With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the emergency Council that has just concluded in Luxembourg, and related matters.
The high level of public concern over bovine spongiform encephalopathy 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 precipitate decision taking 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. Many of the steps that have been taken against our exports have no justification on scientific grounds. I hope that soon normality will return.
I will come in a moment to the outcome of the Council, which ended this morning in Luxembourg. At home, my ministerial colleagues in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and other members of the Government 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 by reports from retailers that their customers are looking for beef in the shops again. Retailers have met my right hon. 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 based on identification of those herds that have had no cases of BSE, or on a computer system that could trace animals back to the farm of origin. 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 those developments that 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, to enable market confidence to recover.
As an immediate but necessarily 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 recover the loss of revenue to the Meat Hygiene Service through a supplementary estimate.
To quantify the difficulties facing the industry, qualified expert accountants are being appointed forthwith to provide urgent advice on the industry's immediate problems and how they could be solved. Those solutions will be the subject of close consultation with the slaughtering industry. The Government are simultaneously 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.
I hope that I have by those means demonstrated the Government's commitment to maintaining the vital contribution of the slaughterhouse sector to the meat processing chain and to the essential immediate task of facilitating the flow of fresh meat through the system to meet retailers' and consumers' demand. Additional money will be provided to my Department's Votes to cover the cost involved.
We have continued to discuss with farmers the orders that we laid last week. As a result of those 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—or by reliable, independently verifiable documents. I believe that that will remove the main cause of uncertainty among farmers, and will help to restore the flow of cattle through auction markets and to abattoirs.
The public and 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 to general standards of hygiene. The Meat Hygiene Service has a crucial role. That 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 the state veterinary service on compliance with meat hygiene regulations and enforcement action taken. I hope that that will demonstrate the continuing efforts that the UK meat industry is making progressively to raise hygiene standards in our slaughterhouses. I shall shortly be placing before the House performance targets for the Meat Hygiene Service for the coming year, which will need to reflect the additional duties resulting for the service from the new measures that I am announcing today, and those announced on 20 and 25 March.
I refer next to the outcome of the Council of Agriculture Ministers that started in Luxembourg on 1 April and ended at 6 am 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 decision, it was not possible for the United Kingdom to endorse the Council's conclusions. The BSE crisis has presented the whole Community 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 UK 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.
I made it clear that, in order to be acceptable to us, any Council conclusions 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 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 that confront us all.
Nevertheless, some progress was made over the past few days, and there are specific steps that 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 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 that protects the environment and human health.
I emphasise that this is not a compulsory slaughter scheme, in the ordinary sense of that phrase. The objective is to take older cattle, cows and bulls which come on to the market for slaughter at the end of their working lives, 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 that some of our Community partners have exaggerated ideas of what is possible in this area, based on a misunderstanding of the nature of BSE. We shall, however, be giving further thought to the idea, in consultation with our farming organisations and others. We can proceed only if there are practical and cost-effective proposals.
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 to stabilise prices in the United Kingdom and in other member states. They will help to restore confidence to the UK beef sector and to 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 inquiries about BSE and the beef export ban. Staff will be on duty during the Easter holiday to deal with business inquiries. My and other Ministers' private offices will be on duty during the Easter recess to deal with queries and questions raised by colleagues.
In conclusion, I believe that the steps the Government have taken up to now rest on sound science. Our objective is still 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 eatc—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 by industry, British beef is a product of which we can be proud. We shall do all that we can to promote and to protect it.
Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman aware that the deal that he has brought back from Luxembourg is the worst of all worlds, and that, once again, a weak Government who are isolated in Europe have completely failed to represent effectively Britain's interests in Europe? Is it not clear that, far from securing a complete package of measures to tackle the crisis, he is now expected to go back to Brussels with a proposal for an additional selective slaughter scheme?
Does the Minister recognise that the industry is now confronted with huge uncertainty? It has no idea how many additional cows the Government will condemn, no idea whether any new proposal for selective slaughter will be acceptable to our European partners, and no idea when Britain will again be allowed to export beef and beef products.
