With permission, I should like to make a statement on our follow-up to the Florence agreement on BSE and the additional steps that the Government intend to take towards the eventual lifting of the ban on exports of beef from the United Kingdom.
The agreement that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister negotiated at Florence defined five general preconditions for the lifting of the ban. Since that agreement was made, we have succeeded in fulfilling four of them, which are as follows.
The first precondition was an improved system of animal identification and movement recording. Cattle passports are now issued to all cattle born since 1 July, recording details of each animal's identity and movement. We have so far issued 751,000 such passports. As I announced on 10 December, we are also pressing ahead with proposals for a computerised cattle-tracing system in Great Britain. The second was the removal of meat and bonemeal from farms and feed mills. Action was taken during the summer to retrieve the last remaining stocks of meat and bonemeal from the animal feed chain. A total ban on possessing MBM where animal feed is handled came into force on 1 August.
The third general precondition was the removal of specified bovine material in slaughterhouses. The rules on removal of those parts of the carcase that can harbour the infective agent are being enforced with great rigour. More than 450 additional inspectors have been taken on. Statistics show that the rules are now being fully complied with. The fourth was the slaughter and destruction of cattle aged over 30 months. Since 1 May, more than 1 million cattle aged over 30 months have been killed and removed from the human food chain.
As the House will know, the last precondition, as yet not implemented, is the selective cull of animals judged to be most at risk of BSE. On 19 September, the Government postponed the cull while we considered the implications of the latest scientific evidence not known at the time of the Florence agreement and the range of cull options put to us. We also wanted further to explore the possibility of securing a lifting of the export ban in respect of meat from animals from certified herds and we judged it necessary to clear the backlog of cattle awaiting slaughter under the over-30-months scheme before proceeding to any selective cull.
I am glad to say that we have now cleared the backlog in Great Britain and will very shortly do so in Northern Ireland. That has been a considerable achievement. Slaughtering and disposing of well over 1 million animals in seven months has been an enormous logistical exercise, and I pay tribute to the crucial role played by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, by all my noble and hon. Friends in the Agriculture Departments and, in particular, by my hon. Friend the Minister of State. The over-30-months scheme backlog is no longer an impediment to the selective cull.
We have concluded that the scientific evidence is unlikely to change decisively the basis of the selective cull as agreed in Florence. Moreover, opinion within the industry has changed: for example, the National Farmers Union, formerly hostile to the selective cull, is now, together with the other farming unions, strongly in favour of carrying out the cull agreed at Florence. Against that background, we have decided that now is the time to bring forward our proposals for a selective cull in accordance with the terms of the Florence agreement, and I shall be so informing the Agriculture Council tomorrow.
Furthermore, we are now ready with proposals for a United Kingdom certified herd scheme, which we will table as a basis for negotiating the first step in relaxing the ban. We have issued our proposals today for consultation and I have placed a copy in the Library of the House. I shall submit the paper formally to the Commission early in the new year and press for discussions in the Standing Veterinary Committee to begin as soon as possible. Again, I shall inform the Agriculture Council tomorrow.
We cannot be certain how many animals will be affected by the cull, not least because many beasts from the cohorts in question will have gone out already under the over-30-months scheme. However, it is certain that implementing the cull will be a complex business. We need to act expeditiously. My intention is that the necessary orders should be signed before the recess, together with the appropriate statutory rules for Northern Ireland. Should the House so desire—that is to say, should the relevant order be prayed against—there will be a debate before any compulsory slaughter of exposed animals is carried out in Great Britain.
The Exchequer cost of the programme will self-evidently depend on the number of animals to be slaughtered. Our original estimate of 128,000 is clearly out of date. Many of those animals will already have been slaughtered under the over-30-months scheme, although we cannot at the moment be certain of the exact number. If, for example, we were required to deal with about 100,000 animals, the gross cost would be about £150 million and the net cost about £90 million. The difference is accounted for by contributions from European Union funds and by corresponding savings under the over-30-months scheme.
