Oral Answers to Questions — Agriculture, Fisheries and Food – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 6th March 1997.
To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a statement on progress towards the lifting of the beef exporting ban.
To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what is his policy on the ban by European member states on British beef.
On 25 February I wrote to Commissioners Fischler and Bonino explaining how the United Kingdom has fulfilled the preconditions laid down under the Florence agreement and I submitted our proposals for a United Kingdom export certified herds scheme, together with a paper setting out its scientific basis. The scheme would be the first step in lifting the export ban. I pressed for urgent and constructive discussion of our proposals at the relevant committees.
My right hon. and learned Friend will know that the beef rearing industries in Latin America have relied for many decades on obtaining the best breeding stock in the world from Britain. As they have had to rely all this time on second best, and as we have complied with the five principal conditions of Florence, is it not high time that this disgraceful and unfair ban was lifted?
My hon. Friend is right. There are perhaps two points worth making. Of course we are against the generality of the ban, for all the reasons that I and my right hon. and hon. Friends have expressed from the Dispatch Box, but there is a particular wrongness about exports to third countries. That is what my hon. Friend is highlighting. I could not agree more.
Is it not ridiculous for the European Commission in Brussels to imply that British beef is safe for British people, but dangerous for people in every other country in the world? The ban upsets the livelihood of our farmers and is costing our taxpayers £3 billion. As the policy was welcomed by the shadow Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang), is not the moral that we should have as little to do with either the hon. Gentleman or the European Commission in Brussels?
I do not think that I would want to be quite so unkind as my hon. Friend, but there is a lot of substance in what he says. He makes two important points. One is the enormous cost of this business—£3.5 billion committed over three years, which is powerful testimony to the importance that a Conservative Government attach to British agriculture. When we debated the matter some 10 days ago, it was plain that the Labour party would never have invested that amount of money in support of British agriculture.
Is the Minister aware that, no matter how much faith British housewives have in British produce, if there is even the slightest suggestion that his Ministry is continuing to obscure basic reports that affect the hygiene of British products, far from protecting our farming community or anyone else, he will constantly undermine the quality of our exports anywhere in the world?
The hon. Lady would be right if what she said was true. There will be a statement after questions, with your permission, Madam Speaker. I shall deal more specifically with the point that the hon. Lady has raised. Our policy throughout the BSE crisis, both before and after 20 March last year, has been to be wholly open and candid with the public and the House, for the kind of reason that the hon. Lady has just identified.
As the Minister is in a conciliatory mood today, does he accept that it is not the National Farmers Union's change of policy but the Government's delay in implementing what they agreed at Florence that has meant that an end to the beef ban is still not in sight?
I have never blamed the NFU for changing its position. There is no doubt that the selective cull is a serious interference with other people's property or that the cull is extraordinarily difficult to justify in any scientific or objective way. Its only justification is, that if we do not do it, we will not get any progress in lifting the ban. The NFU did not want a selective cull. I understand that. I do not criticise it for that. That was its position for much of the summer. It was only well into the autumn that the NFU came to adopt the position that it now does. I am not critical of it; I am merely describing the facts.
Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that I am proud to be wearing my NFU tie at questions today? It was presented to me by farmers on Friday night after a very good beef dinner in my constituency. Does he accept that they told me that they want the European ban lifted as quickly as possible and that they see it as nothing more than politics? They also want to see some fast food joints—if I can use that description—lift the British beef ban. They believe that fast food stores such as McDonald's could show a clear lead if they started selling British beef again.
My hon. Friend is a splendid example of how good British beef can be for one. He has a serious point: it is extremely regrettable that a number of major restaurant chains and also public authorities, for a variety of reasons—none of them good in science—have been reluctant to sell British beef. That is nonsense because all beef products of every kind that are sold in the United Kingdom from British beef must satisfy the most stringent tests. In terms of quality or safety, there is no distinction of any kind to be drawn between a British beefburger and a British steak. Both are of the highest quality and of total safety.
May I remind the Minister that it was the Prime Minister who told the House of Commons that all the conditions would be met for the beef ban to be lifted by November last year, and that the lifting of that ban was in the Government's hands? May I remind him that no part of that ban has been lifted and that the Government dithered and delayed over the implementation of the Florence agreement? Is it not clear that the Government must accept responsibility for the delay in lifting the beef ban?
We have complied with the five preconditions set out in the Florence agreement. We have discharged our part of the bargain and we have every reason to expect the Europeans to discharge theirs. They now have an opportunity to do so because they are in possession of our export-certified herd scheme proposals.
Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that when farmers in Teignbridge try to make up their minds whether the Labour party has anything to offer them in terms of farming policy, they would do well to remember that the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang) approved the imposition of the ban in the first place? Can my right hon. and learned Friend also tell me what I should say to farmers in Teignbridge when they witness how their businesses have been devastated by the imposition of the ban, while we are still apparently either unwilling or unable to stop the importation of foreign meat products which have not been produced to the same safety standards as our own?
My hon. Friend makes an important point, which is similar to that made by my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Mr. Alexander). There is no doubt that we need to get in Europe a comprehensive regime to govern cattle feed rations and the removal of offal; we should also introduce a 30-month rule.
On the first part of my hon. Friend's question, he is right that the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang)—not just once, but on at least two separate occasions and possibly more—defended the imposition of the ban and expressed the hope that we would have done the same had we been in the position of the French. Should the hon. Gentleman ever be in a position to try to ask for the ban to be lifted, he will be in some difficulty because the French will merely quote his words back to him.