§ [Relevant documents: The Fourteenth and Eighteenth Reports of the Select Committee on European Legislation, Session 1995–96 (House of Commons Paper No. 51-xiv and House of Commons Paper No. 51-xviii); European Community Document No. 5215/96, relating to agricultural prices for 1996–97; the unnumbered Explanatory Memorandum submitted by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food on 3rd May 1996 relating to supplementary premium payable to sheep producers in non-Less Favoured Areas of Ireland and the United Kingdom in respect of Northern Ireland; the report by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the Scottish Office Agriculture, Environment and Fisheries Department, the Northern Ireland Department for Agriculture and the Welsh Office on Agriculture in the United Kingdom 1995; European Community Documents Nos. 7015/95, relating to agrimonetary reform; 9061/95, relating to agrimonetary compensation; national aids; 9270/95, relating to controls in the wine sector 1992–94; 10479/95, the Court of Auditors' special report on the sheep and goat regime; 11896/95, the financial report of the European Agricultural Guidance and Guarantee Fund Guarantee Section for 1994; 12476/95, relating to agrimonetary compensation; and 4322/96, the Court of Auditors' special report on agricultural expenditure in Portugal 1988–93.]
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. McLoughlin.]
§ 4.7 pm
§ The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Tony Baldry)
This is the second day of the agriculture debate, in which the primary concern has related to the lifting of the export ban. As hon. Members will know, the standing veterinary committee examined yesterday the Community ban on exports of gelatine, tallow and semen. Naturally, we wanted to see the ban lifted there and then. That was not to be, but we have made considerable progress. In presenting its proposal, the Commission made it clear that it recognises the strength of our scientific case. A substantial number of member states rallied to our proposal. I was particularly pleased that we secured the support of the French. We should all be grateful for the personal interest taken by President Chirac in the matter. Our relentless negotiating is bearing fruit.
In opening the debate yesterday, my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food made it clear that yesterday's SVC was not a make-or-break event. The committee is to reconvene on Monday morning. We shall continue to press our case hard between now and then. Commissioner Fischler is reported in today's Financial Times as being optimistic that we shall achieve a positive outcome. I share his optimism. We shall then see real progress towards lifting the ban, which we have always held to be unjustified and disproportionate.
There has been some confusion about the standing veterinary committee's procedures, which has led, in my view, to some commentators being more pessimistic than they need be about yesterday's outcome. Let me take a moment to try to explain. The ideal outcome, of course, is that the committee accepts the Commission's proposal by a qualified majority. The proposal therefore will be adopted. If it does not, it is not the end of the road. In that case, the procedures provide that the Commission shall, without delay, submit a proposal to the Council. In that 1088 context, I should point out that next Monday's standing veterinary committee meeting will be followed immediately by the Agriculture Council. Unless a simple majority of the Council votes against the measure, it can be implemented by the Commission within two weeks. We are starting to see real progress in lifting the ban.
§ Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale)
Is not the Commission satisfied that everything that needs to be done to have this part of the ban lifted has been done? At Prime Minister's Question Time this afternoon, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was asked by the Leader of the Opposition whether he thought that everything that needed to be done was being done. Did my hon. Friend notice that no additional action was suggested either by the Leader of the Opposition or by the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown), the leader of the Liberal Democrats? Is it not time for the House to speak with one voice in support of British agriculture, the British beef industry and the measures that my hon. Friend and my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of Agriculture are taking?
§ Mr. Baldry
It is noticeable that no scintilla of a suggestion has come from either Labour or the Liberal Democrats of any action that we should take that we are not already taking. We have seen this week some negative criticism and the Opposition playing at party politics, but we have not heard a single positive or constructive suggestion. Indeed, it is pleasant to see some Labour Members present today. On Monday, the House had a debate on the 30-month scheme without a single Labour Back Bencher being present at any time.
It may be helpful if I update the House on the progress of the 30-month cull.
§ Mr. Graham Riddick (Colne Valley)
If we believe that the worldwide ban on the export of British beef is illegal, should we not just ignore it? What steps are the Government taking to have the ban lifted in individual, non-EU countries and to promote the sale of British beef in countries outside the EU?
§ Mr. Baldry
My hon. Friend, who has a considerable constituency interest in the matter, has made that point on a number of previous occasions, and I say to him now what I said to him then. The EU ban is not the only one with which we have to contend. For some time, countries such as the United States and Canada have been banning British beef. To ensure that the worldwide ban is lifted, it is essential that the Community ban—which is clearly unjustified and disproportionate—be removed as speedily as possible. I believe that we are making real progress towards lifting the ban.
§ Mr. John Townend (Bridlington)
First, are there orders from third countries waiting to be exported that are being prevented from leaving this country because of the EU ban? Secondly, we accept that the vast majority—if not all—of the cows that will be killed are not infected( Originally, the Government proposed not to destroy the meat, but to bone it out. There are hundreds of thousands of starving people in the world. Has any consideration been given to making the meat available to them at no charge or at a very small charge?
§ Mr. Baldry
The answer to my hon. Friend's first question is no. On the second question, it is important 1089 to remember the genesis of the 30-month scheme. The Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee recommended on 24 March that all beef over 30 months should be deboned. It was as a consequence of that statement that retailers soon told meat merchants and their farmer suppliers that they were no longer prepared to take beef over 30 months. Farmers were understandably concerned that they no longer had a market for such beef. Retailers wanted to be confident that the only beef in the food chain was younger than 30 months and farmers were keen to get some compensation because they no longer had a market for their older beef.
That is why we introduced the 30-month cull scheme. Retailers and others would be concerned if there were a scintilla of a suggestion that any of the meat involved in the 30-month cull could get back into the human food chain. We are ensuring that none of it will.
§ Mr. Baldry
I must make some progress.
The House will recall that I explained at length on Monday the progress that we have made on the scheme and the logistical challenges that we faced, not least with rendering capacity. I told the House that the advice from the rendering industry is that the maximum rendering capacity that it could spare could deal with about 18,000 cattle a week in England and Wales, and 25,000 throughout the UK.
I notice that today's The Independent questions those figures, but I have had further written confirmation that they are correct. The chairman of the United Kingdom Renderers Association says:I can assure you all plants are this week on full production.I hope to increase that figure substantially, as I am able to bring on stream further cold storage so that only the parts of animals that immediately need to be rendered are rendered while the rest goes into cold storage to be rendered later.
§ Mr. Andrew Welsh (Angus, East)
Is there a test for contaminated foodstuffs, and will the brains of slaughtered cattle be tested to provide hard evidence of the pathology of the disease? That is essential to any policy and to customer confidence. I asked the Under-Secretary of State for Wales those questions last night and he said that the Minister would answer them. Will he answer those straightforward questions now?
§ Mr. Baldry
Every animal aged over 30 months will be slaughtered. Having been slaughtered, those animals will be rendered. Having been rendered, the specified bovine offal will be dyed blue and the rest will be dyed yellow, so that there is no chance of that material getting back into the human food chain. In due course, it will all be incinerated. If SEAC or others feel that it would help their research to carry out tests on any part of those animals, we shall of course help. The hon. Gentleman must recognise that this is a huge logistical exercise and that we must ensure that the cattle are culled and disposed of properly as speedily as possible.
1090 As of today, just under 20,000 animals have been slaughtered under the scheme. Today's estimated slaughter figure is 4,220. We are very nearly on track to meet this week's planned slaughter rate. Given the rendering plants' working capacity, the best that we could have done this week would be 25,000. We are near that target.
I am committed, however, to doing all that I can to ensure that the backlog is cleared as speedily as possible and that farmers are given as much help as possible. The first of the extra cold storage comes on line this coming Tuesday and, during the next three weeks, I hope to bring on line a further 27,500 tonnes of cold storage, which I estimate will enable the weekly kill to be increased progressively over the next three weeks, from 18,000 to 24,000 in England and Wales. A similar, proportionate capacity is being identified and commissioned in Scotland and Northern Ireland. So, we are entirely on target to meet the throughput that I envisaged when I wrote to every colleague last Friday.
As a consequence of identifying, commissioning and bringing on stream substantial cold storage capacity, we can almost double the number of abattoirs taking part in the scheme. I wrote to all hon. Members yesterday, listing the abattoirs that we intend to use for the scheme. In England and Wales, that should enable us shortly to reach a weekly slaughter rate of 24,000.
Late yesterday, the House will no doubt have noticed that a number of retailers said that, for reasons purely of perception—they made that clear—they would prefer not to source meat for their stores from abattoirs taking part in the 30-month cull programme. That is regrettable. After all, as I explained to the House, that scheme was in large part a consequence of an agreement between farmers and retailers, enabling retailers to have the confidence that they would be taking only younger beef into their stores and farmers to know that they would have the means of being paid for any animals over 30 months, following SEAC's recommendations. At a time when we are trying to convince others in Europe to follow best science, it is disappointing that retailers are not following the best scientific advice. There seems to be no substantive disagreement about the fact that there is no scientific or hygiene reason why slaughtering should not take place for the cull programme on different days, given all the various regulatory and statutory controls in abattoirs that are participating in the scheme.
I am, however, determined that the actions of the retailers will not impede the progress of the scheme. Today, we have been in touch with every abattoir that had said that it wished to take part. A handful are considering their position. I am glad to say that the overwhelming majority want to continue to cull under the 30-month programme, and I am confident that any shortfall in the slaughtering capacity can immediately be made up by a combination of increasing the number of cattle that other abattoirs on the list are able to slaughter and taking on a number of further abattoirs that are prepared to participate in the scheme.
In the coming week, I can see no reason why we should not maintain our England and Wales target of slaughtering 18,000, building up to a rate of 24,000 a week in the near future.
§ Mr. Baldry
I shall gladly give way to both my hon. Friends when I have explained the total picture to the House.
I have also examined the potential for incineration. Some incineration capacity will be required to deal with fallen stock, and I explained the details of that to the House on Monday. All vets will shortly have a list of abattoirs and incineration plants to which they can send fallen stock, but I am determined to explore all possible options for using existing incinerators for the scheme. Part of the difficulty is that many of the incinerators are small and it is impossible for them to take carcases unless they have been partially or fully rendered, which is the general bottleneck on the scheme. If it is possible to identify incinerators that can take animals slaughtered under the scheme without their needing to be rendered, the House can rest assured that I shall endeavour to commission them without delay.
As from Monday, I shall use all the registered bovine spongiform encephalopathy incinerators for dealing with emergency slaughtered cattle on farms. Once the casualty backlog is cleared, I shall use all those incinerators to enhance our total throughput from abattoirs in England and Wales.
§ Mr. Coombs
First, I congratulate my hon. Friend on the cull scheme. He has a real grip on that—that is generally perceived, especially on the Conservative Benches. To take him back to beef export licences and the Government's exact position on them, if there were orders from abroad for prime British beef—perhaps not a very hypothetical circumstance—which we all know to be safe and which has been banned illegally by countries throughout the world, according to the British Government, can my hon. Friend give an assurance that anyone applying for a licence to fulfil those orders would not be stopped by the Government on the ground that that was illegal?
§ Mr. Baldry
Our difficulty is not with orders—I know of no orders or potential orders from third countries. Our difficulty is with third countries returning to this country beef that has been on the high seas, and the considerable losses being suffered by exporters in this country. We must all bend every effort to getting the ban lifted as soon as possible, so that we may start to export throughout the world.
§ Mrs. Gorman
Is my hon. Friend aware of the latest scientific evidence that has come from Oxford university zoological department, which shows, among other things, that we are killing 33 healthy animals for every one that might possibly have the disease, and that moreover, we are killing animals that we do not need to destroy? It shows that the target group should be animals of five, six and seven years old, not animals below five years, which are almost 100 per cent. assuredly safe. Should we reconsider the slaughtering policy?
§ Mr. Baldry
Two of my hon. Friends felt that I did not fully answer the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest (Mr. Coombs). I am sorry about 1092 that. Although it has not happened yet, if someone comes knocking on my door to say that he has an order from a third market, of course we shall consider that. At present, the only people knocking on my door are exporters, telling me that they are having meat returned from overseas and asking whether they will be compensated. If my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest finds some third markets, of course we shall consider that.
I shall now deal with the intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman).
§ Mr. Baldry
I am seeking to deal with one intervention at a time. May I deal with the intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay first?
At present, there is only one cull scheme, and it did not have its origins in a Government measure. As I explained to the House, it had its origins in a joint approach by retailers and farmers to the Government.
As part of the measures to restore confidence in UK beef, retailers wanted to ensure that only beef under 30 months was on their shelves—no older beef. Farmers were concerned because, as a consequence of the SEAC recommendation that all beef over 30 months be deboned, retailers were no longer prepared to take beef over 30 months, so farmers no longer had any market for it and they wished to find a system of compensation for that beef.
That is why we introduced the 30-month cull programme. It was suggested to us by farmers and retailers as part of the measures to help restore confidence in British beef and to help British producers, and that is what we are doing.
I hope, however, that no one in the House underestimates the logistical scale of that exercise. To maximise the slaughtering and rendering capacity, it will soon be necessary for every slaughterhouse taking part to send a sizeable proportion of every animal killed straight away to be rendered while the rest goes into cold storage.
To assist in ensuring that we have the best possible transport and other logistics, so that the transport operation is as smooth and efficient as possible, the chief executive of the intervention board is today meeting staff at the Royal Logistic Corps to obtain their independent overview of the logistics of the disposal operation.
I am sure that hon. Members will appreciate that we are talking about handling very many cattle and very large quantities of rendering material, all in a short period, and I am very glad that the intervention board is able to draw on the best available advice from the RLC and others, to ensure that we maximise the potential of abattoirs and renderers.
§ Mr. Gill
I wanted to intervene when my hon. Friend was talking about casualty and fallen stock. I should like to hear him reassure the House that he understands the arithmetic of that exercise. If the arithmetic is not right, farmers will bury stock on their land, and the consequences could be very serious indeed and might be a public relations disaster. Will the Minister give hon. Members an assurance that he will consider the request for assistance from the Licensed Animal Slaughterers and Salvage Association, to ensure that farmers have an incentive to remove animals from their farms and do not bury them there?
§ Mr. Baldry
As hon. Members will be aware, I have been meeting a large number of representatives of the 1093 National Farmers Union, the Country Landowners Association, renderers, abattoir owners and others on a daily basis. In addition, I have been meeting representatives of veterinary bodies, including the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons and the British Veterinary Association.
Hon. Members can rest assured that the proposals that I have put in place for casualty slaughter command the support of the veterinary bodies. Any farmer who has a casualty animal knows—and every vet will soon have the information—that the abattoirs taking part in the scheme have undertaken to have a commonsense approach to dealing with fallen stock and stock that may need to be killed on farms.
However, some abattoirs cannot physically manage stock that is already dead. Therefore, a significant number of incinerator plants will act as collection points for such stock—they will be registered. During the debate on Monday, I made it clear that farmers will continue to be compensated under the scheme if the fallen stock goes to an incinerator—incinerators will act as collection points for the purpose of the exercise. Farmers should not have to bury stock on their farm. Farmers should be able to deal with their vets and others to ensure that casualty stock is moved to an abattoir or to a renderer.
§ Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)
I refer the Minister to the important point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Angus, East (Mr. Welsh)—that is, why will there be no tests on the brains of animals that are slaughtered under the 30-month scheme? Surely such a test would give vital information about the concentration of the disease and provide critical hard evidence to guide an eradication or selective slaughter policy. I represent a beef constituency and my farmers believe that this disease must be faced and defeated—there is no percentage in any cover-up.
§ Mr. Baldry
Anyone would resent any scintilla of a suggestion of a cover-up. Throughout all this, we have been keen—and we are keen—that all knowledge, research and information about BSE is made readily available and shared. This is a dreadful problem that faces all of us, particularly producers. I made the point to the hon. Member for Angus, East (Mr. Welsh) that if SEAC or any of the veterinary bodies come forward and say that they would like to carry out tests on parts of the animals that are slaughtered under the 30-month scheme, facilities could be made available.
The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) has to have some regard to the logistics of the scheme. If the programme is slowed down because we have to incorporate a system of taking tests from every animal slaughtered into what are already complicated logistics, there will be considerable resentment in his constituency and in the constituencies of many other hon. Members.
In addition to the help being given by the Royal Logistic Corps, the Ministry of Defence is being helpful and it is making sites available to renderers for the relief storage of meat and bone meal derived under the scheme. The sites will be brought on stream as required and they will be managed by the intervention board. The rendered meat and bone meal will go to those sites prior to being finally disposed of—that is, incinerated.
1094 I am very conscious that, however many abattoirs we use and however efficiently I utilise the finite rendering and incineration capacity that is available to me, not every animal can be culled today or tomorrow. I fully recognise that many farmers—particularly those with clean beef—are in difficult financial circumstances. That is why I want to ensure that farmers are paid under the scheme as speedily as possible. We have introduced a substantial top-up for those with heifers and steers because we recognise that money must get to the farmers quickly.
§ Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)
I return the Minister to the allegation of a cover-up. The document entitled "Agriculture in the United Kingdom 1995" refers to the unannounced visits made to abattoirs and says that specified bovine offals were not removed properly in only a few rare cases. However, in his answers to parliamentary questions, the Minister said that in September last year 48 per cent. of slaughterhouses that were visited were not handling the SBOs properly. How does that information square with the claims in the document?
§ Mr. Baldry
If the hon. Gentleman looks more carefully at the parliamentary answer that was given to the second part of his question, he will see that the 48 per cent. figure does not refer specifically to the removal of specified bovine offals. It relates to a number of infringements, some of which were fairly minor and connected with paperwork.
It is clear beyond peradventure that we have come down hard on any abattoir where there has been an infringement. We must ensure that standards are enforced rigorously and properly: that is why we have a Meat Hygiene Service. We have made it perfectly clear that any abattoir that fails to meet the necessary standards will be prosecuted. As to the 30-month cull programme, I have made it clear that, if there is any suggestion or suspicion that an abattoir or collection centre is not complying with the regulations or fulfilling the spirit of the scheme, it will be suspended from the scheme.
§ Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth)
The Minister refers to meat hygiene regulations, and earlier he mentioned destroying meat that could be a risk to public health. Does he accept that much of the problem is the result of inadequate regulation in the 1980s? Those regulations continue to be inadequate, because poultrymeat that may be a risk to health is not stained and destroyed and can enter the food chain more easily than mammalian meat. In view of its experience in the past seven weeks, will the Ministry reconsider safeguarding the public by staining poultrymeat that is at risk?
§ Mr. Baldry
In recent weeks, the debate has been bedevilled by attempts to sort out the substantive issues that we must address from the somewhat alarmist suggestions regarding further action, which have no scientific or other proper basis. Ministers must act on the basis of the best advice that we are given. The best advice that we have received from the Meat Hygiene Service is that all that needs to be done in relation to poultry feed is being done. Unless and until such time as anyone gives a substantive reason why that advice is incorrect, it is alarmist to suggest that we are not doing all that we should. We must try to achieve a proper sense of proportion.
§ Mr. Nick Ainger (Pembroke)
The Minister referred earlier to the top-up scheme, which I understand will be in place only until 15 June. Will he assure the House today that the scheme will be extended? Even if 24,000 head of cattle can be culled each week, it will take a long time to get rid of the backlog—which I believe now stands at between 400,000 and 500,000 head. Therefore, the top-up scheme should be extended quite significantly.
§ Mr. Baldry
I could tease the hon. Gentleman and say that if he had been here for Monday evening's debate, he would have heard me deal with that point at some length. I made it clear on Monday and in a letter that I have sent to every colleague that the 25p top-up will apply to every relevant animal that was on farms on 20 March, so farmers need not be concerned—if they have not had clean heifers and steers immediately slaughtered—that they will lose out on the 25p live weight and 50p dead weight premium. They will not, and it will carry on so long as there is any stock on farms from 20 March.
The date of 15 June is relevant only because we shall then consider not only stock that was on the farms on 20 March, but all stock, to decide the appropriate level for the top-up. As the hon. Gentleman will remember, that top-up will continue generally for a further six months. Anyone who had relevant stock on farms on 20 March will get the top-up irrespective of when the stock comes to be slaughtered. I hope that that has reassured the hon. Gentleman.
Some of the exchanges that we have had already in the House this afternoon demonstrate that there has been some confusion about culling and slaughtering policy. I hope that I have made it clear that, at present, the only culling policy is the one that came forward to the Government at the request and behest of the retail and farming interests.
Much alarmist nonsense has been said, especially by Opposition Members, about a wholesale slaughter policy. In particular, the hon. Members for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes) and for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) both said yesterday that my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of Agriculture had advocated a scheme involving the mass slaughter of 4 million animals. That is simply not true. I have the transcript of what my right hon. and learned Friend said in the interview to which the hon. Members referred. Asked by John Humphries whether we were considering slaughtering all older cattle, my right hon. and learned Friend simply said that a slaughter policy could not be excluded. It could not be excluded at that time because we did not have the SEAC recommendations. Asked whether we might slaughter all the animals that had been infected, my right hon. and learned Friend simply said that that was another option. Indeed, far from talking of a mass slaughter programme, my right hon. and learned Friend clearly hinted that we were working up plans for removing from the food chain all animals over 30 months. That, of course, is precisely the policy that we have since pursued.
§ Mr. David Nicholson (Taunton)
The House will greatly welcome the fact that my hon. Friend has made that point clear. Now that it is clear that the British consumer has substantially regained confidence in British beef—and that is helped by the excellent decision by Asda, which was announced yesterday and is the subject 1096 of an early-day motion that I have tabled—will my hon. Friend bear in mind supply and demand in the medium term? It is feared that in a year's time we might run short of beef supply. It is also suggested, especially if we yield to pressure from abroad for a more substantial cull, that our dairy industry might face difficulty. In my constituency, it has been suggested that, in those circumstances, we might have to import UHT milk in the autumn.
§ Mr. Baldry
My hon. Friend has made some important points. All the work that we have done on the impact on the dairy industry demonstrates that there will probably be about a 1 per cent. reduction in milk production in the short and medium term. That is about the equivalent of the super-levy that we had to pay this year. My hon. Friend is right, and we are considering the medium and longer-term consequences of everything that is happening to every sector of the industry. I shall say more about the impact on prices and the help that we can give beef producers with cattle under 30 months.
The debate involves not only our immediate concerns about the beef industry following SEAC's announcement, but several issues connected with this year's common agricultural price fixing.
§ Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)
What is the latest position on the slower maturing breeds, in particular Highland cattle? Has any decision been made or any flexibility given?
§ Mr. Baldry
As I said to the hon. Gentleman in an earlier exchange, my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food issued a consultation paper a little while ago, after she had had extensive discussions with the industry and the various breed representatives. Thus the consultation paper was clearly based on informed discussion. The period for that consultation closes tomorrow and, as I hope anyone reading the consultation paper will recognise, we intend to seek exemptions for the slower maturing breeds, many of which are excellent breeds such as Highland and Dexter cattle. I hope that any hon. Members who have not made representations or responded to the consultation paper will do so, and will draw their constituents' attention to it immediately, because the consultation period closes tomorrow.
In February, the European Commission presented its proposals on farm prices for 1996–97 and related measures, and they were first discussed in that month's Agriculture Council. Since then, there has been a further Council discussion in April and the proposals are on the agenda for May. It is likely that agreement will be reached in June.
I am sorry to say that the Commission's proposals are, as in recent years, extremely limited in scope. The Commission justifies that approach by drawing attention to the need for continuity and stability and pointing out that there is little need for more radical proposals at a time when the final transition year of the 1992 reform has not yet ended.
The Government agree that the CAP needs to change if the challenges identified by the Commission are to be effectively addressed. I believe strongly that the opportunity presented by the 1996 price proposals—to 1097 make a start on the path of bringing CAP support prices down towards a more sustainable level—has been missed by the Commission. The fact that market prices are relatively high in many sectors should make such a change acceptable to farmers. Against that background, the 1996 price fixing negotiations provide an ideal opportunity to define the future direction of the CAP and to give farmers a clear signal on how it is expected to evolve during the coming years.
The Commission has made some useful moves. We welcome its undertaking to come forward with its proposals for the 1997 set-aside rate in good time, so that there is a chance that that can be agreed in July. That will allow farmers to make their planning decisions at an early stage. I welcome the Commission's assurances that the proposals this year will respect the budget guidelines in 1996 and 1997.
This year's price fixing proposals must of course have regard to BSE and the crisis in the beef industry. As a result of the crisis, the Agriculture Council has already agreed a number of market-related measures. However, it is clear that in respect of this price fixing negotiation, the Commission will have to come forward with a revised set of proposals on beef if agreement is to be reached.
I shall give some detail about beef intervention and then deal briefly with some of the detail of the specific commodities of this year's price fixing. I am very anxious that during the present difficulties we do all that we can to assist beef producers with under-30-month animals who are experiencing difficult markets and difficulty selling their cattle.
Of course, the best way to maintain the beef industry is to ensure a return of consumer confidence, both here and abroad. Domestically, we are well on the way to achieving that objective: demand is recovering; beef consumption—according to the Meat and Livestock Commission—is approaching near normal levels; and consumers and retailers are returning to British beef in the knowledge that it is of the highest quality and can be eaten with confidence.
The latest weekly data on retail sales of fresh and frozen beef, which were released on 13 May, show that the volume of sales last week was back to 94 per cent. of the comparable 1995 level. We have clear evidence of that in the decision taken by one of the major burger chains to source beef from Britain. That is a most welcome development and I hope that others follow suit.
Equally welcome was yesterday's announcement by the chairman of a major multiple retailer to source all its beef from this country. I can think of no better endorsement. However, I understand from industry sources that the market in catering and processed beef producer sales remains difficult. The difficult nature of the overall beef market is reflected in sales of cattle by farmers. Data from the MLC show that the number of prime cattle sold into the food chain has gradually recovered in recent weeks, but it is still below pre-BSE levels. The average market price is around 17 per cent. lower than this time last year.
