Last Monday, at the European Agriculture Council meeting in Brussels, I had discussions with British Agriculture Minister, Nick Brown, the other UK Agriculture Ministers and the Republic’s Agriculture Minister, Joe Walsh. I also had a meeting with the Health Commissioner, David Byrne. Members will be aware of the increased level of awareness of BSE and heightened public concerns arising from recent development in France and other member states.
In the light of those discussions and, in particular, of the increase in the incidence of BSE in Northern Ireland this year, as well as the current climate with regard to BSE in other member states, I have reviewed my position on a formal submission to the Commission to call for a relaxation of the export ban. I have also taken into account concerns expressed by other member states about a call from Northern Ireland for a relaxation of the ban at this time.
I have decided, therefore, that it would be inappropriate and possibly counterproductive for me to proceed with the case at the moment. I am still fully committed to obtaining a relaxation of the export ban for Northern Ireland. In the meantime, my Department will finalise its proposals in light of the consultation exercise and the findings of the recent inspection carried out in Northern Ireland by the EU Food and Veterinary Office. It will also continue to hold informal discussions with the Commission at official level. I will consider the action that should be taken in Northern Ireland to ensure that we comply with the European Agriculture Council’s conclusions and the resultant decision of the Standing Veterinary Committee.
The Minister should not be intimidated by the re-emergence of the BSE problem in France and now in Germany. She should cash in at this time by highlighting the benefits of traceability, rather than doing nothing, as she, in effect, proposes. Now is the time to put traceability to the test. In the wake of the earlier BSE crisis, Northern Ireland put in place the most sophisticated and rigorous tracing system for beef cattle in Europe. As a result, Northern Ireland and British beef is now the safest in Europe.
We should be vigorously promoting the real, comparative safety of Northern Ireland beef. Does the Minister agree that, by doing that, we could recapture lost markets and alleviate the real distress felt by farmers?
First, I am not abandoning the objective of relaxing the ban. Neither I nor my Department have stopped work on this issue. Work will continue on dealing with the proposals which we are adjusting in the light of the consultation and the need to ensure that they are accepted. I understand the frustration of the Member and the farmers because I share these feelings, but I have decided that the most important consideration is that we achieve the right result.
Going now would not get the right result. I was in Brussels last Monday and saw the atmosphere of panic resulting from the new BSE scare in France and other countries. I took advice, and I spoke to a number of other Agriculture Ministers — Joe Walsh, Nick Brown and others. I also had a lengthy meeting with the Commissioner. The advice that I got from all quarters, and which I feel instinctively is the right advice, was that this is not a good time or a good context within which to try to convince the other member states that we should have a relaxation of the ban. I agree with the Member that we have an excellent traceability system. All those issues will come into play when the time is right, but we must remember that we will get one shot at this and that we must take that shot only when the time is right and when we are going to get what we want.
I shall put the cases of BSE in perspective. In 1992, we had almost 500 cases here. That gradually decreased until 1998, when we had 18 cases. Last year, we had only six cases, but, unfortunately, this year we have had 20. That is not a cause for concern, but, at present, people in Europe are unable to look at it logically. The epidemiology suggests that when it falls to the low numbers, there will no longer be a regular downward decline; there will be a bump — an irregularity — at the bottom. One will have good years, when the numbers are low, and bad years. That is the position.
We will continue with the strict controls that are already in place. We have the strictest and toughest controls in Europe, and I do not intend to have any further controls, as they are not necessary. As Mr Savage said, we have an excellent traceability system.
Given the Minister’s failure to achieve low-incidence BSE status, and given her comment in the House today that it is not the right time to get it, can she tell us, instead of prevaricating, when the right time will come to achieve low-incidence BSE status? Has the Minister made any representations to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF), to the UK representative or to any of her European competitors that French beef ought now to be banned from import to Northern Ireland in order to protect consumers’ rights and the rights of local producers? When did she make such representations? To whom did she make them? Does the Minister accept that now is the time for us to be seeking the alternative, which we called for in September 2000 and before the summer recess, to the current strategy that her Department is pursuing?
In the first place, I do not accept that I have failed in not getting low-incidence BSE status. The Member will appreciate that I started to seek low-incidence BSE status as one of my main priorities almost a year ago. He will also know that, for reasons beyond my control — and reasons that I did not agree with — there was a three-month hiccup that year, during which I was unable to do anything because of the suspension, which the Member fully supported. I have not been prevaricating; I have been absolutely open and honest in saying that the time is not now right. As a Minister, I bear responsibility for ensuring that we put our case at the time when its strength will be viewed reasonably, and not in the present context of panic.