The House will know that we have been researching whether there is any maternal transmission of BSE. As yet, we have not received conclusive advice on the point. I hope that by March next year I shall be in a better position to advise the House. In the mean time, the Government have concluded that uncertainty on that point is not a reason for delaying the start of the cull, but we are ready to modify the cull if the advice that we receive provides a proper justification for so doing.
Our aim is to complete the cull within about six months of when we start, although the tracing of animals that have moved out of affected cohorts might take a little longer. The Agriculture Departments will send to all cattle farmers a document setting out how we intend to proceed. On compensation, the arrangements will be as I set out to the House on 24 July. For male animals, that means market value; for female animals, either 90 per cent. of replacement value or the animal's market value, whichever is the higher. There will be a top-up for those who lose more than 10 per cent. of their herds and an enhancement for closed herds.
Inevitably, some parts of the United Kingdom will make more rapid progress than others, but I wish to stress that both the cull and our proposals for lifting the ban in respect of certified herds will be UK-wide in their application. We regard this as but the first step towards the complete lifting of the ban on the export of cattle, beef and beef products from the United Kingdom.
Finally, the House should not be under any illusion as to how quickly a selective cull will lead to a resumption of exports of British beef. We will now pursue discussions in Brussels as rapidly as possible. That process may take longer than we would wish. Member states will insist on a thorough examination of the proposals. Indeed, the Florence agreement itself provided that the ban is likely to be lifted on a step-by-step basis over a period of time.
However, of one thing I am absolutely certain. Unless we commit ourselves to the selective cull, the entire ban will remain in place for the foreseeable future. A selective cull is an indispensable precondition to obtaining any lifting of the ban. Implementing it will enable us to press vigorously for a lifting of the ban, starting with certified herds. For that policy we have the support of the farming unions and I hope that I will also have the support of the House.
Well, well, Madam Speaker. May I remind the Minister and the House that after the Florence summit the Prime Minister presented the agreement as a great triumph and told us that by November we would have met all the conditions to enable beef and beef products that can be sold in this country to be sold throughout Europe and the world? He told us that the ban would be lifted completely. May I also remind the Minister that he described the Florence agreement as a great success, which provided a solid way forward? Does the Minister accept that the fact that, one month after the Prime Minister's deadline, the beef ban is 100 per cent. still in place is a terrible indictment of the Government's record?
What damage does the Minister think the episode has inflicted on our standing in the European Union? What assessment has he made of the damage it has done to our industry, including the thousands of jobs lost and the damage to farmers' livelihoods? Does the Minister accept that all those matters have been aggravated by six months of vacillation? May I also remind the Minister that throughout those months the Labour party urged him to meet the conditions of the Florence agreement in full as it was the only current mechanism on the table to enable the ban on the export of British beef and beef products to be lifted?
Does the Minister realise that he has completely failed to justify why the Government have taken six months to reach this point and that his excuses are extremely unconvincing? May I remind him that the work of Professor Roy Anderson and his colleagues, and the evidence on maternal transmission, mean that, if anything, we could have a more targeted selective slaughter programme, which would enable us to concentrate more effectively on the cows more likely to go down with BSE? That evidence certainly did not justify the Government's decision to shelve the Florence agreement.
May I remind the Minister of the recommendations made in 1989 by the Tyrrell committee for random testing of the brains of cattle that go through our slaughterhouses? That scientific recommendation was never implemented by the Government. Does the Minister agree that there is a strong case for examining the brains of cattle slaughtered under the selective programme to see if we can judge what proportion of animals has been infected by the BSE agent at detectable levels?
The Minister has used as one of his excuses the fact that we did not have the slaughterhouse capacity to implement the selective slaughter programme, and other hon. Members may have observations on that. Has he used these six months to identify the animals that are to be slaughtered under the programme? Is it correct to conclude from the Minister's statement—certainly it was the impression given—that the Government have not identified the cattle targeted under the slaughter programme? Does that not mean an unnecessary and additional delay in implementation?