Will the Minister give us some idea of the number of cattle that are likely to be targeted under any new selective slaughter scheme? Will he give us some idea of the criteria that the Government are likely to take into account in deciding whether to slaughter individual animals or herds? Will he today give the House an undertaking that any slaughter under those policies will be carried out humanely? [Laughter.] I am surprised that Tory Members do not regard that as an important point, because many cattle will be slaughtered, and surely we want to ensure that it is done humanely.
Will EU funds will be available only for compensation to farmers—towards the cost of buying the cattle to be slaughtered—or can the funds also be used for the incineration and destruction of the carcases and for other expenses associated with these measures?
Will the Minister give the House some idea—there was nothing about it in his statement—of the total cost of all the measures to tackle BSE announced by the Government in the past two weeks, and will he tell us what will be the likely net cost to the UK after taking into account the reduction in our rebate from the EU budget? The Minister advised the House last Thursday that the Lord President of the Council was to convene a committee to address the problems faced by abattoirs and by the wider rural economy. I have noted what he said about waiving red meat inspection charges in slaughterhouses, which I welcome, and what he said about making an approach to the banking sector to help slaughterhouses, but will he assure us that, following the deliberations of the Lord President's committee, he will still make a statement on additional assistance for our slaughterhouses and for the broader rural economy? Perhaps he can give me some idea about when we are likely to obtain that announcement.
Does the Minister agree that, although a selective slaughter policy may have a part to play, consumers will be confident that British beef is safe only when all the measures necessary to keep the BSE agent out of human food are in place, and are being effectively enforced? In that connection, I welcome what the Minister said about Government support for quality assurance schemes. The Prime Minister may shake his head, but I remind him that that was one of the seven proposals put forward by the Labour party last week, which he derided in the House. I welcome the Government's willingness to provide assistance for a quality assurance scheme.
I do not need to remind the House that the Government's record on enforcement of BSE controls is appalling. As the right hon. and learned Gentleman is aware, part of the agreement reached last night involves a requirement that those controls will be reinforced and that the state veterinary service will make additional inspections. In that context, I again welcome what the Minister said about the state veterinary service and the Meat Hygiene Service. Can he confirm that the Government will provide the required additional money not only to the Meat Hygiene Service, as he said, but to the state veterinary service?
Although I welcome the proposal for quarterly reports of those inspections, in the current circumstances, monthly reports might be more appropriate. [HON. MEMBERS: "What about hourly reports?"] I ask him to consider that. [Interruption.] I am sorry that the Prime Minister may not like such a proposal, but it is an important issue.
Does the Minister agree that the industry and consumers cannot simply be left in limbo? Will he go back to the Commission to try to secure earlier meetings of the Council of Agriculture Ministers and of the European Union Standing Veterinary Committee with the view to reaching an earlier agreement with the EU on the measures that are required? Surely he recognises that it is quite unacceptable that we should carry on until the end of this month in the worst of all worlds.
It is sometimes desirable for the House to focus on the main issues and that is why I am going to make some general remarks to the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang). Let me make the first one so the House can hear it clearly: the hon. Gentleman did not condemn the ban. More than that, on many occasions in the past few weeks, he has expressed his understanding for it. It is not surprising that in Europe we find a determination to keep the ban in place when people there hear members of the Labour party supporting it. I regard that as outrageous, and so does the farming community of this country.
Let me make another point of a general kind. The Labour party has said on many occasions that it is not prepared to stand alone on Europe. What does that mean in this context? It means that it will acquiesce in anything that is done to the destruction of our interests. The truth is that those abroad who have heard the hon. Gentleman's contribution this afternoon will take comfort and say that they are justified in imposing restrictions on British goods.