I acknowledge that regaining consumer confidence in British beef abroad will be less easy. That will be a longer-term exercise and one which depends to a large extent upon the lifting of the export ban. Nevertheless, we are preparing the way by our efforts to reassure consumer 1098 abroad—not just through those countries' Administrations, but directly—that British beef is not only a quality product but a safe one.
Of course, the industry faces a major problem now. I well understand that. That is why the Government have taken rapid action to provide relief at critical points, to preserve links in the chain that are essential to the survival of a healthy British beef industry.
§ Mr. Mark Robinson (Somerton and Frome)
I am reassured by what my hon. Friend says about what he is considering for animals aged just under 30 months. That is of particular concern to the small farmer, often with only four, five or six animals, who has suffered greatly from the fall in prices in recent weeks, and several of whom I have had on the telephone recently. Therefore, I hope that my hon. Friend can consider the matter with reasonable urgency.
§ Mr. Baldry
Absolutely. My hon. Friend will know, because he was present, certainly at one of the meetings that I attended, that both Parliamentary Secretaries and myself met most or a large number of the farmers who came here yesterday representing NFU branches from all over the country. They strongly reinforced their concerns about the effectiveness of intervention market support measures—a point that we have heard when we have talked to farmers in recent days.
I am pleased that the Commission recognises the particular difficulties that we face and that the adjudication of last week's tender was arranged in such a way that all UK offers that met the appropriate price levels were accepted, whereas all other member states had their offers scaled back by 40 per cent. We have now accepted more than 9,000 tonnes of beef into intervention in the UK.
The Commission is anxious that traders in other member states should resort to exports to relieve market pressure and thus reduce the need for intervention. That course is obviously not currently open to us—would that it were so—so we are discussing with the Commission the need to ensure that the extent of intervention coverage currently available to the UK is continued until such time as the need arises.
I am also aware of the criticisms of the intervention buying procedures. Of course, we have to be mindful of the need to ensure that there are controls to guard against fraud, but my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has asked the intervention board to consider as a matter of urgency what can be done to improve the efficiency of the intervention arrangements, to see whether they can be made more user friendly. My right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of Agriculture will also be taking up with the Council next week the need for an increase in the abattoir processing margin.
I am also pleased that at next week's Agriculture Council, the Commission will be outlining measures to assist beef producers affected by recent market turbulence, and seeking guidance on how and where the additional support should be targeted. That could include proposals to supplement the 1995 suckler cow and beef special premiums, which we shall support because we are determined to explore all possible ways of assisting producers with clean beef aged under 30 months. My hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome 1099 (Mr. Robinson) made a pertinent point. Colleagues on both sides of the House with beef producers who have stock aged under 30 months know that they are in some difficulties, and we wish to help them.
I want now to look briefly at a couple of other sectors that are part of this year's price fixing. In the cereals sector, the Commission's price proposals are disappointing because they miss an ideal opportunity to begin the process of evolutionary reform of the CAP—a process which the Commission itself has said is necessary. We welcome the Commission's proposal for a unified rate of set-aside. That should benefit both fanners and those who have to administer the rules.
As to the rate of set-aside for next year, the Commission has yet to make a proposal, but given the relatively tight market for the main cereals, the rate will need to be reduced from the present 10 per cent. If the Commission and the Council were able to agree on a significant reduction in arable area aid, as the UK has argued and as the market outlook suggests, set-aside as a supply control measure might not be necessary next year. But if there is no such agreement, some set-aside is likely to remain necessary to control production, respect general agreement on tariffs and trade obligations and restrain budgetary costs, albeit at a rate lower than the present 10 per cent. As I think was made clear yesterday, we are also approaching the Commission to see whether set-aside land could be used earlier this year, to help relax the pressure for forage for livestock producers.
My hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson) referred to the dairy industry, which is an important sector. We have consistently argued that quotas hinder the development and rationalisation of the dairy industry and that they have a disproportionate adverse effect in countries such as ours, which have the climatic conditions and infrastructure for efficient milk production.
This year, we are looking for a cut in support prices and an increase in quota. We are disappointed that the Commission has not taken the opportunity in this year's price fixing to make proposals in the dairy sector that would begin the process of reform. It has chosen to do nothing on support prices or quota levels, and we see that as a missed opportunity. Our approach of a cut in support prices and an increase in quota has the considerable advantage that it is good news for producers and consumers alike.
We appear to be making real progress on the reform of the fruit and vegetable regime, which will reduce market withdrawals and move the sector even closer to the market. Given the quality and flavour of UK produce, which is second to none, our growers are well placed to take advantage of those developments. I am glad to say that the industry continues to innovate with new products in order to help stimulate demand. We want to ensure that the reform of the fruit and vegetable regime enables the UK industry to develop its strengths. It is an area in which we have considerable expertise. It is essential that there are CAP regimes that enable us to maximise our competitive advantage.
All the price fixing proposals have to be seen against the background of the Commission's paper entitled "Agriculture Strategy", presented to the Madrid European Council. That paper concludes that the CAP must change because the status quo isan impasse and an illusion.1100 It envisages a developmental approach to market-oriented reform rather than a radical and immediate removal of all production-related support.
The current CAP has few supporters in Britain. It rightly attracts much criticism; it costs taxpayers a great deal of money; it raises food prices for consumers, albeit not by as much as is sometimes claimed; it is vulnerable to fraud; and it imposes a number of bureaucratic restrictions and controls on farmers that increasingly limit their initiative. It disadvantages both our farming industry and the food industry that relies on its products.
For those reasons, we have long pressed for reform of the CAP, on which there is much cross-party agreement. There has been some progress. First, largely because of UK pressure, a ceiling on CAP spending has been in place since 1988, and only unanimity can alter it. That single change has helped the proportion of the EU's budget that is spent on agriculture to fall from nearly 70 per cent. in the late 1980s to 50 per cent. now.
§ Mr. William Cash (Stafford)
In the light of my hon. Friend's extremely encouraging remarks about reform of the CAP, does he agree that, complementary to enlargement, which is at the heart of the intergovernmental conference, is the question of the CAP? How can we put so much emphasis on enlargement on the one hand and not put the whole question of the CAP on the IGC agenda as well? Will my hon. Friend do that, irrespective of paragraph 12 of the White Paper, which says that we shall not discuss matters which, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of Agriculture said yesterday, would be likely to attract opposition from the other member states? Should not we be arguing efficiently and determinedly? Putting those matters on the IGC's agenda would be a way to ensure that we had a proper discussion and debate.
§ Mr. Baldry
My hon. Friend can rest assured that every Minister takes every opportunity to argue for reform of the CAP. The House will know, I think, that we consider that reform is inevitable, given the next round of World Trade Organisation talks in 1999 and the enlargement to which my hon. Friend referred. The present CAP cannot possibly survive if other countries join the European Union: it would bankrupt them, and it would bankrupt us.
We take every opportunity to explain the need for reform to Community colleagues. We all now live in a global economy, and if we are not careful, European Community agriculture as a whole will fall behind as a result of the constraints imposed by the CAP. The sooner our colleagues appreciate that, the better. We do not need the IGC to tell them, however; we tell them all the time, whenever we meet them.
As I said, the changes that we brought about helped to reduce the proportion of the EU budget spent on agriculture, from 70 per cent. in the late 1980s to 50 per cent. now. Secondly, in 1992, CAP reforms dramatically reduced cereal and support prices. Those changes have contributed to the almost complete elimination of the food mountains of the past. Stocks of cereals in the Community totalled nearly 32 million tonnes two years ago; the total last month was under 5 million.
Thirdly, and most important for the future, we played a major part in ensuring the success of the Uruguay round of negotiations, which included a far-reaching agreement 1101 on agriculture. That agreement set world agricultural trade on a liberalising course. We have also taken the lead in combating fraud. In short, the United Kingdom is leading the debate in Europe on CAP reform. [Laughter.] I do not know why that should meet with derision from Opposition Members. No other member state in the Community has persistently and consistently taken the lead in reforming the CAP. Every major reform to date has been at our initiative, and it was largely as a result of our drive for reform that the Commission produced a paper at the Madrid summit recognising that the policy must change.
No other member state has been more at the forefront of reform. Our overriding objective is to ensure an efficient, prosperous, competitive and outward-looking agriculture industry that can operate and compete in increasingly open world markets, providing high-quality raw materials at competitive prices and paying due regard to the environment.
§ Mr. Baldry
I hope that, during our two-day debate, the House will recognise that the Government are not only working relentlessly to secure the lifting of the export ban as speedily as possible and to ensure that the 30-month cull is carried out as efficiently as possible, but, in every other aspect of agriculture and horticulture, working in the best interests of United Kingdom producers and consumers alike, to make certain that we have a profitable and competitive industry that can challenge the rest of the world now and well into the next century.
§ 5.3 pm
§ Mrs. Helen Liddell (Monklands, East)
It is unfortunate that, in his peroration, the Minister spoke of the relentless quest for an ending of the ban and the efficiency with which the Government's arrangements were being carried out. The events of the past few days tell a very different story, and yesterday's lobby by farmers portrayed an image of chaos and shambles. During the past couple of days, a number of the issues involved have been raised in the House.
I do not intend to adopt a confrontational approach, however. We recognise that some people are anxious to see politicians working together in trying to ease what is an extremely difficult situation for the beef industry. Inevitably, that industry has dominated a debate that is supposed to be about agriculture policy as a whole, and it will dominate my speech.
I seek to be constructive, and I consider that, along with my hon. Friends—particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang)—I have gone to great lengths to take a constructive approach. I am grateful to the Secretary of State for Scotland, who complimented my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton (Mr. Robertson) and me on our constructive attitude. That will probably mean a fairly early end to my political career!
Let me say, however—with no disrespect to the Ministers who are present—that it was with considerable regret that I noticed that no Scottish Office Minister was in the Chamber. One such Minister was present yesterday, 1102 but only for a short time. Moreover, no Scottish Conservative Back Benchers have spoken about these key issues. I am sorry to have to say that. We recognise that the organisation of agriculture in the United Kingdom takes into account the very different influences in our various regions and nations and, although many of my remarks relate to UK agriculture as a whole, I must make a number of points that are exclusively Scottish.
§ Mr. Baldry
No doubt the hon. Lady is aware that the Scottish Minister who deals with agriculture has been discussing with the Norwegian Minister a matter of considerable interest to the Scottish fishing industry. Earlier, Opposition Members made comments about whaling, and I think that there would be considerable concern if Scotland's interests in that regard had not been pursued.
§ Mrs. Liddell
I wish that the Minister would recognise that one of the great disadvantages for Opposition Members is the fact that Scottish agriculture is dealt with in the other place, by Lord Lindsay. It is regrettable that no Scottish Office Minister has been able to make himself available even to listen to the debate and then convey to his colleagues the issues that are likely to be raised. My hon. Friend the Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes) raised a number of issues arising from the lobby by Scottish farmers who travelled here yesterday. I recognise, however, that many of the issues that we confront in relation to BSE affect every part of the United Kingdom. Indeed, we have much to learn from other parts of the UK. Many Northern Ireland Members have made valuable contributions that have helped us to understand how people there are coping with the problems, and the kind of problems that are involved.
We learnt yesterday that the Scottish unemployment figures had increased, and a Minister admitted that a large proportion of that was due to the BSE crisis. There is a crisis in Scottish agriculture and throughout the Scottish economy, which is directly related to BSE. We must work together and address the issues constructively; there is no point in bluster from Conservative Members. Any points that we make, we make with the intention of making progress.
Agriculture is one of Scotland's leading industries. In 1995, Scottish agricultural output was equivalent to £2.1 billion. The industry employs some 200,000 people. The Trustee Savings bank has estimated that the jobs of about 21,500 people in Scotland could be affected by the beef crisis. That is a catastrophe that far outstrips all the industrial catastrophes that we have experienced in the past 17 years of Conservative government. That is why Opposition Members are keen for the ban to be lifted soon.
It is unfortunate that, early in today's debate, a Conservative Member spoke of the lack of a constructive approach. I have listened with great interest to the speeches and interventions and, if there has been a lack of a constructive approach, it has tended to be among Conservative Back Benchers. Opposition Members are anxious to move forward in concert.
At Question Time today, the issue of the food export market was raised. The food export industry is angry at what is happening to it as a consequence of the beef crisis. It is a significant United Kingdom industry, with an 1103 annual turnover of £500 million, and a significant Scottish industry, with an annual turnover of £120 million. It is furious, especially in Scotland, because 20 per cent. of its market has been lost; it has lost 42,000 tonnes a year and £2.3 million a week. It is anxious for answers and for a sense of direction from the Government about what will happen to it.
§ Mr. David Nicholson
The hon. Lady has accused Conservative Back Benchers of not having any constructive ideas and has gone on to complain about the problem facing this country's food exporters. She has heard from my hon. Friends about the great importance, if there are orders out there—of course, at the moment, there may not be—of bypassing the ban and of exporting beef to third countries outside the European Community. What is her party's position on that?
§ Mrs. Liddell
I am interested in the hon. Gentleman's point because the Government have repeatedly evaded the question of exports that are already out of the country and unable to be sold. We know that about 500,000 tonnes are blocked in South Africa. We need answers from the Government about what assistance that part of the industry is likely to receive, and what advice is likely to be available to it. Those issues cannot be ducked and must be dealt with in some detail.
The downstream effects of the beef crisis must also be dealt with in some detail. The Government's attitude has been that the market will rectify the position. Every piece of correspondence that I have read in relation to the downstream effects repeatedly claims that the market will correct the difficulties. There is a critical difference between what is happening in England and Wales and what is happening in Scotland. I would welcome Ministers' advice about what measures are likely to be taken to ensure that Scotland is not disadvantaged.
I understand that, yesterday, representatives of the Trades Union Congress, the Scottish Trades Union Congress and the Transport and General Workers Union met in the Ministry to talk about the possibility of access to European funds to compensate workers in the industry affected by the beef crisis. I understand that the discussions related to objectives 5a and 5b. The Minister undertook to consider examining routes whereby that assistance to those in the downstream industries that have been affected could be made available.
The Secretary of State for Scotland has made a specific statement that no compensation will be offered or will be considered for those people in downstream industries in Scotland. That is manifest unfairness. I hope that it is a gremlin in the works and that, at the highest levels, action will be taken to ensure that Scottish workers are not disadvantaged as a consequence of Government action.
§ Mr. Riddick
I think that I heard the hon. Lady say that 500,000 tonnes were in South Africa awaiting to be shipped back into this country. Is that what she meant to say? She may have meant 5,000 tonnes or perhaps 50,000, but 500,000?
§ Mrs. Liddell
I am sorry; it was a slip of the tongue. The figure is 27,000 tonnes, which is still a substantial amount, particularly for an industry that is especially vulnerable. The fact that no one is prepared to deal with 1104 such matters and to give us clear answers on what the Government's policy and attitude are causes considerable difficulty.
The Government may have a tendency to assume that they have nothing more to lose in Scotland and that, therefore, they need not take into account some of those considerable difficulties, but, as all hon. Members on both sides of the House will recognise, issues of fairness are involved in some of the catastrophes that have been caused and in the tragedies that lie behind the individual figures and individual statements on downstream businesses. That extends not just to those who are directly involved in meat processing or haulage.
For example, the village of Larkhall had serviced a slaughterhouse. Its closure meant the inevitable closure of those laundries. Shed builders in Lanarkshire in my constituency have seen their orders disappear as a consequence of the understandable measures that have been taken to try to reassure public health concerns.
§ The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Douglas Hogg)
Will the hon. Lady make it clear what her policy is? Is she saying that anyone, anywhere in the UK, who can establish loss should be compensated? If the answer is yes, what does she quantify the cost as being?
§ Mrs. Liddell
I am grateful to the Minister because I was coming directly to that point. Some three weeks ago, I asked the Secretary of State for Scotland to institute an inquiry into the number of people in downstream industries who had been affected as a consequence of the crisis. In terms not only of agriculture, but of the overall development of the UK and the Scottish economy, it is important to have that information. The compensation scheme that I have referred to—the Minister may not have heard me as he was talking to the Minister of State—relates to the European schemes that the TUC, the Transport and General Workers Union and the Scottish TUC raised yesterday with the Minister for Rural Affairs.
Those elements of compensation could be made available. The European Union has already made it clear that it would listen sympathetically to any claim. I want to ensure that that is progressed as quickly as possible, but putting one's head under the pillow and assuming that nothing can be done and nothing is happening is the wrong way in which to proceed. It is not the way in which to build public confidence and to restore equanimity and equilibrium to a seriously troubled industry.
§ Mrs. Liddell
May I make some progress? I will give way to the right hon. Gentleman later.
Many people out there are frustrated by the fact that this crisis is almost two months old and the Government still have a tendency to behave as if it has only just happened. I listened with interest to what the Minister of State said about the use of the Ministry of Defence and the advice from the logistics experts. Why is that advice being sought only now? We have known for some two months that logistical problems of some considerable magnitude would be experienced as a consequence of the decisions that have had to be taken. Why are the 1105 Government repeatedly sitting on their hands? The longer they do that, the longer the crisis dominates those innocent people who are being dramatically affected.
§ Mr. King
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way because it is an important point. Obviously, some people are suffering substantial losses. The Minister has made clear what the Government are trying to do for those directly involved, but the problem spreads widely and it will be difficult. I had not thought of laundries until she mentioned them as one illustration. She speaks for the Opposition on this and, obviously, she has a responsibility. She should make it clear whether she is suggesting that everyone who has suffered loss, in any respect, could look—if there were a change of Government—to compensation, because the other worry that some of us have is that this may last quite a time. These problems will continue. It is important that the House and the country know whether she is proposing compensation for anyone who has suffered loss, in any way, in relation to this serious position.
§ Mrs. Liddell
The right hon. Gentleman was not listening when I replied to the Minister of Agriculture. I have asked for an inquiry into the scale of the problem because, until that is done, there are no circumstances in which we can assess the true impact, both to the agriculture industry and to the overall economy, of the problem. Once we know that, we will know ways in which it can be dealt with. Yesterday's meetings in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, however, took place to discuss compensation schemes that may be available from the European Union. It would be foolish indeed if we did not prosecute every possible avenue to find out what assistance can be made available to people affected.
I should like to return to the specific case relating to head boners. The hon. Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) made a powerful speech yesterday, and I pay tribute to the determination with which he has prosecuted the case of head boners in his constituency. To ensure that I was adequately briefed for this debate and that the information that I had from the Scottish end of the industry was up to date, yesterday I telephoned Pinnacle Meats in the hon. Gentleman's constituency. The company also paid the hon. Gentleman a considerable tribute.
I refer the House to the specific case of T and T Meats Ltd. in Aberdeen. The owner-manager of that company is Mr. John Troupe. At the close of business on 29 March, he received a fax from the Scottish Office saying, "Cease trading immediately." He had no alternative, and no fallback. The company was very small and employed only six people. At the moment he received the fax, his livelihood and that of his workers was destroyed. I know that, with her background in small business, the Parliamentary Secretary will realise that one of the consequences of taking risks in small business is personal guarantee. As a consequence, Mr. Troupe has lost not only his business but his home, his pension and his future.
Mr. Troupe contacted the Scottish Office to ask for assistance and advice. Regrettably, he was told that assistance would be given only to companies that would continue to be part of the supply chain, and that therefore nothing could be done to help him. Indeed, Lord Lindsay 1106 was quite blunt in his response to Mr. Troupe. He said that it was not Government policy at any point to try to assist companies that had been affected as his company had.
Following a very distressing conversation with Mr. Troupe, I received a fax from a company further down the road called Leslie's Meat Products. Mr. Leslie said:As from Monday 1 April 1996, Leslies Meat Products ceased trading as a result of new legislation".He had been in the meat trade for 40 years and in business for 33 years. In the past year, his company had spent £500,000 to ensure that it could meet the regulations set down. He says that he has lost his business through no fault of his own; it went overnight.
The difficulties that such people face must not be mocked. They must be taken into account because they are replicated time and again. Incidentally, it is regrettable that T and T Meats Ltd. is in the constituency of a Scottish Office Minister—the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Robertson). Such problems will be confronted time and again and the Government cannot pretend that they are not occurring. Free-market ideology has no place in trying to resolve such a crisis. There is no point in trying to follow the dictates of the market in a matter of such enormity.
I recognise that many complex issues have been raised as a result of the BSE crisis. I listened with great interest to what the Minister said about the intervention arrangements. I recognise that there is to be an increase to 9,000 tonnes, but it is still not adequate for the scale of the problem.
I urge the Minister seriously to take into account the problems of red tape. I understand that he is aware of the Orkney farmer who sent his beasts to the south of England on the understanding that they had been accepted for intervention, only to have them sent back at a cost of £9,000, which the farmer must pay out of his own pocket. The intervention scheme was not set up to operate in a crisis, but the Government must put a strong case for the reduction of red tape as quickly as possible, and do so in a spirit of concert and co-operation.
Occasionally, the Government give the impression that there is time to play with. Considering that the Government are so dominated by those who have an interest in cricket, they may find that acceptable, but people outside do not have the patience to wait until events come round full circle. We watched with great interest developments in the discussions in Europe over the past 24 hours. It is manifestly unfair of Conservative Members to make negotiating in Europe more difficult for the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food with their puerile attempts to use the opportunity to dish Europe for purely partisan motives.
In a most bizarre intervention, the Secretary of State for Scotland got himself into an awful state about the flying of the European flag on Europe day. I would call that juvenile if it were not an insult to the many intelligent juveniles I know. Ministers are not only being sent naked into the conference chamber, but their feet are being taken from under them before they get in the door. We need intelligent and rational responses that convince the European Union that we are serious in our determination 1107 to address the issues that have arisen. Nonsense about retaliation and trade wars completely undermines attempts to have rational discussion on lifting the ban.
I was disturbed to read in The Independent this morning the suggestion that the Ministry's proposals for a 42,000-head selective slaughter have not yet been put in detail to Europe. Will the Minister give us a true indication of the situation? It is disturbing to read in a newspaper article a suggestion that the Government have not gone to the lengths of ensuring that such proposals have been put.
§ Mrs. Liddell
I am grateful to the Minister. He must therefore tell the House why the concept has not so far been acceptable and what amendments have been made to make it acceptable. The ostrich-like attitude adopted in these matters shows a poor understanding of negotiation and a poor recognition of the scale of the problem and the need to move with speed. The attitude characterises the Government's behaviour since BSE was discovered in the 1980s. There must be a more responsible and serious attitude taken, not only by the Government but by Government Back Benchers, to the lifting of the European ban.
I am conscious that a substantial number of my hon. Friends and others want to speak, so I shall not take up the time of the House unnecessarily. Will the Minister give attention to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East on beasts born after the ban? My hon. Friend has tried to make a constructive point on the anxiety felt about the fact that 67 per cent. of identified BSE cases have been found in beasts born after the ban. My hon. Friend asked the Ministry for an inquiry to seek the sources of the feed that may have been contaminated. I suspect that the Government, beleaguered on all sides, thought that that was an unhelpful suggestion, but in fact it was extremely helpful. If we had an inquiry, which need take no more than two to three months, it might be possible to trace the sources of the feed that contaminated the system.
I do not suggest that contaminated feed is still going into the system, but, like my hon. Friend, I ask the Government to reconsider their opposition to his suggestion. I believe that if they did, it would help the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food when he goes to the negotiations. It would show that the Government had a commitment and a determination to seek every possible route to eradicate the difficulties.
The chaos over the past few weeks, with the introduction of the slaughter policy, has revealed an obvious lack of co-ordination that has been witnessed throughout the United Kingdom. I do not apologise for making a specifically Scottish point here. The industry in Scotland has its own liaison procedures, and it is obvious 1108 that there is no mirror image of those within government. Is there not a case for the Government to approach those within the industry who are responsible for co-ordinating its activities, to seek their advice and, through them, to try to achieve better co-ordination in the slaughter policy? That would be a meaningful step forward.
Quality assurance is important, too. We in Scotland, like the Irish, the Welsh and the people in many parts of England, are proud of the fact that we can put a quality label on our product—Scotch beef. We have a voluntary quality assurance scheme. I accept that that in itself is not adequate for the scale of the problem that confronts us now, but when my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton and I met the Secretary of State for Scotland two months ago, we asked him to examine whether the voluntary scheme could be used as a framework to allow a more formal scheme to be put in place quickly. The right hon. Gentleman undertook to think about that option as soon as possible. Yet when he addressed the Conservative conference in Aberdeen at the weekend, we found out that he had not even begun to consider it.
Quality assurance is vital. In Scotland we are very conscious that one of the key marketing elements at the heart of all our products—not only Scotch beef but Scotch whisky and the other quality products that we supply to the European and international market—is quality. Scotland, the brand, is important to us. I regret that the Secretary of State did not take our helpful suggestion on board, and I repeat it tonight in the hope that, although no Scottish Office Minister is here, one of them or one of their officials may get round to reading Hansard tomorrow.
When Scottish farmers visited the House yesterday, it was obvious that the Government's inaction, and the apparent confusion and chaos, had caused great disappointment. Farmers wanted to make people aware of the full impact of that chaos on the beef and livestock industry. Yet they found a Government committed not so much to action as to alibi. Passing the buck has become the order of the day—but this is too important an issue to pass the buck on.
I believe that yesterday's employment figures were the first taste of trouble to come for everyone in the Scottish economy because of what has happened with BSE. Tragedies such as those of T and T Meats and Leslie's, both in Aberdeen, and those of all the other companies the length and breadth of Britain, are personal tragedies that cannot easily be overturned. People do not want sympathy; they want a sign that the Government are seriously taking on board the problems likely to be created.
In the resolution of the present appalling crisis, there is no place for the ideologues of free-market economics to stand back and wring their hands in the face of the devastation. From the laundries in Larkhall—I am glad that I was able to bring those to the attention of the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King)—to the shops in Shetland and the shed builders in my constituency, we see a trail of Government incompetence that can be measured in lost jobs, lost business and lost confidence.
