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5.45 pm

Sir Jim Spicer (West Dorset): It is natural, and I suppose unavoidable, that our debate today and tomorrow will centre largely on BSE and the iniquitous ban imposed by our so-called European partners. Most of my remarks will relate to beef and the action that we should take to restore prosperity to the beef industry and its allied trades.

It might be of interest to hon. Members if I broaden the debate and say a word about dairy quotas. The beef ban and problems relating to beef are here today and will hopefully be gone at some point in the future, but the milk quotas have been in place for a long time. The hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang) said that he had been in the House for 26 years; I have been here for only 23 years, but I have a clear recollection of the run-up to the imposition of quotas and I know what happened between 1974 and 1979. The worst period was just after the ill-fated and unhappy--indeed unholy--alliance between the Liberal party and the Labour party, when the Liberal party agreed to maintain Labour in power. It was in 1978 that the damage was done to our dairy industry and the knock-on effect carried through to the quotas.

The Labour Government were in power in 1978. They were not facing an election, and they said that they had a long-term programme to support agriculture. In 1978, milk production increased in the United Kingdom by 4.7 per cent., in the Netherlands by 7.2 per cent., in Ireland by 12.4 per cent. and in Italy by a staggering 18.3 per cent. The key point is that in 1978 and 1979 it was clear to anyone who knew anything about agriculture and what was to happen in the future that there would have to be some form of control over milk production.

Mr. George Stevenson (Stoke-on-Trent, South): While the hon. Gentleman is seeking to apportion blame for the milk quota, will he recall that in the autumn of 1983 the then Government were encouraging, through grants and money, the extension of milk production? Then, in April 1984, the Government presented the same people with a 9 per cent. across-the-board cut.

Sir Jim Spicer: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman because he has raised the very point that I was about to make. In 1978 and 1979, the Government were actively discouraging increased milk production. In 1979, the first Conservative Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food--now Lord Walker--was appointed; he immediately realised that we had to push up milk production in this country so that we would be ready when milk quotas were, inevitably, imposed. Of course, he gave every encouragement to us. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) may laugh. She was not in the House at that time and I do not think that she understands anything about milk production.

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Mr. Robert Hughes: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Sir Jim Spicer: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will allow me to pursue my line of thought and then I will give way.

By 1983, as a result of all the investment and encouragement in farming, our milk production was increasing dramatically--[Interruption.] I do not know which side of the European debate the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) was on at that time, but it was the European Commission which imposed the quota. We finished up with a much lower percentage of milk than France, Germany, the Netherlands or almost any other country. The blame for that small quota rests squarely on those who, between 1974 and 1979, did not increase milk production in the way that it could and should have been increased. We are debating the common agricultural policy and this is the time to try for a fairer quota. I hope that the Government will do that.

My next topic relates directly to the BSE crisis. Cull cows are being kept on the farm, and that will continue for another three or four months. Those cows are not dry, which means that our production may be slightly above quota. In any logical organisation--I presume that the European Union is logical--someone would allow an extension of our quota by about 5 per cent. to help our dairy farmers over a difficult period.

The Minister was right to say that until 20 March our farmers had had three marvellous years. I have never known a time when my farmers were not whingeing about almost anything. If it was not the weather it was something else and always there were problems. We must face the reality of exactly what happened on 20 March. First, the SEAC report was leaked to the press and was immediately printed in the Daily Mirror. The hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman) put down a private notice question at 12.15 and the Government had no choice but to make a statement that afternoon. They were pushed into that. That is why there was no consultation in Europe--[Interruption.] I wish that the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme would either stop giggling or leave the Chamber. She is not adding to the debate in any way. Perhaps she is enjoying herself. The scare headlines were followed by the French ban and the European ban was next.

Mr. Jon Owen Jones (Cardiff, Central): Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that the shadow Secretary of State for Health was acting improperly in tabling a question about potentially the greatest health scare this century?

Sir Jim Spicer: Certainly not. The SEAC recommendations and those of the chief medical officer were right and proper. As the Minister said, although he is the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, his prime concern has to be the health of the nation. But for that private notice question, direct contact could have been made about the problem. It is not a Conservative, Labour or Liberal Democrat problem, but one that affects us all. I would have hoped for consultation rather than exploitation of the Daily Mirror story.

Mr. Ian Bruce: Perhaps my hon. Friend is being generous to the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman). I hope that Opposition Members will read the issue of Hansard in which the hon. Lady said that it was

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    "the Government's reckless disregard for public health"--[Official Report, 25 March 1996; Vol. 276, c. 712.]

that caused the BSE crisis. Such words were one of the reasons for the Commission's ban on British beef.

Sir Jim Spicer: We all remember exactly what happened at that tragic time. Our farming community is suffering the consequences of all that happened over those two or three days.

The ban must be lifted, and every effort must be made to persuade the European Union that its continued imposition is damaging not only the British beef industry and British agriculture, but agriculture across the board. I know that such efforts are being made.

Mr. Robert Hughes: I am genuinely seeking information. When did the Secretary of State for Health or the Minister of Agriculture receive the SEAC report? Did it suddenly arrive on the Daily Mirror news desk before Ministers had seen it? It seemed from ministerial statements that Ministers had digested it thoroughly. If they had had it for even a few days before it leaked to the press and had made no effort to consult the Commission and had not understood its importance, the charge of incompetence can be levelled at them and not at my hon. Friends.

Sir Jim Spicer: Sadly, I am not a member of the Cabinet, but I understand that the report was discussed in Cabinet that week and it was decided that something would have to be said that week. But these matters were condensed and the irresponsible leak to the media for a good headline in the Daily Mirror played its part.

Mr. Robert Hughes rose--

Sir Jim Spicer: I am sorry. I will not give way because many hon. Members wish to speak.

We must persuade the Community to lift the ban, which is damaging agriculture throughout the Community. Many people seem to think that the lifting of the ban will automatically lead to a resumption of beef exports, but it will not. Another way will be found to block exports or some politicians will continue to frighten their populations. The chances of our getting a sizeable amount of beef back into the European Community is negligible, and that is sad because we worked hard to build up that market.

Before the ban came into effect, about 30 per cent. of the beef consumed in Britain came from the European Community. Action to shift the balance towards our own beef industry could be concentrated in that one area. We could cut that 30 per cent. to 10 per cent., which would almost balance the loss of our exports to Europe. There would be equilibrium. The cull cows that would leave the food chain account for a further 15 to 20 per cent. Even allowing for a fall in beef consumption, we would be in a much stronger position to rebuild our home base. In my view, we should concentrate on that.

How would we do it? There are two ways. Many people have called on the Government to take dramatic action and to ban the import of beef from Europe. I ask the Minister whether it is possible for us to do that on health grounds. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture has said that the way in which we treat our beef makes it

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much safer than beef that comes into the country from Holland, France or Belgium, where we know that they have BSE. Should we not say that we will introduce a ban until such time as those countries introduce the safety measures that we have introduced in relation to removing the brain and the spinal cord?

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