I shall make another point. The hon. Gentleman also asked what we have done to support agricultural and other interests. I shall tell him. We have brought to this country either the fact or the prospect of millions of pounds; we are waiving the Meat Hygiene Service charges; we have provided very satisfactory assistance for the renderers; last week, we provided financial assistance for farmers producing young bull calves; we succeeded in negotiating a very satisfactory intervention package; and we have secured the promise of hundreds of millions of pounds to support the implementation of the 30-month rule, and other funds are available. None of that would have been done had the hon. Gentleman been discharging my responsibilities.
I tender my respects to my right hon. and learned Friend for the stamina that he has shown in the past few days at the Council of Ministers. During that great ministerial marathon, when our partners proposed a more intensified policy of slaughter, did they also advance scientific and veterinary evidence to justify those proposals? If not, were the proposals designed to promote a restoration of consumer confidence? Was my right hon. and learned Friend able to point out that it is price that is restoring consumer confidence in this country, that it is price that will continue to restore consumer confidence in this country and that, in this context, we do not want another politically motivated, complicated, bureaucratic scheme for an intensification of slaughter policy initiated by those who do not have British agricultural or consumer interests at heart?
My right hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. First, I am grateful to him for his kind remarks as to the length and character of the discussions of the past two and a half days.
There may be a case for a tightly targeted selective culling policy to reduce the incidence of BSE, provided that it is clear that it is tightly targeted and will actually bring about a substantial diminution in the number of BSE cases. What is not justified is a wholesale slaughter of herds which may, to some small degree, have been affected by BSE. Should we contemplate such a policy, we would have to be clear, according to the scientific facts, that what we were doing was justified.
My colleagues and I agree with the Minister about three things. First, we agree that beef is safe. That view has been endorsed now that the World Health Organisation has today made its definitive pronouncement, and we hope that that information will be disseminated as widely as possible. Secondly, we agree that the best thing that we can achieve from negotiations is the lifting of the ban by the European Union. Thirdly, we agree that confidence is returning, although it has been so battered that it is probably only 15 per cent. of what it was before the crisis began.
If the Minister really wants to make sure that confidence returns as quickly as possible and that the ban is lifted as quickly as possible, may I suggest that the Government should do what he criticised the Europeans for not doing—take prompt and effective action? It is no good announcing today that, as a matter of urgency, there will be a slaughter of cattle more than 30 months old when that idea has been on the table—put there by us, and by others—for nine days. It is no good announcing today a quality assurance scheme as a matter of urgency when that idea has been on the table for eight days. It is no good announcing a credit guarantee scheme today when that idea has been on the table since at least the weekend.
The Minister has to understand that, if the Government act quickly, we can expect Europe to respond. Will he admit to the House that the lesson of the previous two days' negotiations has been that the more and the sooner we co-operate with our partners, the better and more effective their response will be? Will he go back to Europe as soon as possible, and show that he has done what he is still only talking about?
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has confirmed what the House has heard many times—that British beef is safe and can be eaten with confidence. I am also glad that he endorsed the Government's view that it is essential for the European Union to lift the ban. Confidence is returning, and one of the reasons for that is the prompt action taken by the Government. As soon as we have been in a position to do so, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and I have made full statements to the House on a number of occasions, setting out the conclusions of the scientific committee, together with a range of measures that we were advised to take. It should also be borne in mind that we have implemented, promptly and fully, all the recommendations of the specialist advisory committee. That in itself should reassure the consumer about the safety of British beef.
We have also acted promptly in ensuring that money has become available from the European Union to provide substantial financial assistance for British farmers. Let me draw particular attention to the large intervention package that has been secured, and to the support for the endorsement of the 30-month rule.
My right hon. and learned Friend has my sympathy. Does he agree that Ministers were absolutely right to make public announcements about the most likely link between animal and human disease, rather than attempting a cover-up or denial? Was he himself not right, at the beginning of the problem, to call for a selective slaughter policy to restore public confidence? Are the Government not right to seek, and to continue to seek, the support of our customers and colleagues in the rest of Europe, if we are ever to restore the export market for our beef that has been so profitable to this country?
