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Part of Opposition Day – in the House of Commons at 5:29 pm on 25th June 1996.

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Photo of Tony Baldry Tony Baldry Minister of State (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food) 5:29 pm, 25th June 1996

There is clearly a problem. We have given clear advice to abattoirs about how they should approach the issue of heifers coming into the scheme, and, as I have made clear to the industry, we are keen for as few heifers as possible to be rejected after slaughter. Rejection would mean that the farmer concerned would receive no compensation, which strikes me as very hard. If any hon. Member has details of an abattoir where there have been particular problems with heifers, I should like to know about it. We have given abattoirs detailed guidance, and I thought that we had resolved the issue.

The next step is the removal of the export ban, and the Commission document identifies five stages to achieve that. They relate to embryos, on which we expect the Scientific Veterinary Committee to make recommendations by October; animals born after a specific date and their meat; animals and meat from certified herds without a history of BSE or exposure to meat and bonemeal; meat from other animals under 30 months of age; and in the longer term, meat from all older animals.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made it clear yesterday that we would expect to be in a position to tell the Commission by October that we have met the necessary conditions for decisions to lift the ban on two of the five stages—certified herds, and animals born after a specified date and their meat. Removal of the ban on those two categories will reopen to our industry an export market worth initially about £100 million a year, and its value will increase rapidly thereafter as the certified herd scheme gains momentum. By October, we also expect a Commission proposal on a third stage—embryos—subject to the scientists giving them a clean bill of health. We should have met the conditions necessary for a decision to lift the ban on the fourth stage—meat from all animals under 30 months—by November.

Securing agreement on those steps will restore the position of beef exports to that before 27 March, except in the areas where we have prohibited sale in the UK. In other words, we would be in a position of being able to sell for export to the European Union young animals and all the beef that could then be sold in the UK. That would open the way for exports worth some £530 million per year.

To achieve that, we must first present a working paper to the Commission, setting out the specific criteria and indicators for each stage. The Commission will submit that paper to its Scientific Veterinary Committee for advice and to the newly created multi-disciplinary scientific committee and, where appropriate, to other relevant scientific committees. At the same time, the paper will be discussed by the Standing Veterinary Committee. In the light of those discussions, the Commission will take a decision in accordance with the established procedure, by presenting a draft decision to the Standing Veterinary Committee. The Commission will subsequently fix the date when exports can effectively resume, following a successful outcome of a Community inspection. That approach follows the model of the decision already adopted for resuming exports of gelatin and tallow, for which we are already drawing up the arrangements to allow trade to restart.

The timetable is ambitious and will clearly require Government and the industry to work hard together to achieve the early lifting of the ban, but the timetable is in our hands. When we have met the conditions, the normal procedures for such decisions, involving the Standing Veterinary Committee in particular, will apply—but we have the firm commitment from all Heads of Government in Florence that those decisions will be taken only on the basis of scientific and objective criteria.

I fully recognise the fact that despite the measures that have been taken, the beef market here and elsewhere in the EU remains depressed. Beef producers have lost and are losing substantial sums of money on cattle marketed under those conditions. We must give continual attention to what we can do to assist fanners with under 30-month-old beef who are selling into the retail market, but at prices markedly lower than this time last year. In recognition of that, the European Commission has proposed that £527 million should be made available for support measures in the beef sector. Part of that sum would fund increases of the suckler cow premium and beef special premium, on the basis of claims made in 1995. The proposed increases are £21.41 per head for suckler cows and £17.98 per head for male cattle. It is proposed also that the remainder of the sum available should be used to fund national aid measures to support the beef sector.

At the European Council in Florence, Heads of Government agreed that the sum of money available for the package should be increased to £689 million. My right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of Agriculture is currently discussing the final shape of the package in Luxembourg, and I hope that agreement can be reached quickly. If top-up payments under the premium schemes are agreed this week, we should be able to make payment to eligible producers from mid-July onwards.