Home Page

Column 991

House of Commons

Thursday 8 February 1990

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker-- in the Chair ]


City of London (Spitalfields Market) Bill

(By Order) Order for consideration of Lords amendments read.

To be considered on Monday 19 February at Seven o'clock.

Redbridge London Borough Council Bill

(By Order) Order for further consideration, as amended, read.

To be considered on Thursday 15 February.

Birmingham City Council

(No. 2) Bill-- (By Order) Order for consideration, as amended, read.

To be considered on Thursday 15 February.

City of London (Various Powers) Bill

(By Order) Order for consideration, as amended, read.

To be considered on Monday 19 February at Seven o'clock.

Mr. Speaker : As the 16 Bills set down for Second Reading have blocking motions, with the leave of the House I shall put them as a single group.

Column 992

Vale of Glamorgan (Barry Harbour) Bill

[Lords] (By Order)

Adelphi Estate Bill

(By Order)

Exmouth Docks Bill

(By Order)

Hythe, Kent, Marina Bill

(By Order)

London Docklands Railway Bill

(By Order)

London Underground (Victoria) Bill

(By Order)

Penzance South Pier Extension Bill

(By Order)

Shard Bridge Bill

(By Order)

Tees and Hartlepool Port Authority Bill

(By Order)

Ventnor Harbour Bill

(By Order)

London Regional Transport (Penalty Fares) Bill

(By Order)

London Underground Bill

(By Order)

Midland Metro Bill

(By Order)

South Yorkshire Light Rail Transit

(No. 2) Bill-- (By Order)

Cattewater Reclamation Bill

(By Order)

Humberside County Council Bill

(By Order)

Orders for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Thursday 15 February.

British Railways Order Confirmation Bill

(By Order) Order for consideration read.

To be considered on Thursday 15 February.

Column 993

Oral Answers to Questions


Farm Animals (Welfare)

1. Mr. Janman : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what policies he is considering further to improve farm animal welfare practices.

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. John Gummer) : Yesterday I announced a major initiative, which aims to achieve significant improvements in the welfare of all farm animals in Europe. The important features are to set proper standards for animals in transit and for export, to achieve high standards on farms and at slaughter and to ensure that Community welfare legislation is rigorously enforced.

Mr. Janman : I welcome my right hon. Friend's initiative. He knows that I have written to him on several occasions about animal welfare. Will he confirm that unless action is taken on a Communitywide basis, we could well be in danger of importing substantial amounts of food from other countries in the Community where the increasingly high standards that we are adopting in the United Kingdom are not being adopted?

Mr. Gummer : My hon. Friend is perfectly right. If we do not get Europeanwide standards at least to the level that now applies in Britain, our farmers meeting those higher standards will be undercut by other countries producing foods at standards that we would not tolerate here.

Mr. Duffy : In introducing his charter last night, the Minister accepted that he had a moral duty to ensure that the highest standards of animal welfare are met. How does he square that with his continued tolerance of ritual slaughter?

Mr. Gummer : I intend to make a statement about ritual slaughter in the not too-distant-future. The hon. Gentleman's religious position is well known. In a civilised society we have to bring together two imperatives : first, the proper care of animals and secondly, the proper rights of individuals with strong religious views to carry out those views.

Mr. Hunter : Bearing in mind the EC directive on battery hens, in which arguably, standards are set too low, will my right hon. Friend ensure that EC harmonisation on animal welfare does not take place at the lowest common denominator?

Mr. Gummer : I am sure that my hon. Friend is right. The current level of 450 is unacceptable. We fought for a higher level in the original negotiations and discussions in which I took part a couple of years ago. We are now insisting that the Commission brings forward recommendations to raise the level significantly.