Secondly, I have made representations to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) in my search for a relaxation of the ban. The Member, who is on the Food Safety Agency, raised the issue of the safety of French beef. I want to assure the Member that I have taken every opportunity to engage in discussions with the other member states, and in particular with France. I have had meetings with French officials twice in the past number of months to ensure that when we come to put our case we will get their full support, which will be extremely important.
As we seek to gain the support of other member states for the relaxation of the ban, it will be more useful to dwell on positive points than on negative ones.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. By moving into a fallback position, is there not a danger that we could give out the wrong message? The consumer could infer that we are guilty by association of not making our case at a time when Europe is looking for disease-free beef, which we have had for some time. Does the Minister see that as a danger? If our case was right the week before this happened in Europe, it must still be right. Will the Government consider doing something for local farmers, who now face a serious drop in prices because of the fallout from Europe?
We will not give out the wrong message. As I have explained, the decision that I have taken is the correct decision. The current situation in Europe is that member states are not prepared to listen to rational argument and to our strong case. Therefore, it would be foolish in the extreme for me to fire ahead on the basis that we can put a good case and say, "To hell with the circumstances." I agree with the Member that we have a good case on the basis of our numbers and our extremely strict controls. However, I will not put a good case at a bad time. Our message is strong, and people will hear it when they are in a position to listen.
The proposal to relax the export ban has been deferred only because of the current climate. I still intend to submit the proposal to the Commission when the time is right. Producers can feel heartened that the proposal will go to the Commission, but in the meantime the status quo will be maintained. I received £2 million in the Budget for the beef quality initiative. I was also allocated £300,000 in the monitoring round to kick-start the beef quality initiative, which in due course should help beef prices.
I am not sure that I welcome the Minister’s statement, but I welcome the fact that she has come to tell the Assembly about the rather bad situation that we are in. I can assure her that from this corner of the House she will hear no knee-jerk anti-Europeanism of the sort that she has heard elsewhere.
The Minister mentioned the support that has been received in the past from Nick Brown and other UK Ministers, and from Joe Walsh. Do they still support her decision to apply for special status when she sees the time as right? Notwithstanding the current problems with France and Germany and the difficulty in getting a rational decision, has the Minister had meetings with other Governments in order to build up support, so that when the time is right we will not have to start looking for supporters of our case?
I am happy that I still have the full support of Nick Brown and the Scottish and Welsh Ministers over the relaxation of the ban for Northern Ireland, in spite of the adverse implications for them. I also have and have always had the full support of Joe Walsh in the Republic. I have not yet come to the stage of doing the rounds of the other European states to look for support for my proposals. I am waiting until we are ready to put the proposal formally — that is the best time to move on it.
I have had discussions with the French in the margins of other conferences on two occasions. I have not had discussions with other countries so far, but when the time is right and we are beginning to move towards the formal proposals, I intend to go to the various European countries to speak to them. Indeed, the agriculture attachés from the different embassies in London are coming to Northern Ireland soon. In preparation for putting the case, I am also going over to inform them of exactly how good our controls are and how low the incidence is of BSE.
I agree with the Minister that the Assembly should be sending out a positive message. On that basis, can she assure us that the controls imposed on farmers by the Department will strengthen our case when it is presented? Secondly — perhaps this sounds repetitive — does the Minister think that there will ever be a right time to proceed, given the work that she has already carried out in this field?
Will the time ever be right? That is a good question. I had hoped that the time was right six months ago. The fact that circumstances are not right at the moment is beyond my control. However, I am sure that the right time will come. The time will come when the panic is over, when our case will be even stronger. As people look around Europe and see our level of incidence and our controls, compared with those of other countries, they will be easier to convince and, in a calmer situation, the strength of our case will be noted.
I am under no illusion that we can get away with poor record keeping. If we are to get out of this mess and get the ban lifted, we must be sure that we can compete with the best, and maintaining proper herd records is essential for that reason. Traceability, both pre- and post-slaughter, will become even more essential as a result of the latest BSE developments in Europe. We are well placed, and that can be seen when compared with the records of our rivals. We also have a serious problem with bovine TB and brucellosis. Therefore it is important for us to keep accurate accounts. Nonetheless, I am satisfied that our controls are extremely good.
