§ 5.20 p.m.
The Earl of Lindsay
My Lords, with the leave of the House I shall now repeat a Statement which has been made in the other place. The Statement is as follows:
"Madam Speaker, with permission, I should like to make a Statement about the emergency Council which has just concluded in Luxembourg and related matters.
"The high level of public concern over BSE continues to cause very grave problems for farmers and for all parts of the food chain. The whole Government have been following the situation closely, day by day, in an effort to identify any problems as they arise and to find solutions.
"It is clear that many of the problems faced by the beef industry are the result of the precipitate decision taken by the European Union, in particular the decision to ban exports from this country and what I can only describe as panic reactions by other countries around the world. Many of the steps that have been taken against our exports have borne no relation at all to the science. I hope that soon 357 normality will return. I will come back in a moment to the Community front and the outcome of the Council which ended this morning in Luxembourg.
"At home my ministerial colleagues have kept in close touch with industry organisations to obtain a full picture of what is going on in a fast-moving situation. We are meeting any organisations wishing to talk to us about how their members are affected. There are encouraging signs that confidence is returning.
"In particular, I am encouraged at reports from retailers that their customers are looking for beef in the shops again. Retailers have met with my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Health and have reported that they need to begin buying beef again. So those with cattle to send to market should know that there are willing buyers for British beef.
"From our discussions with supermarkets it is clear that they would favour a quality assurance scheme. We agree. My officials are working up some detailed proposals as a matter of urgency. The wholesale trade is beginning to return as a result of the revival of retail sales.
"The Government recognise that one consequence of these developments which needs to be addressed immediately is a blockage in the slaughterhouse sector as a result of cash flow problems which may be inhibiting the flow of meat through the system. The Government are determined to restore movement in the processing system in order to enable market confidence to recover.
"As an immediate but necessary interim measure, I can announce that all slaughterhouses that continue to handle beef will with immediate effect be relieved from Meat Hygiene Service red meat inspection charges in respect of 1995–96 and for an interim period. My department will seek additional resources to cover the loss of revenue to the Meat Hygiene Service through a Supplementary Estimate.
"In order to quantify the difficulties facing the industry, qualified expert accountants are being appointed forthwith to provide urgent advice on the immediate problems of the industry and how they could be solved. Those solutions will be the subject of close consultation with the slaughtering industry itself. Simultaneously the Government are approaching the banking industry to establish whether it would be prepared to extend trade indemnity credit insurance to underwrite the costs to the slaughterhouse sector of taking on new business. By these means, I hope I have demonstrated the Government's commitment to maintaining the vital contribution of the slaughterhouse sector to the meat processing chain and the essential immediate task of facilitating the flow of fresh meat through the system to retailers' and consumers' demand.
"We have continued to discuss with farmers the orders that we laid last week. As a result of these discussions I have today laid an order amending the Beef (Emergency Control)(Amendment) Order 1996 to provide for the age of cattle to be determined either by "dentition"—the stage of development of teeth— 358 or by reliable independently verifiable documents. I believe this will remove the main cause of uncertainty among farmers and help restore the flow of cattle through auction markets and to abattoirs.
"The public and the retailers are rightly looking for reassurance that the process of slaughtering cattle and dressing carcase meat is carried out with the greatest possible attention not only to legal requirements but also to general standards of hygiene. The Meat Hygiene Service has a crucial role. This agency, which was set up just a year ago, has performed a key part in our action against BSE since then. The agency's budget will need to be increased to cover the cost of additional staff who are now being recruited.
"In view of the heightened public interest I propose to introduce a quarterly published bulletin which will report the latest results of audits by the Meat Hygiene Service and State Veterinary Service on compliance with meat hygiene regulations and enforcement action taken. This will, I hope, demonstrate the continuing efforts which the UK meat industry is making progressively to raise standards of hygiene in our slaughterhouses.
"I shall shortly be placing before the House performance targets for the Meat Hygiene Service for the coming year. These will need to reflect the additional duties resulting for the Meat Hygiene Service from the new measures I am announcing today and those announced on 20th and 24th March.
"I turn now to the outcome of the Council of Agriculture Ministers which started in Luxembourg on 1st April and which ended at 6 a.m. this morning. Considerable efforts were made over two days and two nights by Minister Lucchetti for the Presidency and Mr. Fischler for the Commission, but I fear that the propositions on the table at the end of the meeting did not meet our central requirement that the export ban should be lifted. As our partners were not prepared to accept that, it was not possible for the UK to endorse the Council's conclusions.
"The BSE crisis has presented the Community as a whole with a challenge of major proportions. The Community's response must be prompt and effective but also soundly based and fair. The United Kingdom is making a major effort to contribute to that Community response. Arrangements will be introduced to ensure that all bovine animals over the age of 30 months at the time of slaughter will not enter the human food or animal feed chains. This scheme will take the place of the compulsory deboning for which SEAC recently called.