My hon. Friend has made an important point. I am grateful for her support.
We have an absolute duty to put considerations of human health above all others. I was pleased to hear my hon. Friend say that we had a paramount duty to make a full statement to the House. We had an obligation to the House, and nowhere else, to make the first statement about the conclusions that the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee had reached and the recommendations that it was making. It may be fashionable in some quarters to suggest that reports should be made elsewhere first, but I do not accept that. The accountability of Ministers is to the House, and we shall always discharge that duty first, and above all others.
Is it true that we shall be paying back, over a period of years, large sums that are supposedly coming from a European source? If so, would it not have been better for the Minister to abandon his slightly disoriented bobbing like a cork between here and Brussels, and got on with finding both the money and the health measures to support the industry and customers? If he did that, random testing could go ahead, details of the destruction of carcases could be given to the industry and, above all, people would know how the ashes will be disposed of. If the Minister is entirely safe and secure in his knowledge of those public health measures, will he please get on with it and stop wandering around the continent?
The hon. Lady's first question related to the rebate. Labour Members would be well advised to acknowledge that the fact that we have a rebate of this kind is due to the determination of my noble Friend Lady Thatcher. Had it been left to the Labour party, we would not have a rebate to talk about.
Facilities are available for disposal. We have a comprehensive range of rendering and incineration plants. As I made plain in my statement, disposal will be undertaken in a safe and proper way and in accordance with measures that have been considered in conjunction with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment.
Does the Minister realise that, although his announcement today of assistance for slaughterhouses and of the banks' involvement is welcome, the effect could be serious for the infrastructure in some rural areas? I am thinking of a wider group than, say, slaughterhouses. Hauliers and markets could be badly affected. At the same time, the bad effects could be much more regionalised. Will he try to avoid considering the problem in a broad, overall way? He should realise that the bad effects are especially likely to be felt on the west side of England and in Wales and Scotland, for instance, where the bulk of livestock are to be found.
My right hon. Friend, who knows an enormous amount about the industry and who has represented its interests with great distinction in a number of capacities, is entirely right. My right hon. and hon. Friends are conscious of the possible consequences for the infrastructure of rural areas and for various industries and economic communities associated with the agricultural community. Because of that, we are watching carefully the impact of this crisis. The waiving of Meat Hygiene Service charges, which was announced in my statement, is one clear example of the way in which we have responded.
My right hon. Friend makes the point that we should be alert to differences between rural areas and regional areas. I was enormously helped in my negotiations in Brussels by Lady Denton, who represents the Northern Ireland Office interest, and by Lord Lindsay, who represents the Scottish Office interest—they played a considerable part in what happened in Luxembourg. I am most grateful to them.
I welcome, on behalf of my colleagues, what the Minister has done to date for the beef industry, but the crisis has been calamitous for Northern Ireland, where we are so dependent on the beef industry. We do not believe that the intervention that is on offer will be sufficient to take us out of the difficulty. While the Minister's officials are considering the possibility of quality assurance schemes, may I remind him that every animal is tagged and computer recorded? In addition, there are quality assurance schemes in Northern Ireland, Scotland and elsewhere in the United Kingdom. The ban must be negotiated away.
Our erstwhile European partners have been motivated by self-interest and opportunism to seek advantage for themselves. Will the Minister consider getting good British beef, whether it is from Ulster, Scotland, Wales or England, on the move where there is already quality assurance, while further schemes are being introduced?
I appreciate the considerable importance of the beef industry to Northern Ireland's economy. That was one reason why I was grateful for the presence of Lady Denton, who represents the agriculture interest in the Northern Ireland Office. The hon. Gentleman is right when he draws attention to the characteristics of beef management in Northern Ireland, which go a long way to making it one of the finest parts of the UK's beef industry. In particular, he draws attention to tagging and to the management of beef.
The hon. Gentleman is wholly right to say that it is vital to negotiate the ban away. He has my undertaking that we shall do our utmost to bring that about at the earliest possible opportunity. He makes some interesting points about especially well-protected herds. I shall consider that specifically to find out whether it offers a way forward.