It is no surprise that the people involved in the industry, many of whom would previously have been Conservative supporters, are complaining about the Government's double whammy of lost jobs and lost markets. The long-term implications of the catastrophe will last for years.
1109 As my hon. Friends said yesterday, it is regrettable that rather than confront the consequences of their own ineptitude and face a vote in the Lobby tonight, the Government Whips have sent their Members home. That shows that the Government are not only devoid of leadership but insensitive to the plight of thousands. They are insulated by their own arrogance.
§ Sir John Cope (Northavon)
The hon. Member for Monklands, East (Mrs. Liddell) was unwise to start her speech by saying that she would not adopt a confrontational approach, when presumably she knew perfectly well that she intended to wax lyrical about the Government sitting on their hands, about their incompetence and about all her other accusations. If she knew that she intended to say those things, she should not have started off by saying that she was not going to take a confrontational line. That was a ridiculous way in which to begin.
When the hon. Lady was asked what she would do, she said, of course, that she would set up an inquiry. We have come to recognise that as the standard Opposition response, dictated by the spin doctors to give every impression of offering assistance while avoiding expenditure commitments.
Towards the end of her speech, the hon. Lady talked about the need for co-ordination, and there I entirely agree with her—except that she seems to have ignored the fact that the Minister of State has daily meetings for exactly that purpose with the representatives of all the interests concerned with the beef crisis.
The debate is potentially wide, but it is necessary to talk about the beef crisis first. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of Agriculture said, that is a tragedy, because, until 19 March, the whole agriculture industry was doing well. Since then, the terrible tragedy has hit us, and it has been extremely difficult for all concerned. The situation is made more difficult to accept, both for ourselves and for the farmers and others involved, by the fact that European Union relief always seems about to arrive next week rather than this, and that goes on week after week.
We discussed the 30-month slaughter scheme earlier in the week, and again yesterday. The Minister of State briefed some representatives of my local National Farmers Union yesterday during the lobby by the farmers, and I am glad to say that he could show them that he and the rest of the Government are working hard on the problem and doing their best to achieve the co-ordination that the hon. Member for Monklands, East, as well as everybody else, including myself, wishes to see.
It is essential to build up the slaughter scheme for cows older than 30 months as fast as possible, but it must be 100 per cent. secure. The Minister of State is right to emphasise, as he has done both yesterday and on other occasions, the fact that it is vital that the scheme be totally reliable. There are plenty of people in the media who will try to eat away at it and prove that it is not working, and any such publicity would be exceptionally damaging for everyone concerned in every part of the beef chain.
Some Members seem to think that the Treasury, a Department in which I served for a while, may sometimes be holding things up. I therefore take the opportunity of 1110 assuring hon. Members that the Treasury is a shrewd, hard-headed Department, whose inhabitants realise full well that delay in setting up the slaughter scheme and in getting it running effectively would not be in the Treasury's interests any more than it would be in anybody else's interests.
There is a considerable backlog, which we have discussed. The bigger the backlog becomes because of delays in setting up the scheme, the greater the need for emergency measures, which would obviously be expensive for the Treasury. More importantly, delays in the slaughter scheme will delay the recovery of confidence, which is the last thing that we want. The recovery of consumer confidence is at the heart of the matter in the United Kingdom, in the European Community and in the rest of the world. We have been told that confidence is a central motive of the European ban, which was said to have been introduced specifically for market reasons rather than for scientific reasons.
The fact is that continental Governments have, by their actions, damaged their beef markets to a greater degree than our beef market has been damaged. That should not be surprising because when the Government, veterinarians and scientific and medical opinion in a country say that all beef—but British beef in particular—may be unsafe, the effect on confidence is likely to be greater than in a country, such as the UK, in which the Government, veterinarians and medical opinion say the opposite, that beef is safe. That is one of the reasons why confidence in this country has held up better than it has in Germany and in other countries across the continent.
One of the most pernicious aspects of this affair has been the behaviour and treatment of the EC standing veterinary committee. I do not wish directly to impugn the professional integrity of other EC member states' chief veterinary officers, who sit on the committee, but it seems that their decisions have been taken on market grounds rather than on scientific grounds. If that is so, that is quite wrong and exceptionally damaging, as I have explained. Governments have legitimately a responsibility for markets and for market confidence must take action accordingly, but chief veterinary officers should stick to scientific opinion. It would be in our interest if they did so.
The arguments have become rather circular. Governments say, "We must restrict beef sales to protect public confidence," and the public say, "There must be something in all this if the Government are restricting beef sales." So the argument on the continent seems to go round and round.
We are making some progress, for which I pay tribute to my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and in other parts of the Government. The Commission and some member states now seem to be much more on our side than they were a few weeks ago, and obviously President Chirac's remarks yesterday have helped, as have his actions.
The Commission has a specific responsibility in this matter because its duty, after all, is to look after the entire Community's interests. I know that the Commission is worried about the crisis because I have pointed out the problem to it and was told that it is worried. The 1111 Commission is right to be worried about the effects of the beef crisis on the British people's collective view of the European Union and of the value of membership of it.
§ Sir John Cope
No. I hope that my hon. Friend will forgive me, but the ten-minute rule is in effect. No doubt, he will be able to contribute later to the debate.
We must recognise that the problems of persuading other countries to lift their bans are very considerable when their beef markets have been badly hit. The Dutch have slaughtered 60,000 British veal calves, which of course were well under 30 months old, in the course of the crisis. It will obviously be difficult to get those countries to turn back and to adopt a positive attitude towards British beef.
It has become increasingly clear in the past few weeks that beef is price sensitive, which is why intervention is important and why the comments today about intervention by my hon. Friend the Minister of State are important in attempting to achieve a recovery in the beef market. It is also extremely important that we get on with reform of the common agricultural policy, and that the British Government continue to do all that they can to press for reform. The longer reform is delayed, the more quickly reforms will have to take place, which will be in no one's interests because farming is a long-term business. I therefore support everything that my hon. Friend the Minister said about pressing for early and wide-ranging reform of the CAP.
§ Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth)
In a moment, I shall try to follow the right hon. Member for Northavon (Sir J. Cope), but I should first like to say that I am grateful to the Minister of State for allowing me to intervene in his speech to mention poultrymeat. The only difficulty is that the answer he gave me about poultrymeat is the type of answer he would have given me about beef up to about 1995. The Government really should have learned some lessons.
We have had a very severe lesson: almost one third of Britain's cows will be killed and turned into toxic waste. Cows represent wealth. People in primitive communities measured their wealth by the numbers of cows that they owned. Those people would have been able to perceive the consequences and cost of destroying one third of their animals. They certainly would have known where to lay the blame. The blame must lie to a very large extent on Her Majesty's Government's refusal to introduce regulations, which was the approach adopted towards poultrymeat.
The right hon. Member for Northavon mentioned the hard-headed Treasury. Its hands are all-pervasive, and I imagine that it—the intelligent and hard-headed Treasury—would have perceived the very serious economic risks when BSE first emerged. It is aware of what is going on in every Department.
This debate is about the common agricultural policy and not simply about beef. Conservative Members fail to perceive a fundamental and historic problem. There was an enormous amount of rural poverty in Britain in the 1930s. In the second world war, the Government, not being dogmatic, had to assume enormous executive power 1112 to ensure an increase in food production. After the war, the Labour Government—the great Labour Government—introduced the Agriculture Act 1947, which underpinned the agricultural revolution, which then continued in Britain.
That Government ensured that the wealth that accrued to the developing urban areas spilled over into the rural areas. No Conservative Member with agricultural interests could deny that farmers were a great deal better off as a consequence of that. The architect of that policy was Tom Williams, who came from my own community. I wonder what he would think if he saw the antics of the Ministers who have occupied Whitehall place in recent years.
The problem is that the Government rely on their frequent boast that they are there diligently and successfully serving the national interest. They are not—if they have tried, they have failed. The same could be said about the steel industry. For several years, Labour Members levelled, justified and beyond any peradventure proved the charge that the Government were allowing the British engineering steel industry to be taken to the cleaners by unfair competition. The then Minister said that he would stand up for Britain—as Ministers have claimed today—and he came away from a meeting with a promise that the situation would be monitored. Six months later, the monitoring had not started and the Government were at a loss.
The fact is that we have seen appalling failures in the representation of our national interest. If the Government claim to have been in the lead in reforming the CAP, perhaps the Minister will tell us what proportion of EU expenditure has been devoted to agricultural structural support in the past 12 months. He may not want to give that information to the House because it will show that the CAP still dominates the EU economy.
I cannot understand why the British Government do not, from time to time, stand up for the national interest. I was horrified today when I received a report from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals about recent events outside Paris involving the fraudulent acquisition of British sheep and the most deplorable treatment of them. Such treatment must make the shepherds of Britain feel sick. As good stockmen, they care for the flocks that they rear and tend, only to see them tortured to death while French police look on in gross breach of the regulations of France and of the CAP. While it would not have been polite or courteous to mention the matter to Mr. Chirac this week, it is appropriate for us to go to the veterinary committee in Brussels and demand an explanation of how French authorities can tolerate that sort of behaviour.
Time does not allow me to go into the details of the report, but I shall give an illustration. Many of the sheep carried United Kingdom tags. One was hog-tied and left lying by a fence in full sight of the slaughter cradles. The sheep made several attempts to rise in its distress as it saw other beasts having their throats cut or sawn open. It was left in that condition until 10.34, when someone put it out of its misery.
People may say that one has to be tolerant of other religions. That is certainly the case, but unfortunately the activities at that religious festival were also in gross breach of Islamic law. Yet dozens of French policemen from the CRS, who are not slow to act when it is politically appropriate, stood by and did nothing. 1113 Fortunately, our RSPCA officers were there. I hope that MAFF will take the information available from those responsible officers and pursue it in Brussels. If the French insist that we abide by CAP regulations, we are entitled to do the same.
The same argument applies to other matters. Some time ago, I helped a first-class food producer in my constituency to get a licence from MAFF to export its product to Europe. It had to go to about six different offices. It took 10 months to obtain a licence which in other member states firms can obtain over the counter. The firm in my constituency got the licence after I made representations. Such delays are ridiculous, and they reduce and blunt our competitive edge.
Not long ago, I had the opportunity to fly over a large part of north-west Germany. I had previously been looking at the large areas set aside in the metropolitan borough of Rotherham, similar to those which exist in many other parts of England. As we flew, I saw hundreds of square kilometres of fertile land. I said to my companion, who knew a great deal about agriculture, that I could not see a single square metre of set-aside. He said that, since the set-aside policy was introduced, German farmers had tried to grow three crops a year instead of two.
We tie one hand behind our back, but Conservative Members do not blame the Treasury Bench. They blame Brussels. It is not Brussels that is at fault. It is ourselves, or rather—as they have the responsibility—Conservative Members. I am very concerned about set-aside, because I know that last year farmers in my constituency suffered enormous injustice under the set-aside regulations. I shall not say too much about it because time does not allow, but the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration is currently investigating the case. I hope that it is resolved, or his investigations are concluded, before I retire at the end of this Parliament.
The Government cannot make bombastic claims that they are leading the field for reform when the reforms are there to be had. They cannot claim to defend the national interest when they allow the French authorities to disregard grievous barbaric assaults on decency such as those that occurred outside Paris last week. They cannot say that they are leading British agriculture successfully when farmers are left in the state of anxiety in which many farmers in Britain are today. The sooner we see a different approach from much less complacent and self-satisfied people than those we have heard from in the past seven weeks, the better we shall be served.
§ Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset)
I know that I have only 10 minutes in which to speak. I should like to associate myself with the speeches of my hon. Friends the Members for West Dorset (Sir J. Spicer) and for North Dorset (Mr. Baker) in columns 988–93 and 1013–16 respectively of yesterday's Hansard. I shall not repeat the many points that they made about what Dorset farmers need. My hon. Friend the Minister will understand—from the fact that all three Conservative rural Members of Parliament for Dorset have sought to catch the Speaker's eye and have been successful—that we are extremely concerned about the position and want to emphasise what we need from Ministers.
1114 I put it on record that I appreciate the fact that every time we have been to see Ministers with complaints—there have been genuine complaints about the problems that have been caused—we have had an enormously fast reaction. On Monday, I made a somewhat flippant remark about the fact that animals were not being disposed of in a Dorset abattoir and within 48 hours my hon. Friend the Minister assured colleagues that that particular abattoir would come on stream.
I know that my hon. Friend the Minister has examined the possibility of giving advance payment to farmers for beasts that are awaiting slaughter where there is a backlog in the slaughtering industry.
§ Mr. Baldry
We have all been concerned about specialist meat producers who know that, under the present regime, they will not be paid before their cattle are slaughtered. They are obviously anxious that their cattle should be slaughtered as speedily as possible. Clearly, we want to help them. In the exceptional circumstances, we have concluded that it is appropriate to make an advance payment to producers in respect of animals currently on farm.
My hon. Friend and others have made a good point. I and my colleagues are urgently studying how an advance payment might best be made. We are exploring ways in which a simple, straightforward, flat-rate payment per head can be made. I want arrangements that will get money to farmers as quickly as possible. It is an exceptional, one-off arrangement, which will be designed to help those with a backlog so that they know that they will receive money. I hope that hon. Members will welcome that move and that producers will see it as a positive attempt to ease the pressures that they are under.
§ Mr. Bruce
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that statement as early in the debate as he possibly could, so that we know what is happening. My farmers back in Dorset will also appreciate that.
The speech that I am about to make should not need to be made, but I wish to put the record straight once and for all. I intervened in the speech of the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Stevenson) about his remarks on the origins of the scares and the assertion that the Government did not care about public health and were deregulatory to the extent that they would remove the help that regulations give to public health and safety.
I have given notice to the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) that I intended to refer to him. In column 1028 of yesterday's Hansard, he said that page 13 of the House of Commons Library research paper on BSE published yesterday had made it clear that the Government's deregulation had caused the problem. He quoted the paragraph that he relied on. He did not quote the sentence immediately before it, which says:the 1981 order did mark a tightening of rules not a relaxation.The hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman) referred to two documents when she replied to the Minister's statement on BSE. She suggested that they said that the Labour party wanted tighter regulations and the Conservative Government had introduced looser regulations. That was nonsense. The Conservative regulations are tighter than the regulations which the Labour party envisaged.
§ Mr. Bruce
No I will not, as I only have 10 minutes. The hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity to respond.
The situation is clearly described on pages 12, 13 and 14 of the brief that Labour Members were citing. The disgraceful behaviour of the hon. Member for Peckham led me to believe that she was briefing The Guardian because of the nonsense that was being produced in that newspaper. The Guardian decided that it was not going to take the tabloid headline route, but would give references on where it felt the Government had failed to act in the 1980s on BSE. I contacted one of the three reporters concerned, Paul Brown, and I want to put it on record that Owen Bowcott and Alan Watkins were the other authors of the report to which I shall refer. Those gentlemen did not do the usual thing for journalists and write a story without having the facts—they had all the facts and distorted them.
A previous Conservative Government had said that we needed controls on salmonella in feedstuffs for cattle. The Labour Government consulted and did nothing during their period in office. In 1981, the Conservative Government got to grips with the problem and brought in regulations for the testing of salmonella. The Library briefing makes it clear that the problem that has now been identified regarding the reduction of temperatures for the processing of foodstuffs is not a consequence of a deregulatory measure. It was decided to change the arrangements in the light of the Flixborough disaster, which effectively showed that high temperatures could cause problems to workers in such plants.
We now know that that was incorrect. We can all say, with the benefit of hindsight, that we should perhaps not have changed the measures, but no warning was received from any of the scientists. The Guardian article suggested that a warning was contained in a royal commission report on pollution, which stated:The major problem encountered in this recycling process … is the risk of transmitting disease-bearing pathogens to stock and thence to humans.The reporters must have read the whole paragraph in the royal commission report.
§ Mr. Bruce
No. The hon. Gentleman can make his own speech in his own time. I have very little time, and I must get the record correct.
The paragraph in the report to which I am referring was produced by a learned body which was trying to get rid of—I am not sure whether this is a parliamentary expression—chicken shit. People were trying to get rid of chicken faeces, and it was suggested that a good way of doing so was to incorporate them into cattle feed.
The concern about the transfer of pathogens had nothing to do with the high-temperature processing of materials. The royal commission report stated that transfer could occur 1116when the ensiling process takes place on the farm and inadequate precautions are taken to ensure that pathogens are not carried to the clamp, perhaps on the wheels of vehicles.We have wonderful journalists in this country. They have read and understood the facts—certainly the reporter to whom I spoke understood them—but in this case, the journalists decided to write a story that would frighten people and give the wrong impression.
The hon. Member for Peckham said not once but twice in the House that the Government'sreckless disregard for public health and their dogma of deregulation"—[Official Report, 25 March 1996; Vol. 1719, c. 712.]have caused the crisis. That was the message that went out to people around the EC, and it has continued to be sent out today. Unless we understand that lies have been spoken, we cannot find the truth and discover where we should go from here.
§ 6.4 pm
§ Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)
The hon. Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce) will forgive me, but I do not wish to abuse the protection that I am given under Standing Order No. 45A in terms of the 10-minute limit. I am sure that some of the points that he made will be dealt with in the winding-up speeches.
May I preface my speech by saying how disappointed I am that the usual channels have failed to achieve a proper amendable motion for this evening's debate? The Government would be quite wrong to believe that, because they have decided to pursue this course of action—despite the strong representations made by all Opposition parties—with the annual common agricultural policy debate, they have the right to establish this as a precedent. It is important for the House that the annual CAP debate is carried out on an amendable motion so that hon. Members have the maximum opportunity to voice an opinion that the Government can take into account when they negotiate price fixing annually on behalf of the House. Therefore, if it comes to a vote, I shall certainly recommend that my right hon. and hon. Friends vote to demonstrate their displeasure at the way in which the Government have handled this debate.
The two-day debate has been useful, as was the earlier half-day debate on the subject on Monday. It became fairly heated, but that is the way of these matters. The House has given thorough scrutiny to what I, who represent a beef-producing constituency, consider the most severe financial problem that my landward areas have experienced, certainly since I was elected and probably for a generation.
The collapse of market confidence in beef has had a terrible effect on the beef industry and associated businesses—and, indeed, on the whole rural economy. It is right, therefore, that the House should spend time looking at what the Government are doing and the consequences for our constituents. Some of my constituents are in desperate need of help. The uncertainty that is prevalent is driving them to absolute despair. The hon. Member for Monklands, East (Mrs. Liddell) referred to a number of poignant cases, and other hon. Members from both sides of the House could add to them. The perception outside is that the authorities have not responded with the urgency that our constituents have a right to expect.
1117 Nevertheless, I must say that I acknowledge what Ministers have done. No one could claim that they are not trying hard, but the scale of the problem and the apparent lack of planning has overwhelmed beef producers and the industry, and more needs to be done. More important—this may not be a point for this debate—we must, as a House, be able in the fullness of time to look our beef industry and our primary producers straight in the eye and say that nothing like this will ever happen again. We must learn the long-term lessons.
The Government are up to their necks trying to deal with an urgent problem, and I accept this may not be the time to deal with my point, but I hope that they will bear it in mind that lessons must be learnt. The consequences of the crisis will not be confined to the beef sector, but will spread throughout every sector of agriculture in the coming months if we are not careful. The Government have done what they can. They have sent sympathetic messages, and the speeches made yesterday by the Minister of Agriculture and today by the Minister of State were helpful, but tangible help is necessary.
I want to make one or two suggestions that I hope will be constructive and be taken in the spirit in which they are offered.
If I were the Minister, I would examine the opportunities and prospects under the framework announced in the recent rural White Paper, which included some imaginative proposals. There were some mechanisms that could be used to provide temporary emergency help for the rural economy. That would require Ministers to go back to the Treasury and argue stoutly for short-term assistance and funding. I hope that they will consider that to try to mitigate the short-term losses.
I know that there are arguments about costs and that there can be no blank cheques, but Ministers should consider asking the Treasury, if the crisis is still unresolved in November, to consider temporary emergency tax relief, once cause has been shown, for the associated industries such as hauliers and marts. They have been hit by the crisis but are not earmarked for compensation. Little ingenuity and money could go a long way to create hope in the future for small rural businesses.
I hope that Ministers will use their good offices to put as much pressure as possible on the banks. I know that that has been done in the past and that, in general, the banks have been quite good, but the pressure on them will increase before the crisis is over. If the Government could use gentle persuasion in their contacts with the banks, that would help to create extra time to resolve problems.
I hope that Ministers will not forget that they could spend useful time with their colleagues in the Department of Health. The mental pressures on producers, certainly in my area, are intense. They put a great deal of themselves into their work and hate the idea of slaughtering beasts that they consider to be safe. The psychological pressure of financial difficulties, possible bankruptcy and seeing their lives' work destroyed is bound to lead to stress, illness, mental tension and perhaps even worse. The House cannot ignore that problem.
There are some more immediate actions that should be considered. The Secretary of State for Scotland has accepted that there are specific Scottish perspectives to 1118 the problem. The hon. Member for Monklands, East referred to them, and I do not need to reiterate what she said. I remind the House that £120 million of Scottish beef was exported last year—20 per cent. of total production. It is especially urgent for Scotland that the problem be resolved.
Everyone agrees that lifting the ban is essential. I wish the Government well in the negotiations on Monday. I am optimistic that the first progressive lifting of the ban on the three products that will be discussed on Monday will be the first step towards the progressive lifting of the whole ban.
When I and some of my hon. Friends visited the Commission, we found that there was a different perception there. It was willing to help, although it is true that its focus was on the eradication of the disease. It was explained that the fact that it had taken control of the situation by imposing a European ban in the short term had given it the ability to lift the ban unilaterally without the need for 14 sets of bilateral negotiations by the Government. It asked for more steps to be taken more quickly and it is understandable that it was seeking concrete proposals before going all the way to lifting the ban wholly. I hope that the Government will do everything within reason that would be adequate to the task. No one supports the German scheme of mass slaughter, but there is bound to be an additional selective slaughter scheme. The state of play on that remains unclear. The negotiations on Monday will be uppermost in the Government's mind, as is right and proper, but I hope that, in his reply, the Minister will comment on that.
There is also the problem of specialist herds, which especially affects Scotland. I know that a consultation paper has been issued, but I understand that producers in my constituency—certainly, owners of Dexter herds—think that the scheme is restrictive and may not help as much as the Government imagine. I hope that the Minister will take that to heart.
The Minister's opening speech dealt usefully with market supply measures as far as it went. While 9,000 tonnes is a step forward, in terms of the previous two tranches it is not enough. I ask him again to redouble his efforts to make intervention easier. The Prime Minister assured the farmers whom he met in Aberdeen last week that he would do his best to get rid of red tape. I take him at his word and I hope that something tangible will result in the next few weeks.
On the disposal scheme, rendering remains a bottleneck and is still not working properly. I was pleased by what the Minister said about the supermarkets that have been difficult about abattoirs getting into the scheme. We support his position on that. I hope that he will consider bringing forward cold storage and incineration measures as fast as he can. I was pleased by what he said about that. There is a case for the introduction of new incineration facilities because the problem will take a long time to sort out.
Will the Minister consider making better use of existing CAP mechanisms? He must argue in the EU for help under the beef special premium scheme. It may be possible to get earlier access to arable set-aside land for grazing. In the autumn, if the crisis has not been resolved, some beef producers may decide to give up beef and go into cereals. We would march into a cereal overshoot next year, which would be in no one's interest. In the short 1119 term, perhaps for one year, he should examine the Buckler cow premium, about which he has some discretion. The ceiling allows another £26, which he may be able to use. I hope that he will have early recourse to that to deal with some of the immediate problems. Perhaps the Minister could consider the reference herd—from memory, the number of animals in Scotland is 244,000. If that could be increased, it would take pressure off the market.
Finally, there is the framework for future protection. Although the immediate priority must be the emergency through which we are still trying to struggle, I hope that some part of the Ministry is applying its mind to the framework that will need to be created for farm assured schemes and promotions and the environmental countryside premium schemes. Those may help people diversify and give them other options that would not cause a knock-on effect on other sections of the industry. The Government can do valuable work in all those matters.
I understand the difficulties. The House must come together and produce a scheme on which we can all agree and which will restore confidence to the buying public. We must make producers confident that a line will eventually be drawn under the crisis and persuade them that it is worth continuing to produce beef in Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom.
§ Mr. William Cash (Stafford)
I want to refer to some of the criticisms—they might be called accusations—that are being made about how the so-called anti-Europeans, who are in fact Euro-realists, have regarded the beef crisis. I want to draw attention to the recent remarks of Mr. Geoffrey Martin of the European Commission on the "Today" programme. He said that the European Commission was going to meet 70 per cent. of the cost of the measures. Unfortunately, that is not correct. One might even say that it was misleading. Anyone who has read Agra Europe of 4 April will know:the EU can claim to be paying 70 per cent., of the cost, while after taking account of the rebate, the net payments are only 25 per cent.Anyone who wants to follow that up can look at page 23 of the House of Commons Library research paper. I wanted to put that on the record to show that we are weary of hearing accusations against us when all we are trying to do is to present realistic and essentially practical arguments.
Yesterday, when he opened the debate, my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister said:the process of enlarging the European Union should present an opportunity for further reform"—[Official Report, 15 May 1996; Vol. 277, c. 968.]of the common agricultural policy. The problem is that the Government know perfectly well that the main driving force of European policy for the intergovernmental conference is meant to be with respect to enlargement. It is no secret that I would like the single currency and all the fundamental issues put on the IGC agenda. I said so to the Prime Minister at Prime Minister's Question Time about 10 days ago. The common agricultural policy is part and parcel of the essential practical reforms that will be needed if we are to have a realistic and working European Community of the type that I described when I wrote a paper on the future of Europe at the request of the then Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Hurd) in January 1991.
