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9.17 pm

Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry): As the House knows, I own a farm, although I have not done much farming for many years. At present, my total stock consists of four hens, five guinea fowl and three peacocks. The hens at least are laying, so we are getting something out of them, but probably not at very much profit.

This has been an unusual debate, totally unlike the debate that one expects on an occasion such as this. Only the hon. Member for South Worcestershire (Sir M. Spicer) made a speech that would fit into the usual pattern on these annual occasions because he ranged over a large section of the farming community.

It was wise that at least one hon. Member did that and I would have liked to have followed him to point out that the general prospects for agriculture are not nearly as bright as

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some people have tried to paint them; that the agricultural work force has greatly diminished during the past 30 or 40 years and is still falling; that the average age of farmers is increasing which is not good; that there is now a low profit per animal per acre except for milk; and that the increase in income that we have seen, which was referred to by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Stevenson), owed much more to the exchange rate and to the fact that it arose from a low level of income anyway. Sadly, the hon. Gentleman did not draw attention to the benefits that accrued when our currency was allowed to float after we were forced out of the exchange rate mechanism. That opinion may not be shared by Opposition Members now, although I am still very much in favour of it. We also have a difficulty with family farms, which are the norm and will remain so. A real family farm must produce a sufficient net income to keep two generations of a family, and that is generally forgotten. I thought that it would be worth while to draw the House's attention to those matters.

Intensive farming is perceived to be cruel and unnatural, but it arose simply because of the demand to produce the maximum amount of foodstuffs possible in our temperate climate. Anyone who has seen 500 hens in a muddy field in December or January might question the cruelty of the cage or the intensive housing systems. I have seen and worked with both methods, and I have some idea of what I am talking about--unlike very many people who complain about these matters. The changes in farming that have occurred in my lifetime have led to much cheaper food than would otherwise have been the case. Problems will arise in that area if we extend the European Union into the eastern part of Europe, where 25 per cent. of the population are engaged in agriculture. These massive questions have not been touched upon today, although they have been mentioned in Committee, and I hope that the Minister for Agriculture will read the reports of the debates.

If we are to have a competitive and market-driven form of farming, we must realise that within the western world--particularly this country--we cannot have the high levels of hygiene that we demand. The production standards as called for by the green lobby cannot be maintained, and we cannot have all the safeguards that are demanded for our food. We are failing to take into account the fact that these things cost money. If we want those standards, there will be a much higher price at the farm gate than has hitherto been the case. This is the sort of debate that we all should be taking part in. Although we want a secure food supply, we must learn that it cannot come at little or no cost. It will cost more than has been the case for a long time. The question of higher costs is built into the environmental and conservation measures that are now demanded.

Having said that, I--like every other Member--am now forced to move on to BSE, which is the issue of the moment. Germany claimed half of the 50,000 tonnes of intervention meat for May, and other places did exactly the same thing. That led to an immediate and massive scaling back in the requests made by those countries. In Northern Ireland, we asked for a realistic figure and there was no scaling back. I hope that our modest and realistic attitude will be rewarded in the future.

With regard to the 30-month slaughter scheme, at 4 May in Northern Ireland some 40,000 cattle had been offered for the scheme. The telephone lines were jammed and people could not get through. We do not know how

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many cattle are out there, but there are a lot, and there are others approaching the age of 30 months. We have a restrictive rendering capacity, with the maximum being some 1,800 a week. I understand that the number of culled cows is rising every week. There is a real difficulty.

We have an urgent need to slaughter a large number of cattle, not only because they are eating all the available food as the grass is not growing, but because they are providing a problem for the Treasury. The food does not disappear--it appears in extra weight, and every kilo that these animals put on must be paid for. The sooner the animals are slaughtered and put into cold storage, the better. It would be more economical to freeze them in a store than to let them run around, eating their heads off and putting on more weight.

I believe that the topping-up grants should continue to be paid until the surplus of steers, heifers and young bulls has been dealt with and equilibrium has been restored. The same applies to the cattle that have already been sold. Many people have had to clear out their stock because they had no food left to feed it.

I hope that the Minister will discuss the issue of young bulls this evening--it presents a tricky problem. They are not eligible for intervention or for the 30-month scheme, and those above the maximum carcase weight are also excluded. These are dangerous animals, as every farmer knows. One breeding bull is all very well, but who wants to deal with 100 of them at a time? I have worked with cattle all my life and I know that I would not want to. There is no commercial market for these cattle and they have to be removed from the food chain.

We have heard a great deal about how good Northern Ireland's system of identification is. It is indeed far in advance of any other system in Europe. The downside for farmers is that as soon as a beast appears in a terminal at a market, its history is flagged up and everyone knows precisely what contact with a BSE herd the animal may have had, whereupon the beast immediately becomes unsaleable. Hence the vital need for help.

There is also a great need to help the more than 200 BSE-flagged suckler pure beef herds in Northern Ireland; and something must be done for the BSE-flagged heifers.