"It is right that we should contribute in this way to solving the Community problems caused by the BSE crisis. But the United Kingdom also has the right to expect a fair and balanced response from our Community partners to the particular difficulties faced by UK producers.
"The Community's first response to the BSE crisis was the imposition of a total export ban against UK animals and products. That ban is not justified. It is not based on sound scientific analysis. It is disproportionate. It should be removed.
359 "I made clear that any Council conclusions, to be acceptable to us, must include either agreement to lift the ban forthwith or a procedure and timetable to that end. It was not possible to reach such an agreement. I was therefore unable to endorse the drafts that were before the Council, despite the very real progress that has been made. It remains my intention to work in co-operation with other member states and the Commission to find a satisfactory and rapid solution to the problems which confront us all. Nevertheless some progress was made over the past few days, and there are specific steps which we can now take, with financial support from the European Union.
"First, we shall make preparations to bring into effect as soon as possible the arrangements for cattle over the age of 30 months as they come to market to be slaughtered under special supervision and destroyed and disposed of in a safe manner. As a matter of urgency I am considering with my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment the options for the disposal of the additional waste that would arise from these measures. Our objective is to identify the best practicable option and to ensure that the waste is dealt with in a manner which protects the environment and human health.
"I emphasis that this is not a compulsory slaughter scheme in the sense that such a phrase is ordinarily used. The objective is to take older cattle, cows and bulls coming on to the market for slaughter in the normal way at the end of their working life and to take steps to prevent them from entering the human or animal food chain.
"Some attention was focused at the Council on the possibilities for selective culling of animals most at risk of BSE. I believe some of our Community partners have exaggerated ideas of what is possible in this area, based on misunderstanding of the nature of BSE. We shall, however, be giving further thought to the idea in consultation with our own farming organisations and others, to whom I know the idea is of interest.
"The Community has taken important steps to stabilise market prices. Intervention support has been extended. The Council authorised purchases of up to 50,000 tonnes in the EU as a whole in April. The Beef Management Committee met while the Council was in session to put that into effect. In Great Britain, the new categories eligible for intervention bring coverage up to 22 per cent. of total UK beef production. Meat will have to be from animals under 30 months of age. These changes will help stabilise prices in the UK and in other member states. They will help restore confidence to the UK beef sector and help restart activity in the slaughtering sector.
"Lastly, with all the new developments of recent days and those that I am now announcing, it is important that all concerned in the industry know where they stand, or can find out immediately if they are not clear. To meet that need I have made arrangements to supplement the helpline service which my department has been providing to deal with 360 inquiries about BSE and the beef export ban. Staff will be on duty throughout the coming Easter holiday to deal with business inquiries. My and other Ministers' private offices will be on duty throughout the Easter Recess to deal with any queries and questions raised by colleagues.
"To conclude, I believe that the steps taken by the Government up till now rest on sound science. It remains our objective to take science as our best guide. Our senior adviser on the science, Professor Pattison, has told us that, with the latest steps we are taking, beef is for all practical purposes safe to eat—safer than it has ever been.
"I see signs that public confidence is returning—but the position taken by our European partners is unhelpful. The sweeping ban on our exports is unjustified and the Government will continue to work by every means possible to get that ban lifted.
"Meanwhile, with all that is being done by Government and industry, British beef is a product that we can be proud of. We shall do all we can to promote and protect it."
My Lords, that concludes the Statement.
§ 5.31 p.m.
§ Lord Carter
My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made in the other place by his right honourable friend. As always, I declare an interest as the director and shareholder of a farming company with dairy cattle which will be affected by the slaughter policy.
This is the third Statement in 10 days. Each has ended with the same words; namely, that the Government have done enough to satisfy the consumer, our European partners etc. And each time they have had to come back with further proposals. This can hardly be called a triumph of European negotiation. If I wished to be uncharitable, I should say that we have ended up with the worst of all worlds.
The scientific advice was quite clear. Professor Pattison, the chairman of the SEAC, Mr. Ray Bradley, from the Central Veterinary Laboratory at Weybridge, and others, have all made it clear that there is no scientific reason for a slaughter policy. But we are to have a slaughter policy. This is a purely political decision with which we have agreed, but it has no basis in science. The reason for introducing a slaughter policy was to satisfy and convince our European partners. Now we still have a slaughter policy, but the export ban remains. We do not even have a provisional timetable for lifting the export ban.
I have been around long enough to appreciate that there may have been some commercial factors in the minds of our European partners when they considered this problem, as well as the human health aspect. The fact remains that we shall have to slaughter our cattle, but the export ban is still there.
Not only do we still have the export ban. We have to go back to Brussels in four weeks' time with proposals for the further slaughter of whole herds. As I understand 361 it, these will be animals in full milk production. Therefore what is to be the basis of the new proposals for the selective, or targeted, slaughter?
Before leaving the question of slaughter, it is interesting to note that one group of consumers was asked to rank in importance the various aspects that would restore their confidence. The first was better labelling: "We should like to know what we are eating". The second was clean slaughterhouses and hygiene in abattoirs. Allaying public anxiety through a slaughter policy was 17th on the list.
