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Dr. Strang: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point--and with some passion. I intend to return to the issue of traceability later in my speech. Northern Ireland produces high quality beef and its industry is geared to the export market. It has been very successful in recent years, so a great deal is at stake and I can well understand the hon. Gentleman's concern.

The Labour party's commitment to radical reform of the common agricultural policy is well known. We have reiterated it year in, year out in these debates. The Government have been in power for 17 years and have not made a single sustained effort to secure changes to the CAP. I remind the Minister of what the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) said when he was in the right hon. and learned Gentleman's post. Speaking in 1993, after the MacSharry changes that had been discussed in the Council in 1992, he told the House that the reformed common agricultural policy was

In the CAP reform negotiations, he added,

    "there was no single major element of our negotiating list that we failed to secure in those negotiations."--[Official Report, 25 March 1993; Vol.221, c.1228.]

As one of his first acts on becoming Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the right hon. and learned Gentleman announced the outcome of the Government's review group, or think tank, on the CAP. I welcome some of what the Minister said this afternoon, but his is a deathbed conversion after 17 years of failure to tackle the real faults and weaknesses in the CAP.

The objectives of the CAP are set out in article 39 of the treaty of Rome. That treaty has been in place for 39 years. The intergovernmental conference was an opportunity to set new objectives for the common agricultural policy--objectives that reflected the needs of the industry and the needs of rural areas throughout the European Union as we enter the 21st century. It is probably a matter of regret to many hon. Members on both sides of the House that the Government have made no attempt to seize the opportunity offered by that conference.

The significant item of new expenditure in the common agricultural policy in the forthcoming year will be support for the beef industry, which is needed as a result of the

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crisis. We recognise the need for that support. Some has already been put in place by the Government, and more will be needed through the common agricultural policy.

The House will clearly remember the Secretary of State for Health reporting to us on 20 March 1996 that the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee had advised the Government that there was a new strain of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, and that BSE was the most likely explanation for the 10 cases of the apparently new strain. The Minister of Agriculture said:

Without doubt, the market for beef and beef products collapsed in the United Kingdom and throughout Europe. On 27 March, the imposition of a worldwide ban on UK beef exports was confirmed by the European Commission. On 1 April, the Minister went to Luxembourg offering the huge 30-month slaughter scheme--the slaughter of cull cows and of cattle over 30 months. He came away with an obligation to devise an additional slaughter scheme, but without even securing a timetable for the lifting of the European Union ban.

On 29 April, the Minister presented a proposal for an additional slaughter programme to the Council of Agriculture Ministers. He came away from the Council with an obligation to strengthen his slaughter proposals--again without even a timetable for the lifting of the European Union ban.

Last week, the European Commission agreed that it would recommend to the European Union veterinary standing committee that the ban on tallow, gelatine and semen be lifted. Labour shares the Government's commitment to the complete lifting of the ban on British beef and beef products, and I am sure that the Minister will acknowledge that any lifting of the ban on those three products will affect relatively few businesses and jobs compared with what is at stake in the context of the overall ban on beef and beef products.

The Minister has had to operate against a background of incredible behaviour on the part of his Cabinet colleagues. It has been widely reported that the Foreign Secretary has written to the Prime Minister demanding stronger leadership in relation to the BSE crisis, and that, in the context of the crisis, the Prime Minister has used language that I cannot repeat in the House of Commons about his European Union counterparts.

Then, of course, we had the threat of a trade war--a threat that lasted 24 hours before the Deputy Prime Minister was scuttling between the television studios to explain to people that the trade war threat was off, and that the issue would have to be resolved by negotiation; he repeated that statement on Monday in the House of Commons.

As the Farmers Weekly editorial said,

Britain a

    "laughing stock".

If Ministers really believe that such behaviour is helping us to secure a lifting of the ban, they have taken collective leave of their senses.

It is obvious that failure to execute policies in this country properly will have done nothing to restore our standing in the European Union; that standing will not be

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restored until the Government get a real grip on BSE. We must restore the confidence of our consumers--progress has been made in that regard--and we must restore the wider confidence of the world in British beef.

Sir Jim Spicer (West Dorset): The hon. Gentleman just said, "until the Government get a good grip on BSE." What would he do that is not already being done at the initiation of SEAC and all the scientific advice that we are given? Would he go in for mass slaughter, like the French?

