BSE (Agriculture Council)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:30 pm on 1st May 1996.

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Photo of Gavin Strang Gavin Strang , Edinburgh East 3:30 pm, 1st May 1996

I advise the Minister again that we fully share his commitment to securing an early lifting of the ban on the export of UK beef and beef products, and it is very disappointing that he has so little progress to report to the House. He said that the European Union Standing Veterinary Committee is likely to consider lifting the ban on tallow, gelatine and semen. Although any alleviation of the ban is to be welcomed, he will recognise that the number of jobs involved is small relative to the total number at stake.

Is the Minister aware of the great anxiety across the industry at his failure to put in place the programme for the destruction of the carcases of the cattle over 30 months old? There is huge uncertainty about which cattle will go first, to which livestock market, and to which abattoirs.

Does the Minister feel that his failure to put that programme in place, as he agreed to do, undermined his position at the council meeting? Does he agree that it is absolutely vital to the financial position of farmers and the welfare of animals that he brings that programme into full operation as soon as he possibly can? The measure should be up and running now, and while we continue without it fully in operation, many animals are on farms that are running out of feed, where serious welfare problems could develop.

Will the Minister also give very careful consideration to the levels of dead weight compensation and live weight compensation for the animals that are to be destroyed, taking into account the needs to give a fair return to farmers and to avoid further disruption to the beef market?

How are the slaughterhouses expected to deal with animals that are ineligible for human consumption? There is unease in many quarters that animals that are to go into our food may be slaughtered in slaughterhouses that are also dealing with animals that are ineligible for human consumption. Is it the Government's intention that the whole carcases of all the animals ineligible for human consumption are to be incinerated?

Two weeks ago, the Minister spoke about the need for an urgent look at exemptions to the 30-month ban. What progress has he made on that? With regard to the additional selective slaughter programme, can he confirm that the agreement that he reached last night was on the basis of a strengthening of the proposed additional slaughter programme? Does that mean killing even more cows?

Is it not now clear that the Council of Agriculture Ministers was not satisfied with our identification arrangements? Had the Government implemented the tagging policy that we advocated six years ago—which is now in place in Northern Ireland—the Minister might have been in a slightly stronger position in the Council this week. If we are to embark on an additional selective slaughter programme, this must be arranged quickly—not least because of concerns that farmers who have BSE cohort animals may be tempted to sell them on.

The eradication of BSE is a desirable objective. The Minister will have read the letter that I sent to him on Monday, calling for an investigation into the flouting of the ruminant feed ban, and into the high percentage of new cases of animals born after the feed ban was introduced in 1988. Such an inquiry could have been completed within two or three months, and it is necessary if we are to eradicate BSE from our cattle.

Surely the determination—[Interruption.] I can assure Conservative Members that we intend to pursue this issue, which is the major issue facing the Government—the Prime Minister himself has said so. Surely the determination to resolve the issue and tackle the question of eradicating BSE completely from our cattle is vital. The quicker we go down that road, the quicker the ban on exports will be lifted.

Does the Minister recognise that this BSE/Creutzfeldt-Jakob crisis throws a new light on the importance of the research establishments that are carrying out work on BSE and CJD? The Minister will advise the House that the Government have increased expenditure on BSE research since it was discovered in 1986—it would be hard not to have done so—but that increase was against the background of massive cuts in food and agricultural research. Has it occurred to him that the Government's policy of short-term contracts in research establishments is not helpful to the long-term research that is required on BSE and CJD?

Finally, I appeal to the Minister and to the Government to withdraw the prior options review plan to sell off the Government establishments that are carrying out research into BSE and CJD. Surely he must recognise that selling these establishments and privatising the staff is not in the interests of our scientists. [Interruption.] He must understand that BSE and CJD will be with us for some years to come, and that long-term research must be done by scientists in Government establishments who do not spend their time looking around for their next job. [Interruption.]