1120 As my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister clearly admits, if we go for a policy of enlargement, that will require reform of the CAP. Why on earth, then, is the CAP not being put at the top of, or as a prime item on, the agenda for the IGC? We cannot continue to say one thing and do another. That is the problem with so much of the Government's policy on Europe—and the Opposition share that problem. Whether it is on the Maastricht convergence criteria, monetary union or CAP reform, we are faced with the extraordinary sight of collusion between the two Front Benches.
The Euro-realists are the only people who are putting forward serious arguments to deal with the practical questions, whether on the Conservative or the Opposition Benches. We are then accused of trying to stir up anti-European sentiment—when we are trying to deal with the practical questions. For good measure, we are blamed for and accused of trying to create divisions within our respective parties, which is nonsense. We are coming up with practical questions all the time. The beef crisis is an example.
We must arrive at a solution that will help farmers. I have had telephone calls from farmer after farmer, starting at 6 o'clock this morning. I had lengthy discussions with them yesterday. They felt, and still feel, intensely impatient about the way in which all this is being conducted. I do not want to be unduly critical of Ministers, but it has been suggested to me that considerably more farmers might commit suicide than people might have died from CJD. We must not underestimate that problem, because the farming community gets rightly sensitive about the vast accumulation of burden that is being imposed on it. This is the worst crisis to hit the farming industry for generations, and that point must be taken seriously.
How effective are the Government being with the crisis? I hear the Minister of Agriculture saying that they want to act sensitively and by negotiation and persuasion. We then hear that there are to be retaliatory measures. Then we find that there are not. Once again, I must repeat that there is nothing illegal about proposing to suspend payments to the European Union in return—a sort of Poitiers return—for what it is doing to us. It is not a ban, but illegal sanctions that are causing untold damage not only to our farmers but to many other people in downstream industries. We must tackle the problem in a serious manner. Suspending payments would bring the EU seriously to the negotiating table. It would not be illegal. It would simply interfere with the cash flow arrangements, which are set out with a two-year span between commitments and payments. We should bring the EU to the table by taking effective action instead of just talking and talking.
We have spent most of these debates discussing the beef issue, but we should also consider the CAP and set-aside. I spent five or six hours with the Court of Auditors recently as a member of the Select Committee on European Legislation. It became crystal clear that the arrangements in hand for dealing with fraud are woefully inadequate, despite the good efforts of the court.
During the passage of the European Communities (Finance) Bill, I made some proposals that were supported by 30 hon. Members and I got an undertaking—given on the instructions of the Prime Minister—from the Paymaster General that the national Parliament, in particular our Public Accounts Committee, should be 1121 given the means properly to investigate European fraud in the United Kingdom. I put that to the Court of Auditors and I am given to understand that it is taking the matter seriously and will be discussing it with the chairman of the PAC and Sir John Bourn, the Comptroller and Auditor General.
If we are to deal with the level of fraud that exists in the Community, we must put in place proper systems to enable it to be done. A culture problem exists because of the accountancy methods of other member states and those of the United Kingdom, as the Court of Auditors explained quite graphically to us. I would describe that problem in this way: there are politicians, businesses and companies on the continent that do not want anyone to have the faintest idea about how much they are ripping us off, and the Public Accounts Committee actually does the job properly.
That problem is another item that should be on the IGC agenda, because the fraud is massive. We are told that it amounts to around £6 billion a year, but if we take into account not only criminal fraud, but financial irregularity, it amounts to much more. That is another matter that needs to be tackled.
Finally, if we are going to be realistic, we must get the fundamental issues on to the IGC agenda—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Geoffrey Lofthouse)
Order. The hon. Gentleman's time is up. I call the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes).
§ Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)
First, I must make a few general remarks about the common agricultural policy. There seems to be universal agreement that the CAP needs radical reform. It is recognised that it is expensive and that it concentrates subsidy income in the hands of the largest and most prosperous farmers. Indeed, the word "farmer" now seems a most inappropriate description. A better one might be "agribusinessman", because that is what they are.
The trend towards greater output per acre, with increasing use of pesticides and fertilisers, is already affecting our environment. There are strong signs of pollution of the water table, apart from the known pollution of the rivers. So it is generally recognised that major changes are necessary.
I accept that a modest start has been made on the road to reform, but there is no great sense of urgency in tackling those problems. The fact that there is so much agreement yet so little real desire for change reminds me of the saying of St. Augustine:Give me chastity and continency—but not yet.The resistance to change is caused by the large number of vested interests. I sometimes think that the common agricultural policy would be better described as the "communal assistance policy", because that is what it really is. That is what makes change slightly more difficult.
One of the other charges made against the CAP is that it encourages over-production, but one should exercise caution before condemning all over-production. In some commodities, such as grain, over-production is desirable and it can be dangerous to balance supply and demand.
1122 A few days ago, I heard a report that world grain stocks are down to 30 days' supply. Two of the best grain belts in the United States of America have had bad winters—one a long, cold winter, the other a long, wet winter—and it is estimated that US grain production this year could be down to a third of what is usually expected.
I use those reports not to be alarmist, but simply to demonstrate the need for common sense when discussing over-production issues. I none the less believe that CAP reform is urgent, but fear that there is not much will in the Community to set the process in motion.
The issue that has dominated the debate in the past two days is the BSE crisis. It has exercised our minds in the House for the past eight weeks, and of course it has exercised the minds of the farming community.
Some hon. Members have railed against sensational reporting, and some have railed against the Opposition, blaming the Labour party for the problems. The latter proposition is preposterous. Both those charges are an admission that the Government have lost control—if they ever had control—of the situation.
I concede that many of the reactions to the BSE crisis have been irrational. A couple of days ago, I was speaking to some people who were sitting happily puffing away at their cigarettes. I asked if they were still eating beef, and received the reply: "Not likely. Not with all this BSE around." Yet the damage to health from smoking is well documented and scientifically proven. So there is a distortion of perception.
Happily, confidence is returning to the market, but the industry cannot begin to restore its fortunes until the export ban is lifted. The prospects of a full lifting of the ban are not improved by the feelings of frustration at the chaotic start of the slaughter process that are evident from the criticisms by the farming community.
The Minister spent much time today detailing what he had done and meetings that he had had, yet, as yesterday—I do not think opinions have changed since—the feeling was that he got off to a bad start and was likely to get worse unless some big improvements were made.
I do not want to do or say anything that will damage recovery. All I want to say is that traceability of cattle movements must be rigorously enforced. If we choose the route of quality assurance schemes, the claims of quality and origin must be watertight. In future, the farming community and the Government must accept that regulation is not a bureaucratic impediment but an essential for the health of the industry and—perhaps more important—the health of the consumer.
There are grave injustices in the compensation scheme. The Minister of Agriculture has said that £1 billion has been set aside for compensation. That is a considerable amount. The Prime Minister went further in Aberdeen last weekend, when he again used the figure of £1 billion, but said that the figure might well be higher, and that, if it was higher, the money would be found. It would be remarkably good to do that, but who will gain access to compensation?
Yesterday, the Minister of Agriculture said:We have therefore targeted resources on the critical links in the chain, so as to provide a breathing space during which the sector can adjust to the new market circumstances. To achieve this, we have committed around £1 billion in support of farmers, renderers, abattoirs and cutting plants.1123 I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Monklands, East (Mrs. Liddell) raised again today the issue I raised yesterday with the Minister of Agriculture of Mr. John Troupe of T and T Meats of Aberdeen, who dealt in ox heads. I draw attention to a specific problem that the Minister must tackle. Dealing with ox heads is a licensed trade, carried out throughout Scotland and probably in other parts of the UK. I understand that, in Scotland, about 100 jobs are involved.
Mr. Troupe received a fax message from the Scottish Office, ordering him to cease trading forthwith—not in a couple of days, a week or a couple of weeks, but forthwith. His business is gone. His employees have no job. There are no jobs running around begging in Aberdeen; it is prosperous, but there are not many jobs on the oil rigs, where everyone supposes that there are stacks of jobs, for people made redundant from this trade. All attempts to obtain a sympathetic hearing and a practical response have failed.
Yesterday, the Minister also said:There are others who have suffered loss—hauliers, processors, shops and retailers. I know perfectly well that people have lost their jobs, and I have the utmost sympathy for them—this is a beastly business.I am sure it was not intended to be a pun.But we cannot pay money to everybody who has suffered loss. Therefore, we must define the principles on which we are to operate, and they are those that I have outlined to the House on this occasion and on others."—[Official Report, 15 May 1996; Vol. 277, c. 977.]Earlier today, the Minister of State said that he did not wish to move beyond precedent. Precedents are there to be broken, not the bedrock of which nothing should be shifted.
The difficulty is that people in Mr. Troupe's category and others have no breathing space to adjust to the changes in the marketplace. That is it—finished. The Government said in their defence—I accept that there may be something in it—that they could not extend the compensation scheme to everyone who might have a claim, including the local corner shop. Of course one understands that. We have been around this course before regarding who gets compensation.
The Government have a decommissioning scheme. Who receives the benefit of the vessel decommissioning scheme in fishing? The boat owners. Every attempt to obtain compensation for those who work in the industry and have lost their jobs is set aside as though they were of no account. It is not as though the European Commission has done nothing. The Commission devised a scheme to compensate redundant fishermen, but the Conservative Government would have none of it. It is not that there is no possibility of doing something—it is simply that the Government are not interested.
There was a sneer from the Conservative Benches when my hon. Friend the Member for Monklands, East said that a long, strong look should be taken in Europe at the way in which compensation might be extended as far as possible to others who suffer.
§ Mr. Tim Rathbone (Lewes)
The hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) will forgive me if I do not follow his argument exactly.
1124 I entered the debate to draw attention to the fact that this problem is shared in Sussex and the south-east. I come from that part of the country, and represent a constituency there. The experience of my constituents has not yet been represented in the debate. Farms are affected whether they are on the downs or on the Weald, and the problem affects dairy herds, but is not confined to them, in the constituency that I represent. Food producers in my constituency and in the surrounding area have been desperately affected by the beef crisis.
Unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Cash)—who is no longer in his place—I am grateful for the assiduous work of the Minister and his colleagues in coming to grips with the problem. I am also grateful—this has not been said so far—for the continuing interest and deep involvement of the Prime Minister and other Ministers. There have been unending discussions at the conference table in Brussels—something which seemed to be overlooked by my hon. Friend. In addition, Ministers have worked continuously to prepare the measures that have been developed and put into action.
As my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce) pointed out, the crisis is not the result of Government bungling—as was claimed by the hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy), in his unusually dramatic speech, and by the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman). The crisis came about because of the leak of information about a possibility of a link between BSE and CJD—a claim that was unproven. The Government were correct to respond immediately. The crisis is due to the ambivalence of British and continental scientists, and to the untimely European Union ban.
We have a long-established BSE problem. In fact, British beef was banned by the United States in 1988—it was certainly some years ago—and by Canada a year or so later. Therefore, it was all the more peculiar—this is a criticism not of the Minister but of the Government as a whole—that there was no, or did not seem to be any, contingency plan for this sort of event. There was no contingency plan against the possibility of another BSE breakout, against the possibility of other scientific developments, against the possibility of greater information becoming available about CJD, against the possibility of an extension of bans existing prior to last March, or against many other aspects.
This is something that the Government should take to heart and note. In this sphere of Government activity—as in almost any other—there must be contingency plans for the most unlikely events, so that the Government are better prepared to meet the exigencies.
I refer to the present needs of the beef industry. Action must be taken to help the clean beef market. A farmer in my constituency reported that prices for beef cattle fell, on average, by 15p a kilo between February and March—when he last took them to market—and this month. Therefore, I was delighted to hear the Minister say—if I understood him correctly—that consideration is being given to some top-up payment for food for animals that are sold and slaughtered, and for food for animals that are being kept prior to sale or slaughter.
In some small part, a top-up payment will compensate farmers for the additional cost of feeding and pasturing cattle while they await slaughter. This is particularly important in my part of the world—it is probably all-pervasive throughout the nation. The lack of 1125 availability of food for cattle is becoming severe—food stocks ran down over winter and, because of the present cold weather, the grass is not growing.
There is a strong belief that all cattle that are slaughtered under the 30-month policy should be tested for BSE. I understand that there is no provision for such tests in the present plan. If all the cattle are tested for BSE, it will provide invaluable information for future policy development, and it could help to develop techniques for live tests for BSE in the future.
I give the Minister two plaudits. First, there is general acceptance of the marketing activities that are being undertaken—they are much appreciated. They have been based on careful research. I hope that they will lead to the restoration of consumer confidence and to the restoration of consumer purchase and consumption of beef. The fast food chains were too quick in their emotional reaction—it was an unsatisfactory reaction—to this crisis, and in banning British beef.
The second plaudit is that, until now—I do not know whether it is the result of Government influence—the banks have been reasonable. I refer to this not just to praise the Government, but to anticipate their giving support to the banks so that they continue their support in the future. This will be a long-drawn-out process, and their help will be important.
In summary, I believe that immediate action is needed for the clean beef market, and I hope that the Minister will soon be able to announce the details of his plan. Ever better management of the present scheme is needed to get matters moving and to keep them moving. A number of hon. Members have mentioned various activities that need to be pursued. All arms of Government need to be involved in and committed to burning the midnight oil to bring the matter to a conclusion.
We must get the bans lifted, and establish a firm and self-confident basis for the future of British beef, British dairy herds and British cattle generally. The Government must maintain their efforts and expand them in leading the effort within the European Union to bring about reform of the common agricultural policy. It is a practical need that is necessary, and it is a financial need that is necessary. The Government have taken the lead for many years, and they must continue to do so.
§ Mr. Andrew Welsh (Angus, East)
I thank the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone) for referring to contingency plans, to information and to action. I hope that the Government follow through many of the points that he has made.
Although this is a general debate on the common agricultural policy, it has been dominated by the BSE crisis. There is real anger and frustration throughout agriculture and its ancillary industries. Yesterday's lobby was part of a wider campaign by an industry under threat and running out of time. Farmers and ancillary businesses are facing cash flow problems that threaten their existences. We have seen eight weeks of inadequate action, failure in Europe and continued dithering by the Government.
I remind the Minister of the importance of agriculture and the beef industry to Scotland. Agriculture represents approximately 3 per cent. of Scotland's gross domestic 1126 product—twice the proportion in the United Kingdom as a whole. The beef industry represents approximately 30 per cent. of Scottish agriculture, compared with 10 per cent. in the United Kingdom. In 1995, 20 per cent. of our top-class beef was exported, at a value of £118 million. Therefore, the economic effects of the current beef crisis are proportionately greater in Scotland than in England precisely because of the greater importance of agriculture, particularly beef, to our economy.
Agriculture represents approximately 2.1 per cent. of total civilian employment in Scotland, and approximately 21,500 Scottish jobs are directly affected by the current crisis. The BSE crisis has the impact on Scotland of two Ravenscraigs. It affects farms, auction marts, abattoirs, renderers, manufacturers, retailers and bakeries.
The transport situation is critical, with four out of every five vehicles that are involved in transporting meat and livestock now off the road. It is estimated that, for every 100 jobs lost in agriculture, 288 jobs will be lost in the Scottish economy generally. The similar figure is 342 in the slaughtering and meat processing industries. That is a devastating situation, which requires urgent action.
At the end of March, The Scottish Farmer stated that the total number of reported cases of BSE in the United Kingdom comprised 88.89 per cent. of cases in dairy and dairy cross-breeds, compared with 5.74 per cent. in beef and beef cross-breeds, and 5.02 per cent. in beef-dairy crosses and dairy-beef crosses. According to the Highland Cattle Society, only 5.5 per cent. of all beef herds have home-bred cases of BSE. In the case of the Highland breed, the figure is 0.01 per cent.
The incidence of BSE is lower in Scotland than in England, where it resides mainly in the dairy sector. In Scotland, there are two beef cattle for every dairy beast. In England, that ratio is reversed, at 3:1. About 70 per cent. of Scottish beef originates from Buckler herd cows which are kept to produce only beef animals.
I believe that the Government have been completely ineffective in addressing the fears of our European Union partners about a crisis impacting across Europe. The Government's proposals comprise two aspects: the disposal scheme for cattle aged more than 30 months, and the cohort slaughter policy. While we believe that the former is wholly arbitrary, we welcome the latter as a step in the right direction.
However, the cohort policy must go a step further. We believe that the solution should involve an extension of that policy and of the quality assurance scheme, to guarantee naturally fed BSE-free herds. If there is a recurrence of BSE after the cohort slaughter policy has been deployed, the entire herd should be slaughtered, as occurs in France and Ireland. The Ministry of Agriculture has not been prepared to go that far, but it would help to restore public confidence in the beef industry—which is the admitted aim of the Commission.
I recommend to the Minister the Trustee Savings bank report by Donald MacRae, which was published on 31 March. It notes:Scottish beef is sufficiently different from British beef both in origin and in BSE incidence to merit a different approach to the problem".That view is shared by experts in the field, including Professor Hugh Pennington, professor of microbiology at Aberdeen university, as well as by many Scottish farmers.
1127 MAFF predicts that the identification scheme will be in place in two months, and that could lead to a lifting of the ban for quality beef products. The EU Agriculture Commissioner, Franz Fischler, made it clear to Scottish National party and Northern Ireland Members of the European Parliament that a regional or zonal approach could be applied to quality herds. Happily, his view is shared by European farm Ministers.
However, the Commission said that such a proposal must come from the Government. I ask the Minister: who is representing the Scottish case? The Secretary of State for Scotland is not in the Chamber, and Scottish Office Ministers are notable by their absence. We cannot expect MAFF Ministers to represent our case adequately.
The proposals to relax the ban on gelatine, tallow and semen confirm the willingness of both the European Union and the British Government to adopt an incremental approach to lifting the ban. The priority is to breach the blanket ban now and to extend that breach, step by step, as quickly as possible. It does not matter whether the ban is breached for gelatine or, preferably, for quality beef products from Scotland or Northern Ireland: it is important simply to breach the blanket ban and gradually push back the frontiers.
However, the European Union will react only to United Kingdom Government initiatives. Scotland and Northern Ireland quality beef should be at the forefront of any step-by-step breach of the blanket export ban. I recommend to the Government the early-day motion—signed by about 90 hon. Members from all parties—which supports a zonal or a regional exemption scheme.
The crisis has emphasised the interrelationship of different agricultural sectors. I shall give the Minister an example. Rotational grass forms a large percentage of cropping area in Scotland, which means that big swings in cropping area are possible on mixed arable and livestock units. The BSE crisis could encourage mixed farmers to plough out grass and to sow spring barley, causing an increase in overshoot of the base area—which was never large enough—that does not have less favoured area status.
What will the Government do to prevent that increase in overshoot, which could be as much as 5 to 7 per cent. this year? Purely arable farmers could be penalised for the actions of mixed farmers who are trying to solve their problems. Worse still, derogation on arable overshoot lapsed last year, with full penalties to apply in 1996.
The Committee of Professional Agricultural Organisations has called for the total abolition of penalty set-aside. The Commissioner said that he would examine the situation but that he needed some feedback from farm Ministers. However, as yet he has received no help or encouragement from United Kingdom Agriculture Ministers. If agreement were reached, farmers could accept the financial penalty for overshoot without being required to set aside extra land.
Scotland is a net importer of cereals. Why should we set aside more land than is required of other countries under the standard rate of set-aside? There was discussion in Europe about averaging base areas within member states. Why has that not been agreed? Last year, non-LFA in Scotland overshot by 3.8 per cent., and LFA undershot by 10 per cent. If the areas were averaged, Scotland's non-LFA would have undershot by less than 1 per cent., 1128 which would mean no penalty set-aside. The BSE crisis is rippling through other sectors, and I ask the Minister to address those problems.
The Minister called for a proper and scientific approach to policy making. However, he has not answered my question about a test for contaminated foodstuffs. I was very disappointed in his answer to my question about testing the brains of slaughtered animals in order to provide evidence of the real situation regarding BSE contamination. Scotland is a quality export-oriented country, with three out of four Scottish farmers in beef production. Beef exports in Scotland constitute 20 per cent. of the market by volume and 21 per cent. by value. They are worth £2.3 million per week. While the crisis continues, a dagger is striking at the heart of Scotland's vital industry.
The system is gridlocked: I am told that about 50,000 cattle are backed up on Scottish farms. It will take 42 weeks to clear that backlog, and the industry simply cannot wait.
§ Mr. David Nicholson (Taunton)
At the outset, I must declare a couple of interests that appear in the Register of Members' Interests that may be related indirectly to the debate. I welcome the continuing commitment to reforming the common agricultural policy, which was reaffirmed by my hon. Friend the Minister of State and stressed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Sir J. Cope) and my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone).
The common agricultural policy must be reformed urgently, for three reasons. The first is cost. I am sure that—particularly in the light of our unhappy experience a few years ago—Conservative Members will not want to vote any more money to the European Community. A number of hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) and my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce), referred to set-aside, and that must be addressed. After 30 or 40 years, the means of determining member countries' payments to the European Community—which is not related to gross domestic product—remains unsatisfactory.
The second reason is the need and the desire for enlargement. Three countries—Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary—have in different ways earned their right to membership of the European Union through their suffering over the past 150 years in the cause of human liberty and of national independence. They should become members not in five or 10 years, but very rapidly. Therefore, I would like to admit them to the Union and thus put pressure on the existing members of the Union to sort out the CAP so that those countries can integrate into the single market gradually.
The third reason why we need urgent reform of the CAP is linked to what has become the main subject of the debate—the current beef crisis. As we have seen over the past eight weeks, there have been delays in reaching solutions, because many issues have had to be referred from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to Brussels. Every time that happens, there is a delay. That leads me on to the role of the Ministry in the crisis. I pay tribute to the way in which my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of Agriculture and my hon. Friend the Minister of State have given detailed explanations to the 1129 House. A powerful case was developed in the debate on Monday by my hon. Friend the Minister of State. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary has also played a stalwart role, especially in the west country, where the crisis is acute.
I received a written answer on 15 May, which described the small numbers of extra staff, mainly clerical and administrative assistants, who had been taken on by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food during the crisis. Perhaps the Select Committee will consider whether the Ministry has been properly staffed to deal with such a crisis. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewes referred to contingency planning. I strongly suspect that there were not enough high-grade policy advisers in the Ministry, and I hope that such people will be employed to address the longer-term points that I put to my hon. Friend the Minister of State in an intervention earlier.
We have been anxious that high-grade and detailed information should be available from regional and area offices for farmers and others in our constituencies. I confess that I am not sure that that has been the case throughout the crisis. On occasion, Ministers, in trying to help the House—I do not say that there is any suggestion that they intended to mislead the House—have made statements that clearly did not reflect the situation in the field. Ministers have not been fully informed by MAFF officials of the situation and that is a problem that needs to be addressed.
Certain problems have been put to us recently that require urgent action. This morning, after yesterday's lobby, when farmers and others from Somerset came up to the House, I received a fax from the county chairman of Somerset National Farmers Union, Mr. Bartlett. He says that the situation has reachedcrisis proportionsand he continues:the situation must not be allowed to drift".He also hopes that emergency powers might be sought to sort out the problem with the renderers and the absence of proper incinerating capacity, which might involve an emergency approach to the planning process. I know that the situation is difficult, but it is vital that it is dealt with.
Similar points have been made by my constituents and others in the region. Mr. Johnson, the NFU regional spokesman, has said:The top-up payments on farm support payments, whilst welcome, are not properly targeted. The farmers who need the help are those who had been selling cattle during the last two months.Rebecca Barber, from the NFU West Group in Somerset, tells me:The market price for beef is falling drastically at the moment and farmers are obviously worried as to what on earth they are supposed to be doing with these animals.Reference has been made to intervention and price support; when my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary winds up, perhaps she will refer to those matters specifically.
My hon. Friend the Minister of State has mentioned the regrettable action by some of the supermarkets. It is fair to say that Somerfield has been the leading culprit in making matters difficult for the abattoirs. There are enough difficulties in getting the cull cattle through the abattoir 1130 process and into rendering for us to wish to avoid that intervention by some of the supermarkets. I contrast their action with the welcome action yesterday by Asda.
The hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) made a reasonable speech. I am also glad to see the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) in his place. He usually speaks reasonably on such matters, but his speech on Monday, which I read, and I was present for most of it, was a typical example of the Liberal party scouring for every vote and raising every scare and perhaps smear.
I am not sure how far I should blame the hon. Gentleman for that, because he is rather like the early Red Army military units that had political commissars inflicted on them, which completely adulterated their approach to their normal job. For the whole of the hon. Gentleman's speech on Monday, his political commissar sat behind him—the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown), who has taken an entirely unrestrained party political attitude to the whole matter.
For example, I intervened in the speech by the hon. Member for North Cornwall and quoted the scary statement by the Liberal Democrat Member of the European Parliament for Somerset, that the Government had inflicted the crisis through the statement made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health on 20 March. The hon. Gentleman said that he would reply to that intervention, but he did not. Further, during his speech he suggested that some Conservatives—I hope that he does not include me—would like to see the ban prolonged to help their campaign against the European Union.
§ Mr. Nicholson
I am sorry, but I cannot give way. We are on 10-minute speeches and the hon. Gentleman has had many opportunities to speak on the subject.
I regret very much the role that the European Commission and the member countries have played. Some hon. Members have pointed out that the United States, Canada and Australia have had earlier bans, but we export very little beef to those countries because that would be like taking coals to Newcastle. Our major markets are in western Europe and we are cut off from those markets. Unlike some of my hon. Friends, I think that this unhappy business will have consequences for the way in which the Conservative party, our supporters and other constituents in the countryside regard the European Union in future. I will not discuss whether people will be sceptical or realistic: they will be critical. They will be critical not only of the current crisis—because it is not one black cloud in an otherwise blue sky—but of the other European matters. That will have important consequences for the important debate about monetary union, because I do not believe—
§ 7.7 pm
§ Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley)
One of the biggest flaws in the common agricultural policy is the tobacco production subsidy. If ever there was a waste of taxpayers' money, that is it. The subsidy gets far too little 1131 attention, and I have not heard it mentioned by the Minister. I also read yesterday's Hansard and none of the three Ministers who spoke mentioned it.