We asked for an 80 per cent. rebate from our European partners. They started at 70 per cent., and they ended at 70 per cent. The Prime Minister, fresh from his triumphs at Turin, confirmed earlier this week that the contribution from Europe would be deducted from our rebate. Will the Minister tell the House what the final net cost of the policy to the UK taxpayer is likely to be? An article in the Evening Standard today gives a figure for the net value of the European contribution of only £85 million for a policy that is likely to cost in excess of £400 million or even more. I refer to the annual cost.
We must return in four weeks time with a proposal for targeted slaughter. As I understand it, that will affect complete dairy herds, which are deemed to be at greatest danger from BSE. I suggest that the Minister takes into account the situation of dairy farmers, who are the victims, as it were, of the targeted slaughter. They have to get rid of their animals. They may be faced with a large bill for super-levy. Will they be able to roll over their excess quota from last year, which ended on 31st March, into the current year? These are the sort of practical points that the Government will have to take into account.
I turn to the slaughter of the cull cows, the 15,000 per week of dairy and beef animals that have completed their useful life. Will the Government now at last agree to the random sampling of the brains of those slaughtered cull animals? That might help to show the true incidence of the disease. It might even produce an argument for ending the slaughter if the incidence is found to be lower than expected as a result of that examination.
Will the Minister also inform the House as to the latest information on a reliable, live test on cattle? If such a test is found, can we have an absolute assurance that the Government will make it compulsory?
I now turn to the Statement itself and some factual questions. It states that the supermarkets would favour a quality assurance scheme, and the Government agree. We also welcome that. In fact, it was recommended by the Labour Party, I believe last week. As I read the Statement, the relief from inspection charges from the Meat Hygiene Service will be retrospective, since it refers to the year 1995–96. So presumably there will be a repayment of last year's charges. It also says that the department will seek "additional resources". How much is intended to cover the loss of revenue?
There is an interesting suggestion as to extension of the trade indemnity and credit insurance. I ask the Government also to look (this is entirely from memory) 362 at the Agricultural Credit Act 1929. I believe that Act allows the Government to extend credit guarantee to farmers. If it is hard to help through the insurance market, perhaps that is another way that the Government might consider.
The Government are extremely sensible to have an alternative means of determining the age of cattle, either by dentition (to examine the state of the teeth) or by independent verifiable documents. As one wholesaler put it, the meat we import from Argentina has no teeth.
There is also the question of additional staff for the Meat Hygiene Service. Will the Minister say how many it is intended will be employed? If he has the figure, will he tell the House the actual total increase in staff for the MHS after the extra staff has been employed. I believe there has been a reduction in staff over the past few months.
The Statement also says that the Government will make preparations to bring into effect as soon as possible the arrangements for the cull cow slaughter. It would be extremely helpful to know what "as soon possible" means. When will that start? As I am sure the Minister knows, cull cows are now piling up on the farms. They are being held back. It is cold, spring is late and forage stocks are low. It is extremely important for practical reasons that we know as quickly as possible when it will start.
Will the Minister explain an ambiguity? I believe I understand the Government's intention, but will he explain his statement that this is not a compulsory slaughter scheme? It is compulsory in the sense that, as a dairy farmer, I shall not be able to send my cull cow to any other route except that proposed by the Government. Will he explain that apparent ambiguity? The farmer will not in fact be able to choose whether or not he sends the animal to slaughter and then to the incinerator if it is over 30 months.
Do the Government recognise that the industry is now confronted with huge uncertainty? It has no idea what number of cattle the Government will condemn. It has no idea whether the proposal on targeted slaughter will be acceptable to our European partners. It has no idea when it will again be allowed to export beef and beef products. Does the Minister agree that the industry and consumers cannot be left in limbo until the Government returns to the Commission at the end of April? Will he try to secure an earlier meeting of the Council of Agriculture Ministers and of the Standing Veterinary Committee with a view to reaching an earlier agreement with the European Union? It really is unacceptable that we have to carry on for yet another month in such a state of continued uncertainty. Can the Minister give the House some indication of the number of cattle that he envisages will be targeted under the proposed selective slaughter policy? Has he any idea of the criteria for the slaughter? I appreciate that there are practical difficulties, but some broad guidance in this area would be helpful.
Will the funds from the European Union be available for compensation only to farmers or will they also help towards the cost of incineration and the other expenses arising from these measures? All those involved in the 363 industry understand that the production of meat-and-bonemeal is a major exercise in waste disposal. That is no longer available. I understand that meat-and-bonemeal is still being made, presumably for incineration. Perhaps it will have to be taken into intervention and then burned. That may be the only way to deal with it; otherwise there will be a major waste disposal programme with the untreated offal.
