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BSE

Part of Opposition Day – in the House of Commons at 9:20 pm on 25th June 1996.

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Photo of Malcolm Bruce Malcolm Bruce Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury) 9:20 pm, 25th June 1996

I have no intention of giving way.

The industry wishes to have answered a number of specific questions. I hope that, on this occasion, the Parliamentary Secretary will be prepared to answer them. She did not do so when I asked her questions at the end of the last debate on the industry, possibly because she was not able to do so.

The Prime Minister, the Government and, indeed, Ministers responsible for agriculture have said that they believe that the first lifting of the ban on meat products could apply to specialist herds. The hon. Member for Angus, East (Mr. Welsh) also raised this matter. The Government have not explained in ways that the industry can comprehend what is meant by specialist herds, how they will qualify, how many herds are likely to be affected or what volume that will mean. How will they be endorsed? How will the system be enforced? How will the guarantee be given in a way that will satisfy the European Union that we are offering a quality product that it can accept into its markets?

For example—this is a specific question—there is concern that farmers will be unable to prove that a 12, 18 or 24-month-old steer has been fed entirely on non-adulterated feedstuffs. They may well be able to give absolute assurances from their own knowledge, but proof will be difficult. The industry will appreciate it if the Minister can give some further guidance on how the Government intend to approach that difficulty. Lifting the ban on specialist herds could be an important first step, although when the Prime Minister says that he thinks that he can achieve that in October and the lifting of the ban on all beef under 30 months in November, one wonders why the distinction has such validity. It may be because he expects the time scale to be longer in reality.

Another measure that the Government have recently introduced is causing concern in terms of administration. I refer to their decision—the reasons for which are well understood—to offer an advance payment of £300 to farmers for cattle that are awaiting slaughter under the cull scheme. It has been put to me that those who are handling the slaughter of all cull cattle will face considerable administrative difficulties in determining which cattle have been the subject of the advance notice. That process may considerably complicate the administration of the cull. I would be grateful if the Parliamentary Secretary would say how it will be administered in a way that will not lead to delay, confusion and losses.

The hon. Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) again referred to companies that had been involved in the processing of head meat, a significant number of which have been affected. As the hon. Gentleman said, in good faith, these companies made significant investments in what was a perfectly respectable industry. The Government decided—on health grounds and without notice—to close the industry down overnight. The companies have not been offered compensation. I concur with the remarks of the hon. Gentleman in this regard.

The proprietor of one of the companies lives in my constituency. The companies are mainly family businesses that employ 20 or 30 people and are dependent on the capital raised, usually, on the security of the principal's house. They are facing bankruptcy. It is disgraceful that the Government do not accept any responsibility for the consequences of their decision to close those companies overnight. I understand that the companies propose to take legal action against the Government, but it would be gracious of the Government if they accepted that they should make a contribution.

A number of other people involved in beef production feel aggrieved because they are receiving little—or, in many cases, no—direct compensation and they are having to take the loss entirely. Again, this issue has been raised in the House before, but there has been no response from the Government. For example, those who are involved in the making of meat products, such as pies, have found that demand for their products has fallen by at least 50 per cent. and has not recovered. They have received no compensation. At the very least, the companies need substantial marketing assistance to enable them to reassure their customers that the meat that goes into their products comes from entirely approved sources, on exactly the same terms as cuts of meat. That might help them to re-establish the market.

In my constituency, people are involved in the transportation of live animals and of carcases and meat products. Many in the transport industry have been extremely hard hit by the downturn in the industry, and they have received no corresponding support.

The Scottish point of view is not entirely understood, but it is important that the Scottish dimension is fully understood, particularly by Agriculture Ministers. Scotland has traditionally been much more successful than England in the export market—a higher proportion of the Scottish product was exported. Although the home market has substantially recovered, the loss of Scottish exports means that the total market is considerably smaller than the recovered market south of the border.