Does the Minister recall that his other reason for the delay was that the EU would not lift the ban, even if we met our side of the Florence agreement? Apparently, the best that the Prime Minister could get at Dublin when he raised this matter was that decisions would be taken on the basis of science. Hon. Members who heard the Minister say at lunchtime that he would be hard put to make a scientific case for the selective slaughter programme may not regard that as a convincing statement. Surely the Minister can tell us that if we implement our side of the Florence agreement, we can look forward to a rapid lifting of the ban of exports of British beef and beef products. When will he give us a timetable? We are entitled to that this afternoon. Does the Minister appreciate that, yet again, his total mishandling of the BSE crisis has meant that enormous, additional and unnecessary damage has been inflicted on our economy? As far as the farmers, the beef industry and the consumers are concerned, enough is enough.
I think that it is the sense of the House that it would have been more gracious if the hon. Gentleman had welcomed the statement. I am bound to say that his criticisms would have been more plausible had he not in the early stage of the crisis justified the imposition of the ban by the European member states.
On the substantive points of the hon. Gentleman's question—rather than the bluster—I agree that the imposition of the ban has caused considerable damage to British agriculture, beef producers and related industries, and it is in recognition of that fact that the Government have committed more than £3 billion in assistance. I do not for one moment suppose that the Labour party would have done that.
As regards the publication of Professor Anderson's report in Nature, it was right that we should pause on the range of options there described to see, for example, if member states could be persuaded that one of the other options described was more appropriate, cost-effective and efficient than that described in the Florence agreement. We have been unable to persuade them of that.
On the question of the relationship between the selective cull and the over-30-months scheme, we have always made it plain that it would be highly desirable to complete, or substantially complete, the over-30-months scheme before we move on to the accelerated cull. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made plain, we have now slaughtered more than 1 million beasts under the over-30-months scheme, a logistical exercise of enormous complexity.
On the question whether we have started to trace cattle on farms, the answer is that we have not—for this good reason. Had we identified the animals in question, those animals would have been treated as having no economic value. Clearly, it would have been wrong to do that until such time as we had decided to embark upon the selective cull, as I have described to the House. On the question of justification, the truth is that BSE will die out in the national herd in 2001. The cull itself will reinforce neither public nor animal safety, and its real justification is that, unless we do it, we will not get progress on lifting the ban. That is a political fact, not a scientific one.
As to the timetable, I will say what I have said on many occasions in the past. We will not secure a timetable, and I never pretended that we would. The Florence agreement provides a framework for a step-by-step process that will incrementally lead to a lifting of the ban.
The large sum of compensation—more than £3 billion to the farming and meat processing industries—has been warmly received and has gone a long way towards helping those who have been hurt financially. Will my right hon. and learned Friend assure me on one particular point in relation to the Florence agreement, which was a United Kingdom agreement? Will any move towards the certified herd scheme—which I hope will be implemented as quickly as possible—be on a United Kingdom basis, and not country by country?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his kind remarks, and very few people know more about this subject than him. The application and criteria for certified herds will be expressed in United Kingdom-wide terms.
Is the Minister now prepared to state unequivocally that he can reiterate the Prime Minister's promise—that control over the timetable is now in the hands of the Government? In the light of what he has said this afternoon, is he prepared to look again at the time scale for the completion of the accelerated cull? He tells us that it will take six months. As 1 million cattle have been destroyed in a six-month period, surely the basic arithmetic suggests that the process could be completed more speedily. Finally, paragraph 24 of the consultation paper suggests that the way in which the slaughter will be allocated to abattoirs will be similar to that under the 30-months scheme. Is he aware of the real concerns about the way in which a small number of abattoirs have profiteered and made a killing from the scheme? The new scheme must be put out to competitive tender.
I can only assume that the hon. Gentleman either has not read or has misunderstood the Florence agreement, which never provided for a timetable. It provided for a process—[interruption.] I am referring the hon. Member for North Cornwall—who is fluffing about—to the Florence agreement, which I suggest he reads. What he will see if he reads it, and is capable of understanding it, is a process whereby the British Government will put documents to the Commission, who will then place those documents before the Standing Veterinary Committee and other expert committees where the issue will be discussed. The response that we receive is in the hands of the European Commission and the member states.