Can the Minister put a rough figure on the cost of all the new measures announced in the last fortnight? Can he also set out the net cost to the UK after deduction of our rebate from the EU budget? My first calculation is that the net value of the funds from Europe will be only £85 million. Last Thursday the Minister in the other place advised that the Lord President of the Council was to convene a committee to address the problems faced by abattoirs and the broader rural economy. Can the Minister say whether there has been any progress with that committee and tell us when we can expect an announcement on assistance?
I am sure that none of us can remember anything in our agricultural lifetimes that remotely resembles this crisis. I can assure the Government that we shall do everything from these Benches to help to restore consumer confidence and repair the damage to the beef industry. We shall certainly wish to call the Government to account. I am delighted, and I know my colleagues agree with me, that the Labour debate which will take place on 17th April will be on that subject. But we can wait until then. All our efforts now have to be spent on limiting the scale of this disaster.
§ Lord Hooson
My Lords, I also wish to thank the Minister for repeating the Statement in this House. I have an interest to declare in that I am a farmer. I have a pedigree beef suckler herd which I have bred over 30 years and which has never had a case of BSE. That is in common with many other rearers in this country who have herds of cattle entirely free from BSE.
I entirely agree with what the noble Lord just said. I cannot remember a crisis of anything like these proportions. I was in the other place, representing a totally agricultural constituency when the foot-and-mouth epidemic occurred on our borders at Oswestry. But it was nothing compared with the present disaster.
Having said that, and heard the Statement today, perhaps I may first say that I regret to a great extent the tone of the Statement. It is very important that we and our European partners co-operate to the utmost in dealing with this matter. One would have expected a clear exchange of information. The third paragraph of the Statement in fact states:It is clear that many of the problems faced by the beef industry are the result of the precipitate decision taken by the European Union, in particular the decision to ban exports from this country, and what I can only describe as panic reactions by other countries around the world".I sincerely ask the Minister: who caused the panic? On 20th March a joint Statement was made by two Ministers—which was unusual in itself—in the other place about the possible link between BSE and the human disease. Reference was made to 10 cases which 364 had provided some disturbing evidence. I understand that the Agriculture Commissioner said that he was only informed of that Statement and the grounds for it half an hour before it was delivered in the other place. None of the Agriculture Ministers of the other countries was aware of it. The following day, there was a statement in the Independent newspaper about the possibility of 11 million cattle having to be slaughtered. That was confirmed by the Secretary of State for Health the following day in the other place.
That caused great panic in this country. Are we surprised that it hit the headlines in every European country and every other country? To blame the European Community for a panic reaction is overdoing it, to put it at its slightest. Since that time, we have had great co-operation from the European Community. It is a pity that there are no figures to suggest what the cost of the whole exercise will be and how much will be contributed by the other members of the European Community.
I live in the heart of an agricultural community. I am totally aware of the problems that it faces. For example, our area is a great store cattle rearing area. No store cattle have been sold since this happened. They are all in the pipeline. Farmers do not have the fodder to feed them or the straw. The fatteners who normally every week would be moving them have had to hang on to them. That creates an enormous problem. The slaughterhouses are empty. They have had to discharge staff and so on. Everything is an enormous problem at the moment.
I listened to the Statement and I had read it beforehand. If I were one of those people who advise as a result of inquiries, what could I advise a farmer about his position? How could I advise the slaughtermen or the owners of the slaughterhouses of their position? There is nothing tangible. I am convinced that within two months confidence would have returned. It is interesting that the very distinguished scientist Sir Christopher Cockerell, a Fellow of the Royal Society, wrote a letter to The Times last Saturday from which I quote the third paragraph:This means that on present data the odds against dying by eating beef are at least half a million to one against. Crossing a road is many times more dangerous".So, when the Statement says:Many of the steps that have been taken against our exports have borne no relation at all to the science",that is apparently absolutely true. Nevertheless, panic has been created. The question of how to deal with it has now assumed different proportions.
What is required is a subsidy of some kind immediately that has effect all along the line. There are so-called passports for all beef animals. Cannot an additional payment be made there to enable those who are hanging on to the stores to feed them and buy straw and so on? What about the finisher who has held back his stock? No doubt some of those cattle will be getting into over-condition. The finishers will need some kind of payment to carry them over the next two months. In a similar way, the slaughterhouses have an enormous 365 problem of dealing with offal that has not been disposed of. They need immediate help to deal with the problem. That help is financial help.
I should have thought that the Community experts would have been provided with a scheme from this country to show how we could achieve that kind of result, so that gradually confidence is re-built for the consumer. It is very necessary to build up that confidence. But I do not see signs of it. I am very sorry to say that.
I turn to the suggestion made by some members at the Community meeting who said that the Community's response must be prompt and effective but also soundly based in fact. Surely there should have been a very much greater exchange of information. I think I am right in saying that in this country 158,000 cases of BSE have been reported and all the animals involved have been slaughtered. The incidence of BSE is decreasing. The country which comes nearest to us in terms of the number of cases of BSE is Switzerland, with 200 cases. Otherwise, every case of BSE, including Switzerland, is said to be traceable to this country. So it has been a particularly difficult British problem.
