As my right hon. Friend the Minister said earlier this afternoon, we have made a major breakthrough with the European Council's agreement to the export certified herds scheme. We will be working hard to secure agreement to our proposals for a date-based export scheme, which would apply throughout the UK.
May I add my congratulations to those of other hon. Members on that? Is it true that only two European countries voted against the partial lifting of the ban? Does that represent progress on the issue with our European neighbours?
My hon. Friend is right—only two voted against. In the Veterinary Committee a few weeks before, four voted against and one abstained. All the recent movement has been towards the position of the British Government.
My hon. Friend is right. We cannot repeat often enough that without the most rigorous precautions on the safety of the beef food chain we shall not make any further progress and would not have made the progress that we have secured. Unlike the policy that we inherited, that approach seems to be working.
Does the Minister feel that the British Army's buying British beef and British lamb would give people on the continent confidence about accepting our meat? How is he progressing in the efforts that I know he is making with his colleagues in the Ministry of Defence to increase the proportion of British beef, lamb and other meat the Army uses?
The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. The knowledge that the Ministry of Defence is not sourcing from the United Kingdom raises questions among our competitors and others. We have had discussions with our colleagues in the Ministry of Defence. We expect more British beef to be purchased in future. There is a long-term contract for frozen lamb from New Zealand, which was based on best value for money. I do not know when the contract finishes. We are discussing the issue.
Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that he has not conceded that computer traceability should be the precondition for the lifting of the beef export ban in other parts of the United Kingdom? Will he take this opportunity to confirm his view that there are manual records which are perfectly adequate for the satisfaction of that purpose?
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's question. It must not get around that the lifting of the rest of the ban under the date-based scheme depends on a computerised system. The position was different in Northern Ireland for the certified herds scheme because the necessary records were available due to their computer system, which they have had for many years and which had nothing to do with BSE.
The date-based scheme will be secure for cattle born after 1 August 1996. We can guarantee that such cattle will not have been exposed to any contaminated feed. That scheme does not depend on the start of the computerised cattle traceability system, which is a wholly different operation. Although in future the traceability system will help, the lifting of the ban for the rest of the UK under a date-based scheme does not depend on it. If it did, we could not hope to make early progress because, by definition, the date of birth of cattle would be entered only from the summer, and we know that cattle born on 1 August 1996 will be 24 months old by then. We therefore expect early progress on the date-based scheme.
In view of what my hon. Friend has just said, will he say whether there is any hope for English producers who can demonstrate that their herds have been totally BSE-free for some considerable time? Usually because their cattle are pedigree animals, farmers are able to demonstrate that they have had no problems, but they are still unable to export. That seems unfair.
My hon. Friend is right. It is not generally appreciated that the majority of cattle herds in this country have never had a case of BSE. Some 67 per cent. of the 120,000 herds have never had a case of BSE. For beef suckler herds, the situation is more extreme—84 per cent. have never had a case of BSE. That is why the majority of fanners are so angry; they have been affected by what happened to a minority of farmers. We can show that the majority of herds in this country have been BSE-free. Lifting the ban under a date-based scheme, or indeed a certified herd scheme, should be easier, but the myth gets around that every farmer has had loads of BSE cases. That is not true. The 171,000 cases of BSE have been identified on a minority of cattle farms.