We will negotiate vigorously along the lines that I have set out—namely, that the application in respect of certified herds is but a first step and will be expressed in UK-wide terms. The scheme will take some time in parts of Great Britain, simply because the numbers are substantial and the tracing process complicated. It is different in Northern Ireland—where tracing can be done rapidly—and, for that matter, in Scotland. In England, it will be a lengthy process and six months is not an unrealistic assessment.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that the process of negotiations—as he describes it—is, in effect, no better than a process of appeasement? In fact, the events of the past six months have played further into the hands of those member states who have said that they will not lift the ban. What indication does he have that the ban will be lifted? Does he regard these talks as negotiations?
What we are doing is proceeding with a process that was agreed in Florence. I do not want the House to be under any misunderstanding. I certainly accept that it will be difficult and slow to achieve a complete lifting of the ban, but I think that we have a reasonable chance of securing a partial lifting of the ban, for example, in respect of the certified herds. We shall then press on, for example, in respect of cattle born after a certain date. However, unless we commit ourselves to implementing the selective cull, we can be certain that there will be no progress of any kind.
The most interesting, but by no means the only, piece of scientific evidence that came to the fore after the Florence agreement was the possibility of maternal transmission.
The House will be glad to have heard from my right hon. and learned Friend that we are now to go ahead with the selective cull, which should enable us to meet the Florence conditions. Can he be more specific about the timetable? He has said that the process will be difficult and slow, but what does that mean? How difficult and how slow? During his discussions in Dublin, was he given any indication by his fellow Agriculture Ministers that some other scientific reasons may be dreamed up in order to frustrate our return to exporting beef?
I shall be talking to Agriculture Ministers tomorrow and after that I may be in a slightly better position to respond to my hon. Friend's questions than I am now.
It is important that we do not set out a false prospectus. What we have achieved at Florence is a process that is capable, given good will, of leading step by step to a lifting of the ban. It will take time, however, and there are a variety of reasons why member states will be reluctant to agree—most notably the internal pressure that they face from their farmers, consumers and those who are involved in the collapse in their markets for beef consumption. It is therefore unwise to talk in terms of timetables, but I can say that we will put our formal proposals—the working document—on the certified herds to the Commission at about the end of January next year. The Commission will then—I hope shortly thereafter—put the proposals to the Standing Veterinary Committee and the other veterinary committees. We need some delay before going to the Commission because there is a consultation process in respect of the certified herds which concludes on 17 January. It is desirable that we should complete that process before putting our firm proposals to the Commission.
Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman acknowledge the very real difficulties of beef farmers in north-east Wales? Can he guarantee my constituents easy access to abattoirs as they try to cope with the problem? Finally, will he consider an invitation from me to visit Pwll farm in Treuddyn, where Mr. Idris Roberts, who is the leader of Flintshire National Farmers Union, could give him a reasonable and helpful tutorial on these matters?
That is a kind offer—the only problem is that I have no departmental responsibility for agriculture in Wales and, therefore, I might trespass on the ground of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales.
There are two different points relating to abattoirs and the availability of spaces within them. In respect of slaughtering under the accelerated cull, I do not anticipate any difficulty with finding ready slots for slaughtering cattle under that scheme. In respect of the over-30-months scheme, there were delays and I shall not try to pretend otherwise. I am glad to say that the backlog has now been cleared and I do not think that the hon. Gentleman's constituents should be having any current difficulty with finding slots for the slaughter of their beasts. If I am wrong on that point, the hon. Gentleman should talk to my hon. Friend the Minister of State and we shall see what we can do to help.