Dr. David Clark : Will the Minister confirm that over the past few years there has been no trade in or export from Britain of live horses for slaughter--a practice which British people find particularly abhorrent? In view of that, why in his announcement yesterday did he throw in the

Column 994

towel to the EEC and accept the introduction of that unpalatable trade? Why has not the right hon. Gentleman sought a derogation to stop the trade in live horses for slaughter, on the ground that our horses suffer extra distress due to a sea crossing?

Mr. Gummer : I did not throw in the towel and I would not have dreamt of doing so. I said clearly that we shall fight in the Community to retain the present arrangments to stop the export of horses or for an alternative that meets the same requirements. The hon. Gentleman should read the statements that I make rather than make them up for himself.

Energy Efficiency

3. Mr. Ian Bruce : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what assessment he has made of the contribution agriculture can make to the efficient use and generation of energy.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. David Curry) : My Department gives grants under the farm and conservation grant scheme to encourage the use of renewable sources of energy, to cut energy loss or to recover energy that would otherwise go to waste.

Mr. Bruce : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that reply, but will the Ministry do more to encourage the use of farm waste products to generate energy? I noticed in the press that a farm near Eye in Suffolk generates electricity from the methane that chicken manure creates. The slogan for farmers in the 1990s should be not, "Power to the people" but, "Power from the pullets".

Mr. Curry : The Ministry assists the purchase of equipment for waste recovery. The recovery of methane from waste has generally not proved economic, but should it prove so we should certainly wish to accelerate that process.

Mr. Key : Now that my hon. Friend has reached the difficult but balanced view that it is necessary to ban straw burning, will he take all possible steps to ensure that farmers are encouraged to use surplus straw in an energy-efficient manner and, furthermore, that the necessary technology is available to them at an economic price?

Mr. Curry : We offer assistance for equipment to treat straw to make it more digestible and more usable as an energy source. My hon. Friend will be aware of a large-scale project that uses straw, which would be extremely helpful.

Egg Imports

4. Dr. Moonie : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a statement on the incidence of salmonella contamination in imported eggs.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. David Maclean) : Eight consignments of imported eggs have been found to be contaminated with invasive salmonella since April 1989, and on each occasion we have asked the member state concerned to take remedial action. In addition, my right hon. Friend pressed the European Community at the

Column 995

last Agriculture Council speedily to introduce on an EC wide basis measures similar to those adopted by the United Kingdom.

Dr. Moonie : That sounded a most impressive answer, but I am sure that the Minister will agree that the welcome increase in standards of egg production in Britain has not been matched by a fall in the number of cases of salmonellosis in humans. Will he therefore consider introducing a regulation similar to the one that the Germans are applying to stop imports of our beef?

Mr. Maclean : We have no justification under EC law to slap a ban on all imported eggs, just as other countries did not slap a ban on our eggs when the salmonella crisis was at its height.

Mr. Alexander : I accept all that, but if a farm in this country shows the slightest trace of salmonella, is not it the case that its entire flock must be destroyed, yet testing at the ports of entry is minimal and by the time we have decided that there is salmonella in eggs, they have already been distributed?

Mr. Maclean : My hon. Friend points to the absolute necessity of an EC wide regime. That is why we have accepted the advice of the Select Committee on Agriculture and redoubled our efforts in Europe to achieve a system of salmonella testing across the EC.

Mr. Morley : The Minister well knows that the Germans have used article 36 of the treaty of Rome to stop British beef entering Germany. Why cannot he use the same article to hold imported eggs until they have been proved to be safe? Our producers are suffering from the rightly strict safeguards and assessments while imported eggs are being let off scot-free.

Mr. Maclean : The one little point that the hon. Gentleman did not mention was that the Germans used the treaty illegally, contrary to the advice of the standing scientific committee and contrary to the view of the European Commission. It is not appropriate for Britain to try to use EC rules illegally to place a totally unjustified ban on eggs.

Mr. Lord : Nevertheless, when all the explanations are given, does my hon. Friend agree that for too long, we have been playing the game straight? Is it not true that we must either learn to bend the rules in the way that the foreigners are doing, or otherwise--[ Hon. Members :-- Play the game.