As a consequence, specialist export companies—they have been almost entirely export led in the past—have had 90 to 95 per cent. of their business removed. They were the crème de la crème, the flagship, of our quality export promoters. Yesterday, I travelled on a plane with a senior executive of one of those companies in my constituency. He was on his way to Buckingham palace to negotiate his annual contract to supply the Queen with beef products. I am pleased that all foreign visitors who are entertained at Buckingham palace will be entertained with good Aberdeenshire beef bought from that supplier. As he said, "Good as it is to have the royal warrant, to have lost 95 per cent. of my business does not make for great compensation". He has failed to secure what he regards as a realistic offer for compensation for the meat that was in his stores when the ban was imposed.

The right hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) referred to the need to provide additional assistance to farmers in the form of various support mechanisms, such as the suckler cow and the beef special premiums—both of which are being reviewed by the European Commission—and the hill livestock compensation allowances. There is considerable anxiety in the industry about what will happen at the autumn calf sales. What Ministers say and their ability to deliver on those statements is extremely important.

If we rely on the assurances of the Prime Minister, the Minister of Agriculture or any other Minister that the ban will be lifted by October or November, it will have a significant effect on the autumn sales. If those assurances are based on no more than the Government's best hopes and endeavours, would farmers be wise to invest on that basis? Would they receive adequate compensation if they did so and the ban was not lifted until many months later? Farmers' confidence in the Government will be clearly reflected in the prices paid at the calf sales. The National Farmers Union for Scotland asked that that point be raised in the debate. It also asked what criteria must be met in order to facilitate the removal of the export ban on a herd-by-herd basis.

The Government have at least secured a framework that marks the end of the beginning of the crisis, but it is a long way from being the beginning of the end. The fact remains that we must proceed with our twin agreed slaughter policies and put them in place as a first step towards persuading the European Union that we are coming to grips with eradicating BSE and therefore it should consider lifting the ban.

I am genuinely puzzled as to how Ministers believe that the ban will be lifted by October or November. The Minister said in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall that he believed that the accelerated rate of slaughter under the cull policy would eliminate the backlog by perhaps October or November. However, if we must add another 120,000 or 160,000 targeted slaughter cattle to that total, he said that we would not achieve stability on the slaughter policy for another six to nine months. That is the date upon which the European Commission is likely to fasten and begin to lift the ban. Ministers should not give assurances that the ban will be lifted in October or November if they know that the Commission is not likely to be persuaded until several months after that.

I think that the hon. Members who spoke at the end of the debate have lost sight of the fact that we are not just 13 weeks into the crisis. The crisis did not begin with the announcements in the House and the introduction of the ban: it began in 1988 when BSE was identified as a significant problem. It is not a question of the wisdom of hindsight—many people called on the Government to implement targeted slaughter and compensation policies at that time, or shortly afterwards, in an attempt to eradicate the disease. I received letters from farmers seeking such measures. I passed them on to Ministers, but the Government refused to act because of the cost. Their failure to do so has landed us in a much deeper crisis at a much greater cost. It is crucial that we recognise the inadequacy of the Government's handling of the situation to date.

I repeat what I said earlier—there is no doubt in my mind and those of my colleagues that a better deal, with a smaller number of cows slaughtered, could have been secured weeks ago and could have been operating now. We would have already been several weeks nearer to the day when the ban will be lifted. That is why we have no confidence in the conduct of the Ministry of Agriculture.

That is the least of our concerns. What matters now is how we get from here to the day when British beef will be back in the export markets. We have to be satisfied that the Government have a policy, the details of which are understood by the industry, and that the machinery is in place to ensure that that policy is delivered. We can then get the European authorities to lift the ban. Our lack of confidence that the Government are capable, given their past record, of doing that means that the motion is justified and well directed. Somebody else should take a lead on the policy to ensure that the ban is lifted sooner rather than later, because the present incumbents have conspicuously failed to do so.