Will my right hon. and learned Friend accept the thanks of the farming community, both in my constituency and in the west country as a whole, for the way in which the herculean task of dealing with more than 1 million cattle so far has been tackled and especially for achieving a figure of more than 60,000 in the past few weeks? Does he agree that the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang) does not understand the position that we were in a few months ago? If he had been a west country farmer, facing the prospect of 102 cattle still caught in the backlog of the 30-months cull, the last thing he would have wanted would have been a Minister coming forward with a scheme like this. We had to get the backlog cleared before moving on.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend also agree that the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) misses the point when he asks why we cannot act quickly? All my constituents want some flexibility, because they are coming up to the end of the quota year. In the interests of the farming community, we must have flexibility in the way in which we deal with this problem.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind observations. I am well aware, from a spirited meeting that I attended in the west country, of the concern felt by farmers in my hon. Friend's constituency and elsewhere about the backlog. I am glad that we have been able to clear the backlog. My hon. Friend is right to say that by clearing the backlog we have brought about a change in sentiment within the farming industry. Previously, it was hostile to the cull. I believe that farmers, generally speaking, now want us to carry out the cull.
On the question of flexibility, my hon. Friend is again right to say that that is important. In those cases where we are contemplating culling a substantial number of cattle from a single herd, we shall try to do it in at least two tranches.
Is the computerised tracing scheme that the Minister is setting up in Great Britain comparable with the one that already exists in Northern Ireland? Will he explain how his statement today will impact on the beef industry in Northern Ireland where, I believe, most herds will qualify almost immediately for the certified herd scheme? Will he also explain the implications for the flagged holdings in Northern Ireland, specifically suckler herds? Will he give an undertaking that arrangements for the cull will be better than those for the 30-months scheme?
The hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity very soon to study the discussion document or consultation paper on certified herds and he will see two matters of particular relevance to Northern Ireland. First, the criteria to determine which animals are capable of being classified as certified herds will be met by many herds and cattle in Northern Ireland. Secondly, when it comes to proving eligibility—that will be an absolutely essential part of the scheme—Northern Ireland is extremely well placed, by reason of its computer-based system, to achieve that. I cannot think of any part of the United Kingdom that is better placed to meet the criteria than is Northern Ireland and I can think of no part of the United Kingdom that is likely to make more rapid progress in satisfying the criteria than is Northern Ireland.
My right hon. and learned Friend has just been talking about Northern Ireland. I understand that the selective cull there could go through very quickly. If so, we would then discover our European partners' bona fides in respect of lifting the ban. Is it not a question of hastening the process in Northern Ireland and then thinking again about whether we should pursue the cull more widely?
I would not commend that course of action to my hon. Friend, for the following reason. He will remember that, at the end of my statement, I said that, in my view, a commitment to the selective cull is an essential, indispensable precondition to making any progress. I do not think that we would secure any progress if the cull to which we committed ourselves was partial or regional. Consequently, the cull that we are proposing is UK-wide and will be carried out UK-wide. The application regarding certified herds is couched in UK-wide terms, but the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) and my hon. Friend will have heard what I just said about Northern Ireland.
Is not it clear that such a scheme, especially for England, would be extremely difficult and time-consuming to impose? There is no base line, and there are certainly no existing arrangements that would meet the conditions that are found specifically in Northern Ireland, and also in Scotland, at present.
Does the Minister accept that he has demonstrated this afternoon that European countries with large agricultural industries have no intention of helping us while they are supplying our markets and have no intention of listening to anything from the scatter-gun approach that he suggests today?
What the hon. Lady is saying is something like this: that the certified herd scheme will not be applicable to very many herds in England, and she has a point. There are at least three areas, however, on which she may not have fully focused. The first is the beef assurance scheme. Cattle which fall within the beef assurance scheme will, by definition, qualify under the certified herd scheme, provided that at the material date they are not more than 30 months of age. Secondly, we have had cattle passports as from 1 July—about 713,000 have been issued thus far—and that is a good basis for matching cattle with our confirmed case computer base. Moreover, in respect of some herds in which cattle have never moved from the natal herd, we shall be able to satisfy the eligibility criteria, but it will be easier in Northern Ireland than it is in other parts of the United Kingdom.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that there will be considerable disappointment that we are going ahead with the selective cull without obtaining firm and copper-bottomed guarantees as to when the export ban will be lifted? Many of us do not trust our European friends and we believe that they will keep the ban going for year after year. What happens if we complete the cull and they still refuse to lift the ban? May I suggest that the only way in which we shall get any success is to tell them that, if they do not lift our ban after we have spent £3.2 billion, we shall ban their beef from being imported into this country?