This year, as every year, the European Union, through the CAP, will spend about 1 billion ecu on subsidies for European tobacco producers—that is more than £800 million spent on supporting tobacco production. A huge sum of public money is spent supporting a crop that has no positive benefits and that kills its consumers.
Furthermore, the subsidies support a crop that is almost worthless commercially. Tobacco growers in the EU produce so-called dark tobaccos, which are high in tar and unfashionable with consumers and manufacturers. There is little or no market for them. The CAP subsidies for tobacco were intended to encourage farmers to grow commercially viable varieties. The subsidies were supposed to help to maintain farmers' incomes while they adapted their production from dark to light varieties. The intention was to reduce imports into the EU, but the tobacco growers have simply absorbed the subsidies. Patterns of tobacco production have remained virtually unchanged and CAP-supported dark tobaccos continue to be sent outside the EU and light tobacco imported.
In 1992, the CAP reforms set a ceiling on tobacco production, but left unchallenged the principle of tobacco subsidy. Those reforms made no effort to eliminate the tobacco varieties that have low commercial value and, therefore, made no effort to achieve the CAP's stated aim of reducing imports.
Today, EU-based manufacturers still import 70 per cent. of their tobacco. Meanwhile, two thirds of the EU's own tobacco production is the cheap, high-tar crop that the CAP was supposed to eliminate, and most of that crop is dumped in eastern Europe and north Africa. Therefore, in relation to tobacco subsidies, the CAP has failed member states. It has also failed the citizens of Europe.
The CAP tobacco production budget is some £800 million compared with the smoking prevention budget of the EU organisation Europe Against Cancer of £1.2 million. That is nonsense. The World Health Organisation estimates—I believe conservatively—that nearly 500,000 EU residents die every year from tobacco-related illnesses. Yet the CAP spends upwards of £1,600 a head helping to kill those EU citizens. A mere 275 of the 182,000 European tobacco producers receive among them more money than the total budget of the European anti-smoking programme.
During the past day and a half, many hon. Members have pointed to discrepancies, inconsistencies and unfairnesses in the current beef market. Problems with beef and fish have been well aired. Some have expressed the view that the CAP is wrong-headed and its priorities muddled on occasion, and that is certainly true with regard to tobacco. But with tobacco, the CAP is moving into much more dangerous territory. It is spending money on subsidies that have an effect well beyond simple economics and national rivalries.
Tobacco-related illnesses accept no boundaries and obey no quotas. They strike at smokers and non-smokers alike. Tobacco is clearly a drug that kills. The House should question why we allow the CAP to subsidise such a disastrous undertaking.
Where is the value for money in killing consumers? The European Court of Auditors certainly could not find any. In 1994, it examined the CAP tobacco subsidies, 1132 two years after the reforms that were supposed to change the face of European tobacco production. The court said that the policy was badly managed and that the subsidies were a "misuse of public funds". The European Court of Auditors questioned the whole principle of subsidies for tobacco production.
We should consider that principle too, especially as it has already been proved that it would be cheaper to give farmers direct income support than to continue to subsidise tobacco production through the CAP. For example, in 1993, the average farmer's income from tobacco was 6,500 ecu. The European Court of Auditors estimated that 43 per cent. of that income was taken up with expenses associated with crop production. That left 3,700 ecu per farmer as the amount of income received from tobacco subsidy.
If farmers stopped growing tobacco and were instead paid the 3,700 ecu direct, the total cost to the CAP would be 556 million ecu—about 327 million ecu less than the subsidies being paid. In other words, the EU could save around £260 million a year by ending tobacco subsidies and eliminating production of the crop.
I urge the Minister to look carefully at the way in which the tobacco regime operates. An end to CAP tobacco subsidy and its replacement with direct income support must be a sensible first step. It would save taxpayers' money and free resources for other use. More importantly, it would end production of a patently uneconomic product—a product which kills its consumers and which the EU is inflicting on poorer countries by exporting the tobacco that we do not want to other parts of the world. Europe produces highly dangerous high-tar tobacco, for which the market in the EU is practically nil, yet we still waste millions on subsidising it.
I remind the House that just £1.2 million is being spent by the EU on anti-smoking programmes. There is a potential surplus within the CAP of more than £260 million, in the tobacco subsidy regime alone. Some of that should go to health education within the EU rather than to subsidising tobacco. The CAP has done and is continuing to do serious damage to Europe's health. Hundreds of thousands die every year and millions more fall ill. We should divert resources away from rewarding the killer towards supporting the victims and preventing new victims.
Tobacco-related illnesses kill and maim smokers and non-smokers alike. Tobacco knocks an average of 23 years off the productive life of its victims. It causes lung cancer, heart disease, strokes and chronic airways diseases. The CAP helps directly to maintain production of the worst and most dangerous kinds of tobaccos. As the European Court of Auditors said, that is a misuse of public funds.
I know why the House is concentrating on the problems in the beef market at the moment, and rightly so, but the issues that I have raised should be addressed continually until we remove from the CAP the subsidies that are effectively attacking public health and wasting public funds.
§ Mr. Mark Robinson (Somerton and Frome)
The hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) has reminded us that the debate goes rather wider than beef, but I make no apology for bringing us back to that topic. The crisis 1133 facing the British beef industry is virtually without precedent in recent years, and it has been the most traumatic experience for many farmers in my constituency of Somerton and Frome.
I pay tribute to the NFU at all levels for the steady way in which it has coped with the crisis. The frequent meetings with Ministers and the willingness to discuss issues as they arise on a daily basis with local Members of Parliament have been appreciated and effective.
The same applies to Ministers who have made every effort to listen not only to the strong views of colleagues in the House but to representatives of a range of interests right across the agriculture industry.
That also extends to individual farmers, who have reacted to a most challenging and often frustrating situation with calm common sense. But as the days have moved into weeks, patience has been tested to the very limits, because there is nothing more debilitating than uncertainty and confusion, yet they have governed the situation since the crisis started in March.
In particular, there is nothing worse than to be told that a cull programme of animals aged more than 30 months is about to start, only to find more than a week later that it has not. That adds to the frustration, the boiling over and the kind of strong words that were used at yesterday's lobby here at Westminster which, to those who represent farming constituencies, was welcome.
Accordingly, I give a warm welcome to the clear and deliberate statement made today by my hon. Friend the Minister of State, which demonstrates that, at long last, the cull programme of cattle aged over 30 months is starting to approach its target levels. I hope that from now on it will run smoothly. But in saying that, I hope that my hon. Friend will monitor the situation carefully. The very build-up of the backlog has added to the pressures, and anything that he can do in the coming weeks to improve the situation so that there can be a slight acceleration in the achievement of his targets would be welcome to many farmers who still have to work out how to keep animals on the land.
I was glad to hear the assurances of my hon. Friend the Minister of State in regard to casualties, but that remains an issue that requires careful attention. Only this morning, I received a telephone call from a farmer in my constituency who is having problems disposing of a casualty animal. His frustration was palpable when he was told by his vet that it would be four working days before his animal could be dealt with, a fact that both he and I find utterly unacceptable. That frustration is compounded by the fact that we both know that there is a specialist abattoir in Frome which deals purely with casualty animals, but which has not been able to take any since the crisis began. Moreover, that abattoir has access to a neighbouring incinerator that is also idle.
A few days ago, the owners of the abattoir were told that they could prepare to start work again if they could ensure disposal—which they can, by way of incineration—only to be told subsequently that they could not proceed, as the abattoir is not EU-approved. That is despite the fact that they were working before the crisis began. What, I ask my hon. Friend the Minister of State, does that matter, if the carcases go straight to the incinerator?
1134 I have given my hon. Friend the details of the case. The matter was also raised with me at yesterday's lobby, and I know that many farmers in my constituency who have traditionally used the abattoir would be deeply appreciative if the problem could be sorted out. Heritage is still working with sheep; why should it not work with beef casualties, especially as it does not take any meat that is going into the food chain?
Support for our beef industry is very important at present, and I welcome what my hon. Friend has already said about animals aged just under 30 months. The matter is of great concern, especially to farmers with very few animals.
I could not conclude this part of my speech without mentioning the European Union's totally unreasonable ban on British beef. As one who believes that our future lies at the heart of Europe—based on partnership—I feel strongly that the success of that principle requires mutual support at times of great difficulty. A ban such as this, which has no scientific justification, flies in the face of such a principle. It needs to be lifted, if possible without delay, and we all hope that some progress can be made on Monday. Its imposition has served to undermine not just our own beef market, but other EU beef markets. I hope that the EU will learn its lesson.
Had it not been for the current crisis, the debate would have focused much more closely on what I regard as one of the most important issues with which Europe must grapple: reform of the common agricultural policy. If we are to contemplate, as I believe that we must, further expansion of the European Community, with the inclusion of countries such as Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic—an issue already raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson)—the reform issues cannot stay on the back burner for ever. The cost of accepting those countries without CAP reform would be prohibitive. I agree with my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of Agriculture that it is wrong, indeed foolish, to delay such issues until the last moment, a pattern that the EU has always followed when dealing with the CAP. That in itself breeds uncertainty: any such delay does not help farmers to plan their business.
The British agriculture industry is efficient and successful, both at home and in export markets. We see examples of that in our excellent agricultural shows, such as the Royal Bath and West show, which will be held shortly and which my hon. Friend the Minister of State will attend; he will be warmly welcomed. At present, we have an artificial agriculture market that is unsustainable under any concept of the single market. I regard that single market as extremely important. The farmer should be allowed to operate in a world of sensible market forces, with prices determined by consumer demand, and that must be achieved in a balanced countryside environment.
I hope that the Government will work hard to develop the excellent concepts set out in the rural White Paper. That is a comprehensive document, much enhanced by the co-operation in its preparation by both the Country Landowners Association and the National Farmers Union. It is very important for the future of our countryside. It is not a cosmetic exercise; it sets a blueprint for the years ahead. We need to concentrate on that, to ensure that we have a balanced countryside—one in which residents and the agricultural community exist side by side, but in which a reasonable environment is protected.
§ Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)
I wanted to say something about the CAP, but because time is short I will concentrate on the BSE crisis, or calamity. It is costing billions of pounds, and the Government are culpable. The Green Paper "Agriculture in the United Kingdom 1995" drones on about the importance that the Government attach to deregulation, but in the midst of the present crisis they are recognising the importance of regulation.
I speak with some knowledge. Woodhead Brothers in Colne is the largest abattoir in the north-west. Within days of the triggering of the crisis by the Secretary of State for Health on 20 March, it announced 70 redundancies, and 200 people were put on short time. Only some of those jobs have been reinstated. The farming industry has been crucified, and jobs that are at a premium in my neck of the woods have been lost, perhaps irretrievably.
The Food and Drink Federation has told us that losses in that industry are running at £300 million, and rising. The animal feed manufacturing industry is in deep trouble—an industry that is worth £1.7 billion and employs 20,000. What on earth will happen to it? The head boning industry has been vaporised, and the Minister told us yesterday that those in that industry would not be compensated. The slaughtering industry will shrink alarmingly.
The Government commissioned a study from Coopers and Lybrand. It was a non-competitive tender: it went to only one firm of consultants, and cost £250,000. Coopers and Lybrand told the Government that, according to its financial assessment, the eventual closure of between a quarter and a third of abattoirs and cutting plants appeared possible. In three weeks, the crisis has cost the slaughterhouse and cutting plant industry the equivalent of 12 years of pre-crisis profit. The whole panorama of the industry reveals that it is in a state of collapse and near-collapse, but all that we hear from the Government is that it is not their fault. There was a sort of divine visitation; they are not responsible in any way.
Of course the Government are responsible. A briefing sent by MAFF to all hon. Members states:The announcement by the Secretary of State for Health on 20 March that there might be a link between BSE and … Creutzfeldt Jakob Disease … led to a significant loss of … confidence in British beef".So there is a causal connection. The Secretary of State said that there might be a link, and consumer confidence evaporated.
We heard some nonsensical statements from Ministers at the time. I well remember the Minister of Agriculture saying on 20 March:I do not believe that this information"—that is, the information disclosed by the Secretary of State for Health—should damage consumer confidence and thus the beef market"— [Official Report, 20 March 1996; Vol. 274, c. 387.]Well, it did: consumer confidence collapsed completely.
As I have said, the Government are totally implicated. Not until June 1989—two and a half years after the identification of the BSE agent—did they summon the wit to ban infected offal from human food. It took another seven months for it to be banned in the entire United Kingdom. Most important, the thing that damaged 1136 consumer confidence—I do not know why the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) is smiling. He has abattoirs in his constituency.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. We were having a reasonably quiet debate until the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) came in.
§ Mr. Prentice
If I could return to my theme, I was talking about consumer confidence. The single most important decision that the Government took that irremediably damaged consumer confidence was not to compensate farmers fully for slaughtering BSE cattle until February 1990. For 18 months, therefore, farmers were offered only 50 per cent. of the value of cattle.
We are being told that everything is rosy now and that the abattoirs have been adequately policed. That is true of some abattoirs. People could eat their breakfast off the floor at Woodhead Brothers in Colne. It has eight full-time meat inspection staff and a qualified vet is there permanently. That is not true, however, in all slaughterhouses.
I reminded the Minister earlier that, in answer to a parliamentary question that I tabled, I was told that, in September 1995, 48 per cent. of slaughterhouses visited were found to be in breach of BSE controls designed to keep infected offal from human food. When I raised that matter, the Minister, for the first time, said, "Some of that percentage has to do with faulty paperwork." That was absolutely bizarre.
It is not just Labour Members who think that the Government are completely incompetent and totally culpable: the farming press, traditionally supportive of the Conservative interest, believe that too. On 10 May, the Farming News opinion column said:Mr. Hogg continues to dither. His country publicly humiliated, his industry on its knees, his ministry rudderless, his agencies engulfed in damage control, he now has no claim whatever on office. It is time for him to own up, apologise and go.The Farmers Weekly opinion column says:This state of confusionin the Governmentis inexcusable.A Farming News headline said "Industry in chaos" and on 10 May, Farmers Guardian—it is all a bit dated now because events are moving so rapidly, but, ordinarily, quoting from the Farmers Guardian, which comes out every Friday, would be enough—said that the only way to rescue the industry was for the cattle industryto show that it is squeaky clean",which it must be.
Information is just dribbling out. Every 24 hours, we have a new statement. How can people possibly have confidence in the Government when they have that drip feed of new information? Yesterday, we were all astonished to hear that, in six weeks' time, there would be new cold storage capacity. Today, I received a letter, dated 15 May, from the Minister saying that the Government hadsecured extra cold storage capacity".1137 We are now told from the Dispatch Box that it will happen not in six weeks, but in three weeks, which is astonishing.
The same letter told us—it certainly told me for the first time—that only "EC approved" abattoirs would be used, but a large number of the UK's abattoirs are not EC approved. The Government have given 150 abattoirs derogations to continue slaughtering animals, even though they are not EC approved. Clearly, if we want to get the European Union on side, it makes sense—I agree with the Government—to slaughter animals only in EC-approved abattoirs.
In the same letter—this took my breath away—we were told that slaughtering would start in the designated abattoirsin the week beginning 27 May".The ink was barely dry on the letter, dated yesterday, yet, as I understand it, slaughtering has already started.
Some key outstanding issues have to be dealt with. The farming industry is concerned, as I am, that there is no certain match between the slaughtering and rendering industries to ensure that the slaughtering industry does not march in advance of the rendering industry's capacity to slaughter. The industry wanted co-ordination. I should like the Minister to comment on that.
I should like to say one final thing because time is pressing. Will the Minister—
§ Sir Richard Body (Holland with Boston)
I am glad to say that I no longer have to declare an interest as a beef producer, but I should like to follow what the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) has said because he has overlooked the history of the bovine spongiform encephalopathy saga. It means going back a few years, but I will do it because, if we forget our history, we are in danger of making the same mistakes again.
BSE is the inevitable and direct consequence of forcing farmers on to a high-input, high-output system. Long ago, when I went to serve my pupillage on a dairy farm, we hardly used any of these compounds, except in winter: it was not necessary. Farmers, however, are governed by the price mechanism and, when that mechanism is controlled by the Government or by Brussels, farmers become like puppets on a string. They either have to work the system, and therefore go on increasing their inputs and outputs, or get out.
In 1975, I got out of one sector of farming because I realised that there were considerable dangers in compounds. I remind the hon. Member for Pendle that, in 1975, we Conservative Members had no ministerial responsibility. May I remind the House what happened at that point?
According to my records, from 1960 to 1972, the price of feeding stuffs remained constant at about £24 a tonne—it hardly went up or down in any one year. That was amazing because we had a high inflation rate during that time. Prices, however, remained the same. The reason was that many small compound manufacturers that were producing a quality product were driven out of business 1138 by four or five major combines, which had the purchasing power to buy cereals in the world market at a competitive price from Argentina, the United States, Canada and Australia.
In 1972, we had to go over to a system of import levies to prepare for entry into the Common Market. The price of the feeding stuffs that I used then went up from £24 to three times as much. That had a devastating effect on all of us in livestock sector, who had been pushed into a higher-input, higher-output system. At that point, about 60 per cent. of our on-costs was in feed compounds.
Soon afterwards, when we joined the European Community, a French firm of feeding stuff manufacturers started to come into our market. They were selling feeding stuffs that contained cheap protein, which came from offal from French slaughterhouses, a practice that the French had been carrying on for a long time. It is staggering, but they had been doing so long before 1972. We had to follow suit because we had to bring down the price of our feeding stuffs. We could not bring down the price of cereals because of import levies, which had forced the price up unrealistically. The protein that we had used up to then—fish meal or soya bean—was eliminated and we resorted to offal.
Rudolf Steiner warned us long ago in 1922 that if beef is fed to a cow it will go mad. There was nothing original in him saying that. The Chinese knew that years before. I hope that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will not mind me saying that if you or I have too much to drink, the toxicity goes to our head. I regret to say that we behave rather like cows with BSE; we stagger about. The Chinese have always said that if a creature cannot digest what it eats, the toxicity will go to the head.
Those in power did not seem to appreciate that at the time, but some of us raised the point. Some of us in farming said to the then Ministry of Agriculture that we ought to be allowed to know the ingredients of every bag of feeding stuff that comes on to our farms. We said that we should be able to see exactly what was in it and that there should be regulations to that effect. Such regulations never came into effect then.
§ Sir Richard Body
I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not being smug. Conservative Members did not have responsibility in 1975.
§ Mr. Morley
I remember the Select Committee on Agriculture making that very recommendation in 1989, and it was rejected by the Government.
§ Sir Richard Body
That was 1989, a few years on.
On our farm, I made the decision, as did a number of others, that we would not use those feeding stuffs because they were part and parcel of a higher input-output ratio that was thoroughly dangerous.
Something similar is going to happen with some other livestock, which is why I wholeheartedly applaud what my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone) said. We must have contingency plans for any similar events in future because agriculture cannot tolerate more of such chaos.
If the hon. Member for Pendle wants to throw stones at my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench, he should remember what some of us were saying about 1139 20 years ago. Sadly, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food at the time failed to respond. It continued to fail to respond when the National Farmers Union also pressed it to introduce regulations so that farmers could have the information to which they were entitled and know exactly what they were feeding their animals.
Surely we have a weapon in our hands to do something about the matter. For more than 20 years, we have been a major net contributor to the European Community's budget, along with Germany. It is true that others are joining us now. We ought to use our power. If as taxpayers we are to be required to pay more for the decision taken in Brussels, which is thoroughly wrong, I see no reason why we should not claw back, and deduct some of the money that we give them every year. Imagine what the Spanish, Italian or Greek Parliaments would be saying and doing if they had such power, which of course they have not. Now that Mr. Chirac has left—we did not want to say anything disagreeable in his presence—I do not see why we should not be a little tougher and behave like the French would in such circumstances.
I remind my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Robinson) that we are not EU partners; we are competitors. The hon. Member for Angus, East (Mr. Welsh) was absolutely right. Our beef has been extremely popular in France, Germany and elsewhere. The trouble is that it has been too popular and has been displacing their own beef. That is why they consider our beef a danger to their market. They are competitors. I do not see how we can be partners and competitors at the same time. It seems a complete contradiction. In the face of such competition, we should talk a little more toughly than we have up to now.
I do not want to pre-empt what my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary is going to say, but I hope that she will not allow the Opposition to get away with their comments because they must share the responsibility—
§ Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)
I welcome this debate since I was among those Members who called for a debate on BSE at business questions. Unfortunately, the debate on BSE is mixed up with other matters and we cannot entirely concentrate on it. The debate is entitled "Common Agricultural Policy and other agricultural issues". BSE is just another agricultural issue, and it interferes considerably with other parts of the debate. Such a mixed arrangement is entirely unsatisfactory.
I am a member of the Select Committee on European Legislation, along with my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Stevenson). Members of that Committee unanimously recommended a debate in the House on a number of documents, including the annual review associated with the common agricultural policy, and that it should be followed by a vote. The Government chose instead to push the documents and the vote into European Standing Committee A, where the matters have already been dealt with, and merely tagged the documents on to this debate so that they could be raised on the Floor of the House. We cannot discuss the CAP in the way in which the European Legislation Committee wanted. The opportunity to vote on the matters and table an amendment has been transferred to European Standing Committee A.
1140 Quite disgracefully, the Leader of the House said in business questions today that the vote on the documents on the Floor of the House will take place tomorrow because the decision taken in Committee has to come before the House. We shall therefore have the opportunity to table an amendment and vote tomorrow—not after this full debate, and not in the presence of many Opposition Members. Matters that are normally moved formally will merely go through on the nod. That seems quite an unreasonable manipulation of the arrangements of the House. We should have had perhaps a day's debate in which to consider the documents, push the matter to a vote and address the important subject of the common agricultural policy, which was raised only as a side issue by the Minister of State.
This House is something of a word factory. It produces all sorts of reports, records, minutes and other material. Among that is the work of the European Legislation Committee and the Standing Committees, which does not often grab a great deal of attention in the House. At the moment there are insufficient arrangements for us to deal fully and properly with European matters, which include the important subject of the operation and the costs of the common agricultural policy.
In the time available to me I shall refer briefly to some of the documents placed before us, whose inclusion allows us to mention such matters. But on the whole they are just a great bundle of documents that largely pass us by, and have simply been tagged on to the debate.
The major document is the 14th report of the Select Committee on European Legislation, which is scathing—much more so than the Minister who opened the debate—about the problems within the CAP. It even claims that the CAP does not operate within the "spirit of the objectives" of the treaty proposals, and lists the elements of those proposals, backed up with the wording in the treaty. The measures were supposedto increase agricultural productivity … to ensure a fair standard of living for the agricultural community … to stabilise markets … to assure the availability of supplies … to ensure that supplies reach consumers at reasonable prices".The report is full of illustrations of massive shortcomings in all those areas. We should have the opportunity to get our teeth into the details in a full debate, with full contributions from both Front Benches. Then we should be given the chance to do what we can all do in the House—to vote, and show how we stand on the issues.
Although this is a two-day debate, and a 10-minute limit has been imposed on all our speeches because of the number of Members who want to speak, only a relatively small number of us will be able to speak, compared with the total number of Members of Parliament. But what every Member can do is to go through the Lobby to express his or her views, even if he or she has not had the opportunity to be involved in the debate. We should be given that opportunity.
The European Union is full of vast areas of problem and difficulty, some of which were mentioned by the hon. Member for Holland with Boston (Sir R. Body). Undoubtedly, if there were time, there would be more condemnation of the way in which the Commission and the Council of Ministers operate, of the secret cabal that makes decisions for us, and of the lack of parliamentary accountability.
1141 However, there is one EU body to which we often need to pay attention, because it helps us to understand what is taking place and gives us a lot of ammunition. I am talking about the Court of Auditors. Although that organisation is now considered to have feet of clay, because it has recently been found to spend too much money on its own affairs—perhaps we need a Court of Auditors report on the Court of Auditors—its reports on expenditure and the results of that expenditure, including some of the counter-expenditure and diseconomies that arise from many of the EU's activities, are extremely valuable.
Three of the documents before us show that the Select Committee has made considerable use of the Court of Auditors' reports. One of the documents, about the sheep and goat regime, says:The Court of Auditors Report points to the need for a fundamental review of the effectiveness of the arrangements in sheepmeat and goat-meat market organisations … In view of these cogent criticisms of the regime, it is disappointing that the Commission does not appear to be willing to undertake a more fundamental review and that the UK Government does not appear to recognise the underlying concerns of the Court of Auditors on the effectiveness of the present arrangements".Time is catching up with me, and I would like to quote from two other reports, which are scathing about expenditure and failure in agricultural policy. One is about the development of the Portuguese agricultural arrangements after accession; before that there was no proper system in place to check what had been done. The other report is about the European agricultural guidance and guarantee fund, and reveals great problems in Greece, Spain and Italy concerning expenditure on produce such as fruit and vegetables.
I do not have time to do that, but I must point out that the Select Committee is drawn from the widest range of Members that it is possible to find in the House. It includes Euro-sceptics and Euro-fanatics, and they are at it meeting after meeting, especially the Conservatives. Therefore—
§ Sir Gerard Vaughan (Reading, East)
I wish to speak only briefly—I hope more briefly than the 10 minutes that I am allowed. The hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) will understand if I do not follow the line that he took, but I warmly welcome the support expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Holland with Boston (Sir R. Body).