Mr. Speaker : Order.

Mr. Lord : In a nutshell, are not our farmers entitled to feel angry? The bottom line is still that eggs may be imported to compete with our eggs, but our quite acceptable beef is banned from Germany.

Mr. Maclean : The bottom line is that we should learn from other countries how to market produce. We have all seen the words of the Select Committee that British eggs are safer than imported eggs. We all know that, as the Select Committee pointed out, it is perfectly legitimate for every producer in this country to mark on the pack where the eggs have been produced, whether in Britain, Scotland, England, Wales or any county. That is a marketing initiative that our producers can take.

Column 996


5. Mr. Gareth Wardell : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food how many prosecutions there have been in the United Kingdom for illegal hormone use by United Kingdom livestock farmers.

Mr. Maclean : In 1989, four prosecution cases were taken and two resulted in convictions. This Ministry will prosecute whenever we have sufficient evidence of law breaking.

Mr. Wardell : When will the Minister listen to the staff of his Ministry and act with his Home Office colleagues to close the gap in United Kingdom law that allows the illegal implanting of hormones to go unpunished because of the requirement that prosecutions have to be brought within six months of the hormones being implanted?

Mr. Maclean : The hon. Gentleman does a great disservice to those who are enforcing the regulations in this country and to those who are producing beef. He is right to demand that any who break the law should be brought to justice. We have the most rigid surveillance system on the illegal use of hormones of any country in the European Community. We have found such a tiny sample that the hon. Gentleman should direct his attention to other European Community countries, where there are official reports of 10 per cent. hormone abuse, and not to this country.

Mr. Tony Banks : Will the Minister tell the House in rather more detail how the use of illegal hormones in cattle is detected, so that we can see whether the number of prosecutions that have been brought match the amount of testing? As it is easy enough to discover the illegal use of hormones among Welsh weightlifters, we should be able to discover it among cattle.

Mr. Maclean : I am delighted to reply to the gentleman farmer from Newham. Hormones would usually be administered behind the ear and our veterinary officers are more adept at detecting traces on the surface of the animal if it has suffered from illegal hormone use. One can also pick up such use in the meat at slaughterhouses. We carry out about 40,000 random tests of meat products in this country for many residues and contaminants. Those are the technical details of how it is done. I am convinced that our surveillance system is the most comprehensive. If there is hormone abuse, we are catching it, and at present, we are catching a tiny amount. The hon. Gentleman should look to other countries for hormone abuse.

Farming Diversification

6. Mr. Kennedy : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a statement on progress towards farming diversification.

Mr. Gummer : Two Government-sponsored reports published recently give, for the first time, a clear picture of farm diversification in the United Kingdom. Those reports show that about one third of the farmers who responded have developed some form of farm-diversified business activity. That result gives a clear demonstration of the success of the Government's policy in this area.

Mr. Kennedy : Does the Minister agree--the flooding of the past few days has confirmed the fact--that in an area

Column 997

such as the Scottish Highlands, there are practical problems in diversification because, in much of the agricultural activity, there is simply no alternative? Will he bear in mind, as he pursues the diversification policy, the problems of diversifying in an area such as the Scottish Highlands? Will he also bear in mind the worry that diversification into other sectors elsewhere in Britain, especially the sheep sector, may have a resultant knock-on effect on prices and on the economic basis of agriculture in the north? Will he, therefore, be sympathetic and sensitive to those problems in the years to come?

Mr. Gummer : That is why I agreed to announce a week or so ago an increase in the hill livestock compensatory allowance payments to the highland areas. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman agrees with me that it was a disgrace that a Labour Front-Bench spokesman referred to that statement as "footling", as if the hill areas do not matter. We now know what Labour thinks about the hill areas.