I understand my hon. Friend's position, but it has always been so. The Florence agreement did not provide for a timetable. Perhaps I may put the argument the other way round: if we do not commit ourselves to a selective cull, there will certainly be no progress.
The Minister talked about the cattle passport scheme, and I believe he mentioned the figure of 713,000 passports. Does that scheme meet in every respect the provisions in the Florence arrangement, which talks about an animal identification scheme? Does it meet the provisions throughout the United Kingdom or is it more likely to meet them in Northern Ireland?
The hon. Gentleman has given me an opportunity to correct one error that I made. I said 713,000; I should have said 751,000, and I apologise.
The cattle passport scheme does meet the requirements of Florence. We shall improve it. As the hon. Gentleman may know, on 10 December I published a consultation document on a computer-based traceability system, which will be an enhancement on the paper-based system and will be run in a way that is compatible with proposals made by the European Commission. On the narrow question that the hon. Gentleman asked, namely, is our identification now up to scratch, the answer is yes, and it is better than is to be found in most European states.
My right hon. Friend makes a fair point, which is one of the reasons why I said that the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang) was less than gracious in his response to my statement. The hon. Gentleman will remember the intervention that I made in his winding-up speech, when he gave a categorical commitment to support the selective cull.
The Minister has made it clear that he does not have European agreement to the further slaughter. How confident is he that his fellow Ministers in the European Community will agree with the methodology involved in targeting those specific animals? Are not we now in the worst of all worlds—where we have no European agreement and the Minister does not truly believe in the programme? When the Minister is reduced to doing something that he does not believe in, is not it time that he went and made way for someone who knows what he is doing?
We do have agreement as to the concept that underpinned the figure of 128,000. Those concepts, which were set out in the eradication programme that we submitted, were approved at the time of the Florence agreement. So we have agreement on the point of the three cohorts plus the voluntary cohort. We shall have to form a view on whether there will be an attempt to add to those numbers on account of "maternal transmission" when we have better evidence from the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee in spring 1997.
The hon. Gentleman says that I do not agree with the programme. That is not true. I well understand why several hon. Members wish that we could have a timetable. I accept that it is difficult to justify a cull in scientific terms—it will not improve public health—but one must stand back and ask oneself a different question: whether, if we do not have a cull, we shall make progress. In the absence of a selective cull, we shall make no progress, and on that basis I defend it.
The Minister made it clear that at first there was opposition to the Florence cull. Can he confirm that no opposition came from the Ulster Farmers Union, which backed an immediate culling? He also told the House that Northern Ireland would be in a very favourable position. If that is so, is he prepared immediately to propose to Agriculture Ministers that Northern Ireland should be made a special case? Will he take from the Prime Minister a letter delivered to him by myself and the leader of the SDLP, which made it clear that the German Minister of Agriculture was now of a mind to change his view and support Northern Ireland as a special case?
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that the farmers of Ulster have always supported a cull, for reasons such as those that underpinned the question asked by the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross). We shall, as expeditiously as we can, go to the European Commission and, through it, the Standing Veterinary Committee and the other experts, with our full working document, which will set out our concept of a certified herd scheme, which will be UK-wide in its application. I do believe, however, for the reasons that I mentioned to the hon. Member for East Londonderry, that Northern Ireland is very well placed to satisfy the eligibility criteria and—even more to the point—to have that satisfaction of the criteria established positively, so that the European Union can be satisfied that it is valid.
On the first question, the hon. Gentleman must wait on events. On the second question, the overall cost committed—not money spent, but committed over the relevant periods set out in the documents—is slightly more than £3 billion.