Will my right hon. and learned Friend accept that any reasonable person will know that, in the past few days, he has been fighting desperately for the farming industry? Does he realise that the panic reaction started with the disgusting speech of the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman) from the Dispatch Box?
May I ask my right hon. and learned Friend about one specific issue—very small farms, especially those in the west country—which was not covered in his statement? The intervention of the banks will obviously help, but, often, some of the farmers who need help most will have the least equity to assist the banks in granting further loans. Will he therefore consider the position of farms that are stuck with calves and beef which are readily available for export, which they cannot move and for which there is not necessarily a market in Britain? Those people will need considerable help from the Government as soon as possible.
I am extremely grateful to my right hon. Friend for his kind remarks—compliments from him are compliments indeed. I agree with his comment on the speeches—there have been a number of them—of the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman). They have done considerable damage to the integrity of British agriculture and to our reputation, although that is a much lesser matter.
As to small farms, especially those involved in the dairy and beef sectors, my right hon. Friend is right. We shall of course keep a careful eye on particular sectors, whether they be regional or part of a particular industry such as agriculture. I think that he will accept, however, that the important thing is to try to restore market confidence and, through that, to ensure that there is a restoration in prices and movement of beef through auction houses and marketplaces. What I announced last week with regard to the premium in young bull calves will be of particular assistance and value to his constituents. The substantial enlargement of the intervention policy, which we were able to secure in Luxembourg, will be of particular value to those constituents. I hope that, when it works out, he and I can agree on that.
This is a serious situation that calls for statesmanship. Our Front-Bench spokesman asked a series of questions regarding further regulations, and not one of them was answered. The Minister blew his top and gave us a rant. Will he reconsider now? He will have notes on all those questions. Will he give the answers to which hon. Members and my constituents are entitled? Pits in my constituency have been destroyed by the Deputy Prime Minister and the farms are due to be destroyed, so we need serious answers to serious questions.
In the last two weeks, I have had the pleasure of standing at this Dispatch Box on three occasions—I have made two statements and I opened a debate last Thursday. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health has done likewise. We had the pleasure to appear before the Select Committee for Health and the Select Committee for Agriculture for about six hours, in the course of which we answered many questions. The hon. Gentleman should read the record more assiduously.
My right hon. and learned Friend is well aware that Conservative Members have total confidence in the way in which he has conducted the negotiations, but is he also aware that there is a growing loss of confidence in the integrity of the European Union Ministers with whom he is trying to negotiate? If, despite Britain's efforts, the worldwide ban continues much longer, will my right hon. and learned Friend assure the House that he will consider its legality?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind remarks as to confidence. He is indeed right when he refers in those terms to the action of some overseas Ministers. It is important that we secure a lifting of the ban. The justifications for the imposition and the maintenance of the ban are not based on logic or science, and we are looking earnestly and urgently at the legality of what has been done.
Will the specialist accountants, who are to tell us how much damage has been done in our constituencies, look specifically at the problems of the specialist beef producers, people who are not dairy farmers—to whom culled cows are an additional aspect of income—but whose entire income is caught up in livestock; people who cannot market their cattle; people, perhaps on the hills, who cannot sell their cattle? Will instruments such as the hill livestock compensatory allowance, which exist to help such people, be used?
Has the Minister seen the report from TSB Scotland, which estimates that, even with a 25 per cent. decline in demand, there will be 6,000 job losses throughout the food chain in Scotland? Does he know that that report also said that the way forward was a specifically Scottish policy response to mitigate the scale of the disaster?
When the Minister was unable to persuade our customers to lift the ban, did he then, as the hon. Member for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs) recommended, go down the route of arguing that the quality assurance schemes in Scotland, Northern Ireland and elsewhere can be used to identify cattle as BSE-free? Can they get through the ban until such time as all cattle can be identified as BSE-clear? Every single producer in my constituency to whom I have spoken during the past two weeks has agreed that only by declaring them BSE-clear can cattle from Scotland or elsewhere be marketed with confidence in the future.