Mr. Boswell : Will my right hon. Friend confirm his affirmative nod to me in the debate on Tuesday when I said that although farm diversification was welcome and that he was to be commended for it, it could make only a marginal contribution to farm incomes? Will he warn farmers that this place would simply not be big enough if all of them followed me by diversifying into Parliament?

Mr. Gummer : My hon. Friend has diversified extremely effectively. Many farmers find alternative ways of using their capital and land. Clearly, the main business of farming is and will continue to be the production of food. Every farmer who diversifies helps to take the pressure off farmers who are unable so to do.

Mr. Hardy : Which adjective would the Minister prefer to footling-- mischievous, irresponsible or misleading?

Mr. Gummer : Now it appears that the Opposition think that the hill farmers of Britain are mischievous, irresponsible and misleading, as well as footling.

Animal Health

7. Mr. Speller : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make it his policy to compensate farmers at 100 per cent. of the market value for beasts which he requires to be slaughtered on animal health grounds.

Mr. Maclean : Different levels of compensation are payable according to the disease control measure concerned. In some cases, an owner may receive more than the value of the slaughtered animal. I keep all aspects of my compensation policy under constant review.

Mr. Speller : Does my hon. Friend agree that at a time when farm incomes are falling and the green pound is grossly overvalued in Britain, we should at least compensate farmers, if only to avoid the remote possibility of people seeking to evade the law, thus spreading the disease problems that we already have?

Mr. Maclean : I hear what my hon. Friend says. I have great sympathy for farmers whose cows suffer from bovine spongiform encephalopathy, particularly farmers who have more than one animal affected by it. The mechanism for preventing BSE from getting into the food chain is not

Column 998

compensation, which is intended to help farmers suffering financial loss. We protect the food chain by the host of other measures that we take, particularly the offals ban.

Mr. Martlew : Will the Minister extend the compensation scheme to sheep suffering from scrapie? Under the present system a sheep suffering from scrapie is slaughtered, its head is cut off and condemned and the rest of the carcase goes to the butcher. Is it not a fact that BSE has been caused by the scrapie virus?

Mr. Maclean : No, Sir. Scrapie has been well known and recorded for the past 250 years. It is present in many other countries. There has been no risk to human health whatever. I keep all aspects of my compensation policy under review, but this is not a matter which I am currently considering.

Mr. Neale : Will my hon. Friend confirm that there is no evidence that the National Farmers Union has encouraged its members, or the Minister, to avoid public health requirements? Does he accept that in the lead contamination incident, which affects part of the west country, innocent farmers may suffer financial hardship as a result of the blanket application of such precautions? Will he make sure that in future he supplies sufficient resources for such incidents, so that hardship is minimised?

Mr. Maclean : Of course, we want to minimise hardship to farmers or others who suffer through no fault of their own. The restrictions that my Department put in place in the lead in feed incident in the west country were based on the best scientific advice and were intended to protect the human food chain. Where we had information that feed may have been given to farmers, we applied restrictions. As soon as we had information that human health was not in jeopardy, we removed those restrictions.

Mr. Ron Davies : Why is the Minister so obstinate in rejecting the demands from hon. Members of all parties for 100 per cent. compensation for BSE? As he knows that it is impossible to find a farmer, a vet or a local authority inspector who will deny that BSE-infected animals are entering the food chain, will he now reconsider his decision? If he introduces 100 per cent. compensation, at least he can start to deal with the problem of clinically infected animals. If he is then prepared to accept the recommendation of the Tyrrell committee to introduce random sampling of all bovine brains, at least the public will have some idea of the extent of the epidemic, or does he simply not want the public to know?

Mr. Maclean : That last remark is outrageous. The hon. Gentleman is right to advance an argument for farmers receiving more compensation because they have suffered financial loss, but that argument is totally separate from protecting the human food chain. It is not right to suggest that BSE-infected animals are getting into the food chain, because we have taken all preventive measures. The recent record of the British Veterinary Association states :

"But, there was no evidence that the current compensation level was encouraging farmers to shed off animals for slaughter and inclusion in the food chain."