May I endorse the sentiments expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Sir J. Spicer), and the broad thrust of his question? What my farmers require is a greater degree of certainty. Can my right hon. and learned Friend tell me when the selective cull will come into effect? I do not want to know the end date; I want to know when it will begin. Can my right hon. and learned Friend also tell me the operative date for deciding the market value of any particular beast?
We intend valuation to be taken as at the day of valuation, which will give a degree of certainty. As my hon. and learned Friend will see in the consultation document, however, we have contemplated the possibility of some other date, and if people want to argue in favour of some other date we shall manifestly take their representations into account.
When the culling will start rather depends on whether the House wants to debate the compensation order. I anticipate that it may want to do so, but I do not suppose that that will happen until the latter part of January. We cannot slaughter until we have debated the order, if that is the will of the House, and get approval if we do so; but we might be in a position to start the slaughter in February or early March.
I welcomed the rather belated statement about the selective cull, but has the Minister learnt any lessons from the over-30-months scheme, which involved huge backlogs in parts of north Wales? The Minister might have to look again at the overall structure of the scheme that he is introducing. I was very disturbed by his earlier comment that some parts of the United Kingdom would make more rapid progress than others: that does not sound to me like uniformity.
The hon. Gentleman has made a number of points. The reference to rapid progress was actually a reference to the fact that Northern Ireland is particularly well placed to satisfy the criteria, and also to prove that the criteria have been satisfied. As for the accelerated cull programme, I do not anticipate any difficulty in ensuring rapid slaughter. As the hon. Gentleman well knows, we raised the slaughter capacity in regard to the over-30-months scheme to 60,000 a week. It has now plummeted, and there is now a good deal of capacity to enable us to carry out that slaughter.
My right hon. and learned Friend has been candid enough to say on a number of occasions that there is no scientific justification for the extended cull, but that it is necessary to get the ban lifted. Will he elaborate for a moment or two on the logic of saying that it is better to carry out the cull and then hope that our so-called partners will take mercy on us than simply to say, "If we do this, will you lift your ban?"? Would our partners not be more likely to take notice of our position if we said, "We will co-operate in this way if you give us an assurance that you will lift the ban; alternatively, we will consider measures of our own, such as insisting that imports of foreign beef are subjected to the same stringent health conditions as our own beef"? Would not a package of that sort be more likely to achieve the result towards which my right hon. and learned Friend has been working for so long?
I recognise that my hon. Friend has a great deal of experience of negotiation. I have been engaged in this particular business for six or seven months, and I owe it to the House to give the best opinion that I can give on how we are likely to make progress most effectively.
I have taken into account, and explored, possibilities such as those outlined by my hon. Friend, and have finally reached the clear conclusion that, unless we give this commitment to the selective cull, we shall not make any progress of any kind. That is the advice that I give the House, but it is, of course, for the House to make its own judgment.
The Minister already knows that we have a certified 97 per cent. herd traceability in Northern Ireland. He also knows that the over-30-months cull was completed this week, and that the accelerated cull could be completed in a matter of weeks. That means that Northern Ireland has fulfilled all the Florence requirements, or will certainly have done so by the middle of January.
May I ask the Minister to clarify his earlier answers? Does that mean that, because it has qualified under all those headings, the ban will be lifted from Northern Irish beef? If not, why not? Is the Minister aware that Commissioner Fischler and the chairman of the Committee of Agriculture Ministers are simply waiting for the British Government to make that request to them, and will he make that request?
I should be a little cautious about interpreting exactly what the position is, but let me make the situation plain once more. The application in respect of certified herds will be UK-wide, and I hope that we shall be in a position to put the relevant papers to the Commission at the end of January or the beginning of February. The hon. Gentleman will recall that he himself said that the position in Ulster would not have met all the criteria until the middle of January. We will then engage in discussions with the European Commission and within the Standing Veterinary Committee, but I believe that Northern Ireland will find it relatively easy to meet the criteria, and that it is uniquely well placed to prove that they have been met.
I assure my right hon. and learned Friend that his announcement will be greeted warmly by farmers in Northumberland, who will see it as the start of a long process rather than an end in itself. Today is not the occasion on which to threaten our European partners with what might happen in the future.