On the narrow question that the hon. Gentleman asked regarding accountants, their purpose is to look to the abattoirs. On the broader question of the prosperity of the Scottish beef industry, I am happy to say that, while I was in Luxembourg, I had the resolute assistance of my noble Friend Lord Lindsay, who has responsibility in this matter and who was acting on the express instructions of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland, who is deeply concerned.
We are looking closely at what we can do to address the question of quality herds. There may well be steps that we can take in that direction, but most important of all is the need to restore market confidence and urgently to provide financial assistance. In that context, the package of intervention to which I have referred, and the action that I announced last week with regard to young bull calves, is of particular importance.
Does the Minister agree that many British people look ill on criticisms offered by Ministers in Europe from countries where BSE is not even a notifiable disease? How do they know how much BSE is in their own country? Before they try to cast the mote out of the British beef industry's eye, they should cast the beam out of their own.
I thank the Minister for his tribute to the Ulster beef industry, but does he remember that our economic structure is built around that industry and that Northern Ireland is worse off now because of this crisis than any other part of the United Kingdom, because 70 per cent. of its beef is exported, and that trade has come to a standstill?
The present stocks in storage are worth £26 million. They are not moving at all. They cannot be guaranteed to be from cattle under 30 months old. Will those stocks come under the new rule, and will clearly defined help be given to the meat processing industry to get rid of those stocks, to empty the stores and to get the herds that are being fed and overfed on the farms to the abattoirs for slaughter and for export?
The hon. Gentleman has made a formidable case for the quality of British and Northern Irish beef. The quality of Northern Ireland beef is well known to hon. Members and is an essential part of the economy of the Province. It is for that reason that I was so pleased when I was in Luxembourg to have the assistance of my noble Friend Lady Denton.
The hon. Gentleman is entirely right when he makes the point that we in Britain have a range of controls relevant to the issue which are better than those that operate in most countries abroad, most particularly with regard to the disposal of specified bovine offal and the controls relating to feeding material for cattle. In those two respects, our regime is infinitely better than those on mainland Europe, where there must be many cases of undetected BSE. I am sceptical about the extremely low figures that are formally reported.
Will the Secretary of State comment on the work of Dr. Harash Narang, the Newcastle virologist who, in the early 1990s, developed a test for BSE in live animals? Is that not the very kind of test that we now need, so that, instead of destroying whole herds, we can destroy only individual animals carrying the BSE virus?
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that a test for live animals would be a great advantage in the control of BSE, in terms of animal health and protecting the human food chain. Unfortunately, we do not have such a test at the moment and the best advice that I have is that there is no sensible prospect of our having one in the near future. I wish that that were otherwise, for the reasons set out by the hon. Gentleman, but the best advice that I have been given is that there no immediate prospect of one.
Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that we recognise how hard he has battled in an extremely difficult situation, not made easier by the precipitate action of the European Commission, which has now made it difficult in the short term to remove the ban? My right hon. and learned Friend was right not to rush into some additional agreement on the slaughter policy, which could have been catastrophic for a large section of British agriculture and which would have been impossible to explain to Britain, or, perhaps, in the courts.
As we are not in the short term to have the assistance of our partners in Europe, the answers and the solutions to how to restore confidence now lie with ourselves. With the good sense of the British people, that will return, but it will take time. During that time, we must ensure that the fabric of the industry in all its aspects is, as far as possible, kept in being so that the restoration of confidence can be met by a continuing industry.
In that respect, my right hon. and learned Friend will have to deal over Easter with a raft of different questions from all sections of the industry, which, at the moment, have no answers to many difficult questions about which they are concerned. I am sorry to hear that he will be working over Easter, with his colleagues and the officials in the Department, but it is right that he should do so, in order to ensure that we have answers to as many questions as possible and that farmers, hauliers, slaughterhouses and everyone else involved have somewhere to go to get the answers that they need.
