Beef Production

Oral Answers to Questions — Scotland – in the House of Commons at 1:45 pm on 5th June 1996.

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Photo of David Lidington David Lidington , Aylesbury 1:45 pm, 5th June 1996

To ask the Secretary of State for Scotland what representations he has received from the National Farmers Union for Scotland concerning Scottish beef production. [30075]

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

My noble friend the Minister for Agriculture, Forestry and the Environment and I have regular meetings with the Scottish NFU.

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington , Aylesbury

Will my right hon. Friend continue to make every effort to secure the complete lifting of the beef export ban, in the interests both of Scottish farmers and of meat exporting companies like Donald Russell of Aberdeenshire, the sales director of which is a constituent of mine? Will my right hon. Friend join me in deploring the reported remarks this morning by the German Health Minister, who in effect said that, whatever is decided by the European Union, Germany will maintain a unilateral national ban on the import of British beef and beef products, in defiance of its treaty obligations and European law?

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Chair, Administration Committee

With regard to beef production, the Glasgow meat market in my constituency was advised by the Scottish Office, as late as 1992, to upgrade its facilities with fridges and stainless steel products to bring it into line with the European Community, and only a month ago received a fax from the Scottish Office to say that it should cease production forthwith. The people who work there have been put out of a job. They have had a great deal of investment and their mortgages and homes are being threatened. All I ask is that the Minister, the noble Lord Lindsay, meets them. I hope that the Secretary of State will pass on that request to him.

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

I well understand the hon. Gentleman's concern. Many people in Scotland are affected by this completely unjustified ban on good, quality Scottish beef. Of course I understand the concerns of his constituents, and my noble Friend will, as always, be pleased to meet the hon. Gentleman if he wishes to bring a delegation from his constituency.

Photo of Mr Hector Monro Mr Hector Monro , Dumfries

Does my right hon. Friend accept that all farmers and those involved in the food chain very much appreciate his efforts and those of the noble Lord Lindsay in trying to resolve the problem? Will my right hon. Friend do two things: first, will he try to speed up the 30-month disposal of heifers, which has not yet started; and, secondly, will he produce a newsletter each week, giving explicit details of how the scheme is proceeding and what farmers should do to help their own interests?

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

Officials in Scotland have been working with the industry. The 30-month scheme is now being administered by a group drawn from all the industry's interests, and we have made substantial progress. The task is enormous, and I fully understand the anxiety and concerns expressed by my right hon. Friend and others. His suggestion of a regular newsletter to farmers, some of whom may or may not be members of the National Farmers Union, is good, and I shall certainly ask officials to take that on board and get such a project under way.

Photo of Jim Wallace Jim Wallace , Orkney and Shetland

Does the Secretary of State accept that, from the outset of the crisis, one potentially helpful step is the role of the Intervention Board for Agricultural Produce? Does he further accept that the low volume of meat that has gone into intervention from Scottish farms has been disappointing and that there has been considerable bureaucracy? What steps have he and his fellow Ministers taken to use their good offices with the intervention board to ensure that more meat is moved to try to reduce some of the backlog that is building up, particularly as another tranche is coming on stream?

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I know of one particularly astonishing case from his constituency, which was mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister when it was drawn to his attention. A report is being compiled and a number of changes are being brought about. I agree also with the hon. Gentleman about the importance of access to intervention. Some changes have been made and the matter will be kept under review. I well understand the frustration that has been felt, but it is now being addressed.

Photo of Mr Bill Walker Mr Bill Walker , North Tayside

Is my right hon. Friend aware that on Monday, when he and I were on the shores of Loch Lomond, the veterans in attendance were in support of the Government's actions in Europe to protect the interests of beef producers in Scotland as well as in the rest of the United Kingdom? My right hon. Friend may be interested to know that the Government's tactics have the full support of my constituents.

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

I was delighted to see my hon. Friend on the bonnie banks of Loch Lomond, where he was joined by the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell)—and it was a pleasant and non-political occasion. I am sure that most people in our country applaud my right hon. Friend's stance in standing up for the interests of British beef and British farmers. We take that stand with no relish but because we are determined to get justice in Europe for our farmers.

Photo of Mr George Robertson Mr George Robertson Shadow Secretary of State

We too strongly want the ban on beef exports lifted and convincing measures put in place to eliminate completely bovine spongiform encephalopathy from the British herd, to build confidence in our beef industry. Will the right hon. Gentleman take it from me that, if the Government's position starts to have more to do with keeping the splinters of an internal argument in the Tory party together, the Government will not only lose the support of hon. Members in other parts of the House but damage, perhaps permanently, relations between this country and our trading partners in Europe—which would endanger countless thousands more jobs?

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

The hon. Gentleman might reflect on the fact that the ban was imposed by qualified majority voting. If the decision had required unanimity, the ban would not have been imposed. The hon. Gentleman and his party want more Community measures determined by qualified majority voting, rather than by unanimity. He should acknowledge that he and his party, with their particular policy on Europe, would give more power to Brussels. It is not terribly credible for the hon. Gentleman to complain about the consequences of decisions reached in Europe that are out of line with our national interests when his party is so determined to hand more power to the bureaucrats in Brussels.

Photo of Mr Phil Gallie Mr Phil Gallie , Ayr

Is my right hon. Friend aware of a recent report from world veterinary surgeons meeting in Paris, stating that Europe has got it totally wrong in respect of BSE—and that, in going for a programme of culling, now Britain has got it wrong? Those experts were effectively saying that Britain took the correct steps in 1989–90 to correct the BSE situation. Does my right hon. Friend regret to some degree that we have been forced into a culling programme?

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

We have not agreed to any culling programme but have entered into discussions with the Community to have the ban—which, as my hon. Friend said, is completely unjustified—lifted. The World Health Organisation and our own Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee, which comprises a group of distinguished scientists, has spelt out the scientific position clearly. If the matter were driven by science and common sense, our farmers would be able to sell their beef to Europe, where they would find consumers willing to buy a quality product.