I keep my compensation policy under review and I am concerned about financial loss for farmers. However, our compensation policy has nothing to do with protecting the human food chain. We have other measures to do that.

Column 999

Mr. Hague : I accept many of my hon. Friend's arguments, but does he at least accept the principle that no farmer should be worse off because of reporting a suspected instance of BSE? Is he confident that 50 per cent. compensation is sufficient to ensure that and will he consider whether a higher percentage many be necessary?

Mr. Maclean : Of couse, I reaffirm that I keep my compensation policy under review. There is nothing to deter a farmer from reporting a suspected case because, as everyone should know, if we destroy an animal and later discover from veterinary analysis that it does not have BSE, we pay 100 per cent. compensation in any case.

Loan Interest

8. Mr. Home Robertson : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a statement on the burden of loan interest which is being carried by the agricultural industry.

Mr. Curry : We do understand the problems of farmers facing difficulties, but I must point out that the total income from farming increased by 11 per cent. last year, after the effect of interest payments had been take into account. The fight against inflation must remain the major priority for the Government and is very much in the interests of farmers.

Mr. Home Robertson : The Minister has conveniently avoided explaining exactly how much the industry is paying in interest rates at the moment. However, I am grateful to him for confirming in a written reply earlier this week that the industry is paying out as much in interest rates as he is paying into it for market regulation and price guarantees in the current year. Will he acknowledge that the £1,000 million cost of interest to farmers this year is more than five times what it was when the Labour Government left office? How can the industry adjust to its changing priorities and invest for the future after 1992 if the Government continue to maintain the highest interest rates in Europe?

Mr. Curry : The hon. Gentleman was highly implausible on the subject of interest rates when he spoke in the debate two days ago and he has got worse since. No farmer listening to those remarks is likely to conclude that a Labour Government would be of any benefit to him. Indeed, once farmers have listened to the remarks that the Leader of the Opposition is likely to make to the National Farmers Union next week, I am sure that they will conclude that they are entirely right to vote Conservative and that they will continue to do so.

Mr. Quentin Davies : Does my hon. Friend recognise that high interest rates are only one of the burdens that farmers face at present, the others being the overvaluation of the green pound and falling real output prices? Does he further recognise that the improvement in farming incomes to which he alluded was largely the result of good weather last year in both the drilling and the harvesting periods and that, in the nature of things, one cannot count on the weather for ever? When he is next contemplating moves, whether in an environmental context or in relation to straw burning, that would place additional burdens on the farming industry, will he consider very carefully this complex of burdens that the farming industry faces?

Column 1000

Mr. Curry : It is a fact that high interest rates create problems for all people in the business community. In that regard, farmers are no different from other business people. We are certainly at pains to minimise unnecessary burdens on farmers. That is why we are going to Brussels determined to achieve a green pound devaluation that will represent a substantial boost to the prices received by farmers in this country.

Mr. Wilson : Does the Minister recognise that high interest rates force people in rural communities to find other means of earning a living and that in many rural areas, particularly in Scotland, a traditional way of ekeing out a living is by catching wild fish, including salmon? Does the Minister realise that many people in Scotland have never accepted, and will never accept, the ludicrous proposition that wild fish that swim the Atlantic become private property the moment they enter a river system? In that spirit, will the Minister accept my congratulations on the Government's humiliating climbdown this week when they finally abandoned the salmon dealing licensing scheme and the absurd idea--

Mr. Speaker : Order. Does this relate to loan interest?

Mr. Wilson : Yes, Sir.

Does the Minister accept that having wasted the time of Parliament for two years and the time of civil servants for four years in their attempts, at the bidding of landlord interests, to create this scheme, they have finally admitted defeat and abandoned it?

