We expect the Commission to present a draft proposal for the export certified herds scheme to the Standing Veterinary Committee shortly. This UK-wide scheme would operate initially only in Northern Ireland until the British computerised tracing system is fully functional.
In October, we submitted proposals for a UK scheme to export beef from cattle born after 1 August 1996. We are expecting an opinion from the Commission's Scientific Steering Committee on that proposal next week.
Both sides of the House will welcome that statement, as it clearly indicates progress towards a lifting of the beef export ban. I have two questions following my hon. Friend's answer. First, can he assure the House that the beef quality standards now enforced in Britain will be rigorously enforced on any meat imported into this country? Secondly, bearing in mind the crisis that is hitting beef producers, will he review the current compensation regime—within the cash limits that he inherited—to ensure that compensation is targeted at beef producers who are clearly suffering enormous difficulties?
On my hon. Friend's first point, the statement made yesterday by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food included imported beef. It remains the case that, from 1 January next year, the decision made in the summer regarding the removal of specified risk materials by importers must apply, so that all beef sold in this country from January will be of the same high standard as beef grown in this country.
The answer to my hon. Friend's second question is yes, we would review the compensation scheme within the totality of the existing spending limits. We are constantly searching for alternatives, although few organisations are proposing alternatives. Last week, in Crewe, members of the National Farmers Union pointed out that, in the old days, a clapped-out old milker at the end of its life would be worth a fiver, whereas under the over-30-months scheme it is worth several hundred pounds—money that could equally be transferred to beef cattle.
Does the Minister accept that, in his efforts to have the export ban lifted and in his consultation about further potential problems associated with BSE, there will be wide public support for the adoption of option 1—informing the public of the minute risk that might exist, but not introducing further measures that might inhibit the activities of the meat industry and of farmers?
In my experience as a Member of Parliament for more than 25 years, I do not recall such a serious crisis in the farming industry as the one now facing it. I say to the hon. Gentleman and to the Minister that this is a time when the concerns of the farming industry must be recognised. I strongly urge that efforts be made to help with the compensatory amount. I believe that sterling will stay high, so the problems of the farming industry will continue.
I welcome the statement made yesterday by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food that the Government are considering the case for a full inquiry into the development of BSE and its links with CJD, as requested by families such as the Warnes in my constituency whose son, Chris, tragically died a few weeks ago. Does my hon. Friend accept that that could help to restore confidence in the beef industry and in our standards of safety? Will he ask our right hon. Friend for an early statement on whether there will be an inquiry, because many families will be waiting for such a statement?
My hon. Friend raises the issue in another way. This is a moral issue; people are dying. I know that that is dismissed by Conservative Members, but people are dying. It is incumbent on the Government to take all possible steps to find out how this came about. We hope to make an announcement shortly.
I welcome the confirmation from No. 10 Downing street this morning that, in due course, there will be an independent inquiry into the whole tragic history of BSE. However, will the Minister acknowledge that, although we hope that that will bring clarity to bear, it is a matter of profound regret that the statement made yesterday by the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food did not bring such clarity to bear on the issue with which he was dealing? That is clear from the overnight surveys conducted among the public, supermarkets and restaurants, for example.
Against the backdrop of the deepening crisis at our ports, the statements made in the Dail today by the Irish Premier, the fact that the Irish Agriculture Minister is having discussions today with officials from the Minister's Department and the fact that farmers in Scotland, Wales and England have been moved to such uncharacteristic behaviour during the week—a situation that is liable only to be inflamed by yesterday's announcement—will the Minister recognise the deep seriousness of the issue?
Will he perhaps go further than his right hon. Friend and say whether, in terms of HLCAs, the cuts that the Government have proposed and implemented on the OTMS or the access to European funding because of green pound revaluations, there was a hint that something will be done as a matter of urgency to help the income problem now and to try to calm events at the ports, which is liable only to thwart national efforts to lift the BSE ban?
The hon. Gentleman asked about an inquiry. I can tell him that the report this morning is clearly not true because no final decision has yet been made. When we are able to make a decision—it is being actively considered across Whitehall—about an inquiry into the BSE legacy that we inherited on 1 May, we will be at the House pretty quickly to announce it. I can give the House that promise.
On the rest of the hon. Gentleman's question, we cannot govern by hint. Yesterday' s statement was crystal clear about the proposals that had been put, the recommendations that had been made and the Government's action. We have to condemn, as I hope would all hon. Members, illegal activities taking place at the ports.
I cannot give details on that, but plenty of scientists are looking into it. There is to be a meeting shortly of independent scientists, my officials and independent assessors, who will examine a protocol to take forward a particular experiment in which it is claimed that there may be some advance warning of BSE. This is an issue about which the scientists have been arguing among themselves. I have done everything I can to facilitate progress on this matter, and as soon as we have anything to report, we will do so.
Contrary to what the Minister said a few moments ago, if there is an underspend on European programmes leading to an increased rebate, using the increased rebate to support agriculture will not be an increase in public expenditure.
On yesterday's statement, now that the Minister has admitted that there will have to be consultation on the deboning issue—[Interruption.]—he said it yesterday, and he admitted it again this morning—will the hon. Gentleman tell the House why the Minister did not consult before choosing the most extreme option? He knows full well that he is consulting on green top milk, because he has received a recommendation that it should be banned. He is consulting ahead of a ban in that instance. Why did he not follow the same pattern in considering the matter of deboning beef and BSE?
Will the new consultation include a review of the Government's decision in the light of the three other available options—realising, as the Minister of State rightly says, that every Minister must have the utmost regard for human health, but also that the proportionate risk is very small compared with many other issues? Will he now re-examine the three options, perhaps ask the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee to re-examine them, and narrow them down to one recommendation—particularly because of widespread concerns expressed today by industry, the media, consumers and almost everyone who has been affected by yesterday's decision?
I have to dismiss outright the hon. Gentleman's analogy between both consultations on green top milk and on SEAC's advice and recommendations, because there is no comparison, and the view that the Government should consult on all our decisions. We have made our decision based on common sense judgment and the independent scientific advice that we have received. We do not intend to review the decision, but we are consulting on the best way forward. It will be a very short consultation. My right hon. Friend the Minister made it clear yesterday that we would consult.
SEAC proposed options, and it was our responsibility as a Government to choose the preferred way forward—the one that would be most practical and most understandable by the public. We had to choose the option which placed public safety first and was easy for the public to understand—requiring all meat to be taken off the bone—and not an option that would be less than clear, because that way is chaos. I know that that it is difficult for Conservative Members to understand although they were in government a short time ago. The issue could have festered for weeks, causing uncertainty and massive damage to the industry. The Government are not prepared—as is implied in the hon. Gentleman's question—to put public health at risk.
Mr. Gareth Thomas:
Does my hon. Friend agree that there is very real concern, approaching despair, in many less favoured areas—particularly in Wales—and among the ranks of beef producers? Does he agree also that, although there is real and genuine concern and hardship, it is in the best interests of those farmers to works together with the Government by refusing to take part in lawless acts and by developing a long-term strategy, including reform of the common agricultural policy and the restoration of confidence in beef products? Is that not the best long-term solution?
I whole-heartedly agree with my hon. Friend's views, and I hope that everyone outside the House will take the message. Our beef—as my right hon. Friend the Minister and others have made it absolutely clear—is safe and, we claim, the safest anywhere in Europe. There are more checks on our beef before it reaches the shop than there are anywhere else. We have no problem whatsoever about that. The beef and beef products produced by farmers in my hon. Friend's constituency are good quality meat. Farmers damage their own industry and the confidence that we are trying to rebuild in it by actions at the ports.