As the ban continues, not only does it become clearer and clearer that it is unwarranted, but it is beginning to appear more and more as simply an aspect of a trade war being conducted to the advantage of other parts of Europe. I agree with what my hon. Friend said about that, and also with what he said about the attitudes of some members of the Labour party in the 1970s. That was not a helpful period for farming and agricultural policy.
I welcome the Minister of State's clear statement. I also congratulate the intervention board, in my constituency, which has taken on extra staff to work late into the night to get the administrative details cleared up as quickly as possible. The whole House should recognise that fact.
1142 I shall raise two administrative problems, both of which I have written to the Minister about. The first concerns people who produce by-products. In my constituency is a company that treats animal stomachs, extracts the rennet enzymes and exports them. As a result of the crisis, it has had to close the factory and make 20 workers redundant. That is a great pity, and I know that the Minister understands the situation and has undertaken to investigate it. The point is that such people get no compensation of any kind. We have lost a valuable small scientific organisation, and there is little excuse for that.
My other concern is about an abattoir in a neighbouring constituency. When the approved list first came out, it was not included, but on Monday it was added to the list. The company reassured its staff, because it had been told that the abattoir would be able to continue in business. On Wednesday, the renderers—I know that that subject has come up before in the debate—told the company that they would not be able to accept any of its cull cattle for rendering. The company had long-standing contracts with the renderers, all of which are now cancelled. Now it does not know where it stands. There seems to be great confusion, which I hope the Minister will find a way of resolving.
On that note, I shall finish—well within the time limit, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
§ Mr. Michael J. Martin (Glasgow, Springburn)
Like the hon. Member for Reading, East (Sir G. Vaughan), I shall be brief. I too want to talk about a problem in my constituency, wherein lies the Glasgow meat market. I received a telephone call from a Mrs. Fyfe who, with six other operators in the Glasgow meat market, ran a head boners company. I cannot recall the exact date and do not have all the details with me, but, on a Thursday evening quite recently, the Scottish Office faxed Mrs. Fyfe and the other operators to tell her that she could no longer operate her business. She has run a company for more than 20 years and employed five to six people.
That lady has had to leave her business, stay at her home and lay off the workers who have been loyal to her. She has a very serious problem, which I ask the Minister to consider. The banks have tried to be understanding, but they want repayment of any overdrafts with interest. The Government cannot encourage people to set up small businesses and yet treat them in such a fashion. I know that the Minister will say that everyone cannot be compensated. Surely we must consider people who have operated legitimate businesses for over 20 years and caused no trouble to anyone, but who are told an a Thursday night that they must shut up shop and finish.
It is disgraceful that the Scottish Office Minister, Lord Lindsay, has written to the traders in that association and said that there is absolutely nothing that can be done for them. The irony is that Mrs. Fyfe was told by a Scottish Office official that, if she wants to, she can stay in business by buying and cutting meat from the Republic of Ireland or from France.
We are in a terrible situation when hon. Members and Ministers are saying that we have the best beef in the world, yet telling people that they cannot stay in business unless they buy products from France or from the Republic of Ireland. It is a scandal. There is a serious and immediate problem that the Minister must tackle. I hope 1143 that she will pass on my concern to the responsible Scottish Office officials, and tell them that men and women such as Mrs. Fyfe should be looked after in a proper manner.
§ 8.1 pm
§ Mr. Graham Riddick (Colne Valley)
The beef crisis is an utter disaster for the farming industry in general and for the beef industry in particular. There is no doubt about that at all; but let me tell the House that I am still eating beef—of course, only so long as it is British beef. I can also tell the House that, in the week that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health made his fateful statement to the House, my wife went out and bought a great piece of beef at our local butcher. It was delicious, and I am sure that it was perfectly safe to eat. We can all support the British beef industry by eating as much beef as we possibly can.
I should like to congratulate Asda on the patriotic and supportive move that it made yesterday, when it made it clear that it would sell only British beef. I regret that some Labour Members have not been as supportive of the industry as they might have been, and appear to have supported the European ban. The hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang) said in a press release on 22 March:a temporary cessation in the movement of British cattle, beef and beef products into the continent may be wise at this time.That is clearly very unhelpful, and I think that British farmers are entitled to say, "Thanks a lot."
On 3 April, I attended a dinner of 450 farmers, their families, butchers and other people associated with the meat trade. There was obviously enormous concern among those present. I made a speech and attempted to avoid making any party political points—[Interruption.] Yes; I avoided making any party political points during that speech. I must report to the House that one of the farmers who spoke referred to the irresponsible comments made in the House by the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman). There was real and genuine anger about her approach to the matter and her attempt to make party political capital out of the industry's misfortune. So it is fair to say that, as well as being unwelcome at a meeting of the Peckham branch of the National Union of Teachers, she would be unwelcome at any meeting of the National Farmers Union.
I suggested at that meeting on 3 April that the common agricultural policy was not in the best interests of British farmers, and I received a loud round of applause. I find it humiliating to see British Ministers and officials going cap in hand—or fedora on head—to Brussels, imploring our European partners to allow us to sell our beef abroad.
The British people have supported our membership of the European Union through the years because they believe in free trade in Europe and in co-operating with our European partners. Now, we discover that we have ceded powers to the EU that allow it to ban exports of our beef not only to other EU countries but, unbelievably, to the rest of the world as well. I have little doubt that European Agriculture Ministers' judgments and actions have been coloured by the potential benefits that they have seen for their home farming industries. That has, of course, backfired on them in practice, because their beef industries are suffering as much as or more than our own.
1144 I am dismayed at the failure of EU veterinarians at yesterday's meeting to lift the ban, even partially. The reality, of course, is that if a concession to Britain had been made yesterday, the main ban would still be in place today. Diplomacy has failed. Playing the game like English gentlemen has failed. If the EU does not lift the ban, particularly the worldwide ban, on the sale of British beef, I believe that we should stop all our transfer payments to the EU until such time as the situation has changed. If that suggestion is too strong for Ministers and for the Government, I make an alternative one. If the Government believe that the worldwide ban on sales of British beef is illegal, let us behave as if we believe that it is illegal and proceed as if it does not exist.
I should like to see the Government working to lift the ban in countries outside the European Union. To that end, I suggest that we should target those countries that have been good customers in the recent past. We should actively promote the sale of British beef to non-EU countries. We should advertise all the safety measures that we have taken to make British beef the safest in the world. I believe that we could generate some sales in non-EU countries, and the ball would then be in the court of the European Commission to take us to the European Court of Justice—if it dared to do that.
My message to my hon. Friend the Minister and to the Government is that we should be proactive in trying to counter this outrageous worldwide ban. I have been talking about exports. It is fair to point out that exporters of British beef believe that they should be included in the compensation scheme, because, as my hon. Friend the Minister of State said earlier in the debate, some shipments of British beef are being returned. Ministers clearly must consider that matter.
One interesting aspect of the BSE debate is that, at the time it blew up, we were told that the European Union would contribute about 70 per cent. of the costs of necessary measures, but that will not happen at all. The figures supplied to me by the Library show that, over the next three years, the cost of BSE counter-measures will be £2.4 billion, whereas the EU's net contribution will be £510 million, or 25 per cent., which is hardly the 70 per cent. or 80 per cent. that we were led to expect. The EU has, of course, craftily deducted much of the cost of BSE counter-measures from the UK's rebate.
We are all aware that there is a serious backlog in the culling programme. Other hon. Members have referred to the problems. The programme was slow to get off the ground, but the signs are that, this week, some progress has been made. I shall not dwell on the problems because I know that my hon. Friend the Minister and all the Agriculture Ministers, whom I do not criticise for a moment, are aware of the problems associated with the culling programme. It is a massive programme and there are bound to be problems when one tries to implement something of that sort in a short space of time.
One specific problem is that of slower maturing breeds such as Highland cattle, which reach their prime after 30 months. There is clearly an overwhelming case for making an exception to the 30-month limit for such cattle. My hon. Friend the Minister of State talked about consulting on that matter. It is not consultation that we need, but action. We all know that it is the right thing to do, so let us take some action on that front.
1145 A number of people within the meat processing industry have expressed concern to me that there is scope for some middlemen to make unreasonable profits by handling carcases being moved from abattoirs to renderers. That is something that Ministers also need to consider.
Lastly, the Government should reiterate at every opportunity that the various measures taken make British beef as safe as any beef in the world to eat. The incidence of CJD is as high in France, America and Holland as in Britain. An awful lot of the problem is about perception. Ironically, it would be in the interests of our European partners to lift the ban. That act in itself would boost public confidence in beef in all European countries. However, sadly, I am not confident that that will happen. In the meantime, I shall continue to eat British beef.
§ Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham)
It is perhaps odd for three Labour Members of Parliament from one borough to speak in one debate. It is the first time that the three Rotherham Members have spoken in a single debate. I enjoyed the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy), who dealt with some passion with the problems that the CAP presents. My hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) asked the Government to respond—I address my remarks here to the Minister—to the particular scandal of the CAP subsidy for tobacco production and, worse than that, for the massive export of the most dangerous form of tobacco to the third world.
One of the ironies of today's debate has been the attempt by Ministers to blame the Opposition for the crisis. We heard an example of that in the speech of the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Riddick). Here we have a Government who have been in office for 17 years and seek to blame everyone else under the sun because it ain't working and it certainly is hurting, as beef farmers can testify.
The signals have been clear. My borough of Rotherham banned beef months, if not a year or more, ago. So did Westminster council, which will normally undertake any measure to promote the Conservative cause. Where were Conservative Ministers when those initiatives were taken? I had handed to me not half an hour ago a parliamentary reply from the junior Agriculture Minister. I asked which countries had imposed a ban on British beef since 1987. The list included, as the Minister will know, the United States—our great ally. I wait for the calls for retaliation against America. It also included Saudi Arabia—that great source of finance for the Conservative party and the right hon. and learned Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor). I wait for calls for retaliation against Saudi Arabia. It also included Commonwealth countries such as Canada and Malaysia, and Switzerland—the favourite holiday destination of the former Prime Minister. What action are we taking against the non-EU Swiss? It even included Hong Kong, for God's sake, which belongs to us for another year. Are we going to fire Patten or tell him to import and buy British beef? That is the absurdity of this debate.
The Government knew for month after month and year after year that the crisis was coming, and they did nothing. Eventually the Secretary of State for Health made the 1146 correct announcement and the Minister of Agriculture responded. Of course, one could blame my hon. Friend the shadow Health Secretary and say that if she had said nothing, there would have been no crisis. Ministers and Conservative Members know how absurd that is. Since the moment when the crisis became a European and international crisis, nothing has happened.
The charge that I lay against the Government is one of a lack of imagination or sense of history. For thousands of years, when there has been a crisis, one has had to sacrifice animals. As the Bible tells us, Abraham had to do it. In a sense, what the Bible tells us is often valid for today. So dithery, so uncertain and so insecure is the hand on the tiller of state, the prime ministerial hand that guides our nation—he is eating his beef tonight with President Chirac and good luck to him—that nothing was done. If the Prime Minister had seized the crisis and understood it and if Ministers were not so inexperienced and incompetent and had forced the Cabinet to take action, perhaps we would not be where we are today.
I wish to set the crisis in the wider context of world agricultural development. There is good news for Britain and not necessarily bad news for Europe in what is happening around the world. We are entering a period of considerable demand for agricultural products. Socrates—that well-known new Labour philosopher—once remarked that the politician who does not know the price of a bushel of wheat has no business to be in politics.
§ Mr. MacShane
I will tell the hon. Gentleman, if he thinks that I can make a remark like that without checking what the price is. I am not a Conservative Member of Parliament, after all. The price of a bushel of wheat on the world market has doubled from some $3.50 to more than $7 in the past 12 months. The reason for that is that every Chinaman wants to eat pork. To produce a pound of pork one has to feed a pig 5 lb of grain. Across the world, there is an increasing demand for agricultural products produced here in the north—northern Europe and north America.
We should orientate our agricultural policy in such a way that we put Britain in pole position to take advantage of that. If we are to do that, we cannot stand alone. We shall require co-operation with our European partners. There, of course, the crisis hits home—the crisis not of beef, tragic as that is, but the crisis inside the Conservative party, with the rise to the fore of the Euro-phobes such as the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Thames (Mr. Lamont) and perhaps future hon. Member for Harrogate, and the right hon. Member for South Thanet and Saudi Arabia (Mr. Aitken), who now insist that we withdraw from Europe. The Euro-phobes are unwilling to understand that if we are to have a successful agricultural policy in Britain, we need a successful one for Europe.
If we are—as I hope—to enlarge the European Community, we shall have to work much harder to develop a successful agriculture policy. Some 24 per cent. of the active working population of Poland are farmers of one sort or another, such as small peasant farmers and smallholders. They want to sign up to the CAP, which they see as a wonderful meal ticket from the rest of western Europe. That will not work. The CAP needs 1147 reform but we cannot wipe out 24 per cent. of the working population of Poland overnight—Germany and Russia have both tried it. The House will not achieve it simply by proclaiming the necessary changes to reform the CAP and seeking to bring in those countries with a far higher proportion of their working population in agriculture than we have.
To enlarge Europe, the CAP must go and, for that, we must have a policy of co-operation with our European Union partners. It must be an opt-in policy, and not an opt-out policy. We need a policy that gets rid of the fraud and corruption to which Conservative Members have rightly referred. Our ruling party does not know whether it wants to be a part of Europe or not. Until the crisis of the failure of the ruling party in this country to co-operate in Europe is solved, we shall continue to flounder with an agriculture policy that does not make sense. The policy is reactive, has let down our people and has not served the interests of agriculture.
§ Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow)
The hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) spoke about the problems associated with tobacco in the European Union. I am sorry that he is not here to hear my comments, because he researched his subject very well and gave a lot of facts and figures about the injurious effect that tobacco undoubtedly—it has been proved—has on human health. However, he did not draw the obvious analogy between tobacco and beef. Beef has been banned by the European Community on the pretext that it has an injurious effect on human health, but there is not a shred of evidence that BSE causes CM. If the European Union wants to ban agricultural products because of their health implications, I suggest that it should, perhaps, have started with tobacco and left beef to the end.
In his opening speech, my hon. Friend the Minister of State made some reassuring remarks about the CAP. He cheered me, because I thought that there was much more realism in his comments about the CAP than has been evident during some of our previous debates, but even after the most radical and drastic reform, the CAP will continue to be bureaucratic, hugely expensive and wide open to fraud. If anyone doubts the truth of that, I invite them to study the history of the CAP since we joined. Every reform has increased the amount of bureaucracy, and, as every farmer knows, form filling. Every reform has increased the overall cost of the CAP to the taxpayer. Every reform, in my opinion, has made fraud the best paying crop of all.
Worst of all—this is a serious point for this Parliament in Westminster—there is little or nothing that the House can do about that. Opposition Members must realise that whether a motion on agriculture or fisheries is won or lost in this Chamber changes nothing. Parliament has no sovereignty in the matter. A fortnight ago, I invited my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of Agriculture to assert the sovereignty of this Parliament by ordering licences to be issued for the export of beef to non-EC countries. For reasons that I understand—and which I hope the House will begin to understand—he chose to avoid answering that question because the simple answer is that he does not have that power any longer.
Sovereignty passed from this Chamber to another place when we signed the treaty of Rome. Ministers know that—that is why my right hon. and learned Friend did 1148 not answer my question. Labour also knows that that is true, despite the fact that, for purely party political reasons, it is taunting the Government for failing to give the House an opportunity to vote on a substantive motion tonight.
Sadly, the public, farmers and fishermen are only now waking up to the fact that their elected representatives—their Members of Parliament—have no power or authority in these matters. Their votes are practically worthless. The only vote that counts is the one passed in secret in the Council of Ministers in Brussels.
I want now to concentrate on what can be done to improve the beef situation. I want to make suggestions that I hope my hon. Friend the Minister will recognise as being helpful and constructive. I want to refer, first, to the speech that I made in the House on 28 March, when I expressed concern aboutthe time scale against which some of the measures will be implemented."—[Official Report, 28 March 1996; Vol. 274, c. 1245.]I must tell my hon. Friend the Minister that those concerns have not lessened today.
There is an overwhelming sense of frustration in the industry that, until this very week, no significant movement of culled cattle through the system had taken place—and serious cash flow problems have developed. Complaints have been made about the lack of co-ordination and—particularly about the intervention board—a lack of co-operation. When she winds up, perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister will tell the House why, relatively speaking, so little British beef has gone into intervention.
May I respectfully suggest to my hon. Friend that, if her Department is finding it difficult to get things moving, it should consider delegating some of the responsibilities to the industry's own body, the Meat and Livestock Commission? The House will know that that body is fully representative of all sections of the industry, and it might appreciate an opportunity to do something positive for the industry that might dumbfound its critics.
Many right hon. and hon. Members have learned during the past eight weeks that the meat industry is more complicated than they realised. It has many more facets than people realised at the outset of the crisis. It is difficult for Ministers and civil servants to comprehend the full import of what has happened to the industry. By involving practitioners in the trade more closely, we could make progress more quickly, as is evidenced by the successful meeting that Ministers had yesterday with the Licensed Animal Slaughters and Salvage Association, as a result of which casualty cattle will be removed from farms tomorrow and the backlog will start to be reduced.
I wrote to my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of Agriculture on 30 March and 11 April to suggest that, among other things, we take certain measures that put British beef beyond reproach. First, I would like to recommend that beef subsidies should in future be concentrated on specialist beef herds. It is wrong for beef subsidies to be paid to a by-product of the dairy industry, and Ministers will be as aware as anyone how difficult it has been to explain to the general public that beef does not come from cows. If we made a greater attempt to emphasise the importance of the specialist beef herds and gave them all possible help, that would help build up a sound industry for the future.
1149 I recommend that Ministers support the EU hormone ban. I know that, previously, they have not done so, and I understand why, but we have gone beyond the point where science alone is sufficient to restore public confidence. It would be commendable to join our European partners in that ban.
As animal proteins have been banned from animal feeding stuffs, we should ban the use of mechanically recovered meat in meat products for human consumption. If that means that Brussels paté, for example, disappears from supermarket shelves, so be it.
I recommend that culled livestock be slaughtered in designated abattoirs. My hon. Friend the Minister said that the action of Somerfield was regrettable. I take the opposite view. I believe that it was right, because it is the customer. In my parlance, the customer is right. It has also, sensibly, established a meaningful audit trail to the source of its meat. That will go a long way to restore public confidence. It would be a great mistake to underestimate the contribution that major retailers can make to the restoration of public confidence. We should congratulate companies such as Wimpy and Asda on declaring their confidence in British beef and urge other retailers to follow their commendable example.
§ Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian)
As ever, I must declare my interest as a partner in a family farming business. However, my main interest is that of the 68,000 electors of my constituency who all consume food—I hope they are still consuming beef—and the 200-odd farmers there.
There is much that I would like to say, and which should be said, about the details and principles of the CAP, but like other hon. Members I shall concentrate on the beef crisis. Briefly, the CAP is expensive and riddled with absurdities ranging from the set-aside scheme to the £800 million annual subsidy for the production of tobacco to poison our citizens.
The CAP has signally failed to safeguard rural employment in the European Community. Far too often, it funds a higher standard of living for bigger farmers who should, theoretically, use the money for employing people on their farms—but that frequently does not happen. That is why there is rampant unemployment in rural constituencies. We must move away from production subsidies and concentrate on incentives to employ people in the countryside and to protect the rural environment. I say that as a loyal and long-standing enthusiast for the European Union, unlike the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill).
I am bitterly disappointed to have to return to the House to discuss, again, the BSE crisis. Like the hon. Member for Ludlow, I took part in the debate on 28 March. I thought that the House gave the Minister of Agriculture a clear direction to face up to his responsibilities to the UK beef industry, and to consumers at home and abroad, by taking all necessary steps to restore confidence in beef by making absolutely certain that any meat product that could be contaminated with BSE is kept off the market 1150 and by implementing policies to eradicate the disease from the British cattle herd. We also called for an effective emergency programme to support the industry.
That was seven weeks ago, but we are little further forward. People are still worried about the possible connection between BSE and CJD. More local authorities—including, sadly, my local authority—have stopped serving beef in school dinners. More evidence has emerged about the sloppy enforcement of feed controls in recent years. The implementation of the slaughter scheme for cattle over 30 months old has been shambolic. We are still waiting for proper access to the intervention system to clear the logjam of cattle and carcases. The European Union ban is still in force.
The situation was critical seven weeks ago, but it is worse now. The 600,000 jobs in the UK beef industry are in dire peril, and many have already gone. It is bad enough that the Government failed to take BSE seriously when it was first discovered in 1986, but it is downright intolerable that they are making such slow progress now that we have a full-scale crisis. Their attitude is neatly summarised by the foolish car sticker slogan, which was probably drafted by the hon. Member for Ludlow or his friends, that said:Stuff the EU—eat British beef".Such people are under the happy illusion that the collapse of the mainland European market for beef was caused by the ban on the import of British beef. The British Government have been stuffing the EU for years with vetoes, opt-outs and idiotic abuse. There was always a risk that that would provoke retaliation. I fear that that is exactly what is happening. The export ban is not the fundamental problem, but a result of the fundamental problem, which is the lack of consumer confidence in beef following the announcement by the Secretary of State for Health that BSE and CJD may be connected.
As other hon. Members have said, many countries' bans predate the EU export ban. Our allies, the United States, banned British beef months ago. Russia, Libya and all manner of other countries have banned it, and that had nothing to do with the EU ban. The market for beef in Italy, France and Germany has collapsed even with the ban on British beef imports. There is no guarantee that the situation would not get worse in those markets if the ban were lifted before everyone is confident that the Government have got their act together controlling BSE in Britain. Commissioner Fischler acknowledged that when he stated publicly that he was confident about the safety of British beef, but he defended the ban because of the risk of making things worse in the market.
All the blustering about trade wars and litigation in the European court misses the point. We cannot force people in Germany, Italy, France, America, Russia, Libya or anywhere else to eat British beef, but we can and should take effective steps to convince them that our beef is a high-quality product from extensive farms with the highest welfare and husbandry standards and that we have taken all necessary steps to remove any health risk from BSE. As a Scot, since we have had only 70 cases of BSE in Scotland this year, I say that it should be comparatively easy to complete the job in Scotland and Northern Ireland so that we can give those assurances to people both at home and abroad. That is how to begin to work our way out of this mess.
1151 In passing, I may say that if Scotland had had its own Parliament with direct control over the devolved powers of the Scottish Office Agriculture, Environment and Fisheries Department, it would have been open to us to take much more urgent action in view of the importance of the beef sector to the Scottish economy. All the 21,500 jobs that depend on that sector are at risk. Just as the Irish Republic has virtually eradicated BSE by taking drastic action to control feed standards and cattle movements, a Scottish administration within the UK could have adopted similar policies. That is hypothetical, but it shows what could have been achieved in the nations and regions of a decentralised Britain.
Meanwhile, we are left with the legacy of the Minister of Agriculture and his recent predecessors. My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang) spoke about the deplorable under-enforcement of BSE controls in slaughterhouses and rendering plants and the lackadaisical approach to feed controls in general before March. That procrastination over many years by the Government led directly and inexorably to the present crisis. Only now, as we face a full-scale disaster, have the Government started to implement the controls effectively and to give proper priority to research.
In conclusion, this has been a disgraceful story of neglect that has probably created, and certainly aggravated, a serious cattle disease and, worse, may have caused a human health risk. It has brought an important industry to the brink of disaster in the United Kingdom. As ever, however, no one in the Government is prepared to accept responsibility. The Government are not even prepared to face a vote on a substantive motion on the issue in the House tonight. They are shirking their responsibility, and I submit that the House has a duty to hold them to account.
§ Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater)
I join the hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) in declaring an interest as a partner in a family farm, which happens to have no cattle on it, but which I hope gives me a certain qualification to speak in the debate.
First, I must echo what the hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) said, because this is a debate about the common agricultural policy. Without doubt, the CAP has changed significantly from the state that it was in five years ago. One of the most remarkable developments has been the disappearance of surpluses and the change in world prices. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is right, and it is due to the conversion of the Chinese to eating pork and drinking beer—China has been a substantial export market for British malting barley—or whether it is due to global warming. Whatever the cause may be, many people I know hold the view that the original concept of the CAP—to protect the security of supply of food for Europe—may be taking on meaning again as the world of surpluses now seems unlikely.
One of the interesting comments in this debate was made by my right hon. and learned Friend yesterday. He said that, when he became Minister of Agriculture, he recognised that it was a good time to become Minister of Agriculture. As we know, a week is a long time in politics, and other things can happen. Undoubtedly, of all the industries in which the feel-good factor—a phrase I hate—existed, it was justified in agriculture. There was a 1152 revival in investment and in purchases. The whole infrastructure of agriculture has been transformed, with the possible exception of the pig industry and poultry. Otherwise, agriculture was generally in a happy state and faced encouraging prospects. Then we had this drama.
I note that the hon. Member for Rotherham, as a journalist, managed to write the Daily Mirror out of the script for its contribution to provoking the crisis. Although hon. Members and the Government are pretty inured to the concept of leaks, that newspaper bears a heavy responsibility for the front-page story it ran, which provoked a statement from my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister and the situation that we now face. I know what some right hon. and hon. Members would have said if a Minister had not come to the Dispatch Box that day after the leak.
The situation that we now face is serious. I agreed with the hon. Member for Monklands, East (Mrs. Liddell) when she said that it was too serious to try to make party political points out of it. I think that she lost that page of her speech as she moved on, but she was right to say so and should have stuck to it.
The situation is tough and the Government made it their first responsibility to try to save the industry and ensure that it survives. It is with no pleasure that I must say that, if some of the associated activities and industries suffer, at least if the industry survives they will have an opportunity to return, and such activities will be able to resume. There is no way that that could have been avoided unless we were prepared to underwrite a massive expenditure programme. The hon. Member for Monklands, East said that the Government were adopting some sort of free-market approach to the problem. I understand that the extra public expenditure is likely to be not less than £1 billion a year. That seems a strange version of a free-market solution.