Mr. Curry : I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will wish to congratulate the Government on taking an extremely sensible decision not to erect a vast bureaucratic apparatus which would not work. That is a matter for congratulation, and I accept the hon. Gentleman's congratulations with pleasure.

Mr. Speaker : I still think that that has nothing to do with loan interest.

Eastern Europe

9. Mr. Anthony Coombs : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what initiatives his Department is taking to assist the agricultural needs of eastern European countries.

Mr. Gummer : My Department is actively involved in building closer links with east European countries. As part of this involvement, I recently met the East German Minister of Agriculture in Berlin, and I hope soon to lead a group of business men on visits to Hungary and Poland.

Mr. Anthony Coombs : Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the most effective ways of assisting eastern European agriculture is the kind of joint venture entered into last October by the British Sugar Corporation and the Polish foreign trade organisation on sugar? Such an arrangement increases the amount of capital going into east Europe's industry, increases its expertise, and increases its vital foreign exchange earnings. What action will my right hon. Friend take to ensure that more British firms invest in that sort of venture?

Mr. Gummer : Several of the business men who will accompany me to those two countries are already engaged in joint ventures, and I hope that the number of such

Column 1001

ventures will be increased. I have also got together a number of farming groups, farming co-operatives and farmers who hope to help those countries to re-equip their farms and run them in the efficient way of the capitalist West, as against the Socialist way that they have had up to now.

Mr. John D. Taylor : Although it is wise to help to improve agriculture in eastern Europe and make it more efficient, will the Minister always bear in mind the danger to agriculture in the European Community and the United Kingdom should the eastern European countries reach a position of having surplus agricultural produce?

Mr. Gummer : It would be wrong for us to rely on the continuation of inefficient Socialism in eastern Europe to prevent surpluses there. That has been done very satisfactorily for 40 years, but now we hope that, with the coming of freedom, east European countries will begin to feed themselves. We must take measures to protect the interests of our industry, one of which will be for industry to take a real part in the development of those countries. We should not deny them that chance. We certainly do not want the opportunities to be taken only by other countries.

Mr. Dickens : When my right hon. Friend is next in eastern Europe, will he reflect on the fact that Socialist economies never produce enough food even to feed their own people?

Mr. Gummer : My hon. Friend is living proof of this country's ability to produce enough food. He is absolutely right : Socialism always produces shortages because it always prevents the excellent from achieving, and pushes the poorest to make them poorer.

Dr. David Clark : Does the Minister appreciate that probably the greatest threat to the fledgling democracies in eastern Europe is a shortage of food on shop shelves? Therefore, will he give a pledge to the House that he will do everything he can at the next Council of Ministers to further the proposal to divert food in the short term to eastern Europe? Remembering that we must help those fledgling democracies to feed themselves, will he press the EC to make money available so that they can have long-term development aid, for production and marketing, to help them achieve that objective?

Mr. Gummer : I did exactly that at the latest Council and I shall continue to do so. I also intend to visit Romania and Bulgaria, as well as Czechoslovakia, to see what we should be doing directly, because we have a responsibility. All that we do must be against the background of ensuring that our producers are not unfairly disadvantaged by the arrangements introduced by the European Community. I believe that British farmers must be treated in the same way as the other farmers in the Community.


10. Mr. John Greenway : To ask the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what action he is taking to stimulate conservation by farmers in upland areas.

Mr. Curry : The environmentally sensitive areas, farm woodlands and farm and conservation grant schemes provide financial help for conservation projects in the uplands and elsewhere.

Column 1002

Mr. Greenway : Does my hon. Friend agree that the time has come to look afresh at our policy for upland areas and to devise new policies that recognise that the hill farmer is very much the engine of conservation in upland areas? Does he agree that a new policy such as the North Yorkshire moors national park farm scheme, which I hope he will launch in the spring, has a great deal to recommend it because it will link much-needed financial support to hill farmers with specific conservation measures in the uplands?

Next Section

  Home Page