My right hon. Friend is right. I am sure that the precipitate action of our European partners has been one of the major causes of the lack of confidence. I agree with him on the importance of an early removal of the ban.
My right hon. Friend is also right when he says that confidence will return, but it will take some time to return; therefore, he is also right when he draws attention to the need to maintain the fabric of the industry in the meantime. It is against that background that I was anxious to secure, and did secure, an extended intervention package, which he knows about. That is why the Government are looking to the financial support that is available for implementing the 30-month rule so as to buy in the old milking cows, for example. My right hon. Friend will also recall what I said last week about financial support in respect of young bull calves.
Can we have some of the figures for which my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang) asked? Taking the rebate into account, what would the net cost to the United Kingdom have been if the Minister had been able to settle on a 70 per cent. rather than 80 per cent. EC contribution and a general settlement? What is the margin that we are arguing about, without taking into account the additional requirement placed on us for a general slaughtering of the herd?
I cannot answer that question in the broad because there are so many elements within the spending policies. There is, for example, spending on intervention and spending in support of the 30-month rule. There would be spending if we went down the road of a highly targeted slaughter policy such as I have described. A range of spending would be possible. Unless and until I have the costs of carrying out the specific programme, I simply cannot answer the question that the hon. Gentleman posed.
My right hon. and learned Friend has earned the thanks of the House for the tenacity with which he has pursued these difficult negotiations. We know that his aim is to restore confidence and underline the fact that British beef is safe. In that respect, will my right hon. and learned Friend consider a credit insurance scheme which would ensure payment to those who trade in cattle and beef products? Such a measure would help to bring confidence back to markets.
I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend and neighbour for his kind remarks, especially as he knows as much about agriculture as any person in the House. What he said about credit is of importance. I said earlier today that the Government were approaching the banking industry to establish whether it would be prepared to extend trade indemnity credit insurance to underwrite the cost to the slaughterhouse sector of taking on new business. That is adopting the type of approach that he has been good enough to suggest.
Is this not an inadequate and complacent statement? What comfort does it give to an abattoir in my constituency, Woodhead Brothers, which has laid off 70 people and has 200 people on part-time working? All that the Minister offers is relief from meat hygiene charges. The slaughterhouse in my constituency wants compensation for loss of earnings, loss of stock value, redundancy costs and so on. The statement is inadequate.
Safety is a related matter. Is it not the case that Ministers gave parliamentary replies earlier this year which confirmed that people from the veterinary service visited slaughterhouses between September and December last year and found that 48 per cent. were handling bovine offals inadequately? In the light of those facts, how can the Minister possibly come here and invite the British people to express confidence in British beef?
I think that most hon. Members will find a certain mismatch between the hon. Gentleman's comments. He correctly says that the abattoir in his constituency has seen a dramatic fall-off in business, with the consequences to which he has referred. The reason for that is loss of confidence. Why do we have a loss of confidence? There are a variety of reasons, but one is alarmist allegations, such as those made by the hon. Gentleman and by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang), which are not put into proper context, and which are damaging to confidence. The hon. Gentleman's constituents will be well advised to suggest to him that he thinks rather more carefully before he opens his mouth.
Did the other Ministers in the Council give any assessment of the state of the beef market in other member states? Why is it that, in spite of this wholly unforgivable ban on British beef, the market for beef in other member states remains depressed? Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the ban itself has created a loss of confidence in British beef? Is it not about time that the rest of Europe recognised that the measures that he has announced today mean that beef from Britain will be the safest in Europe?
My hon. Friend is right. There has indeed been a substantial fall in beef consumption across the European Union. One of the reasons for that lack of confidence is the imposition of the ban. That was one of the arguments that I urged on member states during the council meeting in Luxembourg. It adds powerfully to the argument that the ban should be lifted. My hon. Friend, who knows a great deal about agriculture as he represents a constituency which has powerful beef interests, is entirely right when he says that the quality of British beef, the safeguards taken in the industry, the controls in the slaughterhouses and the controls on the preparation of animal feed are in most respects infinitely better than those that can be found in most places on mainland Europe.
