HL Deb 24 March 1998 vol 587 cc240-1WA
Baroness Nicol

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What was the outcome of the Agriculture Council held in Brussels on 16–17 March. [HL1105]

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

My right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food chaired the third meeting under the United Kingdom Presidency of the European Union Council of Agriculture Ministers on 16–17 March in Brussels. I represented the United Kingdom. My noble friend Lord Dubs, Under-Secretary of State in the Northern Ireland Office, was also present.

The Council agenda included two very important issues relating to BSE.

The Council first considered Commission proposals for amending the terms of the export ban on UK beef, with tighter controls over beef and beef products imported into the UK and then re-exported, but with significant easing of the ban through a Certified Herds Scheme to be operated in Northern Ireland. This proposal, which narrowly failed to receive a qualified majority in the Standing Veterinary Committee earlier this month, was adopted decisively by the Council, a qualified majority voting in favour. Only Germany and Belgium voted against, with Spain and Luxembourg abstaining. This decision represents the first step in lifting the world-wide ban on UK beef, and has been welcomed by farming organisations not only in Northern Ireland but in the United Kingdom as a whole.

The Council returned to the important issue of specified risk material (SRM). The Standing Veterinary Committee earlier this month rejected a Commission proposal for a Community system of rules on the removal of risk material from cattle and sheep. My right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food explored with Council and Commission the possibility of finding support for alternative arrangements which would not only reflect the varying incidence of BSE in different member states but also the need for member states with high levels of protection against BSE—notably the United Kingdom and France—to safeguard this level of protection for public safety in any future system. The Council confirmed by a majority (from which only Finland, Spain and Sweden stood aside) the rejection of the Commission's latest formal proposal. The Council invited the Commission now to propose to the Standing Veterinary Committee that its earlier Decision on SRM, which would provoke trade problems, should not come into force on 1 April as previously decided, but should be deferred to allow further time for discussion. At ministerial level a qualified majority was established for this next step.

The Council agreed unanimously a Decision to approve the equivalence agreement on trade in animals and animal products between the European Union and the United States. The agreement will be signed when a qualified majority in the Council establishes that the US has published satisfactory draft legislation recognising the distribution of animal diseases in the EU. The Council's Decision represents a decisive stage on the part of the EU in concluding an agreement which will be important for trade in animal products between the EU and US, to the economic advantage of both sides.

Commissioner Fischler introduced a proposal to update and extend current EU legislation on the welfare of laying hens. The proposal would substantially increase the minimum welfare requirements applying to laying hens throughout the Union. My right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food welcomed this proposal on behalf of the Council and undertook that the UK Presidency will now arrange for the necessary discussions at technical level.

Finally, the Council discussed a communication from the Commission about food, veterinary and plant health control and inspection. The Commission took note of concerns voiced by several member states about aspects of the present arrangements, and undertook to act on them.