what stage has been reached with the BSE inquiry and when we are likely to see the outcome of it?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, as I believe the House will be aware, the Phillips Inquiry has taken longer than was originally intended. I understand that the current position is that it will now report by 31st March 2000.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, will the Minister not accept those judgments which have been made on scientific advice that our British beef is quite safe to eat? At present, the Government have not sought to act independently as regards England, as was mentioned two weeks ago when this issue was raised in the House. But will the Minister not accept that the fact that the Government are not pushing forward with that adds to the frustration of our farmers who wish to see their beef exported, and urgently?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I understand that frustration. Beef on the bone would not be exported because the date-based export scheme deals only with deboned beef, as she well knows, and very specific categories of beef. I understand the frustration and the wish to make progress on this matter. One has to balance that frustration against the possible adverse consequences of taking a different approach in different parts of the United Kingdom. The Government have made it clear that they believe it is worth waiting a few weeks to see whether it is possible to reach a concerted view on this issue.