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Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): Is it true that it is now exactly eight weeks since the Secretary of State for

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Health made his original statement in the House that precipitated this crisis? That is 56 days. Why was the problem of rendering capacity not anticipated at a much earlier stage? Why has the entire industry been held to ransom?

Why is the situation still deteriorating--since last week, when the Minister of State made his statement, and since Monday, when he assured us that 21 abattoirs were in action? Today, only 11 are operating. Can the Secretary of State give us a figure for the number of cattle that have been processed through the scheme as of now?

Mr. Hogg: The hon. Gentleman reminds the House that it is but eight weeks since my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and I made our statements. It seems like eight years from my point of view and that of the industry, but no matter for that.

There has not been a deterioration in the situation. The 30-month scheme is running, and it is running effectively. We hope--[Interruption.] No. Very soon we hope to be up to the rate of 18,000 cattle slaughtered a week in England and Wales in the categories about which we are now talking. We cannot do much in excess of that until we have brought on stream substantially more cold storage capacity to store the carcases.

Mr. Michael Lord (Central Suffolk): Will my right hon. and learned Friend give way?

Rev. Ian Paisley (North Antrim): Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hogg: No; I shall now make some progress. I shall give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk (Mr. Lord) in a few moments, and then to the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley).

I turn now specifically to BSE. The Government's first and paramount duty--the one with which my Ministry is charged to perform--is to ensure the safety of the food we produce and the products we consume. I take this opportunity again to state my settled conviction that British beef is safe, and that it can be eaten with complete confidence. No other country in Europe or in the world can point to such sophisticated and elaborate systems that have been designed to deliver a quality product.

The key decision, taken following consultation with the producers and the retail industry, was to keep out of the food chain beef from cattle over the age of 30 months. One reason for that is that confirmed cases in cattle under the age of 30 months are virtually unknown. That, combined with a vigorous enforcement of the slaughterhouse rules, provides for a very high degree of consumer protection.

There are, however, many specialist beef herds that have never had a case of BSE, and, because of the circumstances in which they are raised, are very unlikely ever to have one. Some of those cattle are normally marketed over 30 months of age. To take account of that, we are now consulting on a change that will permit beef from those animals back into the market for human consumption. That is a necessary and a justified step, but it is a step that requires special consideration; hence the importance that I attach to consultation and to the views of the Commission. I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk.

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Mr. Lord: I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for giving way. His remarks about help for prime beef under 30 months old will be greatly welcomed by Suffolk farmers. May I echo other hon. Members' concern about slaughtering, because I do not think that one abattoir in Norfolk or Suffolk is working? In fact, I believe that just one abattoir in East Anglia, at Brentwood--[Interruption.]--I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend will listen--is working. Today, my farmers impressed on me the need to get the slaughtering operation under way as quickly as possible, to restore confidence in the market and to let them know what is going on.

I urge my right hon. and learned Friend to improve his communications with our farmers so that they know what is going on, when their animals can be expected to be slaughtered and when they will receive their money.

Mr. Hogg: Both the points that my hon. Friend has made are, in principle, entirely justified. We were anxious to get the system under way as speedily as possible, but I have already drawn attention to the restriction imposed by the limitation on the rendering capacity. That is why we started with a limited number of abattoirs operating under the scheme, but more will be joining it on Monday week. As we increase the cold storage capacity, we will be able to bring yet more abattoirs into operation under the scheme.

As to communication with the farming community, we have already sent out two news sheets, and we will do more of that. Of course it is important. My hon. Friend the Minister of State sees representatives of the industry every day, and I see representatives whenever they want. I believe that relations are very good, but we will obviously do our best to improve them in any way we sensibly can.

Mr. William Cash (Stafford) rose--

Rev. Ian Paisley rose--

Mr. Hogg: I give way to the hon. Member for North Antrim (Rev. Ian Paisley).

Rev. Ian Paisley: I appreciate the Minister giving way, and remembering that Northern Ireland is still a part of the United Kingdom. May I say that I welcome most heartily his plans about immediate storage? Northern Ireland has immediate capacity for storage, so why cannot the slaughter happen there tomorrow? We have to slaughter 6,000 head of cattle every week, and we could proceed now because we have the storage. Can he give the green light to that slaughter, if I might use that term--[Laughter]--or perhaps an orange light would be better?

Mr. Hogg: I do not need any reminding, especially when the hon. Gentleman is in his place, that Northern Ireland is part of the Union. Speaking for myself, I am extremely glad it is, and I hope that it will remain so for as long as the House is in place.

Mr. Cash rose--

Mr. Hogg: I am answering the question from the hon. Member for North Antrim.

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As regards the cull, in Northern Ireland, between 3 and 14 May, some 2,620 beasts were slaughtered. We estimate that, today, some 500 beasts will be slaughtered in Northern Ireland. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will take some reassurance from those figures.

Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Hogg: I will give way first to my right hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery) and to hon. Members on the Opposition Benches.

Sir Peter Emery (Honiton): I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for giving way. Will he deal with two points that he has not addressed? First, in order to encourage the throughput through slaughterhouses, a massive amount of refrigerated storage is, of course, necessary, but will he also encourage the greater use of incineration, particularly in the west country, which has the required facilities? That would considerably assist the scheme.

Secondly, my right hon. and learned Friend has told the House that he believes that the scheme is working well, but the information that he is getting does not correspond with what the farming community is feeling. Would he therefore consider arranging for his Parliamentary Private Secretary or one of his officials to be in daily contact with the intervention board--

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cirencester and Tewkesbury): That is happening.

Sir Peter Emery: That may be so, but the information that that board is getting from the farmers and that which the board is giving the Minister is not the same. That information needs to be co-ordinated.

Mr. Hogg: It is perfectly true that, in the first few days after 29 April, we did not get the throughput that we would have liked. However, it is also true that, in recent days, there has been a substantial improvement in the number of beasts slaughtered under the scheme. My hon. Friend the Minister of State chairs a daily meeting with representatives of the relevant industries, and is therefore kept fully informed of the day-to-day facts. We have the slaughter figures on a daily basis. I have today's estimated slaughter figure in my hand--an estimated 4,173 beasts were slaughtered in the UK today. We take the figures on a daily basis.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan): Has the Minister looked at the unemployment figures today? Scottish unemployment is rising, while UK unemployment is falling. Scottish unemployment is above the UK average, while it has previously been below it. That is not all due to BSE, but it underlines how critical the export market is to employment in Scotland--and that also applies to Northern Ireland. My constituents are practical and pragmatic. We want our beef back on European markets. We do not want to replay the battle of Trafalgar like the Secretary of State for Scotland.

Will the Minister give an undertaking that, if he is going to adopt a step-by-step approach, the case for Scotland and Northern Ireland will be considered at an early stage of the process, given the critical importance of exports to our economies?

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