May I ask a technical question? If there is a disagreement about value, will an appeal mechanism be available to farmers?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has considerable knowledge of these matters.
There are three possible valuation methods. First, the farmer agrees to the appointment of a valuer by the Ministry, and he will fix the valuation. Secondly, a valuer will be appointed by the farmer and the Ministry, allowing the possibility of an agreed valuation. Failing that, the chairman of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors can appoint a valuer, and that valuation is agreed to be final. To that extent there is an appeal mechanism, but it is by way of reference to an independent valuer appointed by the chairman of the RICS.
We still need a clear answer from the Minister about the British Government's position in relation to Northern Ireland. He will know that about 1,700 cattle must be slaughtered there to meet the Florence criteria. If, after that has been achieved, the European Commission acknowledges—whether to the Select Committee, which is now taking an interest in the matter, or to any other reputable organisation, which I hope includes the British Government—that Northern Ireland has met the criteria, will the British Government then ask for the ban on Northern Ireland's beef to be lifted? That is what we need to know.
I think that the hon. Gentleman slightly misunderstands the process. Let me begin by establishing a small point of fact. The number of cattle to be slaughtered under the accelerated cull scheme in Northern Ireland is now substantially less than 1,700; a good many have gone under the over-30-months scheme.
We will come forward with an application to the Commission, and through the Commission to the Standing Veterinary Committee, and thereafter to other expert committees. It is possible that the application will go back to the Council, but I hope that it will not. That will be in respect of certified herds UK-wide. We must then see what the response is. I hope that we shall be able to secure a lifting of the ban that is not confined to Northern Ireland—that we shall be able to satisfy the Commission that there are herds in Scotland, for example, that may meet the criteria as the Commission would want, and also, perhaps, in England and Wales. It will be a hard negotiation, but I will not stand artificially in the way of progress. I want to see progress.
Will my right hon. and learned Friend ensure that some of the farmers who have been especially hard hit by the cull will receive extra-generous compensation for the disruption that they will obviously suffer?
We have already made available to producers a narrow line of aid of the order of £263 million or £264 million. Some £50 million from the October Council is still undetermined and I anticipate a high degree of national discretion about how that money is spent, albeit it is EU money.
The Minister told the House that both the slaughter and disposal of the 1 million cattle were complete. How many cattle have been disposed of by incineration and how many have been disposed of by landfill and where are they? Is it right that several thousand tonnes of cattle are still in storage throughout the country awaiting disposal?
The hon. Lady is right. We have slaughtered about 1,080,000 under the over-30-months scheme and have not yet been able to dispose of all the carcases. The only way in which we could increase the throughput to 60,000 a week was to substantially increase the cold storage capacity. We have been taking out the specified bovine material and disposing of it immediately and putting the rest of the carcases into cold storage to await the opportunity to render and dispose of them in the appropriate way.
If the Minister chooses any additional abattoirs to deal with the selective cull will he ensure that a transparent procedure is implemented for choosing them? There is a great deal of grievance in the industry because abattoir owners believe that those which were selected for the 30-months-scheme were chosen under a system of secrecy.
Is not it important for the House to know that the animal traceability system and the animal identification scheme which exist in Northern Ireland and which will facilitate an early raising of the ban there are precisely those that the Government rejected in 1990 when they were recommended by the Select Committee on Agriculture? Such a scheme was also rejected when it was proposed in amendments to the Bill that led to the Agriculture Act 1993 and in a recommendation in 1995 by the Select Committee on Agriculture. If the Northern Ireland scheme had been implemented throughout the kingdom over the six years that the Opposition have been demanding it, we would not be in the mess that we are in today.
One must always take into account proportionality and the scientific opinion of the time. In the computer-based system that we are discussing we envisage about 40 million movements being recorded. That is hugely in excess of what is recorded on the Northern Ireland computer base and it would require positive justification. With the advantage of hindsight, one can construct a case, but taking account of the scientific judgment at the time the decisions that were taken were correct.