Does the Minister share the opinion of many of those in the industry that the United Kingdom Government should unilaterally ban French beef imports, thereby ensuring that markets for our own highly regulated product avoid being saturated with cheap, unsafe and origin-unknown French beef? I am disappointed that the Minister has failed to call for a ban on French beef.
As I have already said, the question of banning French beef is one for the Food Safety Agency, which is looking at the issue. If the Food Safety Agency concludes that French beef is not safe, it will be a matter for the UK Government, and I expect that they will take action because public health is and must remain a priority.
There were 20 cases in Northern Ireland this year, an unfortunate increase from last year’s six. In Office International des Epizooties (OIE) low incidence terms, that is equivalent to 25 per million. Incidence in the Republic is 101 this year, which is equivalent to 27 per million under the OIE criteria. In France, the incidence in the nine years prior to 2000 was 80. This year alone it is 86, which is a huge increase, but still only equivalent to six per million. Our incidence this year is three times that of France. Of course, we had an incidence of almost 500 in 1992, whereas we now have 20, so we can make a good case.
In Northern Ireland, as in the rest of the UK, animals of over 30 months — which is when they become more suspect — are not allowed into the food chain. Only animals of under 30 months are allowed into the food chain in Northern Ireland. Even those animals have all specified risk material removed before they go into the food chain. Therefore all our precautions and controls are extremely tough and strict, and there are no health implications.
Does the Minister recognise that it was she who set a date of October 2000 to have the beef ban lifted, thereby misleading the agricultural community? When will the ban be lifted? She told the Assembly that it would be March 2001. Is it going to be October 2001, October 2002, or October 2003? Is she implying that the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development did nothing during the Assembly’s suspension from February until April 2000? Given her performance, the Minister should be renamed Minister for Prevarication and Rural Desolation.
How many cases of BSE in cattle under the age of 36 months have there been in Northern Ireland? Do the new tests that will apply to all cattle over the age of 36 months not represent an opportunity to further our campaign to get the beef ban lifted? All animals will then be tested and will not, therefore, have BSE.
I hope that I will remember all those questions. If not, the Member will probably remind me.
First, I did not set a date. In response to questions in the House as to when I thought we would be able to move, I said that I hoped to move on specific dates in October. Recently, I said that I hoped to achieve a relaxation of the ban in March or April 2000. I do not have a crystal ball, and, unlike some Members, I do not have a direct line to the Almighty. Therefore, I could not here forecast this current crisis in Europe, for instance.
I do not take any responsibility for things that are beyond my control. I take responsibility only for things that I can influence. To that end, I have worked extremely hard to get the ban relaxed. There is no implication that my staff did nothing for the three months that I was out of office. I am being attacked for not doing anything, not my staff. I cannot influence French officials, French Ministers or Irish Ministers when I am not in office.
The Member said that new tests will be carried out on all cattle over 30 months. That is not the situation as I understand it. It is not yet clear what the Standing Veterinary Committee (SVC) is saying. We are still interpreting it.
The European Union has insisted that 2,500 cattle be tested over the next year, beginning on 1 January 2001. The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development has begun that task ahead of schedule — we are ahead of the game. All cattle of over 30 months going into the food chain may have to be tested, but as none over 30 months goes into the food chain in Northern Ireland, it may not be necessary to test them all. Mr Poots may, of course, have some source of inspiration or knowledge denied to me.
I do not claim to have a direct line to heaven on this serious matter. It is not a game, although certain Members sitting behind the hon Lady seem to treat it as such. I know that the Minister takes it seriously.
Two cases of BSE have been reported in Germany, while in France, where the situation is grave, 107 cases have been reported. However, there are 101 cases in the Irish Republic, but there is no stir or sense of urgency about them. Are people in Northern Ireland and Great Britain protected against potentially infected meat from BSE animals from the Irish Republic? How will the Minister ensure that Europe deals effectively with the problem there?
The incidence of BSE in Northern Ireland is currently 25 per million, while in the Irish Republic it is 27 per million. Clearly the rate in Northern Ireland is lower. It is illegal for any country to sell cattle of over 30 months of age to Northern Ireland and introduce them into the food chain here. The problem exists across the United Kingdom, and we are examining how it might be resolved. The Food Safety Agency is immediately undertaking a risk assessment of French beef. The over-30-month regulations are being rigorously enforced at meat processing plants and by retailers, and all beef for the domestic market has to be certified as coming from animals of under 30 months. The Commission is being pressed to ensure that the compulsory labelling of meat and processed products clearly states the country of origin.