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Orders of the Day — BSE Crisis

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:05 pm on 17th February 1997.

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Photo of Dr Alan Williams Dr Alan Williams , Carmarthen 6:05 pm, 17th February 1997

I am moving on to talk about Northern Ireland, which is crucial in tonight's debate for political reasons, but which also points to the way ahead in the BSE crisis. I shall address the hon. Gentleman's question in that part of my speech.

The incidence of BSE in Northern Ireland is only around 2,000 cases—about 1 per cent. of the total in Britain. That is because, generally, agriculture in Northern Ireland is not intensive and is far more natural, so the cattle are grass-fed. About 96 per cent. of Northern Ireland's herds are unaffected by BSE and half of its beef is for export. Under the certified herds scheme that was agreed in Florence we are required to bring forward detailed documents for discussion. We had a debate on BSE on 13 November 1996 during which there were several references to the certified herds scheme. The hon. Members for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble), for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley) and for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs) asked about the progress of the scheme. I think that they were all quite taken aback when they found that the papers had not even been presented to Brussels at that stage.

We sought a promise from the Minister of Agriculture in that 13 November debate, but he told us: We have not yet submitted detailed working papers". Later in the debate, he said: The Commission and the commissioners have not had those formal working papers."—[Official Report, 13 November 1996; Vol. 285, c. 368–71.] The impression that we were given, however, was that the papers were on their way.

We had another debate on the subject on 21 January, when we discussed the accelerated slaughter regulations. This time, it was the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Ross) who raised the progress of discussions about the certified herds scheme. The Minister said: We are ready with a proposal for a certified herds scheme to submit to the Commission. I anticipate submitting our proposals early next month."—[Official Report, 21 January 1997; Vol. 288, c. 849.] "Early next month" meant early February, but, on 17 February—three months after the November debate, and a month after that last statement—we are still waiting. Why have the proposals still not gone to Brussels?

What worries me—I am sure that it also worries Northern Ireland Members, and it certainly worries farmers in my constituency—is that, whenever it comes to discussions about the certified herds scheme, our colleagues in Europe simply will not listen to the British Government. I fear that, whatever deal the Government may try to strike with Northern Ireland Members today, they will not be able to hold to their side of the bargain. The matter is beyond their control, owing to the current bad faith between the Minister of Agriculture and our colleagues in Europe.

Let me return to what was said by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Robinson). I think that a certified herds scheme is unquestionably the answer. Although it is clear that Northern Ireland will be most involved initially, its involvement will be closely followed by that of Scotland and, over a period, other parts of the United Kingdom. After three years, or perhaps five, as BSE recedes, all our cows will qualify.

Let me say something to Ulster Members. Tonight's vote will be important to their farmers, who want the ban lifted as soon as possible. If the Government win votes this week, the election will be on 1 May, but if they are defeated the lifting of the ban will be potentially six weeks closer. The Government are thoroughly discredited among the public, and the BSE problem constitutes an appropriate long-term tribute to what they have managed to do in the past 20 years.