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Orders of the Day — BSE Crisis

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:31 pm on 17th February 1997.

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Photo of Gavin Strang Gavin Strang , Edinburgh East 3:31 pm, 17th February 1997

I am grateful to you, Madam Speaker. If the Government Members will make a responsible attempt to listen to the debate, I shall certainly give way later.

I have described the origin of the over-30-months slaughter scheme. The scheme was supposed to start on 29 April. In fact, by the end of May, hardly any cattle had been slaughtered. There was so much chaos and confusion and anger on the part of farmers that there was wide speculation that the Minister of Agriculture would be sacked. Was he sacked? No, the Prime Minister chose not to sack the Minister but humiliate him instead. The Prime Minister appointed the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, the right hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Freeman), as the man in charge of BSE and the over-30-months slaughter scheme. He was to be the new beef supremo to take over from the Minister—or to work with him. We did not know because there was total confusion. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was meeting farmers; the Minister was meeting farmers.

The Minister told us on 24 July that the backlog of cattle to be slaughtered under the over-30-months scheme would be cleared by October. What did the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster bring to the situation? On 12 September, the Chancellor coolly announced that the Government had no idea how many cattle were in the backlog. There we were, into a huge slaughter scheme—more than 1 million cattle have been slaughtered under it—yet in September, months after the scheme had begun operating, the Chancellor of the Duchy announced that the Government had no idea in the first place how many cattle they would slaughter under the over-30-months scheme. No wonder there was such confusion and anger. In October, 400,000 cattle were in the backlog waiting to be slaughtered. No wonder farmers were angry.

Some farmers were lucky and had their cattle slaughtered early, but others did not manage to get the slaughterhouse to take their cattle. They had held the cattle all those months—it was autumn and winter was approaching—and they did not want to spend more money on winter feed. What did the Minister do? He cut the compensation payable for each animal to the farmer. Those farmers who had held their animals longest had their compensation reduced below what was paid to the lucky few who got their cattle slaughtered early.

At that time, the National Farmers Union passed a motion of no confidence in the Minister. That was an historic occasion—the National Farmers Union passing a vote of no confidence in a Conservative Minister of Agriculture. Surely that was an indication that something was going wrong in the farming community.

The Government were also massively overpaying the slaughterhouses, which were getting £87.50 plus the value of a hide per animal slaughtered. That is a scandal, because it is two or three times what they should have been paid. The Minister has subsequently cut that figure, but it was a disgrace—given all the groups that suffered, including the transport workers, the head deboners and the people working in the packaging plants, who did not get a penny—that such excessive sums should have been given to the huge abattoirs.

While we had that catalogue of chaos in the over-30-months scheme at home, Ministers were totally failing to put over Britain's case in Europe. The House will recall the slaughter auction that took place. The Minister came back from Brussels to tell the House that he had agreed a second slaughter programme; in addition to the OTMS, there would be a selective slaughter of milking cows—those deemed most likely to come down with BSE in the future. In April, the Minister said that we would slaughter 42,000 cattle. By May, 80,000 cattle were to be slaughtered, but by the end of that month the figure was back down to 42,000. In June, the figure finally agreed by the Prime Minister at the Florence summit was around 128,000 cattle.

The Florence summit was important. The Prime Minister came back and informed the House that he had reached an agreement for a certified herd scheme. In October, he said, we could start exporting beef from the certified herds and, in November, all the beef that could be sold in this country—from cattle under 30 months—would be available for export to Europe and beyond. In effect, he said, the beef ban would be lifted in its entirety by November.

What happened? It became clear in July that the Government would not meet their undertaking to put the arrangements in place by 1 August. We had a debate just before the House rose in July, and the Minister said: the agreement that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister secured at the Florence Council provides the framework for the step-by-step lifting of the European Union ban on exports of United Kingdom beef and beef products. Decisions on each step will be taken on the basis of scientific and objective criteria. The agreement was a great success, and provides a solid way forward."—[Official Report, 24 July 1996; Vol. 282, c. 369.] Those were the Minister's words in July.

In September, the Government announced the suspension of the selective slaughter programme. They were not going ahead with their side of the Florence agreement. The selective slaughter scheme was the crucial element of that agreement.