How do we deal with the problem at the present time? We should give ourselves a two-month period for reflection. It is not unreasonable, although it is undesirable perhaps from our point of view, that the Community does not want to lift the world ban until it is certain what steps we are going to take. The Statement says:Some attention was focused … on the possibilities for selective culling of animals most at risk of BSE".There is an interest in that in this country; and clearly there should be. But why on earth should we go to the enormous expense of killing animals that have no chance of communicating BSE or affecting human beings in any way? I refer to the beef herds, many of which have no incidence of BSE. Mature reflection over the next two months would surely not lead to slaughtering every animal over 30 months in this country. Animals under 30 months that have come from herds which have had cases of BSE may, from the point of view of any independent observer, be at greater risk than ones that have been in herds that have never contracted BSE, but when this matter is discussed at greater length in the European Community one is likely to reach a different conclusion.
Perhaps I may ask a practical question on the 22 per cent. of the total UK beef production that will be eligible for intervention during the next month. Does that cover all categories of beef animals—steers, young bulls and heifers?
Surely this situation has demonstrated the enormous effects worldwide of an incident which happens to have affected our country but has also affected our European partners. I had a telephone call the other day from New York to say that what has occurred has affected the sale of beef in New York. It may affect the sale of beef all over the world unless the matter is sensitively dealt with. What is required at the moment to deal with the matter 366 is reassurance to the consumer, practical and immediate help for the farmer, the slaughtermen and so on, and then an agreed European policy within two months.
The Earl of Lindsay
My Lords, I am grateful for the welcome given by the noble Lord, Lord Carter, for various elements of today's package. I agree with him about the absolute need to restore and sustain consumer confidence in what is a great product produced by a great industry. The irony is that we have not only perhaps the best beef in the world but the safest beef as well. So there is every good reason to be sensitive to consumer confidence and to seek to sustain it wherever possible.
I wish to say a few words about the phrase "slaughter policy". Both when the noble Lord, Lord Carter, referred to it and, substantially, when the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, referred to it, I believe that on the whole they were referring to our policy that beasts going to slaughter in the normal way at the end of their working lives will be excluded from the food and animal chain if they are over 30 months old. What we will not be doing in this part of our response is compulsorily slaughtering animals which would not otherwise have been going to slaughter because of the natural cycle of their lives. It is an exclusion policy in a sense rather than a slaughter policy.
We are considering details of a targeted cull. The details of any such programme will be carefully worked out. The consultation with the industry itself would be comprehensive and the discussion in this country would simply be a prelude to a discussion with the Commission and with the veterinary committee. We would make absolutely certain that any targeted cull, if instituted, would have to deliver benefits for the costs that are involved. I am not talking just about the financial cost but the cost to cattle numbers and herd numbers. We tread into this area with great care and with all the advice that the national and international veterinary community can bring to us. The other benefit we would expect from such a movement is a lifting of the export ban. It is a substantial move and the very least we would expect is a removal of the ban.
The noble Lord, Lord Carter, spent some time on the total cost of the slaughter and the total value of the rebate. At this stage it is too early in the game to have worked up accurate figures. Rather than mislead the House by guessing, I would ask the House to be patient on this matter. We shall be debating this subject fairly shortly and I imagine that the subject will be returning to your Lordships' agenda at regular intervals. When hard figures are available they will be delivered.
On the targeted cull, the noble Lord, Lord Carter, painted a picture of a dairy farmer who was being faced with a super-levy charge, with perhaps quota problems if he were to lose his herd, and wondered to what extent we might be able to alleviate the obvious problems arising from that scenario. We want to think through such situations carefully before even initiating a selective cull, even if we want to do that anyway. We will be very careful about such problems.
367 The ability to institute random testing effectively in such a way that the scientists feel that it will deliver useful information is continuously reviewed by SEAC among other authorities. If it recommends that it should be done and it can convince itself that it will deliver something it can work with, we will do it. At the moment SEAC is not recommending it because it is very complex. The noble Lord asked about reliable live tests. If one were available we would want to consider just how widely it could be applied and how usefully it could provide information to prevent other types of cull or exclusion. Good progress is being made on the research towards a live test to detect BSE in cattle but it is not yet complete. There is no way we can practically implement what is known to date.
On disposal, the funding package agreed with our European partners, which is a 70/30 split, covers the value of the livestock themselves but not the cost of the disposal. The UK Government will be covering the cost of the disposal.
The noble Lord asked about the Meat and Hygiene Service. The relief from rates will be retrospective. The 1995–96 charges will effectively become a holiday so those paying MHS charges will receive money in the form of a cheque and, as has been agreed, the holiday will continue for an interim period. As regards resources and the staffing needed, we do not know at the moment exactly what the cost is and how many staff are needed. We shall simply spend what needs to be spent and employ the number that needs to be employed in order to deliver what we know needs to be delivered.
