HL Deb 05 April 2000 vol 611 cc1298-300

2.44 p.m.

Earl Ferrersasked Her Majesty's Government:

What action they will take to safeguard the livelihoods of makers of shepherds' crooks and walking sticks in the light of draft European Union Commission Document XXIV/2905/99 which would designate sheep horns as specified risk material.

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

My Lords. I am advised by the Food Standards Agency that among the many implications which these draft proposals raise for the UK livestock industry the interests of makers of shepherds' crooks and walking sticks have not been overlooked by Her Majesty's Government. If the heads of sheep were to be classified as specified risk material under EU legislation, then an exemption for horns such as currently exists under our national SRM controls would be required. The Government have already raised this point with the European Commission as part of the wider discussions currently taking place.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for that encouraging Answer. Is she aware that the Commission document does not say anything about horns not being covered? It states that sheep's heads are designated as specific risk material. Curiously enough, it excludes the tongues but includes the horns. Who has ever eaten a horn, for goodness sake? This is based on the altar of protection against BSE from which sheep do not suffer. Is the noble Baroness further aware that stick dressers boil the horns for four hours before they make them into a shepherd's crook, or whatever it may be, by which time any possible bug must have vaporised?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I am delighted to say that I am totally at one with the noble Earl on this issue. Like him, I have never eaten a sheep's horn. Thanks to his Question, I now know more about the practices of border stick dressers than in the past. The point the noble Earl has raised was taken into account when the provisions in regard to the classification of sheep heads as SRM in the United Kingdom were brought in. There have been on-going discussions with the industry about them. We recognised that the initial European proposals did not address this particular problem. As I said, we have raised this specific issue, although the proposals need changing in wider respects than simply this one.

Lord Marsh

My Lords, is not the Minister being rather complacent? This is an unusual building and a number of walking sticks—and possibly shepherds' crooks—are deposited in various parts of it. Given the information they have at their disposal, it is reasonable to ask the Government what guarantees they can give that such items are not a danger to the public.

Do Black Rod and his staff receive any assistance or advice on how to cope with them? How does one identify them? Finally, is the Minister sure they are not breeding?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I should not wish to give the noble Lord, Lord Marsh, any assurances of which I am rot completely certain. Voluminous though my folder is, he has raised issues which are not covered within it. If there are issues upon which Black Rod needs advice, I am sure he will make this clear to the Government. If the noble Lord's question raises issues to which I should respond, I shall do so.

The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth

My Lords, mindful that it is not unknown for right reverend Prelates in this House to carry around implements of office and mindful that some of those implements of office resemble more closely real shepherds' crooks than the more symbolic kind, would the Minister care to give an undertaking to provide guidance on how such crooks of office may be made in the future?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, the Government's record in terms of protecting the availability of the material necessary has been impeccable so far in terms of national SRM controls. We intend to continue to ensure that such material is available, both for religious purposes—recognising that what we are discussing is not unique to one religion—and for the manufacturers of walking sticks and shepherds' crooks.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, does my noble friend recall that when she was in another place the late Lord Mellish used to keep in the Whips' Office a shepherd's crook with which to correct his flock? I am glad to say that as a former Whip, I was never forced to ask the Chief Whip to use it on her. On a more serious note, my noble friend confirm that this matter will be decided by a qualified majority vote? If her colleagues will not go along with that, are we prepared to defy the European Union on this very important matter?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I am glad to say that the former Chief Whip in another place never showed me his shepherd's crook. As for the proposals currently before the EU, although there has been a certain amount of levity about them, the matter goes far wider than the issue of horns. The proposals are not satisfactory to industry in this country and at the moment we do not think they are proportionate to the risks. Eventually, this could be decided at the Agriculture Council. We hope that the evidence we have put to the scientific veterinary committee and the scientific steering committee will allow a proportionate approach to be taken and that a sensible solution, providing protection across Europe on the issue of specified risk material, will be able to go forward.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

My Lords, does the Minister realise that another threat to the shepherd's crook arises from changes by the Forestry Commission to the woodland grant scheme which mean that small woodland grants may be reduced this year and that deciduous trees, which are those used for crooks and walking sticks, will be fewer in number than conifers?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I have not received representations from the manufacturers of walking sticks on that specific aspect. If I do, the Government will certainly look at them with the same care as we have done regarding the availability of sheep horns.