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Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham): Before the Prime Minister launches a war of bull semen against Europe, will he answer one simple question? Given the market signals from the United States, which banned British beef in 1987, from Westminster council, which stopped serving it in its schools a couple of years ago, and from Hong Kong, which banned British beef about two years ago, what retaliation does he propose to take against them?

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman should not sneer at an important industry.

Mr. MacShane: I was not sneering.

The Prime Minister: At the beginning of his question, he was sneering at an important industry. There is no doubt that he was sneering. People will have noticed that he was doing so, and they will have noticed many Labour Members' attitude on this issue.

We are seeking to have the ban lifted everywhere. We will be in discussion with Hong Kong, America, New Zealand, Australia and other countries that have previously banned British beef or beef derivative products. That is the reason why we are trying to deal comprehensively domestically with cases of BSE--so that there can be no credible shred of justification anywhere in the world for the ban on British beef.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (Colchester, North): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his measured but forceful statement, and assure him that it will be welcomed by butchers, farmers and meat traders across my constituency. May I ask him to acknowledge that he is starting down a road of forceful but restrained escalation, and that, until there is a happy resolution to this matter, there can be no turning back?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is quite right. I did not lightly embark upon this course, and I am perfectly aware that we must proceed with this course until we have a satisfactory outcome.

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Agriculture Council

4.22 pm

The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Douglas Hogg): With permission, I should like to make a statement on the discussion about BSE at and in the margins of the Agriculture Council on 20 and 21 May, at which I represented the United Kingdom with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, and my noble Friends the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Office and the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland.

The standing veterinary committee voted late last night on a proposal that could have been expected, in due course, to bring about the lifting of the ban on gelatine, tallow and semen. However, a qualified majority was not established. Forty-eight votes--representing eight member states, including the United Kingdom--voted in favour, and 39 votes, representing seven member states, voted against.

This morning, the Commissioner informed the Council that the Commission would put the proposal to the Council. A special meeting of the Council to consider that and other matters will be held on 3 and 4 June. Under the procedures, the proposal will then be implemented, unless there is a simple majority against it in the Council.

As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has explained, it is extremely disappointing that no final decision has been taken on lifting the ban on those three products, for which the scientific case is overwhelming. The Council meeting fixed for 3 and 4 June provides a further opportunity, which should be taken.

I also explained to the Council the comprehensive nature of the measures that the United Kingdom has put in place to protect the public and to eliminate BSE. On the idea of a selective cull, I confirmed that the United Kingdom was in principle prepared to cull all animals in the three age classes 1990-91, 1991-92 and 1992-93, identified by farm of origin, in respect of which a case of BSE had been found. I made it clear, however, that such a proposal would need the consent of the House, and that the opinion of right hon. and hon. Members would be influenced by what was said and done in Brussels and elsewhere in Europe. I have seen no evidence to justify going beyond the proposal that we have advanced.

The Government's first duty is to protect the public. We have put the necessary measures in place, as is confirmed by any unprejudiced and careful reading of the scientific evidence. Member states should now accept their responsibilities, and agree to a rapid ending of the ban.

Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East): May Ireiterate that we fully share the Government's bitter disappointment at the failure of the standing veterinary committee even to agree to the modest proposal for the lifting of the ban on tallow, gelatine and semen?

Does the Minister feel that the confusion surrounding the implementation of the 30-month slaughter programme contributed to his lack of progress? May I remind him that it is seven weeks since he took that programme to the Council of Agriculture Ministers in Luxembourg? Is it not clear that there is still great confusion throughout the industry about its implementation? Indeed, divisions are developing between different sections of the industry.

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Is it not time to consider whether some new initiatives are required in relation to the programme if it is to operate effectively?

May I put to the Minister the allegation that some abattoirs are refusing to take cattle aged over 30 months, thus forcing farmers to sell them in markets where the abattoir owners or their agents are able to buy the cattle at knockdown prices and make a profit at the expense of farmer and taxpayer? Is the Minister still certain that he is right in requiring that cattle for our food and cattle aged over 30 months that must be slaughtered and kept out of the food chain be slaughtered in the same slaughterhouses?