The exclusion policy for beasts over 30 months of age from the human and animal food chain will be instituted as soon as possible. I gather that that involves the following approximate timetable. The Beef Management Committee meets on 12th April when we hope that it will adopt the proposal. Three or four weeks thereafter we hope to have the system up and running. The noble Lord himself will know better than most noble Lords that the kinds of considerations and issues which must be clarified and defined before the system starts are complex and therefore we do not wish to rush into a scheme and find that we have misconstructed it through too much haste.
The noble Lord, Lord Hooson, delivered a great deal of his own experience to the House. Like many farmers, he has a BSE-free suckler herd. I believe that the anxieties felt by our farming community spreads from both those who have had experience of BSE to those who know that they have never ever had any BSE at all in their livestock. I acknowledge the anxieties that the noble Lord feels. He is completely inaccurate when he seeks to accuse the Government of generating the panic. I remind the House and the noble Lord himself that SEAC delivered a report to the Government followed by recommendations. It would have been quite incorrect if we had sought to keep that from the public and Parliament.
When we responded to that information by tabling Statements, we were very closely guided by, and proceeded extensively from, the reports of the scientists and from the Chief Medical Officer himself. We 368 stressed the fact that beef remains a part of a healthy and varied diet. We stressed the fact that there was still no proven link between BSE and cattle and ill-health such as CJD in man. We stressed the fact that the exposure that they believe they may have identified as being part of the causal link comes from exposure before 1989. What is more, that exposure is not to beef flesh, but to bovine offal. In releasing this information, we did so with considerable emphasis on the scientists and the medical officers involved in gathering it.
§ Lord Hooson
My Lords, I hesitated to give examples. I saw Professor Pattison on television agree with a question put to him that the epidemic could be on the same lines as AIDS. I actually heard him say that.
The Earl of Lindsay
My Lords, Professor Pattison and Dr. Calman, and all the other experts involved, answered all questions accurately to the best of their scientific knowledge. How the media then handled the information causes one to wonder whether they have contributed to the panic themselves.
The noble Lord, Lord Hooson, painted a somewhat inaccurate picture about our disappointment with Europe over their response. We have co-operated with them very closely. I was with my right honourable friend the Minister at the Luxembourg Council. The Commissioner himself, Commissioner Fischler, is being extremely helpful and very constructive. He was contacted by my right honourable friend shortly before he made the statement. Necessarily, it was Parliament who deserved to receive this information first and not other member states.
The export ban that was then instituted was an over-reaction in every way. There was no scientific justification for it and it was totally disproportionate. We cannot sit back here and say that they have been co-operating and very helpful when they have instituted a ban which has no justice in it whatsoever and one which has further disturbed the confidence of the markets both in Europe and beyond.
We shall be providing as much advice as possible to farmers and everyone else in the industry, as I have stressed. We have already produced a great deal of assistance to all parts of the industry, both farmers through various schemes, to slaughterers through the schemes announced today, to renderers and, with devices such as intervention, to the market as a whole. So in the range of measures that we have announced over the past 14 days we have delivered quite a lot of assistance.
The incidence of BSE is declining and the noble Lord is right. It is in fact one-quarter of what it used to be two to three years ago. It is reducing very quickly. I suggest that other countries which have recorded BSE should look at the facts. In most circumstances only a small portion of their BSE can be linked to UK imports. There are still large fractions of their BSE cases which cannot be linked to the UK itself.
I believe that the bulk of the points which were raised by the two noble Lords have been covered. I stress to them and to the House that we are committed to solving this problem and that we are determined to do so.
369 Human safety and food safety are paramount. At the same time we are committed to helping the farmers who are being affected and the rest of the chain that follows through the entire beef industry that is being affected. Our concern has been reflected in the various measures that we have already brought forward and indeed in the measures that we may well be bringing forward in the near future.
§ 6 p.m.
Lord Bruce of Donington
My Lords, I am not in the business of spreading alarm and despondency over this question. Indeed, it would not be appropriate if we went into detail concerning the matters raised in the Statement made by the noble Earl. Quite clearly, over the next few weeks there will have to be continuing discussion across the Floor of the House both in another place and here, concerning this very grave matter. However, I am disturbed about the general attitude adopted by Her Majesty's Government to her European partners in connection with this issue. I can understand, from the purely financial standpoint, the very legitimate desire of the Government to effect as much saving as they can in the expenditure they will have to incur in compensating the farmers and many other subsidiary interests, as a result of the policies that are going to be adopted. I would not have thought that the prospect of receiving £85 million per annum, if that is indeed the case, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, ought to be a matter to which we should pay overwhelming regard since in any event the great bulk of the money will have to be paid by British taxpayers.
As I see it, the Government genuinely believe that British beef is safe. They have made that clear on a number of occasions. Whatever view one takes about this, there are a number of uninstructed views, as well as expert views, upon the subject. Many of them are in conflict, but there can be no doubt about the fact that the Government have reiterated that they are confident that British beef is safe. Okay, let them have the courage of their convictions. Why should they accept supinely a restriction imposed by the European Commission on the export of British beef to countries other than those within the Community?
