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Mr. Hogg: We are indeed proceeding in a step-by-step way. I had had it in mind that my speech should unfold in

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precisely that way. I shall shortly come to the question of relaxing the ban, and seek to address that point in that context.

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley): With respect, I wonder whether the Minister really knows what is happening out in the country. One of the biggest problems is red tape. Cattle are being taken hundreds of miles only to be turned back because of technicalities. There is problem after problem with the red tape that was set up to discourage cattle from going into intervention store to stop a beef mountain developing. The Prime Minister promised to cut the red tape but nothing has been done. What is the Minister going to do about it?

Mr. Hogg: That criticism is not correct. It is true is that, until recently, we wanted to discourage people from putting beef into intervention. However, when the crisis occurred, the rules were relaxed substantially, the classes were opened up and we made changes in administration. If the hon. Gentleman has specific points that illustrate undue bureaucracy, I should be grateful if he would let me have them in writing, and we will consider what we can do to address them.

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset): Will my right hon. and learned Friend comment briefly on beef cattle aged over 30 months--possibly those under three years--being allowed back into the food chain? That would reduce the pressure to destroy perfectly good beef. Secondly, beasts are being held on farms, and in Dorset they cannot be slaughtered but still need food. Will he consider opening up set-aside, so that those beasts can be fed? That would cost nothing, and would take some pressure off my farmers.

Mr. Hogg: My hon. Friend's point about set-aside is good. We are consulting the Commission about that. It is right to draw attention to the importance of certified herds. We put proposals out for consultation about 10 days ago, and I hope that we will complete that in a few days. We can then consider what the industry has said about that concept. I want to discuss it with the Commission, because it is better by far to proceed with its agreement. However, I understand the importance of the concept of certified herds as a route back into the human food chain for cattle over the age of 30 months.

Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry): The right hon. and learned Gentleman was challenged about imports from third countries. Why was such a relaxation of restrictions on imports necessary to supply that beef? Given the complete traceability of beef from Northern Ireland, and given our exports of some 54,000 tonnes of beef to Europe every year, was not beef of the required quality available in the United Kingdom? If there had been no relaxation, there would not have been a drop in the British beef market.

Mr. Hogg: The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the improved traceability and record keeping in Northern Ireland, and that point is extremely well founded. But his conclusion in relation to imports from third countries is not correct. The processors needed beef of a certain age and character. They got that primarily,

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but not exclusively, from cull cows. They needed to get beef from elderly cows and that was best sourced from third countries. We therefore relaxed the import prohibition provided that those countries did not have confirmed cases of BSE.

Mr. Cash: Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that Staffordshire farmers are having an extremely difficult time, that the slaughtering and abattoir facilities are simply not available under current plans, and that farmers are becoming extremely impatient about the lack of co-operation that is causing them so much difficulty? Has my right hon. and learned Friend heard of the suspicion that is growing that the renderers and those involved in the abattoir business may be so organising affairs as to ensure that they gain a significant advantage as against the free market in the cattle market auctions as the matter progresses and as we come out of the crisis?

Mr. Hogg: I understand the anxieties that have been expressed by my hon. Friend's constituents. The past eight weeks have been a calamity for the British beef industry and for British farmers. They are desperately worried, they want to move their cattle, they feel that they cannot feed them, they see substantial financial problems, and it is true that the slaughter scheme has moved forward less rapidly than we would have wished. But I hope that we will soon be slaughtering at the rate of 18,000 per week in England and Wales, and that, as we introduce more cold storage capacity, we shall significantly increase that figure.

Mr. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon): The Minister says that he is concerned, but does he have any idea how angry people feel after eight weeks of simply being told that the Government are still trying to get their act together? People want the ban lifted. How many weeks will it be before we even begin to obtain a reduction in the backlog? Does the Minister accept that, without that reduction, there is no chance of persuading Europe to lift the ban?

Mr. Hogg: I rather regret giving way to the hon. Gentleman, because that was a rather intemperate intervention.

Mr. George Walden (Buckingham): I should like to say something a little more helpful to my right hon. and learned Friend. There is a danger in the slaughtering operation of too many expectations being laid on my right hon. and learned Friend and the Government. What would my right hon. and learned Friend like to suggest to the NFU, the slaughterhouses and the renderers in terms of initiatives that they could take at local level, rather than simply expecting everything to be organised by the Government?

Mr. Hogg: My hon. Friend is entirely right. The Government can lay down general schemes, designate with the intervention board and others relevant abattoirs, markets and collection points, and make arrangements for payments and so on, but when it comes to the bilateral negotiations, which have to take place, with regard to the ordering of slaughter, in the end that has to be done locally between farmers, abattoirs and markets. Government do not have the mechanism effectively to organise the slaughter of individual beasts.

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Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport) rose--

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow) rose--

Mr. Hogg: I am going to make some progress.

I recognise that, as a result of the crisis in the beef sector, many individuals and businesses have suffered greatly, and I have immense sympathy for them. But we cannot use public money simply to compensate for the loss of profit. We have therefore targeted resources on the critical links in the chain, so as to provide a breathing space during which the sector can adjust to the new market circumstances. To achieve this, we have committed around £1 billion in support of farmers, renderers, abattoirs and cutting plants.

I accept that many people have suffered loss for which they will receive no assistance. That is true, but to try to provide assistance to everybody who has suffered loss would be wholly outside the ability of this House or of the Government.

Mr. Robert Hughes rose--

Mr. Viggers: Will my right hon. and learned Friend give way?

Mr. Hogg: No, I wish to make some progress. The hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) referred to this matter in a previous debate.

There are others who have suffered loss--hauliers, processors, shops and retailers. I know perfectly well that people have lost their jobs, and I have the utmost sympathy for them--this is a beastly business. But we cannot pay money to everybody who has suffered loss. Therefore, we must define the principles on which we are to operate, and they are those that I have outlined to the House on this occasion and on others.

I turn next to the bans on the export of British beef and beef products. Of course most attention has been paid to the bans imposed by the European Union and by member states. However, we should not ignore the fact that other countries, outside the European Union, have also placed bans on British beef and products, and that some of these bans have been in place for a long time.

In our view, these bans have neither scientific nor, in the case of the European Union, legal justification--hence our determination to lodge a legal challenge under article 173 of the treaty--and should be lifted as speedily as possible. The oft-repeated statements by EU Agriculture Ministers that the bans are to reassure consumers in other European countries are not a proper or satisfactory explanation for policies so unjustified in their character and so injurious in their consequences.

The House will know that the European Union standing veterinary committee is today considering proposals brought forward by the Commission. These proposals would, if approved and subject to conditions, provide for a lifting of the European Union ban in respect of gelatin, tallow and semen. The Commission is clearly seeking to re-establish a single market in beef and beef products, and I welcome these proposals as an important--though modest--first step.

I hope that during today's debate, we will learn the outcome of the committee's discussions. I should, however, make one point clear in advance.

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Today's meeting is not the make-or-break event described in some sections of the media. I very much hope that the proposals will be adopted. However, if they are not, the Commission is obliged to submit without delay a proposal to the Council. I can assure the House that, in that event, I would be pressing for the implementation of the Commission's proposals. A failure to make progress would seriously complicate the relations that exist between the United Kingdom and other member states.

Once these proposals are accepted, we shall look to the Commission to bring forward further measures that will provide for additional relaxations in the ban--for example, lifting the ban on exports to third countries and exempting certified herds. That would be of particular importance to Scotland and to Northern Ireland, as well as elsewhere in the UK. Our objective is to move as rapidly as we can to a total removal of what is, in our view, a wholly unjustified interference with the single market.

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