We must fight, and I support my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister to the hilt in his noble efforts to try to get the unfair ban lifted in Europe. I am realistic, however, and I recognise that it could be tough and that it could take some time. We have to face up to the problem and ensure that our industry is protected.
The hon. Member for Monklands, East referred to the quality of Scotch beef, to which I pay tribute as well as to Somerset beef and any other beef that she would like to mention. When the ban is lifted, we must ensure that we still have an industry to take advantage of it. In that respect, it has been disappointing to see how slowly the disposal programme has got under way. I recognise the scale of the problem. It is the largest slaughter programme ever launched in this country and it is terribly easy for Back Benchers to say that it ought to be done more quickly—or for the Opposition to say so. That is what Oppositions always say.
I recognise how hard my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister and my hon. Friends the Minister of State and the Parliamentary Secretary in particular have worked, and I pay tribute to the way in which they have listened and tried to help. The steps that they have taken have been helpful.
There was a problem with the four-week period for top-up payments, which has been recognised and the period has been extended. I am also glad that my right hon. and learned Friend is fighting hard to get an extension of the 30-month rule for slower maturing 1153 breeds, which is important. The announcement of an advance payment for cattle that are not yet able to go for slaughter is exceptionally helpful and will assist the cash flow of farmers.
This is a major programme, and there are continuing difficulties. It was slow to start. An auctioneer in my constituency has been on to me tonight about the problems. I am grateful for the help that I have received with Bridgwater Beef—an abattoir that faced some difficult problems. There will continue to be problems. Farmers have shown exceptional sense and an understanding of the problems. In the main, they have kept calm. Some people tried to stir them up, which is not to their credit. Farmers have shown themselves to be more sensible than that.
Farmers should realise, however, that we are not yet through the problems, which will go on for the next week or two. Thank God it is raining tonight. That is perhaps the most significant agricultural fact that I can advance to the House, because the rain will help. I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister will get permission for grazing on set-aside for farmers who have to hold cattle for longer than they normally would. As the problems continue, we must continue to listen and try to help.
Finally, on the machinery of government, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is arguably the smallest Ministry and it is the least capable of gearing up to a substantial extra problem. I was Secretary of State at the Department of the Environment, which is a huge Department. Those who face problems at such a Department can draft people in from other Departments. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is not staffed to cope with extra problems. It is right that Ministries should not be fat with staff—they should be lean and efficiently run—but if we are to keep a Ministry of Agriculture, which I support, there must be arrangements when a problem strikes that enable it to be reinforced. I say that also to Ms on the Opposition Front Bench, if they should ever face such a problem.
I have one suggestion, which may be a little radical. It is no good merely drafting in clerical workers. We need people of a higher grade. I wonder whether my right hon. and learned Friend has considered recruiting some of the recently retired senior staff, and perhaps even one or two recently retired Ministers and junior Ministers with experience of that Department, who could cope with the additional problems.
The hon. Member for Monklands, East complained about the absence of one Minister today, but he was dealing with a fisheries problem with a Norwegian Minister. That is the point—when additional problems and challenges arise, there must be a way to reinforce staff so that the Ministry can give an industry that is vital to our economy the service that it deserves as it faces a challenge of exceptional difficulty and complexity. That is not a political point, but a serious point of administration and organisation. In that way, if we all work together, we will see our industry through to happier times.
§ Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)
First, I must tell the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) that I hope that we keep the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries 1154 and Food, but I do not want that Ministry also to be responsible for food protection. That is one of the problems that we have encountered recently. We need a Ministry to look after the interests of consumers in the food industry, not merely those of producers. We need to remove the Ministry's marked slant towards producers, not consumers. I hope that Labour Front Benchers will make such an announcement before the next general election.
Like others, I have an interest to declare. I speak on behalf of the lowland farmers of Newham. [Laughter.] I know that people think that that is a silly comment, but those who know my constituency know that large numbers of cattle wander on Wanstead flats. What will happen to those cattle? Will they be dragged into the scheme and slaughtered? It is a type of rural idiocy that we have in my part of east London that we very much value, and I am very worried about the welfare of those cattle.
There is something unreal about the debate, not only because of the paucity of hon. Members present and the fact that there may not be a Division at the end after two days.
§ Mr. Banks
My hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr. Hain) says that there will be. We might have to put tellers in. The Government may have decided that they cannot win this one and do not want to expose splits on their own side so, if they cannot win the war—and we will not accept a truce—they will withdraw from the field and allow the vote to go through. As they see it, it will look ludicrous if we win by an enormous margin. That is not the way to address something like the problems of the CAP.
The CAP sits at the heart of the European Union. We should be debating the CAP very seriously, but the debate has been sidetracked into the subject of BSE, so we are missing out a real discussion about the CAP. What I find unreal about the debate is that Britain's future role in the European Union has come down to a matter of meat—of beef. That is what we are talking about. It is the CAP or BSE equals the EU. It is nonsense. The future of this country in the European Union is the most important issue that faces us, but all we do is squabble about BSE and the CAP. It is nonsense.
Some of us are looking at the wider horizons, looking at things in the round, looking at the great potential that exists in the European Union and our potential for playing our full part in it, moving towards what I want, which is a united states of Europe. I want to see a European Government. All those things—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. The subject for the debate is the CAP. If the hon. Gentleman does not wish to speak on that matter, he should choose a different evening.
§ Mr. Banks
I accept that. I am not trying to speak on this matter. All that I am saying is that the whole matter of the European Union in this country seems to come down to the common agricultural policy. That is the point. It is absurd, and it means that we are missing the real issues.
1155 We end up discussing something like the CAP, which is nonsense. It is discrediting the whole principle of the European Union. It is unacceptable how farmers dominate proceedings in the House regarding so much affecting the European Union.
I am not against farmers—my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) is a fanner, and I am sure that he is a very good one—but I am fed up with the fact that Agriculture Question Time is like farmers' question time. Members of Parliament—mostly Conservative Members—jump up and defend, not consumers, but themselves, because they are farmers. They do not declare their interest.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) will say a few words shortly. I did not notice many Conservative Members defending miners—presumably because there are no miners on the Conservative Benches and it was left to us to defend them—but farmers always seem to attract concern. We always have to worry about farmers. I know we need food, but why should farmers be treated differently from any other group of workers?
§ Mr. Mark Robinson
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I spoke about the CAP; why cannot the hon. Gentleman? I do not really think he is talking on the subject.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. When the hon. Gentleman talked about the cattle on the lowland flats of Wanstead, he was entirely in order. That seemed to me central to his speech, and if he would embellish that further it would be to the benefit of the House.
§ Mr. Banks
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for that defence of my position on behalf of the farmers of Newham.
The CAP is indeed about farmers. Set-aside is about the CAP. That is about farmers. We did not say to the miners, "Okay, you can keep your jobs. You do not have to mine any coal, but here are your wages." We say to farmers, "You can have set-aside not to grow anything." That is nonsense and makes the CAP an even more ridiculous institution than it already is.
Fifty per cent. of the European Union budget goes to farmers, whether in Spain, Italy or France. Why do we have to be so concerned about them? No doubt their political vote concerns the politicians. That is what it comes down to. The Conservative party is the party of farmers—not farm workers, but farmers—and I find that unacceptable.
Many hon. Members have spoken tonight about BSE. Years ago, people like me were jumping up in the House and saying, "There is something wrong here. We should not be feeding ruminants animal protein." We do not need scientists to tell us that there is something wrong there. Nature did not devise, structure and evolve those creatures to eat animal protein; something was bound to happen.
I believe that there is enough circumstantial evidence to say that there is a link between BSE and CJD, and it is no good all these Ministers saying that there is nothing to worry about. There was bound to be a panic when two Secretaries of State made statements on the same subject on one day. No one was reassured. No one believes a word these Ministers say these days. They cannot possibly 1156 restore confidence because they are not the sort of people that we can have any confidence in, and consumers in this country clearly do not.
How come that taxpayers are now expected to bail out the farmers and the slaughterhouse people and, it seems to me, the cattle cake manufacturers? Why cannot we sue someone for this? We have been poisoned by people who have interfered with nature. They fed animals animal protein, and should not have done so. If this had been a pharmaceutical company instead of a cattle cake company or set of companies, we would have been able to go to court and get substantial compensation. Sue, Grabbit and Run would be out there, ensuring that we got money back for the injuries that we have had to suffer. I find it absurd that all we talk about is how the taxpayer can bail out all these people who made loads of money and took decisions that were an affront against nature and have brought the problems that confront us today.
What about the cattle? I seem to be the only person in the House who asks that. Everyone is saying that we cannot get the cattle to the slaughterhouses and to the renderers fast enough. What about the cattle? The poor devils have given of their best, especially those cows that gave us milk and cheese, and what happens to them now? Off they go to the slaughterhouse, and there they go down to the incinerator. What a terrible thing to happen.
I wish they could cull some Conservative Members. I would like to see some of them go down to the abattoirs and the renderers, although I do not know what good will come of them even if we put them through the renderers, because nothing in their composition is useful to any human being. That is how I see it.
I have received a letter from the Hindus of Newham. [Laughter.] Hon. Members suppose that to be funny, but the cow is sacred to the Hindus of India. They have asked the British Government to consider sending the cattle to India, and they are prepared to pay to help them do so. What discussions have taken place with the Indian Government to see whether that sort of measure can be arranged? That is the sort of thing that we should be doing. We should show concern for the consumers and we should also show concern for the cattle, instead of trying to get rid of them all. Let us have some compassion in the House, for God's sake—it is about time.
§ Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Hastings and Rye)
We are nearing the end of our two-day debate on the common agricultural policy. We have squabbled about beef, but we have not squabbled about the common agricultural policy—we all agree that it needs to be reformed, and some good ideas on how it should be reformed have been put forward. I shall raise some issues that affect farmers and people who buy meat in my constituency.
I thank my hon. Friends the Ministers for their hard work in relation to the beef crisis—I know that it has been time consuming and exhausting. In a previous occupation, I negotiated with the European Community and I know that nothing happens quickly or simply. There has been a move towards lifting the ban on gelatine, tallow and semen, which is significant. I wish my hon. Friends further success and I hope that next week we see further movement towards lifting the beef ban.
I thank my hon. Friends the Ministers for the help that they are giving to the farmers, who have been faced with real pressures and problems. They will welcome the 1157 top-up payment. Yesterday, the farmers who came to lobby me said that they felt that there was significant pressure on them, and I know that they will be grateful that the Government have announced this payment.
I urge the Minister to negotiate hard in relation to being allowed to feed the 30-month cattle on set-aside. That seems to be a sensible solution to this problem at a time when we are desperately short of feed. Over the summer, we will have tremendous problems feeding our cattle and sheep.
We should not continue to feed cattle bone meal—however, the effect of taking it out of their feed will be an increase in the price of feed and, therefore, an increase in the price of beef. That is a long-term problem that the fanning industry will have to address.
As a result of this crisis, we have all learned considerably more about the meat industry than we wished to know. We have learned that the rendering industry is a monopoly. It may be that the Office of Fair Trading and the Monopolies and Mergers Commission have not taken an interest in the rendering industry because it is worth only £100 million to £150 million and they look at larger industries.
It seems to me that the rendering industry is behaving in a monopolistic way, which has not helped us to bring in quickly the systems that are needed to deal with the cull policy. Perhaps we should refer the industry to the MMC because whenever a monopoly exists, it is a good capitalist belief that it should not be allowed to continue to exist.
I refer to the effect of the BSE crisis on the consumer. I have a significant number of small, high-quality butchers in my constituency. I got a terrible shock the other day when I bought a leg of lamb and it cost me £22. I learned that the cost of lamb has doubled—it has increased from between £2.20 to £2.40 a pound to between £4.50 to £4.80 a pound. Pork—a cyclical meat, which we would expect to be coming down in price—is maintaining its price. The price of beef is increasing and only the expensive cuts are being sold: fillets, steak and sirloin. The cheaper cuts of beef are not being sold: mince and stewing steak. They are the cuts that will produce a good and cheap meal. The price of chicken has increased also. Therefore, the cost of living has increased for families on a tight budget.
Many people will have to be re-educated when the crisis is over. I was interested to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) refer favourably to the Meat and Livestock Commission, as farmers in my constituency are usually critical of that organisation. However, I believe that it will have a role to play in due course in re-educating people about using economical cuts of meat.
I turn briefly to the question of common agricultural policy reform. The farming in my area is mixed: we have a lot of fruit, sheep and beef farming and a little dairy farming. Animal feed is grown upon some arable land and there is a little potato farming. We must consider how an area such as that will be affected by the accession of the central European countries to the European Union.
Historically, Poland was known as the breadbasket of Europe. If it reverts to its historic role—there is no reason why it should not—it will have a tremendous effect on 1158 temperate production in northern Europe. Poland and the other countries also grow fruit, which will directly affect producers in my constituency. For example, the blackcurrant growers have been affected already. Although it is a tiny industry, those producers derive vital income from it.
Before we admit the central European countries to the European Union, we must put in place some form of agricultural policy—we cannot do without any—that addresses those issues. We cannot negotiate the terms after the countries are admitted: we must settle them now. We must take account of issues such as the fruit and vegetable regime. At present, fruit farmers in my constituency are competing against farmers on the continent who grow for intervention because their co-operative system is different from ours. Therefore, we have a false market in fruit which adversely affects our brilliant fruit farmers.
We must also decide whether set-aside should be regarded as a social payment. The common agricultural policy was introduced in order to keep people on the land—there is general agreement about that. If we wish to continue that policy—set-aside is a way of keeping people on the land—we must decide whether it should be regarded as a social rather than an agricultural payment.
I believe that we should move towards extensive farming—although many of my farmers went adrift because they farmed their beef extensively. Extensive farming leads to a more considered management of the countryside. Agriculture is viewed not simply in the context of the farming industry but as a way of managing delicate and sensitive areas, such as sites of special scientific interest, in which the farmers are particularly interested.
I have made several suggestions for reforming the common agricultural policy and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will take them on board.
§ 9.8 pm
§ Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)
The debate about the common agricultural policy is another in a long series of debates about the Common Market. We have been a member of the Common Market for just over 23 years and we are reaching a point when, as well as becoming frayed at the edges, the contradictions within it are beginning to affect its very centre. The common agricultural policy is central to the Common Market. I shall not dwell on that point, but it is important to make it.
We must find ways of developing the farming industry in this country—which has a relatively poor climate for growing many things—so that we do not have to import too much food. The ratio of imports to exports is about 50:50 now, and it might be even worse than that. To keep down the balance of payments and replace the manufacturing industry that we have lost, we have to find a method—whether in the Common Market or out of it—to ensure the food that we grow can be compared with some of the food from other countries where it is easier to grow such food.
I grew up during the war, when intervention was necessary. It was vital to dig for victory on every plot of land and there were no set-aside schemes when I was a kid.
§ Mr. Skinner
Yes, we dug up the marshes and that is probably why there are cattle in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks).
Farming in Britain has had little or nothing to do with market forces. It is easy to farm in a climate in which plants grow more easily, but in this country, traditionally, farming has been about intervention, planning and ensuring that we grow as much as we can so as not to have to import so much.
We may reach a stage when we need a deficiency payment system in Britain, if we get out of the Common Market, or even if we stay in. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Stevenson) said earlier, we may need a top-up scheme from the Common Market under which funds must be matched, as in the regional funds. That is a possibility if we stay in, but we certainly cannot farm successfully under market forces.
There is a strange anomaly about some of the people who have contributed to the debate during the past two days and on other occasions. The right-wing Euro-sceptic Tories, who believe in the function of market forces per se, are the very people who represent farming interests and are somehow blind to the idea that we need to subsidise agriculture.
In the mining industry, we lived cheek by jowl with the farming industry. Every pit village is surrounded by 20 fields of small, not big farmers. Big farmers get about 80 per cent. of Common Market subsidies. Even the royal family gets about £500,000 a year from set-aside schemes. I have said that now, Mr. Deputy Speaker, so you cannot stop me. I have not named them, but I could.
As a miner, I had to work against geological difficulties to combat mother nature, and in many ways farmers deal with the same kind of problems. The farmers did not work in a factory, or in a closed environment, and nor did the miners. We miners could lose a whole seam of coal and farmers could have rain when they did not want it. So, in a small way, I am able to understand many of the farmers' problems.
I start from the principle, whether we are in or out of the Common Market, that if we want to have a decent farming industry, we must intervene and plan. I listened to the farmers who took part in the lobby yesterday. Most of them said, in their own vernacular, that it is time for a change. I say that because it is important for the Government to understand it. I spoke to hundreds of farmers yesterday who said, in so many words, that it is time for a change. When I was first elected in Bolsover, the farmers painted the grass blue. They do not do that any more, because they understand the way in which some of us tackle their problems.
As for this crisis, I do not think that it can really be laid at the door of a member of Labour's Front Bench. I remember the day. I come in here nearly every day. I listened to two Ministers—not one, but two. That is the way to start a crisis. Some of us demand statements from Ministers every day, but we do not get them. But along come a Government, without being prompted, with two Ministers. I looked at the monitor and I saw the names of two Ministers. I thought, "Well, obviously, they are going to talk about two different subjects." But they were not; they were talking about the same subject. So, please do not come with this nonsense about blaming the 1160 Opposition Front Bench for creating this crisis or, even, for that matter, some reporter from the Daily Mirror. I will buy a lot of things, but I ain't buying that.
The Government prompted the issue and startled the nation by sticking on two Ministers, one after the other. I had to decide which one to tackle because I thought that Madam Speaker probably would not allow me to get in twice. That is how it began. We all know the background to it. We might as well understand it. Ministers should understand that, despite all the little nuances that they might apply, the truth is that it has been a battle of philosophies as between regulation, deregulation, market forces or intervention. That is at the bottom of it.
As I said earlier, a farming industry cannot operate on the basis that market forces can reign supreme. It is not possible. What happened was that because of the Thatcherism of the day the Government had to go down the road of deregulation in an industry that should have been the last one that they touched. The net result is that a lot of people made a lot of money, and now the nation's health is suffering as a result.
A lot more could be said, but I just want to say that I have been discussing the matter with some people from my area today. A fellow there has an abattoir that can kill 200 cows. He thinks, "Well, you know, there's a crisis. I suppose that I shall be having to kill some. Johnny Moore down the road has 60 cattle and he needs them killed straight away because he is on the verge of bankruptcy." He assumes that he is on the list of abattoirs, but suddenly he is not on the list any more. He has been taken off. One of the officials asked him whether he was a member of the federation. Apparently, the federation—some kind of cartel of abattoirs—is keeping the little abattoirs out. That is totally wrong. I have been on to the Minister's parliamentary private secretary today because there is obviously a monopoly here.
I get the clear impression that my constituent, Ben Elliot, will not be able to deal with the problem, even though we have only one abattoir on the list which is in Buxton. We always regard Buxton as being nearly in Manchester. We want to know whether it is true that the federation is a kind of freemasonry. Are we saying that no one like Ben Elliot can have a chance to deal with the problem? Should not the Government be clamouring to get such people to kill the cows instead of driving them away? This is important. A lot of cattle will be killed in the crisis. Then what will happen? When the crisis is over, a lot of little abattoirs will have closed down. They will have gone. I hope that the Minister can assure me that that will not be the case.
§ Mr. Elliot Morley (Glanford and Scunthorpe)
We welcome the debate, even in the neutered form in which it has been presented to us by the Government. It has been overshadowed by the BSE issue and the measures that the Government are bringing in to deal with the slaughter programme, and that is understandable. It is also understandable that so many hon. Members have spoken today and expressed concern on behalf of their beef farmers because of the shambolic way in which the measures have so far been introduced.
I shall return to the BSE issue because it is so important, but first I want to discuss the CAP, which we have debated today. The CAP is important for farmers, 1161 taxpayers and consumers—we did not hear too much about them today—and it is important in terms of conservation and land management. The scheme is expensive, costing nearly £3 billion in this country alone. Its cost has increased by 74 per cent. in cash terms since 1992–93. It accounts for half the European Union budget, yet it supports less than 6 per cent. of the European work force. In that respect, it can hardly be described as cost-effective.
We have heard some excellent criticisms of the policy from my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes), my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks), who mentioned animal welfare, my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), who mentioned the problems of his local farmers, my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane), who spoke of the effect on world trade, my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson), who referred to his own local farmers, my hon. Friends the Members for Pendle (Mr. Prentice), for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Stevenson) and for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron), and my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy), who also spoke of the appalling outdoor slaughter of sheep in Paris. As the Minister knows, some of the sheep that were slaughtered in those fields came from Britain, and it appears that they arrived with forged certificates. I hope that the Ministry will investigate that.
There is no doubt that the CAP is urgently in need of reform. We agree with what Ministers have said about that during our two-day debate, although our views may diverge on other issues. Farm income has indeed been strong over the past few years in some agricultural sectors, notably the arable sector. As the Minister of State pointed out, that has provided an opportunity for reform. Labour has long supported a move to decouple support payments from production payments, as have such bodies as the NFU and the CLA, which have produced sensible and constructive policy papers.
We want reform based on clear yearly targets for a reduction in arable support, linked to a reduction in compulsory set-aside to allow farmers to increase production as their support falls. We want the European Union to give notice that quotas will end, and that there will be a move towards a free market. We want a phased reduction in other support payments, with clear indications for the industry so that it can plan ahead. As part of those changes, we want the support that is currently provided for agriculture to be shifted towards environmental support schemes and agri-environmental programmes.
There is considerable scope for that. In particular, there is scope for schemes to encourage the return of farmland birds, whose numbers are declining—as has been highlighted in the current campaign by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds—and mammals such as the brown hare, whose numbers have been drastically reduced in recent years.
We support moves by the Agriculture Commissioner Franz Fischler, who favours what he calls the "evolution" of the CAP. Apparently, "radical reform" is too difficult a concept for the European Union to support; it prefers to use the word "evolution". We are prepared to support that, and, in particular, Franz Fischler's idea that the CAP will 1162 evolve in a way that will enable it to support the wider rural community in employment, social and environmental terms. Given the effect of BSE on that wider community, there is a stronger case for providing more general support for rural enterprise and rural communities.
It is true that the pig sector has benefited from the current beef scare, and that has been good news for many of my constituents who are pig farmers. The horticulture sector has not done quite so well, however. Those sectors are not subsidised within the CAP regime; they compete commercially, and survive on efficiency and the quality of their products. They deserve support. One way in which they can be supported without the market intervention that has distorted the CAP is through research and development, and backing from bodies such as the Horticulture Research Institute. The industry is very concerned about, for instance, the prior options review, which it sees as a preparation for privatisation.
The Agricultural Development Advisory Service has done excellent work in the farming community, especially in relation to—this is very topical—the veal demonstration unit, which we discussed in Committee not long ago, its scientists, research and development and bodies such as the state veterinary service. It is wrong that, when there are concerns about BSE, the service should be facing cuts in its budget. That is somewhat irresponsible. Given the changes that are coming in the agriculture sector, it is wrong that bodies such as ADAS should be destabilised.
I want to deal with some of the points raised by the hon. Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce) on BSE's origins. I am sorry that he is not in his seat because he would not allow me to intervene in his speech. I said that I would deal with these points and I am a bit sorry to do so, because I did not want to return to the origins of BSE and who was to blame for it. The hon. Gentleman was saying that it had nothing to do with deregulation in the early 1980s.
Hon. Members who have considered the research paper—as usual, well presented by the Library—will note that, in 1979, the then Labour Government proposed to introduce a measure to tighten processing plants.
§ Mr. Morley
Indeed it was. I do not disagree with that. Salmonella was the main reason for the measure. BSE did not exist at that time. The measure was not, however, just about salmonella. Regulations were proposed to ensure thatthe method of processing was sufficient to destroy all organisms".Those detailed regulations specified the construction and operational requirements that feed mills would have to meet to obtain a licence. Obviously, those requirements would have been tight, but they would have helped to stop cross-contamination, which arose in later years.
As we know, those measures were not introduced by the Government. They introduced lesser measures in their order in 1981. For the benefit of the hon. Member for South Dorset, I should like to read what the Government said in their consultative document at that time:The new proposals reflect the wish of Ministers that in the present economic climate the Industry should itself determine how best to produce a high-quality product, and that the role of 1163 Government should be restricted to prescribing a standard for the product and to enforcing observance of that standard. Ministers take the view that this simpler approach would have the incidental advantage of enabling the Industry to prepare for more stringent measures which might have to be taken at some future date.That was the root of the problem. That, basically, is a concept of deregulation—that is what it is all about; that is where the problem stems from.
I wanted to make that clear because I want to deal with the serious issues of the ban, of getting it lifted now and of ensuring that the measures that are being introduced work properly. On the longer-term issue of how BSE appeared, the hon. Member for Holland with Boston (Sir R. Body) made some important points about the intensification of the cattle sector, how the feed system changed and how that was brought in.
The priority, therefore, is to get the ban lifted. Labour Members accept that. We accept that there is no justification for the European Union continuing the ban on gelatine, tallow and semen exports. That should be lifted as soon as possible.
As has been mentioned in the debate, the idea that in some way the European Union is responsible for the crisis in the beef industry is just not true. Those who think that just lifting the ban will solve all the problems are extremely naive. This is an issue of credibility and of the Government's credibility, which has been stretched with the implementation of the disposal programme.
Farmers have been incredibly patient. We accept that introducing such a disposal programme takes time, but the Government's main excuse for the problems that they have experienced and for those on which farmers lobbied the House of Commons yesterday is that the disposal is limited by the rendering sector. That is absolutely true, and we would not disagree with it. Yet the Government have always been aware of the rendering sector's capacity.
When the Government first announced the scheme, there was a provisional list of about 40 slaughterhouses. After that, it appeared that only 21 would be in operation. Many of the slaughterhouses on the original provisional list were suddenly off it. At the beginning of the debate yesterday, the number of slaughterhouses suddenly rose to 44, according to the letter circulated by the Minister of Agriculture.