Noble Lords will recall that I raised that question yesterday. I was answered by the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, who said that the Government would make inquiries as a matter of expedition to find out whether or not there was any legal justification for that step. He said that there are many differing views—noble Lords can check his exact words—but that the Government have been expertly advised that there possibly was a liability.
My answer to that is "rubbish!". The Government should have the courage of their own convictions. They should ignore any Commission endeavours to restrict the export of British beef to countries other than those in the European Community. There is no point in being supine about this. The noble Lord, Lord Hooson, may boil with rage when I say this, but many other member states of the European Community disobey Community regulations, directives and everything else at will if they 370 do not suit them. Generally, we keep to the law—or seek to do so. However, I do not see any reason why we should do anything other than completely ignore any endeavour by the Commission to impose on the United Kingdom a restriction on its right to send its product, in which it believes—so I am told—anywhere in the world outside the European Community. I should be glad if we could have a little courage about this instead of using weasel words into the small hours of the morning and making pleas to our various colleagues in the European Community. They do not all obey the law (even tenuously) all the time, so I hope that we shall take a more robust attitude.
As to the other steps and the general attitude towards us among our colleagues around the table, what comment do the Government have to offer to the observation of Herr Kinkel of the Federal Republic of Germany to the effect that if Britain is going to ask for our help in connection with its beef crisis, he expects Britain to be more co-operative over our general policies in regard to Europe. What answer does the Minister have to that? Does he agree that the European Commission should be able to take such a selective attitude?
In the meantime, I hope that some endeavour will be made out of the funds at the Government's disposal, if only by further selling of the family silver, to make some compensation to the farmers and their subsidiary interests. I sincerely hope that that will be done. Noble Lords will be aware that at this time of the year, when bank overdrafts are beginning to rise in the farming community, the prospects of converting flesh into cash will be welcome to farmers. Many will not be all that averse to that; nor for that matter will their bank managers.
§ Earl Lindsay
My Lords, I assure the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, that we do not lack the courage, the faith or the determination to fight for a product which we know is safe, of quality, and which potentially outsells or out- competes beef from anywhere else in the world. If we intended to roll over and accept everything that our partners in Europe wanted to place on us, we would not have left the Council, as we did this morning, refusing to endorse its conclusions. Our partners know that we are seeking a lifting of the ban. They have their ideas about the terms and conditions that they would like to see met before the ban is lifted. Ostensibly, they have mentioned human health and consumer confidence as the basis for those terms and conditions. However, the extent to which they were driving those terms and conditions was such that we felt that we should not comply. We want the ban lifted as soon as possible. It is urgent that that happens, but we shall not comply if that means undermining the UK's interests. Therefore, I refute what the noble Lord implied when he said that, with weasel words, we complied with any suggestions put to us.
There is no cost compliance in the sense that Ministers from other countries are expecting various other concessions on our part in return for any lifting of the ban. I spent a considerable amount of time at the Luxembourg Council where everyone's attention was 371 focused on just one problem: the beef market. Furthermore, we were not focusing only on the UK beef industry, but on the European beef market. Everyone acknowledges that it is now a European problem and that it requires a European solution. We want that solution to be effective, prompt and fair. Any such solution must involve a lifting of the ban because it is disproportionate, unjustified and totally irrational.
§ The Earl of Kintore
My Lords, I declare an interest as a partner in a farm which has a small fold of highland cattle. I ask the Minister what advice he has to give owners of cattle which mature rather more slowly and are not normally exposed to market until they are about 36 months old?
The Earl of Lindsay
My Lords, the noble Earl, Lord Kintore, asks a very good question. One of the issues that has been discussed with vigour at Luxembourg—and will continue to be discussed energetically—is the kind of exemptions from the exclusion of all carcasses arising from beasts over the 30-month age limit that can sensibly be incorporated. We are very well aware that there are breeds in the United Kingdom that mature more slowly. We want to recognise that fact, if at all possible. It is also important that the response perceived by the consumer and others is seen to be convincing. If we hedge our response with too many complicated exemptions we shall be in danger of confusing the very people we want to convince. We have to balance sensible exemptions with an overriding message of simplicity and determination.
§ Lord Stoddart of Swindon
My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that this situation becomes more bizarre every time a Statement is made? I listened carefully to what he said about the statement by Professor Pattison. Apparently, he said that British beef was safer than it had ever been. Why on earth are we sacrificing and slaughtering thousands of cattle at huge cost on the altar of panic, hysteria and ignorance? Unlike the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, I agree with the Government that some criticism can be made of the European Union's attitude to this particular crisis. Although it has itself said that British beef was safe, it exacerbated the crisis by banning British beef, not only in Europe but the rest of the world.