As for the additional selective slaughter programme--the programme that still involved 40,000 cattle at the time of last Thursday's debate; the Minister upped the figure to 80,000 on Friday--can the Minister explain clearly what is the proposal's current status? Is he saying that we will not go ahead with the second slaughter programme until we have a clear agreement on a timetable for the lifting of the overall ban on our beef and beef products?

The Prime Minister accused my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition--most unfairly--of not making constructive suggestions. May I ask the Minister what progress has been made on three of our constructive suggestions? First, what progress is being made on the quality assurance scheme for late-maturing cattle, and will the Government extend such schemes to other beef breeds?

Secondly, has the Minister had a chance further to consider our call for an investigation into the 67 per cent. of BSE cases that are now in cattle born after the feed bans were implemented? He has acknowledged that after those bans were put in place in 1989 cattle have consumed a continuous stream of contaminated feed. Surely it would help the introduction of an additional slaughter programme if we were to identify the cattle most at risk. If we were to carry out an inquiry, it might help us to have a more closely targeted selective slaughter programme.

Thirdly, with regard to the proposal made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) a few minutes ago, will the Minister seriously consider the proposition that many people in countries such as Germany may not fully understand the measures that have been put in place in this country and that we should seek to address that by directly communicating to them--through people who speak their language in the media or in a clear booklet--what we are doing in the United Kingdom? We argue that proposition on the basis that there has been a return of confidence--not complete, but substantial--in the market in British beef, and that may partly be because the people understand that the Government are taking measures following the announcement on 20 March.

The Government are right to emphasise the importance of lifting the ban on our export of beef and beef products, because only then can we start to rebuild our markets. But that must not deflect the Minister from the priorities at home, including ensuring that all the measures to keep the BSE agent out of our food are effectively enforced and addressing the huge problems surrounding the slaughter programme, which are causing such suffering among farmers and others in the industry.

Mr. Hogg: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his support. In following the policy of slaughtering cattle over

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the age of 30 months, to date about 38,500 beasts have been slaughtered. The standing veterinary committee did not focus to any great extent on that slaughter policy. My judgment is that the objections that have been advanced in the standing veterinary committee and elsewhere are primarily political in character, although scientific language is used as a cover for a political stance.

Further to the question of the slaughter policy, we are now operating very close to current capacity. We can increase capacity, as we discussed last week, by bringing on cold storage and additional incineration. The choke point is essentially the rendering capacity. The hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang) mentioned specific allegations about behaviour bordering on misconduct, if not misconduct. If there are such cases, I hope that they will be brought to my attention.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister explained the position on additional slaughter, but perhaps I should repeat it. We are focusing on three class years, 1990-91, 1991-92 and 1992-93. If--in any of those class years--there has been a case or there is a case of BSE, we will go back to the farm of origin and find and slaughter the cohort. It is the future cases that I have introduced into the discussion in Europe.

The hon. Member for Edinburgh, East asked about the context in which the selective slaughter policy has been introduced. I have already made it plain to the Council in Brussels and to the Commission too that the proposals for a selective cull have to be considered in the context of programmes for relaxing the ban. Indeed, I said today at the Council that to secure a selective cull policy I would have to have the consent of the House of Commons. In truth, the House's opinion will be directly influenced by what is said and done in Europe, and I made that very clear to the Council today.

We completed consultation on the quality assurance scheme at the end of last week. We have now raised it with the Commission and the Commissioner himself specifically mentioned it to the Council this morning.

The hon. Gentleman will remember that last Thursday we discussed cattle born after the ban. The relevant figures are to be found in the dossiers that we have lodged with the Library. He will bear it in mind that, from the beginning of April, we placed a total prohibition on the incorporation of any mammalian protein in farm rations--food going to any farm animals.

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