Debates such as this are very useful, whether on fishing or agriculture. We usually get a few extra million pounds out of the Government in fishing debates. During this debate, it appears that we have got an extra 20 slaughterhouses out of them. So we certainly seem to have had some effect.
There are still anomalies in the working of the scheme, and we have heard examples in the debate. Some of the slaughterhouses that have contacted my office to describe their experiences have complained. For example, a slaughterhouse in Yorkshire was on the provisional list and was then told that it was off it. That slaughterhouse has access to an adjacent incinerator that can deal with 150 animals a day. There might be a problem with incineration capacity and it could be a difficulty for the Government. Yet, at this stage at least, that slaughterhouse has not been included in the scheme, despite its access to incineration facilities, which would be very useful.
People from Vines abattoir in East Sussex tell me that the abattoir is 300 yd away from the local cattle market. What is more, they say that they can meet the 1164 Government's criteria and are willing to dedicate the slaughterhouse's total throughput to non-food animals. I should have thought that it would be advantageous for the Minister to include such slaughterhouses, as the retail sector wants animals slaughtered under the scheme to be kept separate from clean beef. Another slaughterhouse in Cumbria was on the original list, but does not appear to be on the new list. It is the only one in the area that can take casualty animals, yet it is not clear whether it has been put back in the scheme.
We have heard of problems in other sectors of the industry that have not been given financial support. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Springburn (Mr. Martin) mentioned the head boning industry's problems in his constituency and the difficulties that it will face. He is not alone in encountering such problems.
The Government could argue that the plight of some of the slaughterhouses to which I have referred is due to the rendering capacity. Yet the story is the same with cold storage. They were aware of the maximum rendering capacity and knew that it would not be enough. We now hear that cold storage is to come on stream, but that it might take up to six weeks. That does not help the beef industry or the Government's credibility.
§ Mr. Morley
Is the Minister saying that all the cold storage capacity that is needed is available now?
§ Mr. Morley
The Minister is saying that the scheme will start on Tuesday, but not everything will be in place. Yet the Government have had weeks to prepare for it. That demonstrates that there appears to have been no contingency plan, as the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone) said.
I hope that the Minister will consider a quality assurance scheme, which would also help to get the ban lifted, and electronic tagging and databases, which have not been mentioned in the debate. I understand that a number of schemes are available that the Minister could introduce.
The Government's credibility is not helped by their constant attacks on Europe. The worldwide ban may be illegal, but that is for the courts to decide. It is right and proper that such issues are tested in the courts. It would be ironic if the European Court ruled in favour of issues for which the Euro-sceptics are arguing. The empty, silly threats and sabre rattling of Ministers, who say one day that there will be sanctions and the next that there will not, are not credible. Attacks on the EU by Ministers who say that they will not fly European flags do not help. I am sure that not putting up a few European flags in Scotland really frightened the EU.
That does not help; it certainly does not help us to achieve a settlement when the European beef market has been so severely damaged by the problems in our country that European taxpayers will have to pay for a compensation scheme. They will still be net contributors, even when the adjustments are taken into account. And what have they had in return? Insults, threats and the childish action of the Secretary of State for Scotland in refusing to fly the European flag.
1165 Is that really a credible act? How will it help not only with the BSE crisis but in reforming the common agricultural policy? Hon. Members have said that we need to act in co-operation with other member states and persuade them to support us. Acting as the Conservatives have done certainly will not help to do that.
It does not help to blame the European Union. Before the EU ban was announced, 26 other countries, including Canada and the United States, had banned British beef. It is not credible to use the crisis as a stick with which to beat the EU; the Government should not be led by the nose by their Euro-sceptics. Cabinet Ministers have not helped the situation with their huffing and puffing, or by the way in which the Government have been led by their Back Benchers.
That is one of the reasons why we want to vote tonight. After listening to some of what has been said in the debate about where the blame lies, it is important that we adopt a constructive approach to deal with the immediate crisis. Certainly, that is what the Opposition have been trying to do.
It has been said during the debate that a future Labour Government would give in to everything that Europe demanded. I draw the attention of the House to a book called "In Their Own Words", by the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill), which outlines the plot to turn Europe into a super-state. The hon. Gentleman goes into detail about the policies of the three main parties, which he outlines as proof that there will be a European federal super-state and all the parties will cave in to Europe.
The hon. Gentleman devotes six pages to the Labour party and the terrible things that we have said. He devotes only two pages to the Liberal Democrats. That is a bit unfair, a bit hard on the Liberal Democrats. However, to the way in which the Conservative party—his own party—will sell out to the European Union, he devotes 26 pages.
§ Mr. Morley
Indeed not, because the hon. Gentleman devotes a further 26 pages to the sayings of the Conservatives associated with the European People's party, and how they are selling out to the EU. So I do not think that hon. Members can accuse the Labour party of giving in to Europe.
What I have described illustrates the civil war taking place on the Conservative Benches, and shows how it is affecting the position of this country. That is why the Labour party is asking for a vote tonight. We believe that a vote is an important expression of the views of the House, and we shall vote on the Adjournment to demonstrate our concern about the problems in the beef sector and the lack of adequate response so far.
We shall vote to show our dissatisfaction with the progress made so far in reforming the CAP. Above all, we shall vote to show our concern about a Government so lacking in credibility that they send their Members of Parliament home rather than allow them the opportunity for a substantive vote. For that reason alone, and because of the abuse of the democratic system that it represents, all hon. Members should join us in the Lobby.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mrs. Angela Browning)
How nice to see so many members of the Labour party here tonight. As none of them bothered to turn up for Monday's agriculture debate, they have obviously been shamed into coming here on Thursday instead.
Although the debate is about the common agricultural policy, inevitably it has focused on BSE and the difficulties in the beef market. It is right that it should have done so, because there is no doubt that we are dealing with one of the most serious issues that has faced agriculture in this country for many years, possibly since the second world war.
Some hon. Members widened the subject somewhat and talked about the more general aspects of the CAP. My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Cash) mentioned the need for reform, and spoke about the problems of fraud within the CAP.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) made his usual constructive contribution and went into the details of why the common agricultural policy must be examined.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Mrs. Lait) emphasised the implications of a wider Europe, with countries coming in from eastern Europe. She mentioned in particular the effect on fruit and vegetable production in her constituency, and the need for all member states to be aware of the need for CAP reform.
The Conservative Government have produced a document outlining our plans for reform of the CAP, and quite rightly. When one considers that two thirds of all CAP expenditure goes to farmers, there is a need to reform the policy rather than merely to have a knee-jerk reaction in the future, when the expansion of the Community is more imminent.
Everyone knows that agriculture needs a long lead time. For it to be reformed overnight would be disastrous—for farmers not only in this country but across the Community. We shall continue to press our European partners to adopt sensible proposals to start the dialogue and discussion about what is necessary to reform the CAP.
As some Conservative Members mentioned in their speeches, the hon. Member for Monklands, East (Mrs. Liddell) said at the beginning of her speech that she felt that co-operation was needed across the Chamber on the very difficult issue of BSE and its effects on the beef industry. Regrettably, she then went on in a manner that is characteristic not only of her but of other Opposition Members. It has been picked up—
§ Mrs. Browning
No, not necessarily. She went on to identify certain aspects of policy with which she disagreed. Like all hon. Members, I share her concern for those working in the meat industry, such as head boners, who have suffered because of what has happened with BSE. I have concern for head boners in particular because a SEAC recommendation made the entire head, apart from the tongue, a specified bovine material. So of course we have sympathy for those people. It was extremely 1167 unfortunate that the Government were accused across the Chamber in this debate of mocking people who are in such a difficult position. That is not the case. I have personally seen the head boners and heard how their industry will be affected.
§ Mrs. Browning
I shall do so in a moment, because I know that the hon. Gentleman mentioned them in his speech.
The hon. Member for Monklands, East went on to expand on other aspects of the downstream effects of what has happened, and the effects on many workers in many ancillary industries. She did not tell the House whether, under Labour party policy, public money would have been used to compensate everyone who has lost. I reiterate again that public money in very large measure has gone, and it continues to go, to keeping the beef market open.
As many hon. Members have said in this debate, regardless of how long it takes to raise the ban, the restoration of the entire beef industry—abattoirs, hauliers and everyone in the chain—depends on us restoring confidence and keeping the chain open. We have directed public money to keeping that chain open. It would be impossible to compensate, pound for pound, everyone who has lost because of the crisis.
It is extremely unjustified to say that the Government have mocked, because we have listened and tried to be as sympathetic as we can, but our resources are limited. If the hon. Lady was saying that a Labour Government would not have limited resources in this matter, she should say so.
§ Mr. Martin
I ask the Minister to reconsider the position of the people in the head boning industry whom I mentioned. They were told on a Thursday night to finish their business. They were not able to continue on the Friday morning. Surely people such as Mrs. Fyfe should get some compensation. She will be made bankrupt if the Minister does not do something.
§ Mrs. Browning
I thought that I had just explained to the hon. Gentleman the difficulty caused to the head boners by the fact that the material that they used was made a specified bovine material overnight. Regrettably, it had to be that way once SEAC had said that the head could not be used. We were able to give some support to head boners who had meat in chillers, although I appreciate that it was small in comparison to the overall business, if the business was dependent entirely on processing bovine heads. We gave careful consideration to the matter, but he will appreciate the precedent of our picking out individuals for direct compensation. The money that has been made available to date was not to compensate pound for pound but to keep the chain open and keep the industry going within the United Kingdom so that even those people down the line, to whom the hon. Member for Monklands, East referred, would have a chance. We wished to save jobs by keeping the whole of the production chain going, keeping the beef industry going, and improving confidence.
The hon. Member for Monklands, East also accused us of being ostrich-like on the selective cull. I am not sure what she meant by that. The proposal for a selective cull 1168 has been put to Europe. It would take out cohorts of animals. It is based, as close as we can get, on scientific evidence. The aim is to remove animals that might possibly go down with BSE in the future. If the hon. Lady thinks that the policy that we have presented to Europe, and which it has rejected so far, is ostrich-like, and if 42,000 specially selected animals is not enough, it is incumbent on her to say how many animals would be culled under a Labour Government. Would it be whole herds of animals?
A recurring theme in the speeches of Opposition Members, including that of the hon. Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), is the suggestion that Labour would have been better at negotiating. Indeed, it would. Its tactics and policies have been clearly spelt out by the leader of the Labour party. He has said that he would never be isolated in Europe. He would not stand up for the British interest. In negotiations, he would not, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister has done, represent scientifically the British interest. He would have rolled over, played dead and said, "How many animals do you want us to kill? We will go back home and do it." That would not be in the interests of the farming industry or of this country. The Conservative Government will not roll over and play dead.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Sir J. Cope), who followed the hon. Member for Monklands, East, paid tribute—
§ Mrs. Browning
I am not using the civil service brief. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that so many interesting speeches have been made by hon. Members on both sides of the House tonight that I intend in the customary way to give my personal appreciation of what has been said.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Northavon rightly, as a Member of Parliament who takes a close interest in agricultural matters, spoke clearly about the need for recovery of consumer confidence. Some Opposition Members mentioned the restoration of consumer confidence. Opposition Members spoke tonight about the fact that schools had banned beef from their menus. Yet only today Cumbria county council reintroduced beef into its school menus. We should all support and appreciate that action. However, I have to inform the House that that measure was passed by the Conservative and Liberal Democrat members of the council. Every Labour councillor voted against it.
§ Mr. Salmond
Does the Minister understand that the Scottish industry cannot be sustained merely by a resumption of beef sales in the domestic marketplace? The premium produce goes to Europe, where we get prices that we cannot get at home. The Minister has outlined the step-by-step approach and released a consultation document which refers to grass-fed herds, but it is disappointingly narrow in its scope. Will she tell us a bit more about the step-by-step approach and whether the consultation document is the final word on the matter?
§ Mrs. Browning
I hope that it is not. The hon. Gentleman should appreciate that we wanted to get the scheme going quickly because we did not want—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Newcastle-under- 1169 Lyme (Mrs. Golding) is laughing. Strictly speaking, I should have consulted for six weeks, but I have restricted it to two weeks because I want to get the scheme going as quickly as possible. I can understand the hon. Gentleman's frustration, but there are certain methods that we can use to make sure that we can give an absolute assurance to the consumer, which is absolutely imperative, but also to SEAC, because we are going beyond the two-and-a-half-year limit. We have to go back to SEAC and say that we want to go beyond the limit, and we want SEAC to endorse the plan. We have to persuade our European partners that such a scheme is failsafe.
If there were any question that the scheme could be misused, that would totally undermine the whole scheme. I agree that the scheme is constructed somewhat narrowly to begin with, but I hope it will be a start on which we can build. Ultimately, I want us to use microchips as the means of traceability for such schemes, but I could not introduce those fast enough to get the scheme up and running. That is something for down the line.
Our priority in the Ministry is to get the scheme agreed and up and running because many beef farmers at the moment—as the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) will know from his constituency—have excellent mature beef herds. We do not want them to go in the two-and-a-half-year scheme. We want the farmers to be able to sell them on the market.
§ Mr. David Nicholson
Does my hon. Friend agree that the evidence that she has given from Cumbria, plus the statements by the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman) and the other panic statements by Labour Members, show that the reason why they are here in such numbers tonight to vote is not because of their interest in the agricultural community or the beef industry but for their pursuit of a narrow party political purpose?
§ Mrs. Browning
I concur with my hon. Friend, who has summed up the motivation of all the Members who have missed their last trains tonight and who are sitting here this evening. They are showing an uncharacteristic interest in farming issues—there must some other motive, and people can come to their own conclusions.
I wish to pay tribute to the speech tonight from the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood)—[Interruption.] He looks startled, and I hope that I have not damaged his reputation. Not only did he say that he felt that co-operation and constructive dialogue between parties was necessary, but he went on to make some suggestions. I cannot give him a positive response on all of them tonight, but I appreciate the spirit in which he came to the Chamber tonight. It was a very refreshing change.
During the two days of debate, we have heard considerable speeches from Members representing the county of Dorset. Today, my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce) raised several issues, including advance payment on the flat rate per head of animals. He referred to other issues that he and his colleagues from Dorset have raised with us individually. I can assure him that we shall pay particular attention to the points that he raised.
1170 I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset for making clear to the House the genesis of how the feed procedures were changed. [HON. MEMBERS: "He was wrong."] Opposition Members are saying he was wrong, but he has placed the papers in the Library and anyone can check them. I hope that all who are interested in getting to the truth will take the opportunity to do so.
My hon. Friend the Member for Holland with Boston (Sir R. Body) gave a detailed account of his experience in the agriculture industry over many years, and that background was of benefit to many of us in the Chamber. I thank him for setting out the background of how farming systems have changed over the years. He also referred to the genesis of the changes on feed. My hon. Friends the Members for Taunton (Mr. Nicholson) and for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Robinson)—both Somerset Members—spoke tonight, and they have represented the views of their farmers and abattoirs to Ministers in recent weeks. My hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome in particular mentioned fallen stock, and I hope that the House heard the statement yesterday that we hope to speed matters up by using incineration which is not being used to its full capacity. We hope to avoid welfare problems by speeding up transport of fallen stock directly from the farm to the incinerator.
Several hon. Members mentioned the use of small incinerators, some of which are attached to slaughterhouses. Again, we are actively considering that. I must advise the House, however, that whatever system we operate, and wherever we operate it, for the 30-month scheme it is critical that it is monitored at the point where the animals go through. It would be devastating if, in six months, a story appeared that somehow animals from the 30-month scheme had got into the human food chain. That may be frustrating for hon. Members and their farmers and other constituents, but it is important that there is proper supervision at all points at which animals aged over 30 months are dealt with.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) and the hon. Member for North-East Derbyshire (Mr. Barnes) have said that they will not be able to listen to my reply.
§ Mrs. Browning
I beg the hon. Gentleman's pardon. I know why my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow cannot be here. He is to attend an agricultural show tomorrow and felt that he had to make the journey home.
My hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East (Sir G. Vaughan) said that the worldwide ban was unwarranted and drew attention to the fact that the ban on bovine by-products affects many industries. This debate has focused on beef and its immediately associated products of gelatine, tallow and semen, but many industries use bovine products in one way or another. It is important to recognise that while the worldwide ban continues, many industries will be affected and not only those directly connected to farms.
My hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Riddick) gave robust support to British beef and called the ban quite outrageous. It is outrageous and although we will need the patient negotiations of my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister in Europe, it is right that we should continue to say that the ban is outrageous and unjustified. It has brought a British industry to its 1171 knees and that has caused great anger not only among farmers but among hon. Members, who recognise only too well the effect that that has had on our industry. It is right that we should continue to press for early lifting of the ban in total.
§ Sir John Cope
Will my hon. Friend comment on the point that I made about the behaviour of the standing veterinary committee? If it would approach its task on a scientific basis instead of with market considerations in mind, it would help to restore consumer confidence on the continent, which is the single most important thing to do.
§ Mrs. Browning
My right hon. Friend is right. We sometimes take for granted in Britain that the Ministry gets very good veterinary advice both from its own vets and from the vets and scientists on whom we rely for independent advice. We expect such advice and decision making to be based on science. It is a tenet of MAFF that it should listen to the science and base its decisions on science rather than on politics. That has not been the case so far in Europe. We hope that that will change and that before a week is out, the ban on gelatine, tallow and semen will be lifted. We hope that the science will prevail in Europe. So far, it is clear that people whom we would have expected to have made scientific judgments have ignored the science.
Many hon. Members, especially Conservative Members, have suggested that we should try to encourage trade outside the EU despite the ban. We can, have and will make sure that our scientists are available to any country that wants to examine the science for itself. I am well aware that, very often, our trading partners outside Europe are not familiar with BSE or the programmes that we have in place to protect the human food chain. Many people want to come here and see for themselves. We shall make ourselves and our scientists available so that any country that has an interest in what we do and how we come to our scientific decisions has access to those scientists and—
§ Question, That the Question be now put, put and agreed to.
§ Question put accordingly, That this House do now adjourn:—
§ The House divided: Ayes 252, Noes 1.1174
|Division No. 129]||[10.00 pm|
|Abbott, Ms Diane||Beith, Rt Hon A J|
|Adams, Mis Irene||Bell, Stuart|
|Ainger, Nick||Benn, Rt Hon Tony|
|Allen, Graham||Bennett, Andrew F|
|Alton, David||Benton, Joe|
|Anderson, Ms Janet (Ros'dale)||Bermingham, Gerald|
|Armstrong, Hilary||Betts, Clive|
|Austin-Walker, John||Blair, Rt Hon Tony|
|Banks, Tony (Newham NW)||Boateng, Paul|
|Barnes, Harry||Bradley, Keith|
|Barron, Kevin||Bray, Dr Jeremy|
|Battle, John||Brown, Gordon (Dunfermline E)|
|Bayley, Hugh||Brown, N (N'c'tle upon Tyne E)|
|Beckett, Rt Hon Margaret||Burden, Richard|
|Byers, Stephen||Hodge, Margaret|
|Caborn, Richard||Hoey, Kate|
|Callaghan, Jim||Hogg, Norman (Cumbernauld)|
|Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge)||Home Robertson, John|
|Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V)||Hood, Jimmy|
|Cann, Jamie||Hoon, Geoffrey|
|Carlile, Alexander (Montgomery)||Howarth, Alan (Strat'rd-on-A)|
|Chidgey, David||Howarth, George (Knowsley North)|
|Church, Judith||Howells, Dr Kim (Pontypridd)|
|Clark, Dr David (South Shields)||Hoyle, Doug|
|Clarke, Tom (Monklands W)||Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)|
|Clelland, David||Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)|
|Clwyd, Mrs Ann||Hughes, Roy (Newport E)|
|Corbett, Robin||Hughes, Simon (Southwark)|
|Corbyn, Jeremy||Hutton, John|
|Corston, Jean||Illsley, Eric|
|Cousins, Jim||Ingram, Adam|
|Cox, Tom||Jackson, Glenda (H'stead)|
|Cummings, John||Jackson, Helen (Shef'ld, H)|
|Cunliffe, Lawrence||Jamieson, David|
|Cunningham, Jim (Covy SE)||Janner, Greville|
|Cunningham, Rt Hon Dr John||Jenkins, Brian (SE Staff)|
|Cunningham, Roseanna||Johnston, Sir Russell|
|Dafis, Cynog||Jones, Ieuan Wyn (Ynys Môn)|
|Darling, Alistair||Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C)|
|Davidson, Ian||Jones, Martyn (Clwyd, SW)|
|Davies, Bryan (Oldham C'tral)||Jones, Nigel (Cheltenham)|
|Davies, Chris (L'Boro & S'worth)||Jowell, Tessa|
|Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)||Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald|
|Davies, Ron (Caerphilly)||Keen, Alan|
|Davis, Terry (B'ham, H'dge H'l)||Kennedy, Charles (Ross, C&S)|
|Denham, John||Khabra, Piara S|
|Dewar, Donald||Kirkwood, Archy|
|Dixon, Don||Lestor, Joan (Eccles)|
|Dobson, Frank||Liddell, Mrs Helen|
|Donohoe, Brian H||Livingstone, Ken|
|Dowd, Jim||Lloyd, Tony (Stretford)|
|Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth||Llwyd, Elfyn|
|Eagle, Ms Angela||Loyden, Eddie|
|Eastham, Ken||Lynne, Ms Liz|
|Ewing, Mrs Margaret||McAllion, John|
|Fatchett, Derek||McAvoy, Thomas|
|Field, Frank (Birkenhead)||Macdonald, Calum|
|Fisher, Mark||McFall, John|
|Flynn, Paul||McKelvey, William|
|Foster, Rt Hon Derek||Mackinlay, Andrew|
|Foster, Don (Bath)||McLeish, Henry|
|Foulkes, George||Maclennan, Robert|
|Fraser, John||McMaster, Gordon|
|Fyfe, Maria||McNamara, Kevin|
|Galbraith, Sam||MacShane, Denis|
|Galloway, George||McWilliam, John|
|Gapes, Mike||Madden, Max|
|Garrett, John||Maddock, Diana|
|Gerrard, Neil||Marek, Dr John|
|Gilbert, Rt Hon Dr John||Marshall, David (Shettleston)|
|Godman, Dr Norman A||Martin, Michael J (Springburn)|
|Godsiff, Roger||Martlew, Eric|
|Golding, Mrs Llin||Maxton, John|
|Gordon, Mildred||Meacher, Michael|
|Graham, Thomas||Michael, Alun|
|Grant, Bernie (Tottenham)||Michie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley)|
|Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)||Michie, Mrs Ray (Argyll & Bute)|
|Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)||Milburn, Alan|
|Grocott, Bruce||Miller, Andrew|
|Gunnell, John||Mitchell, Austin (Gt Grimsby)|
|Hain, Peter||Moonie, Dr Lewis|
|Hall, Mike||Morgan, Rhodri|
|Hardy, Peter||Morley, Elliot|
|Harman, Ms Harriet||Morris, Rt Hon Alfred (Wy'nshawe)|
|Harvey, Nick||Morris, Estelle (B'ham Yardley)|
|Hattersley, Rt Hon Roy||Morris, Rt Hon John|
|Henderson, Doug||Mowlam, Marjorie|
|Heppell, John||Mullin, Chris|
|Hill, Keith (Streatham)||Murphy, Paul|
|Hinchliffe, David||Nicholson, Emma (Devon West)|
|Oakes, Rt Hon Gordon||Rooney, Terry|
|O'Brien, Mike (N W'kshire)||Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)|
|O'Brien, William (Normanton)||Rowlands, Ted|
|O'Hara, Edward||Salmond, Alex|
|Olner, Bill||Sedgemore, Brian|
|Orme, Rt Hon Stanley||Sheerman, Barry|
|Pearson, Ian||Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert|
|Pendry, Tom||Short, Clare|
|Pickthall, Colin||Simpson, Alan|
|Pike, Peter L||Skinner, Dennis|
|Powell, Ray (Ogmore)||Smith, Andrew (Oxford E)|
|Prentice, Bridget (Lew'm E)||Smith, Chris (Isl'ton S & F'sbury)|
|Prentice, Gordon (Pendle)||Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)|
|Prescott, Rt Hon John||Snape, Peter|
|Primarolo, Dawn||Soley, Clive|
|Radice, Giles||Spearing, Nigel|
|Randall, Stuart||Spellar, John|
|Raynsford, Nick||Squire, Rachel (Dunfermline W)|
|Reid, Dr John||Steinberg, Gerry|
|Rendel, David||Stevenson, George|
|Robinson, Geoffrey (Co'try NW)||Stott, Roger|
|Roche, Mrs Barbara||Strang, Dr. Gavin|
|Rogers, Allan||Straw, Jack|
|Rooker, Jeff||Sutcliffe, Gerry|
|Taylor, Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)||Wicks, Malcolm|
|Taylor, Matthew (Truro)||Wigley, Dafydd|
|Thompson, Jack (Wansbeck)||Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Sw'n W)|
|Timms, Stephen||Williams, Alan W (Carmarthen)|
|Tipping, Paddy||Wilson, Brian|
|Touhig, Don||Winnick, David|
|Trickett, Jon||Wise, Audrey|
|Turner, Dennis||Worthington, Tony|
|Tyler, Paul||Wright, Dr Tony|
|Vaz, Keith||Young, David (Bolton SE)|
|Walker, Rt Hon Sir Harold|
|Wareing, Robert N||Tellers for the Ayes:|
|Watson, Mike||Mr. Malcolm Chisholm and Mr. George Mudie.|
|Atkinson, David (Bour'mouth E)|
|Tellers for the Noes:|
|Ms Ann Coffey and Mr. Greg Pope.|
§ Question accordingly agreed to.
§ Adjourned at fourteen minutes past Ten o'clock.