This whole affair with all its ramifications has shown up one facet of farming, the beef industry, in a way that nothing else could have. All the nooks and crannies have been exposed and people have learned things about farming that they never knew before. For some time we have been urging the Government to use the systems already in place in Northern Ireland and Scotland and soon to be in place--I hope--in other regions to identify cattle that are free from BSE and to use them as a crowbar to prise open European and world markets. Once that is done, the special export refunds will come into play. They are most beneficial when it comes to exporting cattle. I hope in this respect that the Government will begin to move somewhat faster and further in Europe over the coming weeks.

In Northern Ireland, we have nine slaughtering facilities and two rendering plants, all centrally monitored by the Government. I suspect that they are more tightly controlled than similar establishments here, which are often under the control of local authorities. Ministers can make use of that fact, which shows that we are in a much stronger position than the other parts of the United Kingdom.

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Last year, Northern Ireland exported 54,000 tonnes of beef, which amounted to 28 per cent. of the UK's total exports. Taking that much meat out of the British market would help tremendously efforts to remove the glut of beef.

Time is short this evening, so I will end with a brief word about transmission of the disease. We do not know enough, but we do know--this has not yet been mentioned--that ordinary mice, when their brains are injected with BSE, contract the disease or something mighty like it. Mice into which a human gene has been spliced appear to show much greater resistance. Unfortunately, the mice live only two years, so we do not know whether the infection would eventually develop. If there is increased resistance in such mice, it suggests that the species jump must be more difficult than the general public believe. I hope that much more experimentation will go into that.

I hope that the remarks that have been made, not only in the debate but in the Select Committee, will be heeded. We need to discover whether the source of the infection is sheep or cattle.

9.30 pm

Mr. Rhodri Morgan (Cardiff, West): I say at the start, like most hon. Members who have spoken, that this is the annual debate on the common agricultural policy, but today it has in general been about BSE. There is no way of avoiding that; it is the issue of the moment.

Most hon. Members have spoken at some time today to members of the National Farmers Union lobby from England and Wales--I am not sure whether it was also from Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Mr. Welsh indicated assent.

Mr. Morgan: It was a lobby of NFU members from throughout the United Kingdom, who came to the House to talk to us, not about the CAP at large, but about BSE. It is relevant to the subject of the debate, because BSE is poisoning our relationships with our fellow member states of the European Union in a way that nothing has done for many years, at least in the agricultural sector.

We welcome the progress, albeit microscopic, that was announced by the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in his point of order at approximately 6.56pm, concerning lifting the ban on semen, tallow and gelatine. We hope that that progress will bear fruit on Monday. If, as we hope, the ban is lifted, the farming industry will see some light at the end of the tunnel.

The debate is being held the day after the Government announced the £20 million advertising campaign to restore the feel-good factor, saying:

That is a sick joke to most people who work in the beef or agriculture industry. They will wonder where the Government have been living for the past few years, and they will not accept that a great turnaround has occurred. I shall make no comments about other aspects of the economy, but people who work in the beef industry do not think that anything is working. They certainly do not think that the Government have effectively delivered a proper response to the BSE crisis.

The hon. Member for Stamford and Spalding (Mr. Davies), who is not in his seat at the moment, made an outstanding speech. It was as objective and brutally frank as

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we all should be when we speak in the House of Commons. He described the origins and size of the problem, the responsibility of this country and the responsibilities of other countries to co-operate with us when they feel that objective scientific evidence justifies it.

The hon. Member for Stamford and Spalding rightly said that the United States of America was the first country to ban British beef, as long ago as 1989, and that it was many years before the European Union banned it. One would gain the impression from the public prints and some speeches by Conservative Members that the European Union was the only part of the world to have banned the import of British beef, whereas in fact it did so six or seven years after the USA.

The hon. Member for Stamford and Spalding rightly said that the geographical distribution of BSE shows that the highest incidence of BSE occurs in places where the beef industry is most closely tied up with the dairy industry. That is why there is a south-west to north-east decline in the incidence of BSE. In the south-west of England and south-west Wales, the incidence tends to be quite high, but as one moves northwards towards the specialist beef-growing areas of the north-east of Scotland and Northern Ireland the incidence is less because there is a more specialised beef industry.

That puzzled many of us, but the farmers gave us a reason today. According to them, the dairy industry is savagely competitive, and consequently the feed mills that serve it are savagely competitive as well. In their search for cheaper but higher-protein feeds they undoubtedly broke the rules and used inappropriate material, and that led to the present crisis. Specialist beef producers have probably not been affected, unless they have been unlucky enough to suffer through cross-breeding or the purchasing of animals from another region.

I believe that the highest incidence of BSE in England is in Devon, Cornwall and Somerset, and that the highest incidence in Wales is in Dyfed, in the south-west corner, because rainfall and grass growth is greatest there, and because that is where the specialist dairy herds and beef herds are--the classic beef animal being a Hereford-Friesian cross that has come in from the dairy industry, and whose mother and grandmother are more likely to have consumed the high-protein bonemeal pellets that were used in an attempt to drive up the protein content of milk.

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