Dr. Strang: No. We set out our eight points, which we believe should be implemented; I shall paraphrase them later. We set out clearly in the late 1980s and early 1990s--it is all on the record in Hansard--the actions that should have been taken. It is unquestionable that, if we had implemented the policies and proposals recommended by the official Opposition since BSE was identified in 1986, we should not have been in the position that we are in now. That cannot be denied.

At home, the 30-month rule, in the eyes of most people, remains in chaos. I do not think that many Conservative Members who met farmers earlier today recognised the description of the slaughter scheme that the Minister gave us earlier. The scheme was drawn up by the Government at the end of March and was taken to the Council of Agriculture Ministers meeting in Luxembourg on 1 April. According to the Ministry press release of 16 April, the programme was due to come into operation on 29 April. Here we are, on 15 May, more than six weeks after the scheme first came to light, and it is still not properly in place.

When the Government were drawing up the scheme, they must have been aware of the capacity of our rendering plants. They must have been aware that that would be a constraint on the throughput.

I say to the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Walden)--I am not sure whether he is still in his place--that it is no use the Government trying to wash their hands of this. It is no use blaming the industry--whether the farmers, the abattoirs or the markets--or officials, or the intervention board. This is a huge operation. Ministers took the decision to implement a huge slaughter scheme, and they have responsibility for ensuring that it is executed properly.

The only possible interpretation of the minutes of the last Council meeting is that the Government are obliged to strengthen their proposal for an additional selective slaughter scheme to help eradicate BSE.

One of Minister's problems has been convincing our European counterparts that we have the facilities to trace the animals most at risk of BSE. I come to the point that the hon. Member for East Antrim (Mr. Beggs) made. Northern Ireland has a superb animal identification system. The Minister's task would have been made much easier if the Government had acted on Labour's proposal six years ago and established a similar identification system in the rest of the UK.

Traceability will be the key to getting us out of this crisis. Most hon. Members have probably received representations stating that technology is available to set up a national cattle database. I should be grateful if the

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Government would give us the response to the proposals being made by National Milk Records, or any other body, for the establishment of such a system.

Rev. Ian Paisley: I am sure the hon. Gentleman heard the question I asked the Minister. Does he agree that, as cold storage is now available in Northern Ireland, it should be used to allow Northern Ireland to get on with dealing with this matter?

Dr. Strang: Yes, we support that. Indeed, I think the Minister acknowledged that the Government were going down that road. There is obviously some disappointment that he spoke about six weeks. From what the Minister said on previous occasions, we were led to believe that it might be possible to bring that additional cold storage into operation sooner. No one disputes the fact that the priority must be to slaughter those animals as soon as possible. That obviously involves, ultimately, rendering all animals and incinerating all remains of the specified bovine material and the other parts of the carcases. I assume that the Government are committed to that.

Confidence in British beef will be restored only when all measures necessary to keep the BSE agent out of our food are implemented and properly enforced. Labour has set out proposals to restore confidence in the safety of beef, to keep the BSE agent out of our food, to improve the epidemiology of BSE, to increase consumer awareness and to improve the role of Government.

As the Minister will be aware, one of our proposals concerned the encouragement of quality assurance schemes--an issue of interest to Northern Ireland, Scotland and other parts of the United Kingdom. We want quality assurance schemes to be supported, because we want consumers to know where their beef comes from and how it was produced. The Prime Minister, in his ignorance, condemned the proposals, but I am pleased that the Minister said on 3 April that the Government would go down that road for cattle over the age of 30 months. I must put it to him, however, that, six weeks later, farmers of high-quality and late-maturing animals are becoming increasingly frustrated by the lack of progress.

As the Minister knows, we also believe that there should be a full investigation of the fact that 67 per cent. of BSE cases now occur in cattle born after the ban on ruminant-derived protein in ruminant feed: 67 per cent. of cases in the first quarter of the year were among such cattle. The right hon. and learned Gentleman told the House last week that there had been a continuous flow of contaminated feedstuffs to cattle after the feed was banned, and he said that that was why the rules had been tightened as recently as April this year; but he has said that he does not agree that we should look into the cases of cattle born after the ban. It is short-sighted of the Government to refuse to investigate those cases.

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