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BSE

Part of Opposition Day – in the House of Commons at 7:19 pm on 25th June 1996.

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Photo of Andrew Welsh Andrew Welsh , Angus East 7:19 pm, 25th June 1996

I will be brief, because of the time constraints.

This motion, though targeted at the Minister of Agriculture, is basically a motion of no confidence in the Government, and as such, we back it fully. The Government's handling of the beef crisis has undoubtedly exacerbated the problems and undermined confidence in the industry. Farmers are justifiably angry.

I cannot over-emphasise the importance of the beef industry to the Scottish economy. Agriculture represents around 3 per cent. of Scotland's gross domestic product; the United Kingdom figure is less than half that. The beef industry represents 30 per cent. of Scottish agriculture, compared with only 10 per cent. of England's; 20 per cent. of that figure is top-class beef exports, which were valued in 1995 at £118 million.

Agriculture provides 2.1 per cent. of total civilian employment in Scotland. The crisis impacts not only on farmers but on auction marts, abattoirs, renderers, transporters, manufacturers, retailers and bakeries. It is estimated that, for every 100 jobs directly lost in agriculture, there will be 288 jobs lost in the Scottish economy as a whole.

Over the past five years, while the value of total meat exports has trebled, the volume of beef exports has almost quadrupled. Practically all Scottish beef exports are destined for Europe, with 93 per cent. going to France, Italy, Belgium and Holland alone; 87 per cent. of United Kingdom beef exports are bound for the European Union. That is what the Prime Minister was messing about with in his so-called beef war.

The Government's mishandling of European negotiations has put other products in danger. In 1995, Scotland exported £97 million-worth of Scottish lamb, almost exclusively to the European Union. It is feared that the Government's petty posturing with our European partners could seriously threaten the European market, not only for beef but for other meat products.

Accompanying the greater importance of the beef industry in Scotland and Northern Ireland is the ironic fact that the incidence of BSE is significantly lower in both countries. The disease is concentrated in dairy herds, although even in those, the incidence in England is almost twice that in the Scottish dairy herds. More significantly, Scotland has two beef cattle for every dairy beast, while in England the ratio is reversed by almost 3:1.

About 70 per cent. of Scottish beef originates from suckler cow herds that are kept to produce beef-only animals. Some 3,700 farms are members of the Scottish Quality Beef and Lamb Association's quality assurance scheme, while 4,000 others meet the quality targets and are waiting to join the scheme. The association receives 30 applications a week to join its scheme.

The specialist herds are certified BSE-free, and should never have been lumped in with the affected dairy herds, as the Government insisted. The Scottish National party has consistently argued for a rolling lifting of the ban on beef exports, with quality products from Scotland and Northern Ireland leading the way out of the crisis. We took that campaign to Brussels without the help of the Scottish Office or of central Government. It has been one of the clearest examples yet of the desperate need for a strong, independent Scottish voice in Europe that argues strongly for Scottish interests.

Our Members of the European Parliament met Commissioner Fischler in April, as did representatives from Northern Ireland. We were told that the Commission was receptive to proposals for a regional or zonal lifting of the ban. Several European Union Farm Ministers echoed that, recognising the distinctiveness of quality beef. Jacques Santer, in an interview with "On the Record" in May, agreed that a step-by-step, regional or zonal approach to lifting the ban was the way forward.

The early-day motion tabled by the hon. Member for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs), which called for an immediate lifting of the ban from those parts of the United Kingdom with established quality assurance and traceability schemes, has had 92 signatories. Yet we faced the ridiculous situation that the proposal had to come from the British Government—and no such proposal came.

A practical case could have been made for putting Scottish beef back into its vital export markets. Instead, the Government preferred to wage a beef cold war in Europe, which could have negative implications for years to come. The Scottish National party has been disturbed by the Government's immature behaviour, and we are worried about its long-term impact on Scotland.

After the complete failure of the Government's tactics, the Prime Minister has simply tabled a series of measures to obtain the agreement that he was promised from the start. Yet the beef industry has been forced to endure months of damage. Consumer confidence has been hammered, and relations between the United Kingdom and the European Union are at an all-time low.

From the outset, the Commission had promised its support for lifting the ban if there was a programme to eradicate BSE. It is astounding that, after the disgraceful way in which the Prime Minister has handled the crisis, he is trying to claim victory in respect of the package agreed in Florence, when it has been on offer since day one. He has fought a phoney war and obtained a phoney victory. We need to repair the damage done by the Government—a task in which they have not yet engaged.

The Government have conceded that incidence of BSE is lower in Scotland, and that that would make it much easier to implement a successful eradication policy, and more quickly than could be done in England. In yesterday's statement, the Prime Minister set that as the first stage in a five-stage process to lifting the ban. His statement was full of vague and optimistic words and objectives, but had little substance. He "hopes", "believes" and "aims" to achieve objectives, but the industry needs firm commitments and assurances, not simple aspirations.

The Government hope to be in a position to lift the ban on certified herds by October, but that depends on clearing the backlog of animals awaiting slaughter in the 30-month-plus scheme, and a start to the accelerated slaughter of cattle at risk. We are entitled to ask exactly when the backlog will have to be cleared and how the Government propose to do that effectively.

Will the Minister assure us that a regional or zonal approach will be adopted, given that the number of BSE-affected cattle in Scotland is relatively small, and hence the number to be slaughtered fewer? The backlog will be cleared first in areas, such as Scotland, where quality beef herds predominate. That is what we and the farmers want from the Government.

Can the Minister assure us that the Scottish economy and beef industry will not be dragged down further by the Government's failure to implement measures to meet the deadline for clearing the backlog of dairy herds awaiting slaughter in England? Scottish agriculture requires and deserves no less.

I specifically ask the Minister to consider that Scottish and Northern Ireland quality beef herds can lead the rest of the United Kingdom beef industry out of the crisis. We have been arguing for that for a long time, with no help from the Scottish Office. The solution is clear if the Government care to adopt it. Their negotiating stance in Europe has been counter-productive.

There has been no victory, but there has been a start that must be built upon. We need action to deliver the steps that need to be taken. The quality beef herds of Scotland can be the vanguard in rolling back the blanket ban and starting the recovery that the industry badly needs.