Are the Government yet cognisant of the awesome power that the European Union has over our trade, not only in beef but beef products and virtually every other agricultural product,—and perhaps more—to ban British beef within the European Union and to the rest of the world, whether or not the rest of the world wants to take it? Do the Government realise what an enormous loss of sovereignty that is and the risk to which it puts great British industries in the agricultural and manufacturing sectors? What will the Government do to return to the elected British Government and Parliament power over these great industries only by which this country can survive? I do not believe that my final question has yet been answered, although it has been asked by two noble Lords. Is it true that the European Union plans to give only £85 million towards the slaughter and other 372 measures for a panic which it helped to create? Is that not a drop in the ocean compared with the £4 billion net that we shall pay to the Union this year?
The Earl of Lindsay
My Lords, I am invigorated by the questions that the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, has put on this matter. I acknowledge that the European response on the whole issue has been critical. I have said to the House on a number of occasions today—and I reiterate it—that the decision of the Union's standing veterinary committee is disproportionate and not based on the science available. Therefore, it is unjust and irrational. Ostensibly, the standing veterinary committee is a scientific body. It has produced a scientific decision which is at odds with the scientific decision produced by our SEAC advisers. Therefore, the action taken subsequently, on the face of it, has been based on scientific advice. I say to the noble Lords, Lord Bruce and Lord Stoddart, that we are taking legal advice on how to tackle this ban through means other than mere negotiation for its removal.
We are prepared to take more dramatic action if that is justified. The basis for our policies to date has been the scientific advice provided by our expert advisers. We probably have the greatest concentration of expertise on the subject of BSE and CJD anywhere in the world. I believe that that is widely recognised within the scientific community. Therefore, when the EU standing veterinary committee decided that it disagreed with that world-renowned body, it somewhat undermined the confidence that the wider community had had until then in our expert committee. We deplore the action that it took.
§ Lord Monson
My Lords, following the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, perhaps I may put one question to the Minister. In the improbable event of the EU having the genuine legal right to impose a ban upon the export of British beef and beef products to countries outside the Community, will the Minister say what is the worst that could happen to us were we, in the event of continued stonewalling and obstructionism by the rest of the Community, to defy the ban?
The Earl of Lindsay
My Lords, the advice we are taking at the moment involves seeking answers to the type of questions the noble Lord asks. I remind the noble Lord and other noble Lords who have explored this avenue that whether or not the ban is lifted and whether or not it is ignored by traders in this country, a considerable number of countries around the world have themselves taken unilateral action against British beef. Furthermore, a number of countries are now taking unilateral action against European beef. That is of great concern to some of our partners within the Community.
§ Lord Pearson of Rannoch
My Lords, may I ask my noble friend to join me for a moment in the pleasurable activity of imagining that we were not in the European Community? If we had, for instance, the status of Norway, which is a member of the EEA but which wisely voted against joining the Treaty of Rome, or if we were to enjoy the status of Switzerland, which was 373 clever enough to avoid even that position, might not our difficulties be very much eased? Would we, for instance, be facing this absurd ban from a bunch of bureaucrats in Brussels? What is the position in Switzerland, which I understand has a liberal sprinkling of BSE but, so far as I know, has not had its products banned from world markets? My final question: is this whole story not just one more nail in the coffin of our membership of the European Community?
The Earl of Lindsay
My Lords, I must be honest and say that had we not been a member of the European Union the situation would not be very much different. As I stressed, many countries have themselves taken action against British beef-related exports. That was not prompted by the ban imposed upon us by Europe. I stress also that Switzerland does have BSE. I believe that it has the highest incidence of BSE outside the UK but it is a fraction of the BSE we have been having in this country. The controls and various measures we have been imposing since 1989 have begun to take effect. The incidence of BSE in all parts of the UK has fallen dramatically and is continuing to fall. We are convinced that a product that we know is safe and great will soon be recognised by everyone as being healthy and of quality.
§ Lord Carter
My Lords, as there is a moment or two left, will the Minister help the House and the industry by explaining the arrangements more clearly? As I understood it, the Minister said that the arrangements for the slaughter of animals over 30 months of age will take another three, four or five weeks or even longer to bring into action. What is the position now for the farmer who has the cull animal, which may have gone lame or whatever, which needs to be culled? Are such animals to be kept on the farms? Is there no way in which they can be moved? Do they have to wait there? Does the farmer have to feed them, and the rest of it? Does he have to wait to see what is going to happen? This is intended to be a helpful question. Farmers are genuinely concerned to know what they should do now.
The Earl of Lindsay
My Lords, I can assure the noble Lord that we are working urgently on all fronts to produce answers to the many questions which the whole issue has raised for farmers and everyone else involved in the beef industry concerning reassurance, help, short-term assistance and so on. The help lines which are available in all parts of the UK through agricultural offices or MAFF are designed to give specific answers to farmers in their individual circumstances. I would encourage any farmer who is uncertain as to how best to handle the situation to seek the advice of officers. The measures now in place are fairly numerous. We have sought to respond to needs. Advice to each farmer in his individual circumstances is to be recommended.