As 90 per cent. of all agricultural activity in Wales is in the livestock sector, I am sure that the Minister will be aware of the tremendous impact that the loss of confidence in the beef industry has had on people in Wales in the farming, slaughterhouse and meat processing industries, and in the wider rural economy. He will therefore understand my pressing him further on the need to obtain early agreement in Europe to lift the ban. What further measures does he consider reasonable to meet concerns that might be felt in Europe? Will there be urgent discussions before 29 April so that we can be sure that when that meeting comes, we shall be in a position to move forward significantly to lift the ban, even if we cannot do it before then?
The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the serious consequences that have flowed from the crisis in the beef industry, for the rural part of Wales. What he says about that is wholly right. He also asked specific questions—whether there would be urgent discussions and whether action would be taken between now and the Agriculture Council fixed for the end of April. The answer is yes. There will be very many discussions at official and, if necessary, other levels to impress on our European partners the urgent need to lift the ban. The hon. Gentleman can be reassured on that point.
I declare an interest, as I have a suckler herd. Does my right hon. and learned Friend recognise that there is a world of difference between using culled cows for a different purpose and the compulsory, and, as he admits, unnecessary, slaughter of healthy working herds which, in some instances, have been kept by families for generations? If the European Union, in its arbitrary, unaccountable way, forces our farmers to make such a cruel sacrifice to the European gods, it will be remembered for many a long year.
My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the distinction between the slaughter of cull cows—that is, cows that have reached the end of their milking careers—and the slaughter of herds for other reasons. He would probably agree that it is desirable to reduce the incidence of BSE in herds. Because he has a logical mind, he would agree that it is at least desirable to find whether we can work out with our scientists and experts whether it is possible to determine those herds which, for various reasons, are most at risk. If we could do that, it might be justifiable to pursue a highly targeted slaughter policy in respect of some such herds to reduce the incidence of BSE.
Will the Minister accept that the real bottleneck in the system is in companies such as Highland Meats of Saltcoats in my constituency, which are packed to the ceiling with meat that has been boned, chilled and packaged ready for supermarkets or export and for which there is no market? What is in his statement to assist such companies to clear that blockage so that, when confidence recovers, there is somewhere for the farming industry to sell its products?
The hon. Gentleman may have overlooked my point about the evidence that there are some signs of market confidence coming back. That is the most encouraging thing at the moment. If there is movement at supermarkets and other retail outlets, the blockages will be removed. That is the only way to provide continuing prosperity in any industry. He should, in the first instance, observe the extent to which market confidence is reviving.
Is not the quickest way to get back to firm foundations to reassert the scientific foundation for the argument? If that is re-established, the export ban could be more easily lifted. What steps are my right hon. and learned Friend and his officials taking to persuade the European Standing Veterinary Committee to reassess the matter on the basis of scientific knowledge? Secondly, will he keep a close watch on consumption? If it should be that the apparent resurgence of market confidence is not being sustained other than by severe discounting, and that his intervention scheme is not sufficient, will he consider the introduction of a make-up scheme?
We shall clearly have to keep consumption and confidence under careful review. I hope that one of the consequences of what I announced today and at the end of last week, and what was asserted in Luxembourg, may go some way to restoring confidence. If it does, and market confidence picks up, it will have a dramatic effect on the prosperity of the industry.
My hon. Friend is entirely right to assert the importance of resting policy on science. He rightly asks what steps we are taking to ensure that those who advise European institutions, especially the Commission, are in possession of the scientific information. Throughout last week, we had experts in Brussels who were consulting with those who advise the institutions of Brussels and we shall ensure that that contact continues. Indeed, I made it absolutely plain to the Ministers around the Council table that I was anxious that they should be put in possession of the all the relevant scientific information that I had at my disposal, and that will be done.